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Breaking Into the Business

College is great. Sporting events, new friends, all-nighters, and much more. But what happens on graduation day, when the real world barges in and its time to find a job? For a grad, it's not easy to break into an industry, even a booming one like the web.


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College is great. Sporting events, new friends, all-nighters, and much more.

But what happens on graduation day, when the real world barges in and, suddenly, it’s time to find a job? For a grad, it's not easy to break into an industry, even a booming one like the web.

I was right there, just a few years ago. And I learned that the industry requires more than just a college degree – it also requires a simple recipe of building skills, gaining experience, and fine tuning the details.

Skills: the building blocks of a career.

A web-centric college degree undoubtedly prepares graduates by building a foundation of technical skills for a booming web industry. Aspiring developers collect a great base knowledge at school, and most professors present challenges and opportunities to take learning beyond the bare minimum.

But it doesn’t end there: additional development is required to strengthen that resume.

Employers need employees who are willing to learn. More than that, they need employees who have learned to adapt to changes within the industry and within a company.

This means taking the concepts we’ve learned in class another step deeper, whether it be through independent research or side projects.

There’s a benefit to this extra work: unlike school work, independent learning is enjoyable because it is narrowed down to personal interests. During one summer break, I participated in a research project on information security. I learned more that summer on security than did in my three security classes combined, and since I was interested in the topic I continued to learn over an even shorter period.

Self-motivated research and going beyond coursework shows passion and drive. Still, building these technical skills is only half the battle.

Experience: the resume of life.

The other half? Practicing those skills and gaining real world experience. Experience is everything.

New grads cringe at the term “experience required,” but experience can include anything from doing work for a friend to earning a summer internship. However, they all require one thing: a willingness to volunteer.

I was fortunate enough to have five different development internships during college, but I would have never had those opportunities had I not volunteered. Take my work at a local technology firm, where I handled simple data entry. It was not very exciting work and I did not get paid, but it set the stage for my first development internship. (Not to mention, a couple summers later I actually interned with that same company for development projects.)

Internships aren’t just fodder for resumes – they are a way to test out how the industry really works. Not every challenge can be taught in school – my first internship pushed me to code in a language that I had never seen before. This presented many challenges, but the experience made me a better developer.

Fine tuning: because details matter.

While my internships taught me more of the required technical skills I’d need for my career, they also shaped crucial non-technical skills: communication, organization, planning, and time management, to name a few. Good employers don’t just look for technically sound people – they look for people who will fit in with the team. If two candidates have similar resumes, the choice will come down to non-technical skills and personality.

The most important skill, naturally, is communication. After all, web development could be seen as a consultancy, where services are exchanged instead of physical goods. The job requires constant communication with clients.

This means learning simple skills and overcoming common fears. My boss at my first internship was an hour away, which means I spent a lot of time on phone calls, email, and Skype. I started that internship terrified of getting on the phone – by the end, it was my first choice of communication.

Good communication is crucial to determining client needs – and, once needs are identified, it’s crucial to facilitate implementation of a project. But more than that, time management becomes a key skill in development.

In college, most projects are pre-mapped (and when they are not, students generally do not take necessary time to plan), but the web industry is tied to budget, which is in turn tied to time.

Luckily, time management is something that can be practiced on a daily basis. With development, time management takes into account knowledge base. The wider the knowledge base, the higher your efficiency – and the greater your productivity. Each internship gave me a new nugget of knowledge, while at the same time exposing me to new tools and problem solving techniques.

A recipe for success.

There’s one thing we didn’t talk about: confidence. Be confident in what you know (and know what you don’t know) so that you can always be learning.

As my track coach in college used to tell me, “Trust your training”. Trust that the work you put in will help push past any obstacles, and – ultimately – strengthen your confidence.

Confidence in your experience. Confidence in your skills. And confidence in your non-technical details. Put those three together, and breaking into the web industry will be a breeze.