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How to become a software developer: A man holds a sticky note that says "CODE"

How to Become a Software Developer: A Step-by-Step Guide

Last updated: July 23, 2019
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Software developers are the creative minds that build the digital worlds we inhabit. They conceive of, design, and execute the applications and systems that connect us, entertain us, and let us work.

Technology is also an incredible field to be in right now. Software developers are in high demand, and the demand is only growing. The pay is often fantastic, and top developers are competed over by some of the biggest companies in the world. If you’re looking for consistent and well-paid work, being a qualified and competent developer is a great way to go.

In this article, we’ll give you a guide to how to become a software developer. We’ll give a brief rundown of what developers do, and help you understand the world you’re seeking to inhabit. We’ll then give you some ideas on how to learn to code, then walk you through how to land that dream job as a software developer.

What Is a Software Developer?

Software developers are the people who make computers do what they do. There are two very basic types of software developers. Applications developers build the programs, apps, and games you love, and systems developers build the framework and underlying systems that either run the devices you play those apps on, or the networks that connect the devices together.

To use a sports metaphor: Applications developers are in charge of the action on the field. Systems developers are working on the arena.

According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developer employment is likely to grow 24% between 2016 and 2026, which the report says is “much faster than the average for all occupations.”

The same report says that the median annual wage for software developers is over $100,000, as of May 2018. (System developers tend to make a bit more than applications developers, but not by much, and both have a median income over $100K.)

This is a job that pays well, and there’s a high demand for it, one that’s only going to grow, making it a fantastic field to be in.

Identifying What You Want to Do

Before you dive into becoming a software developer, you need to refine your focus and figure out exactly what it is you want to do in the field.

Say you love online applications and want to focus on web development. (Web developers are software developers who exclusively focus on web applications or systems.) That’s a great start, as you know you want to focus on apps — as opposed to systems — and you want to work in the web space.

There are still more questions you need to answer, however, before you dive in to what you want to study and work toward.

Programming Languages

One of the main questions a software developer must answer is what kind of language she wants to build in. Just like people in different countries use different languages to communicate, there are multiple computer languages that allow software applications and information systems to communicate with one another.

The list of programming languages is daunting. There are ones you might have heard of: Java (or JavaScript), C++, and Python. There are ones you probably haven’t heard of: Nemerle and DIBOL, to pick two from this comprehensive list.

Some programming languages work with specific operating systems, others are built for online processes.

When looking at what language to learn first, your best bet is to stick to the biggest and most popular. Java, C++, Ruby, and Python are great starting points.

Still confused? This infographic asks you what you care about and what you want to do, then makes recommendations about which language to learn first.

Front End, Back End, and Full Stack

When looking at how to become a software developer, it’s important to know what part of the software process you’ll want to work on. These specialties are referred to as front end, back end, and full stack.

A front end developer is focused on what the user of the software sees and interacts with. They are committed to providing a great user experience (UX) by cleanly and clearly presenting the software’s functions and features. They will often work with graphic designers and UX experts to create beautiful software and make it intuitive for users to understand.

Back end coders are doing the behind-the-scenes work. While they may not be too concerned with the outward facing parts of software, they’re deeply focused on making sure whatever the user wants to do is executed properly. Back end coders are working in the engine room, making sure everything is running smoothly.

A full stack coder does it all, front end and back end. While being a full stack coder is fantastic, it takes time to build toward, and for a new programmer, we recommend focusing on one side of the process to start.

How to Become a Software Developer: Coding Is Key

How to become a software developer: an over-the-shoulder view of a man coding

You’ve identified whether you want to focus on applications or systems. You’ve locked onto a coding language you want to master. You know whether you want to become a front end or back end expert. It’s time to get learning.

College

If you’re in high school and reading this, the best bet to get an incredible education in software engineering is to go after a bachelor’s degree in computer science at a traditional four year college. Having a computer science degree (or CS degree) is a great way to learn a lot, and signal to potential employers that you were trained well and deeply in the field.

If you want to bolster that degree, many colleges also offer Master’s degree programs in information technology or computer engineering.

If you weren’t lucky enough to figure out what you wanted to do in high school or college, and are now out in the real world, have no fear. There are still great ways to learn how to code.

Coding Bootcamps

Coding bootcamps can be short — an evening or a weekend — and allow coders to either get started or pick up some new tricks. You can find them in your area simply by using Google to search “coding bootcamp” and your city.

There are also new, more intensive coding bootcamps that can last weeks or even months. These programs, run by companies like General Assembly and Hack Reactor, tend to be aimed at working professionals who want to get a new start in software development. Classes are on nights or weekends, and are meant to give you a full coding education, and then help you find a job.

These programs will work directly with recruiters to land you a job after you’ve completed the course. While they can be expensive, many of these programs guarantee employment and allow you to pay with a portion of your eventual earnings over your first few years.

Teaching Yourself

Got a drive and like going it alone? You can always teach yourself how to code. There are plenty of online tutorials available at sites like Udemy, and YouTube can teach you plenty if you’re committed.

GitHub is a site that encourages both budding and established web developers to hang out, collaborate, and share open source code. Poking around there can open your eyes to all sorts of interesting projects, and can let you see coding in action and in real time.

Likewise, Stack Overflow is a question-and-answer website that lets anyone in software development ask questions and help each other out with tricky problems. Whether you’re stuck on a problem in beginner JAVA or have a high-level UX question you can’t solve, Stack Overflow will probably have some answers for you.

Lastly, no matter where you live, there are often local meet-ups with people sharing know how, collaborating on different projects, and bonding over their love of computers. They’re all just a Google away.

Landing a Job

How to become a software developer: A hand leans on a desk in front of a laptop screen covered in code

When it comes to landing your first job in software development, it helps to come in with appropriate expectations. You probably aren’t walking into a full-time job with Microsoft as your first gig, no matter how good you may be.

Landing an entry level job in any field is tough, and in software development, it can be even harder if you don’t have a college degree in computer science or a related field. The good news is that the demand for software developers is high and only growing. If you’re good, you’ll find something.

The way to start is really just to start looking. Traditional job boards like Monster.com or Indeed will have plenty of developer jobs listed, but there are also plenty of specialized developer job sites like Honeypot.io and Mashable’s job board. Know what you’re good at, know what you want to do, and start hunting.

The jargon that permeates the tech world complicates job hunting, especially in the recruiting field. A software engineering job may be labeled “software design ninja” at one company and “UX wizard” at another company, and both describe exactly the same position. Make sure to read job descriptions carefully.

When it comes to your job interview, be open and honest. Explain your experience level and why you love web development. Research the company you want to work for and let them know how, or why, you believe in their mission. You’re going to do great.

Starting a Career in Software Development

If you demonstrate problem-solving skills and love working on computers, you may be able to thrive in a career in software development. Understanding the world you want to inhabit, and getting trained on how to code, will help you get your foot in the door. After that, it’s on you to follow your passion, meet people in the community, practice, improve, and land that dream job.

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