Dave's Notebook

Secrets to Your First Programming Job

This past week I was talking to a guy who is graduating from College and looking for a job. He asked me what most people ask at that point in their career. “Everyone wants experience, but how do you get experience if no one will give it to you?”

What is interesting is that for all the advances in the 30 years since I started my career, that question is still the main question every graduate asks.

Now, before I get started, I want to make sure we are clear. These tips may or may not work for you. They are what I would do, and in large part are what I did 30 years ago, just updated to be appropriate to the current technology. How well they work for you are going to depend on a lot of different factors, not least of which is how much effort you apply. They are also very much based on my culture here in the USA. If you are looking for a job in another country that is dissimilar culturally, you may want to ignore this advice completely. But, I’ll also say this. If what you are currently doing isn’t working, what do you have to lose?

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Get a Job

Wait! Wasn’t the whole point of this article to help you find a job? No! The point of this article is help you get a Programming job. And the first step in the process is to get A job. Any job. Don’t be picky. When I started my career, I was working in the Sporting Goods and Automotive department at K-Mart. Minimum wage. Nothing to write home about. Prior to that I worked as a maintenance man.

Listen, I know you want a job in whatever it was you went to school for. But the fact of the matter is, you have college bills to pay off. You probably have a car that needs gas and insurance. You may even have rent and groceries. If Mom and Dad are taking care of all that for you, shame on them! And shame on you for letting them, no matter how easy that makes life. Cut the cord and grow up!

OK, enough on that rant. If I can’t convince you on the financial terms, let me try a couple other really good reasons.

First, the fact of the matter is, no one wants to be the first one to take a chance on you.  If you don’t currently have a job that you’ve been able to hold for a while, how can I be sure that you will work out?  Even if you have all the credentials I’m looking for, will you stick around when things get hard?  Getting a job, particularly a crappy job, shows that you are a worker.  That nothing is beneath you.  And trust me, with all the stories about how millennials are lazy and want the world handed to them (even if that isn’t totally accurate) you can bet someone who is working for minimum wage at a job that don’t particularly like is going to stand out.

Your Job is Getting a Job

Until you have a job of some kind, your job is getting a job. The harder you work at getting a job, the faster you will get the job you want. This means you should have a list of things you can do today that will get you closer to landing a job.  Work on your resume. Implement some of the tips below. Apply for any and every job that is open.  Go door to door if you have to.

Once you’ve finished reading this article, make a list and work through it.

It’s a Numbers Game

Now here is a very sad truth. Getting that first job is a numbers game. You are going to apply to a lot of places before anyone hires you. And the thing your college won’t tell you as they prepare you to get out into the real world is just how much work this is going to be.

When I was your age…

…we just had the newspaper. I sent my resume to anyone and everyone that looked like they might have a programming job available.

In your case, you are going to make sure you are as visible as possible. Post your resume on job boards. Apply to every company that has an open computer job, even if you don’t qualify for the one they advertised. Ask your friends if they know anyone who might be able to help.

Note: I said, “might be able to help.” Not, “might be able to get you a job.” I’ll talk more about this later. But HOW you ask for help plays a HUGE part in being able to GET help.

When someone ask you what you do, the answer is, “Well, actually, right now I’m trying to find a job as a ______ do you know anyone who might be able to help?”

It is the whole networking thing.

Allow me to tell you a story. When I graduated, this was the exact line I used. “Do you know anyone who might be able to help?” And when I contacted the person I was referred to, I asked the same question. Typically, the letter I sent looked something like this:

Dear sir, I just graduated from such and such college/university. My degree is in X and I’m trying to find work.

I was speaking with John Doe who suggested that I contact you. I realize you may or may not have anything for me, but I was hoping you might be able to suggest some people who might be able to help me find an entry level programming position.

Thanks for any help you can give me.

Your Degree isn’t Primary

I know your degree is probably all you feel like you have. But mostly, no one cares. Oh, we care that you have a degree, but that is about all.

What do we care about?

What can you do?

Now, what you need to do is think outside the box. When you put your resume together, you are going to put anything on your resume that is remotely related to the kind of job you are trying to get. Even if you did it for free.

The next best thing you can do is to put something on your resume that indicates you are a go-getter. Did you have any leadership roles in college? Make sure that gets on your resume! Have you done a lot of volunteer work?

Dress Up

Really! This shouldn’t need to be said. But unless you are told otherwise ahead of time, you never get in trouble for dressing up for an interview. But nothing will kill it faster if you don’t. Yes, even in this modern day and age. Even if the organization sells itself as a casual organization, dress in business attire. Guys, this means where a suit. Gals, let’s face it, I doubt you’ll have any problem with this.


I wrote about my LinkedIn strategy a while ago.  As I stated there, the more connections you have, the better off you will be.  This is true of all social media.  Connect to anyone who ask to connect with you.

Your LinkedIn connections are a large field of people you can send a version of the letter above.  Remember, you aren’t asking them for work, you are asking for help finding work.

Which leads to a little rant I have built up about how to ask for help on LinkedIn.

Asking for Help

This time of year, I get multiple in-Mails that all say essentially the same thing.  “Hi, I am graduating from X with a degree in Y.  Let me know if you have any work.”  Oh, yes, they use a few more words than that.  But the gist is exactly that short little sentence.

Now, imagine you are me and everyone sends you that same in-Mail. What would you do? Probably the same thing I do. Delete it.

Occasionally, I’ll get some sort of variation that amounts to exactly what I’ve been saying. “I was hoping I could talk to you about …” Why does this work when the other way doesn’t. Simple, you aren’t asking me for work. You are asking for advice.

If you want to get help, you need to stand out.  If you ask me for advice and I have a job for you, I’ll let you know.  If all you do is ask for a job… “Delete”

This, of course, doesn’t always work. But, this is exactly how I got my first job. Now, if you follow the advice I’ve given so far, eventually, you’ll find a job. But there is a lot more you can do that will make you stand out.


Hey, you aren’t doing anything yet anyhow.  If you took my advice and have a minimum wage job, you still have some brain power left.  So, find some organization that needs help with what you want to do and volunteer.  Now you have experience you can put on your resume and the organization has some program that helps them along.

Stack Overflow

Another place you can gain some points is on Stack Overflow.  Answer question.  The fastest way to learn is to find a question that no one has answered.  Figure out the answer and post it.  If you do one question a day, your points will rise and you can include a link to your profile as part of your resume.

Open Source

Regardless of the type of work you want, participating in an Open Source project is another way of showing that you know your stuff. You might think you need to know a lot to participate in a project. But there are some low entry ways of participating.

An easy way to get started is by visiting these sites and finding some low hanging fruit that will get you started:

Your Resume

I wrote about how I think a Resume should be put together before.  Read it and implement it. Two things to remember:

  • You need to stand out.
  • The how-to class your college gave you is useless.

Job Boards

You can post your resume to all the job boards if you like.  But the only one I bother with is Dice.com because it is the only one I know of that is focused on what we do.

The Interview

Once again, I’ve written about the interview process before too.

But here I want to talk to the new programmer specifically.

First, no one expects you to have all the answers. If you don’t know, just say so. Don’t try to bluff you way through. They will find out you don’t know eventually. But more importantly, saying “I don’t know.” Means you really do know the stuff you’ve given an answer for.

Second, while hardly anyone in this field wants to admit it, the interview is about interpersonal skills. A lot of the time, if you act confident in yourself, they will be confident in you.

Learn body language, power poses, etc.

I was just thinking about this more today and realized … what’s the one thing most people want? They want to be liked. They want people to be interested in them. Sure, there are a lot of hacks I could tell you. But the simplest, and most genuine hack of all is to be interested in your interviewer.

You know that part of the interview where they ask you if you have any questions? This is where you ask question that show you know something about the job you are interviewing for. But, you can also use this to ask a question that is both about the job and the person interviewing. Like, “What is your favorite part of working here?” and “What is your least favorite …” You find out something about the organization and you get them talking about something that is important to them.

Bet on Yourself

As a last resort. Bet on yourself. “I’ll work for you for free for 3 months to prove to you that you want to hire me full-time.”  Even if things don’t work out, you’ve gotten more experience.