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So I am a developer. I have worked for my dads super small software company the past 3 years. I wasn't part of the regular team though. I had an idea for an app and somewhat naively started working on it straightaway after uni. I did all of this by myself, iterated a few times and learned a lot, but also wasted a ton of time on stuff that wasn't strictly necessary (didn't understand this at the time). The app is still not finished yet, but my dads company isn't doing so well. So I will have to look for either a full-time job or find freelance work.

What should I do? Feeling pretty bad about all of this.

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Now, I don't know what to say to future employers / how to portray myself in the best possible light.

Simply write about what you did - and think of positive adjectives. Were you left to work alone on fixing problems? Then you "prioritised and fulfilled tasks independently". Did you talk to customers directly? Then you probably "coordinated with customers to collect requirements, obtain feedback and provide support".

The not-dev related stuff can also be a bonus - developers are expected to be fairly broad-skilled, especially with devops.

I'm also worried it'll look bad that I worked for my dad - could seem a bit nespotistic and/or unambitious. Not sure what I could say to that.

You don't have to say anything about that in your resume or interview. You simply worked at ABC Software.

Of course, if your dad's company is Anonymousjon Sr Software, that is a bit obvious - but just put it in. I doubt anyone will bat an eyelid on reading it in your resume. If someone mentions it at interview, simply say "there was a position open when I was looking, but now I'm ready to move on." Three years in a first job is pretty normal, if not a bit longer, so that's all that needs to be said, really.

I don't know how to explain this or how to write this in my CV. I also don't want to mention the app or share code of my app.

You should mention it - and maybe even provide a demo (up to you). But definitely mention it and talk about its development - for one, it shows that you're an independent learner and that you are enthusiastic. Secondly, you will need to ensure in your potential contract that you keep the ownership of the app and code (some companies do like to have clauses that give them ownership of all your work even if some in your own time).

My problem is also that I am probably better than the average junior developer and would be selling myself short if I applied as a junior. However, to call myself mid-level is probably also a bit of a stretch, since I must have quite a few gaps and have never worked in a team.

Just apply for some mid- level positions that you think you fit the skills requested, and are asking for about 3 years of experience. Get feedback from the interviewers of you can (most won't give more than a generic "other candidates were a better fit", but some may give good constructive advice).

If they don't pan out, lower your expectations a bit - prepare to learn and be ready to move up in a couple of years.

Another thing you can do about plugging the gaps - take a course. A bootcamp could be very helpful. Or start another hobby project to build up skills within knowledge with - plus you have something else to show off.

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So, your first answer is that you straight-up aren't as good as a developer who's had three years of standard experience (startup or otherwise). "Junior-level" often means as much as five years. You haven't had more senior developers hanging over your shoulder explaining what you're doing wrong, you haven't been exposed to other people's code, you haven't been in a serious work environment. You've been futzing around for three years on your dad's dime, and you haven't actually achieved or produced anything yet. You're... basically entry-level, with some bennies. If you try to sell yourself as junior-level, that's going to be a hard sell, because you're not.

Also, yes, it does look bad that you worked for your dad, because other employers wouldn't have let you get away with poking at an app for three years without ever producing anything useful.

If you don't want to mention the app, then you literally have nothing to talk about when they ask you what you've been doing for the past three years, and they will ask, because it's an obvious question. You don't have to hand them the code, and you don't necessarily have to tell them what the app does, but you have to at least say that there is an app that you've been working on.

Really, if you want a job, the thing to do is sell it as a learning experience. Basically, you had an idea, you overestimated your ability to turn it into something worthwhile, you ran with it, and now you've realized that you can't actually drag it across the finish line and need an actual job. There are enough people out there who are self-employed as programmers making apps that this is a reasonable thing for someone to have done. Go through the mistakes you made and the things you learned from those mistakes while working on the app and be ready to trot some of them out. "I tried to self-publish, it didn't work, but I've learned a fair number of things along the way" is at least a reasonable story to sell as a beginning programmer. Humility will help. Then, once you have a few years under you at a real job, you'll be in a much better position overall.

  • I haven't finished reading yet, but regarding the end of your first paragraph: do you distinguish between entry & junior or is this a typo? – anonymousjohn Aug 6 at 14:31
  • @anonymousjohn I do distinguish. entry-level is "just out of college." Junior-level is "a few years in the workforce". Where the line gets drawn varies a bit from company to company, but where I've seen employers refer to junior-level, they've always been talking about people with at least a bit of experience under them. If you've never had work in the field, you're still entry-level. – Ben Barden Aug 6 at 14:34
  • entry-level can also refer to people who've had experience in other fields and are converting over, but have no experience in programming. – Ben Barden Aug 6 at 14:35
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So you were fresh out of the university and you were unable to build a viable app on your own? That is pretty standard.

Things like project management, ui design, ui implementation, database design, architecture, etc... are all viable skills. Most people are really good at one or two, okay at three or four of them and then horrific at others. Coming out of university, your skill level at all of them hovers somewhere around beginner. Again pretty standard. Entry level positions pay a fraction of those that have 10 years experience.

I would focus on what you did at your father's company. That was your paid work and presumably your professional experience. Its okay if things did not workout with the role you filled. When bringing up your hobby app, concentrate on what you did accomplish and what was learned. Was the UI really good? Did you goof up the data model, that lead to problems later? Perhaps the UI was horrific, but it did some calculations well. Those are cool things to discuss and the bad stuff happens to people far more experienced than you.

A hiring manager would find it interesting that you tinkered on your own time, and what you learned. They will not be expecting you to have a high level of skills when you just graduated. Being able to explain what you need to get better at, is valuable. Understanding that you cannot do it all, and will have a role to play on the team is valuable.

You need not mention the project, until the interview, but if the situation arises you can then explain yourself. Every developer has failed projects.

Please note that if you did not do development at your father's company, then you can only realistically expect an entry level position.

  • thanks for this reply, super helpful. not sure i understand your last sentence: - i did do work as a developer at my dads company, trying to do this app of mine - i did not do this app only in my free time (though I used lots of my free time too). – anonymousjohn Aug 6 at 15:01
  • @anonymousjohn that was not clear in your question. You said "I wasn't part of the regular team though", suggesting you might have been the office manager or something else. Whatever, I would still focus on looking for an entry level position as it sounds like you were not mentored very well. – Pete B. Aug 6 at 16:29

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