How to get that first web development job
You’ve just graduated from university, or college and you want to get a job as a web developer / web designer, but it turns out it’s much harder than you realised. So how do you get that first job as a web developer?
Parents, and friends tell you that your lack of employment is down to the credit crunch and there’s no doubt that it is harder than usual to score that first job, but here’s the real truth; the truth that your lecturers and parents don’t know: for the vast majority of educational courses, everything you’re taught is damn near useless in a commercial environment and regardless of the credit crunch, that first job can be bloody difficult to land.
Web agencies want, no, demand junior developers to come in and to be able to start work immediately and most graduates can’t do that. Of course, a junior developer will learn on the job and constantly improve and with the help of a good middleweight or senior developer above them, they’ll improve significantly more but they need to have the basics down first.
The basic skills of a junior web developer will consist of:
- buying domain names and updating/setting-up DNS on those domains
- setting up a local web server with xampp or mamp
- building HTML/CSS templates from a Photoshop/Illustrator/Fireworks design
- backing up files in version control (SVN/GIT/etc)
- installing/setting up a new website with the agency’s in-house CMS or open source varieties like WordPress/Drupal/ExpressionEngine etc
- keeping track of time and learning how long it takes to do key tasks
When I went to university to study Computer Science, I certainly didn’t learn any of those basic skills in lectures or in projects. Some, I picked up in a placement year, where I worked as web designer for the local council, but for the most part I picked those skills up on my own in my spare time and so did everyone else in this field – we’re all self taught by blogs, books and podcasts.
How I got my first job
In my first year at uni (2001-02), the lecturer in charge of industrial placements told us that there were ‘no jobs in web design/development‘, this made my heart sink. However, a year later when the work placements started to be advertised on the university notice boards at least half were for web based jobs. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a web developer and that such a thing was actually possible. Sadly, every placement I applied for wanted me to have experience which I didn’t have.
After six months of trying to get a placement which involved lots of (failed) interviews, I realised I needed some hands-on experience to get any sort of credibility with interviewers, so I started to maintain the website (for free) of the charity that my girlfriend’s mother worked for. My CV now had some experience and a URL on it. In interviews I talked about it to prove I had relevant experience, not to mention initiative and eventually with only one week before term was due to restart I got that work placement.
Fast forward to my final year (2004-05), and in January/March, I sent out a mail merge to around 30 different Manchester, Cheshire and nearby web agencies informing them of who I was and that I was graduating in six months. Nothing much happened; I might have got three emails all of which saying thanks but they weren’t interested just now.
Closer to graduation, I put my CV online with websites like reed.co.uk, cwjobs.co.uk, etc and starting applying for jobs – still nothing. With one month to graduation, I put my CV on Manchester Digital, and then I got an email which eventually lead to my first job at JJB Sports. By spreading myself out and trying different techniques I found one that actually worked!
How you can get your first job
I wouldn’t hire someone who:
- has a hotmail/yahoo email address (tip: gmail, your own domain, mac.com, or anything else looks better)
- doesn’t have a website/blog/online portfolio or a twitter account
- has no experience whatsoever
- I’ve never heard of
The last two points are the biggies. Experience is everything in this industry. You can get very far very quickly with no qualifications if you’re good as a web developer. A good education is brilliant but if the guy next to you has three year’s experience on his CV and you only have a degree then experienced guy looks better (in most cases).
The last point – means you have to get your name out there, so apply for jobs, talk on twitter, try to network, try to learn some important people’s names. Everyone in this industry knows everyone else therefore, if you apply to agency X and don’t get the job but you impress someone then a guy/girl working at agency X might tell his friend working at agency Y about you. Of course, it helps to be memorable, like this guy.
Getting the experience
If you have no experience and therefore no commercial references, you desperately need to get some. If I were in that situation (again) I’d be looking to:
- set up my own website/blog
- set up a website for a relative’s small business
- work for free* (or low pay) in a local web agency – making tea if I had to
- take a lower paid (than expected) job as web developer
- read books/blogs and practice web development as much as possible
- make some money while waiting for that dream web development job
If you apply for a job with no commercial experience, but you have built your own website then you’ll instantly look much better than your competitor who has no experience and no website.
* Point of note about working for free. Working for free to get experience is a good idea but don’t do it for too long. 1-2 weeks is fine. If an agency wants you to work for 1-3 months for no pay then they are taking advantage of you and the chances are there is another agency somewhere willing to pay you to do the same job.
All web agencies are looking for people, and whilst it may be true that some are putting a hold on hiring right now due to the current financial situation, a lot more agencies are crying out for good junior web developers but they just can’t find them. Your mission is to seek out these people and let them know you exist and how good you are. You’ll save them time and money on advertising for people and you’ll save them from have to deal with recruitment agencies because they loathe that exercise.
By no means, am I an expert on this employment. These are just my experiences and advice. You may be a student on a fantastic university/college course teaching you everything you need to know – not all courses are crap but sadly, a lot of them are.
If you’ve got an experience or some advice on getting that first job that you’d like to share; I’d love to hear it.
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