Landing your first job in any field can feel like a tall order—and particularly so in the tech industry, where you might be wondering how you’ll ever stand out against scores of talented engineers. While software developers continue to be in high demand, differentiating yourself when you have little to no relevant work experience will take some strategic planning on your part.
In order to help you position yourself to find a job, we spoke with tech recruiters to get their best advice. We also turned to candidates who have firsthand experience standing right where you are now.
Based on their input, here are concrete actions you can take to get noticed and increase your chances of landing a job as an entry-level engineer.
Continue Practicing and Building
Being a successful engineer requires constant learning, and the fact that you’re on the job hunt is not a reason to stop practicing and working on new projects. You should be continuously increasing your knowledge and deepening your skill set. Remember that many coding job interviews will require you to demonstrate your knowledge through assessments or tests, so you can’t afford to let your skills get rusty.
Jes Osrow, an HR consultant and advocate for women in tech, startups, and entrepreneurship, acknowledges that getting a job can be difficult even when you’re highly qualified, so as an entry-level applicant, you should be especially mindful of carving out dedicated time to ensure you’re working on new projects and learning new things. “The goal is to expand your awareness of new languages, frameworks, and tools,” she explains. Through independent learning and projects, you’ll come upon fresh ideas to talk about in interviews; you’ll also grow your skill set in ways that will help your future team.
Remember that your chosen projects can—and should!—tie into your interests, Osrow says. For example, if you’re really into fashion, what about building an app that allows you to try on different outfit combinations each day? The project doesn’t have to be complicated at first, but you can build on it as you learn more skills. Most importantly, when you talk about that project during an interview, you’re more likely to come across as positive and engaged because it’s something you’re truly interested in.
Focus on Your GitHub Portfolio
When you’ve got little to no work experience in the industry, your portfolio helps you become a contender. Jacqueline Ore, Career Success Lead at Fullstack Academy, knows this firsthand—she works every day to get graduates of the program hired, and most of the time, those students have negligible tech work experience and must rely primarily on their portfolios. Working on projects shows you’re passionate about your chosen industry, she says, so “make sure you always have activity on your GitHub page.”
Your portfolio is where you can demonstrate your skills and show employers that you’re on the same level as more experienced developers—or that you at least have the potential to achieve that level of proficiency. Check to see that your portfolio not only includes the projects you worked on, but is clear about what you specifically contributed (if it was a team effort). Providing these details will help hiring managers get a feel for your problem-solving abilities and processes.
Make Sure Your Resume Is on Point
When it comes to presenting yourself on your resume, try using job descriptions to guide your decisions on what information to include. That’s advice from Stephanie Heath, a career coach and former tech recruiter for startups as well as large companies like Amazon and Sony.
Heath explains that once you start looking at the job descriptions for roles you’re interested in, you’ll start to notice patterns and understand what information is relevant and should be featured on your resume. If you’ve got work history in other fields, try listing the most relevant-to-tech experience at the top of your responsibilities for each job so that it will catch a recruiter’s eye, even if it was only a small fraction of your day-to-day role.
Remember your GitHub portfolio? Keely Hicks, who graduated with a computer science degree in 2016 with no internships or formal experience, suggests creating a section on your resume to showcase significant school or personal projects along with open source contributions. “This shows hiring managers and interviewers that even without formal experience, you still have ‘real-world’ coding practice,” says Hicks, who was hired at Amazon after six months of job hunting.
Polish Up Your LinkedIn Profile
Don’t discount the importance of your LinkedIn being just as robust as your resume, if not more. Lauren Piva, Senior Talent Acquisition Partner at RelationEdge, a Rackspace company, confirms that a majority of her tech positions are filled through headhunting on LinkedIn and not through resume review.
Piva gives the following tips for optimizing your LinkedIn for the job search:
- Leverage the “About” section (a.k.a. your summary) to introduce yourself as a person and a prospective employee. What are you interested in? What’s your background? What really motivates you and gets you excited? Even if you don’t have a lot of applicable work experience, this is your chance to weave a compelling story about who you are, what you can do, and why you care about this work.
- If you do have work history (whether that’s internships or jobs in another field), be detailed about what your responsibilities were in each role. Because job titles vary from company to company, this helps recruiters understand what you actually did. Spell out exactly what your position entailed so the recruiter doesn’t have to guess. For example, if you were a software development intern at a company, what languages did you work with?
- Use the “Skills” section to add pre-selected skills to your profile; many recruiters search for candidates based on those tags.
- Make sure to include any certifications you’ve achieved under “Licenses and Certifications.” If you don’t have professional programming experience with a specific language, but you took a course in it, highlight that under “Education.”
- Ask for recommendations. Whether it’s a professor, a previous supervisor, or a peer, they can speak directly to their experiences working with you. This is a great way to show your work ethic, dedication, and other strengths and soft skills. If a recruiter gets a glimpse of your curiosity and resilience through a recommendation from your professor, or they’re able to pick up on your spirit of cooperation based on a previous manager’s review of you, that’s likely to be pretty memorable. (Need help asking for a recommendation? Read this.)
- Under the “Interests” section, display what technologies or companies you’re interested in so that people can get more of a feel for what makes you tick.
Network, Network, Network
We’ve all heard the statistics about how you’re more likely to find jobs within your network—and tech jobs are no different. “Meeting more contacts within the industry helps your chances tremendously of finding a job through word-of-mouth or the people you know,” Ore says.
The good news is that there are many ways to network effectively. Here are just a few:
Connect via Communities
No matter who you are, there’s likely a tech group for you and many of them offer job searching help or resources. As an example, Hicks found her job through Women Who Code. Here are some other popular demographics-based communities:
For women (and in some cases, non-binary folks):
- Ladies Get Paid
- Coffee and Coded
- Women Techmakers
- Tech Ladies
- Girls Who Code
For Black women:
For Black people:
For Latinx people:
For LGBTQ+ people:
There are also language-centric events and user groups in most major cities.
Set Up Coffee Chats, But Never Ask for a Job Outright
Time for a reality check: You will have to do some in-person networking to be successful. “You can have the best GitHub project and the best online presence but even then, that won’t be enough in some cases,” says Justin Fiske, Principal Recruiter at Workday.
Fiske’s top piece of advice is to look closely at your current network of people and see who you can ask to meet for coffee. Even though you might have limited experience in tech, Fiske says you’ll be surprised by who you already know. Anyone in your network—whether it’s professors or past bosses or classmates or colleagues—also has their own network that you can potentially tap into. And Fiske is living proof that this works; he actually found his last three jobs by leveraging his own first-degree network.
To start, browse through your LinkedIn contacts and see if anyone you know is working at a company you’re interested in or currently has the kind of job you want. Alternatively, is anyone in your network connected to someone else who meets that criteria? If they are, you can ask your contact to facilitate a warm introduction.
Remember that you’re not asking for a job when you reach out to potential connections or even recruiters. That’s a rookie mistake. You’re not asking to be hired; you’re simply looking to connect and request an exploratory chat so that the two of you can learn from each other. Of course, the hope is that you’ll learn about current and future opportunities through this connection and be on their radar as a potential hire, but never lead with asking for a job.
If you can’t find the people you’re looking for through your current network and you’re thinking about reaching out to a cold connection, that’s OK too, Fiske says. But make sure you put some thought into your messaging and consider having a mentor or colleague review it before you send. “Go ahead and reach out and let them know that while they’re out of your network, you’re trying to learn more about their company and the work they’re doing,” Fiske says. “Tell them you’re trying to build your network and would love to get to know them a little bit more.”
But do try to frame your outreach with a specific ask, like “I’d love to hear more about what it’s like to be a developer at [Company].” You’re more likely to get a response if the person can see you have a purpose in reaching out to them.
As for what to talk about if they agree to chat, bring any questions you have about the particular company or role you’re interested in. Here are some ideas for questions to ask:
- Why did you join this company?
- Did your expectations of this company match up with your experience so far?
- What kind of problems do you solve at your company?
- Who is your customer base?
- What does your day-to-day work look like?
- What don’t you like about working there? (No job is all fun and games all of the time. Find out what’s hard about working there so you have a balanced idea of the company.)
Remember to stay open-minded throughout this process. “You might meet that person and realize the company isn’t the right match for you, after all—or you could be even more excited about it after hearing about the work that person does,” Fiske says. “Different opportunities come at different times in your life. If you don't have the exploratory meetups, you never know what's out there; you never know what could be right in front of you that you're not even seeing.”
Attend a Lot of Tech Events
Tech events are a great way to naturally grow your network and potentially connect with employers. Shenae Simmons, who graduated from General Assembly’s software engineering program in June 2019, has been regularly attending hackathons as part of her job search. “Typically, the company sponsoring the hackathon is also hiring,” she explains. Simmons also makes time for panel discussions, conferences, and workshops. She’s found that these events often turn up leads on companies and jobs she might be interested in.
A word to the introverted among us: Fiske recommends bringing a friend along if the idea of going to tech meetups alone is prohibitively overwhelming. After your first few events, you’ll probably feel more comfortable attending solo in the future.
Be Confident in What Makes You “You”
When you don’t have a lot of tech work experience, your story matters more than ever. Your personality, passion for your chosen career, and past experiences all coalesce to form an impression on the hiring manager. Think about your narrative and how you want to convey it: Why are you interested in tech? What draws you to this particular role? Why do you want to work for this specific company?
It’s important to note that not having a ton of work experience in tech doesn’t discount the other experience you have gained throughout your life. Ore finds that many entry-level people are scared to talk about their prior school and work experiences, even though a lot of the skills they’ve honed are transferable.
For example, most jobs require time management, communication, and teamwork—all of which can be demonstrated through your past work, school, and volunteer experience. Don’t be afraid to talk about those things in your interview or showcase them on your resume. “In fact, all of the top companies have talked about how soft skills are super important when they’re looking for candidates,” Ore says.
Finally, Don’t Let Imposter Syndrome Get You Down
Feeling like you’re not good enough or that you don’t measure up is common, especially in tech—and even more especially when you’re a newbie in tech. Ore finds that many people struggle with feeling like they’re going to be “found out” as a fraud for not having any experience, but she believes imposter syndrome is a natural byproduct when you care a lot about what you’re trying to do.
Those worries don’t necessarily go away, even if you keep moving up and gaining experience, Ore says. “That little voice may get smaller and less frequent, but it’s still there.”
The best thing you can do for yourself right now is just to keep going. While you may feel like you’re only treading water and not making any progress, you will figure it out. “Don’t get discouraged. The job search is really stressful and frustrating,” Hicks says. “There were many times I wanted to give up and just try to find a job doing something else. Stick with it. It will take time, but things will work out.”
Ultimately, you likely won’t get your dream job right off the bat—that requires long-term planning and small baby steps throughout your career, and you’re just figuring out the first step now. Go into your job search with reasonable expectations, and be patient and kind to yourself as you move forward.
Even though looking for your first job as an entry-level engineer might still feel scary, hopefully now you know you’re not alone. Armed with these tips, you can feel more confident and purposeful as you apply for jobs and develop connections. Remember: Countless others have already done this successfully, and you will too.