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?
This post was first published 1st January 2009 but has been updated 14th May 2015.
Your parents and friends might be telling you that your lack of employment is down to the current economy 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 not very useful in a commercial environment and regardless of the economy, 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 developers above them, they’ll improve significantly more but they need to have the basics down first.
Every agency is different but the basic tasks for a junior web developer could consist of:
- buying domain names and updating/setting-up DNS on those domains
- setting up a local web server with XAMPP or MAMP or a more senior dev may have set-up Grunt/Gulp tasks to do this
- building HTML/CSS templates from a Photoshop/Illustrator/Sketch design
- backing up files in version control (GIT but maybe SVN if you’re unlucky)
- 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
- quickly explaining your previous day’s work and current day’s plans at the morning stand-up meeting
Code Computerlove have published a series of articles where key people in their team detail what they do on a daily basis:
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 said, thanks but they weren’t interested just now. In hindsight, I would not advise this blanket approach. A better approach is to research 3–5 places you’d like to work then target them specifically. A mail-merge letter comes off as a bit insulting which was something I did not appreciate when I was looking for my first job10+ years ago.
Closer to graduation, I put my CV online with large job websites (the kid you see advertised on TV) and started applying for jobs – still nothing. With one month to graduation, I put my CV on local digital industry website, Manchester Digital, and I received an email which eventually lead to my first job at JJB Sports in their Marketing department. By spreading myself out and trying different techniques I found one that actually worked!
How you can get your first job
I would consider not hiring someone who:
- has a hotmail/yahoo email address (tip: why wouldn’t you have your own domain as a wannabe developer?)
- doesn’t have a web presence e.g. a website/blog/online portfolio/github (or equivalent) or a twitter account
- has no experience whatsoever
The last point is a big one. Experience is everything in this industry. You can get very far very quickly with no qualifications, if, that is, you have the requisite skills. A good education is brilliant but if the person in competition with you for a job has a years experience on their CV and you only have a degree then the experienced person looks better (in most cases).
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 an employee working at agency X might tell their friend working at agency Y about you.
Ah that dreaded word. Most (but definitely not all) developers are introverts and the thought of networking, strikes fear into them (it certainly does for me). However, there is a difference between traditional networking events (think walking into a large hall with people in suits and starting conversations with these people, who you don’t know, about work stuff) and merely getting to know people in the industry a little through Twitter, email, or having a casual chat at a design/dev talk like Glug.
Getting the experience
If you have no experience and therefore no commercial references, you should make it your mission to obtain 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 friend’s/relative’s small business (and get paid for it)
- 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
- work for a local web agency – not as a web dev but maybe in a different role and work my way up
- 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 most likely 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 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.