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I am a junior level Developer from Germany. After my bachelor’s degree in informatics, I worked for a company for two years. However only during the first year I worked as a developer. During the second year I became aware of a special program within my company to work abroad. At this point I never had the opportunity to leave the country in my life, so I went for it. I don’t regret it, however my tasks during this time took some turns and ended up having noting to do with IT or software development.

I am currently interviewing with several companies as a junior developer and In my personal opinion I feel like some companies have shown some double standards during those interviews. At this time, I have not found a good or professional way to react to this, so I would like to ask for opinions.

One of the most common questions I get asked is, how I stayed up to date on programming since I was out of the loop for about a year. I usually answer truthfully that I allocate time to self-studying on a very regular basis. Most of this time is dedicated to improving my skills using relevant literature like Clean Code or more specialized literature like “Data Analysis with Python” etc. The rest of the time I am trying to stay current by reading on the official docs what new releases are out and what changed, trying out new language features by playing around with them or visiting user groups and relevant websites to stay informed about new frameworks etc.

Often the reaction to this is kind of negative, more than once I was told “that does not really count”. The first time I heard this, I was a bit stunned, because I was unsure what the company would have expected.

The second time I got a reaction like this, I made a note on my pad and let the interview progress for a few minutes. When it was time for me to ask a few questions one of the things I asked was how Staff Development would be handled within the company whether there where personal budgets, certification programs and how “the staff is kept up to date on technical changes and new developments”. It was not even meant as some kind of “got cha” question, however most of the companies did not offer certification or personal budgets, they instead referred to getting information from the relevant or official websites on the internet (being the official docs etc.) and giving their employees time to read up on new language features and frameworks and to play around with them.

I am feel like company are displaying some double standards here and I am unsure how to react to this or even to call them out about this topic as well as some other, however minor issues like this.

EDIT: I wish to clarify what is the problem/double standard about this. It is not about me having not coded professionally in a while. This is probably a problem of its own, but if there are any coding tests or questions I usually do pretty well.

The problem is specifically about methods to stay up to date on new technical changes. The duble standard is, what @Flater described in the comment below:

the company both dismisses reading documentation and playing with features as a valid way for OP to keep up to date on software development and claims that reading documentation and playing with features is how they encourage their own developers to keep up to date. That's contradictory. Either the approach is valid or not (and they can have their own opinion on that), but it can't both be invalid for OP and valid for the company's developers without it then being a double standard..

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    I see what you mean about the double-standard, but there's no point in calling them out. Interviewing is a two-way street, to see if they like you, and if you like them. This is one reason to not like them. – Jim Clay Jun 13 '20 at 17:27
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    "One of the most common questions I get asked is, how I stayed up to date on programming since I was out of the loop for about a year." Are you applying for a programming job? If you are, that's not a double-standard. Someone who is coding every day at their day job is obviously going to be more qualified at programming than someone who took one year to do a non-coding job. – Stephan Branczyk Jun 14 '20 at 2:00
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    @JoeStrazzere: Based on the question as written, the company both dismisses reading documentation and playing with features as a valid way for OP to keep up to date on software development and claims that reading documentation and playing with features is how they encourage their own developers to keep up to date. That's contradictory. Either the approach is valid or not (and they can have their own opinion on that), but it can't both be invalid for OP and valid for the company's developers without it then being a double standard.. – Flater Jun 14 '20 at 16:07
  • @Flater No the context matters here, workers that are employed automatically stay up to date on the practical part by working on their projects. Staying up to date in actually applying a skill is different from purely informing yourself about things. Yeah, reading books is cool, and I'd already consider that a plus, but it's also not really keeping fit using your skills. A runner that reads books about marathons and the newest running shoes but does not run certainly has some advantages over a runner that just parties every day, but they are still not keeping in running shape. – Frank Hopkins Jun 15 '20 at 16:42
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    @FrankHopkins: If in this company "workers that are employed automatically stay up to date on the practical part by working on their projects", then it doesn't make sense for that company to answer that "getting information from the relevant or official websites on the internet (being the official docs etc.) and giving their employees time to read up on new language features and frameworks and to play around with them" – Flater Jun 15 '20 at 18:22
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I get asked is, how I stayed up to date on programming since I was out of the loop for about a year.

Often the reaction to this is kind of negative, more than once I was told “that does not really count”. The first time I heard this, I was a bit stunned, because I was unsure what the company would have expected.

This is going to vary by company. At my current organization, the correct answer to that would be about frontend JavaScript as we could use some frontend help. We wouldn't care much about personal projects.

At a startup my friend works for, the correct answer is "I am learning [Rust, TypeScript, Go]". They use none of those, but see them as evidence you keep up with what is "best practice" in the tech world.

At a large engineering firm where a friend was an HR advisor, the preferred answer the HR interviewers were asked to find was "building robots in my spare time."

I have always interpreted the question to be asking about passion for the company or the business. Everyone asks about that these days. My answer usually has to do with hackathons and personal projects.

You may also have put too much emphasis on the reading part and not enough on the coding part. I have read a book on microservices. I believe I could talk intelligently about them in an interview. But I have never built an application with them and probably would not do a good job in practice.

There is an expectation in many companies that software engineers are not 9 to 5 workers, but rather people who just love to code all the time and just happen to currently be doing it for the company.

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One of the most common questions I get asked is, how I stayed up to date on programming since I was out of the loop for about a year. I usually answer truthfully that I allocate time to self-studying on a very regular basis.

Let me play devil's advocate.

This is a good answer, but the problem is that most people are going to say the same thing whether it's true or not. Also, if you're applying for a programming job, keep in mind that you're competing with others that have been programming non-stop for the last year. In fact, even fresh grads out of school have been doing more coding than you this last year.

And yes, you have at least one year of programming experience in your first company, but who knows if you were any good. If you left that job to a non-coding job, perhaps it was because you were not that good in the first place.

Please don't take this too harshly. I'm just trying to verbalize a potential employer's fears. And doubting an applicant's claims is just a part of those fears.

The fact is. Many people lose their programming skills if they're not actively applying those skills every day. And if you want to make sure that doesn't happen to you, you really do have to give it your all.

  • If you feel confident, you could ask them to test you.

  • You could add that you're using the Spaced Repetition method (although, I suspect that by itself, that answer won't satisfy them either).

  • You could create an open-source project, or start contributing to one.

  • When a new feature comes out, you could offer to give a presentation at a meetup on the topic, or you could write a blog post or a tutorial on it. Teaching others is a great way to stay up-to-date yourself.

  • When a new version comes out, you could go over every diffs. Yes, I know it's a crazy strategy, but I've seen someone actually do that. He would print out 10,000+ pages on actual papger. The person I have in mind would go every line himself. He didn't trust the documentation and would often find important undocumented changes.

  • Or as Matthew Gaiser suggested, you could explore other trendier semi-related technologies to show that you're passionate about technology and that you like to stay on the cutting edge of things.

Whatever you do, you need to up your game. The longer you're no longer programming in your day job, the harder it will be to get back into programming.

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They are probably looking for you to name some specific training courses like Udemy and then talk a bit about them.

You can also expand your answer a bit by talking about projects you did to practice your skills, and offer them some proof like a Github repo. Contributions to open source projects are good too.

Basically you need something that makes you stand out because everyone says they study on their own time.

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Frame Challenge: This is not a double standard!

Context matters here, workers that are employed automatically stay up to date on the practical part by working on their projects. Staying up to date in actually applying a skill is different from purely informing yourself about things. Yeah, reading books is cool, and I'd already consider that a plus, but it's also not really keeping fit using your skills. A runner that reads books about marathons and the newest running shoes but does not run is not staying in running shape. They still do have some advantages over a runner that just parties every day with pizza at their couch though.

Luckily for programmers knowledge is a bit more important than muscle memory, but the same still holds, using your skills trains them and challenges you to ask the right questions; reading books can give you some knowledge but for most roles and people it's not the same, especially as a junior.

That being said: Bluntly saying "that doesn't count" is also not particularly professional/diplomatic. And reading is already a plus, albeit not what they were looking for. But then again, you should realize that being out of the job is a disadvantage no matter how you turn it. It's pretty clear that they will see it that way and likely that you will have a harder time convincing them that you are a good fit than someone who held a developer job in the last year (all else being equal).

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    The problem with this is, that more often than not, staying up to date on the latest technical developments does not just happen while working on a project. You often have to make a concious effort to stay current. Projects are seldom implemented using the latest version of a language and will instead often get implemented using some older version due to stability or compatibility with other projects. My old company was on python 2.7 for a long time. Same goes for frameworks, databases or even new paradigms like switching to a more functional style from a before object oriented approach. – ChrisInfo Jun 15 '20 at 22:02
  • Not terribly help full – Neuromancer Jun 15 '20 at 23:04
  • @ChrisInfo indeed but especially as a Junior what is important to a company is that you can show that you actually applied your skill and know how to program in a team. Studying and books can teach you about the latest tech, but it is something different to apply that, too, in practical settings and gain the experience to ask the right questions as in what benefits those new fancy stuff gives you. One complements the other. Working at a company means you got plenty of one part and further improvement can focus on the other. – Frank Hopkins Jun 16 '20 at 9:23
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    @FrankHopkins This is all true, however the question was not about how proficcient OP is in a given language, it was specifically about what he uses to stay informed about the newest tech. He also mentioned he tinkers around with new features. I dont think many employed developers go beyond this since bleeding edge features wont be used in any production code. – MrTony Jun 16 '20 at 12:12
  • @MrTony No the point is that both questions are differently meant in each context. "how I stayed up to date on programming" references general programming ability, that might include knowing new tech, but will from the point of view of the company also include not forgetting the basics of how to work with a language and training them. Whereas OP asked about "Staff Development" and got an answer regarding additional learning opportunities towards newest tech. Those are two very different things. Using and honing the essentials is not looking at what the bleeding edge has to offer. – Frank Hopkins Jun 17 '20 at 8:54

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