Preparing for a Software Career — Part Two

by Krishna on September 29, 2007

Sometime back, I had written an article on how to prepare for a software career. Today, there was an interesting comment on that post stating that the advice was generic and could apply to any field of study. Also since most people invest a lot of their time and skills in one particular field, they do need specific advice.

I agree on the point of original selection. People could waste precious years of their lives learning the wrong things and finding themselves at a dead-end one day. So what should a computer science student do?

Here are the possible career options after you finish doing a computer science or computer applications course:

  1. Find a job at a start-up, small or medium-sized company or a large corporation.
  2. Start your own company.
  3. Go into future research and possibly becoming a teacher.

In this article, I will only discuss the first option, primarily because that is the common choice for most people and secondly, I have little knowledge of the latter two options.

If you are looking for a job, the important thing is to maximize your options for getting a job and, to a less immediate extent, maximize your future opportunities after getting the job. Here are the things you need to care about:

  1. Size of the job market: If you want to choose between two subjects, find the relative market demand for such knowledge. You can make an educated guess by looking at the postings in various job sites and advertising in newspapers. You can also look at the size and reach of online communities in such subjects. For example, Java has a greater market than Perl and hence is a better choice in that respect, regardless of the actual merits of either language.
  2. Simplicity of the subject. The easier the subject, the greater the supply of talent in the market. And the lower the chances of you landing a job, or getting a good salary. For example, knowing web design (HTML, CSS, etc.) was very much in demand a few years back, but since it was easy to learn and tools became more powerful, it is perhaps not a good career option today.
  3. Popularity trend of the subject: Some subjects have a large market, but they are declining. For example, Perl had a good time in the 1990s, but other open source languages are gaining traction over it. It is also important to recognize temporary upsurges in popularity. For example, Lisp experienced resurgence because of Paul Graham's writings, but we don’t know if that is a permanent thing. Also, the use of a language by a highly successful company, like Python and Google, can give a language momentum.
  4. Is the subject a point-of-no-return? Choose a subject that gives you more options in the future. For example, learning a C++-like language (like Java, C#, etc.) can give you more flexibility compared to other languages. Similarly, other choices that can affect you are your program specialization, your project work, your grades in specific courses, etc.
  5. Can you learn it well? If you have never mastered the basics of a subject, say mathematics, then it is better to stay away from such a course. Otherwise, you will constantly struggle to learn it well. You may end up with bad grades. This could possibly have a ripple effect on the rest of your career.

There is also the question about your personal preferences. You may like one subject or language better than another. It is perfectly fine to make your choice based on that, if that will keep you happy regardless of the outcome in terms of getting a job. In my experience, it doesn’t. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to marry yourself to some liking or principle and then face the specter of unemployment.

A problem with making any choice is that you are doing it based on your present understanding of the job market. It is likely that employer preferences may change in the years while you are studying. Academic curriculum changes are slow. So it is important to do your own learning to stay on top of current market happenings.

At this point, I want to return to the points mentioned in my earlier article. Having made your choice, you have to work extremely hard to learn the subject well. Secondly, learn how to communicate and interact well in a professional setting. The knowledge and the people skills will make a significant difference in your ability to get a job.

Remember that when you are applying for a job that is advertised for straight-out-of-college, then your advantage over your competition is

  • How much you know: Your knowledge.
  • How much you prove you know: Your ability to communicate your knowledge, talents and intelligence. No interviewer can scan your brain. You have to prove yourself to him/her.
  • How much you can use what you know: Any projects you have done or knowledge outside what has been taught to you.
  • How much you will get along: Your attitude and demeanor during the interview.

Once you get the job, the best way you can improve your career is to continuously learn more and adapt yourself to changing business conditions and work circumstances. In fact, improving yourself is the only thing you have control on. So better get started on that.

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