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I was an "IT drone" for about 14 years (tech support, then systems admin). I taught myself how to program, at first just to automate some of my work, then later producing some in-house applications used by regular users in my organization.

So by the end of 2013, I had about 7 years of self-taught programming experience, although I would not really say I was a "good" programmer at that point.

There was a reorg at work and things started to get ugly, so I quit my job and went back to get a 2nd Bachelors in CS (first degree was liberal arts). My goal was not to learn how to program, but to become a much better programmer, and "get the piece of paper".

I just finished the degree a couple months ago, so now my question is this:

In the current job market, is an entry-level software dev job the best I can hope for? Does my 7 years of self-taught experience before I got the CS degree count for anything?

  • See this, Also this. – enderland Apr 20 '15 at 20:11
  • @enderland thanks. I don't really think I'm asking the same thing as those two, though -- I'm not worried about conveying that I have self-taught knowlege. What I would really like to know is do employers care about those kinds of skills. – 1.618 Apr 20 '15 at 20:16
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    I don't think you need to emphasize "self taught" so much. For some people it will give the impression that you were just "winging it" on your own time when instead you were actually learning and developing on the job (even though that was not technically your job description). You can definitely aim for higher than entry level. And don't say you were a "IT drone" for 14 years, that was valuable experience too and you're selling yourself short if you don't leverage it. – teego1967 Apr 20 '15 at 21:02
  • Your question is open-ended and a little difficult to answer at this point. Consider revising your question to include specifically the kinds of skills you have and positions you are looking for -- depending on those you may be looking at a position higher than just entry level. – mcknz Apr 21 '15 at 1:12
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In the current job market, is an entry-level software dev job the best I can hope for?

Probably.

Does my 7 years of self-taught experience before I got the CS degree count for anything?

Probably.

The fact of the matter is that hiring managers don't care about years of experience - HR people care about years of experience. And HR people are the ones who will be vetting your resume, and they only care about professional experience. Sorry.

Hiring managers though care about what you can do. Hopefully, those 7 years were spent learning to do stuff. Even hiring managers will have reservations about self-taught programmers - do they know how to use source control? Have they developed bad habits? Can they work in a team? Did they actually learn anything? Can they use an issue tracker? Do they know how to work with business people to get requirements?

...and so on. But the hardest skill to find is actual programming competency. Can you take a problem and write (good) code to solve it?

If you improved that skill at all in those 7 years, they will be useful. And in my experience, it is very common that you improved that skill more in 7 years than your run of the mill professional did in 7 years at a company sitting through meetings rather than writing code.

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    @1.618 - yup. All true. As usual, the best way to get a job is to bypass HR. – Telastyn Apr 20 '15 at 20:25
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    While an entry level may be the most likely you can hope for until you prove your worth, with your experience, I would imagine you can work you way through the ranks pretty quickly. – Laconic Droid Apr 20 '15 at 21:07
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    It might be worth noting that you can get around the HR thing by applying to small companies, particularly start ups. Of course working for a start up is very different than working for a larger, more structured company. – Lee Abraham Apr 20 '15 at 21:11
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    Source Contro? Issue Tracker? Admittedly, my C.S. degree is pretty old, but it's my impression that those things aren't taught or used that much in schools even now. Am I wrong? – GreenMatt Apr 21 '15 at 14:26
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    @greenmatt we actually used both those things in school. – 1.618 Apr 22 '15 at 16:11
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Experience is experience, regardless of whether you have a degree or not (or the proper degree).

HR wants to check the items on their checklist, other than that they do not typically care much.

The hiring manager will want to know what your experience is. In my experience as a developer, go ahead and list that experience. Talk about the great things you did. While it might not have shown how to work on a development team, you did produce business value. You had end users. You fixed bugs. You grew professionally because of it.

I worked for several years as a software developer before graduating with my B.S., and that experience counted for me. I saw it count for other developers as well. You may end up with a lower salary. but that should correct itself in a few years. Once the degree is two or three years behind you, it may as well be ancient history. N.B. you will probably need to change employers in a few years if your current prospective employer lowballs your salary.

In your case it might not sting as much because you already had a B.S., just not in computer science. The fact that you proved you can make it through an educational program counts for something.

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Yes, your experience counts. You may have trouble getting past the HR drones, but the hiring managers will want to discuss it.

You should phrase it as such:

  1. You saw a business need.
  2. You worked with your manager to define the business need and the requirements to solve it.
  3. You developed a solution (explain why you chose the solution and tools you did).
  4. You implemented the solution.
  5. You worked with your manager to confirm the solution accomplished its goals, and that the users were able to implement it.

That's a software developer.

Now the other thing you need to tell your interviewers how much of your time was actually spent programming. You spent 7 years doing some programming, but you didn't spend 14,000 hours programming (1 year at work = approx. 2000 hours, depending on overtime / sick leave, etc.). How many hours did you spend during that 7 year stint on programming? That would be something I'd want to know if you were sitting in front of me.

Also - you were wise to get a technical degree. I would take you seriously with any college degree in a technical discipline. It doesn't have to be CS. Heck, my degree is in audio engineering and I do software development. I'd be comfortable if you came in with an EE, EET, or mathematics degree, too. Any discipline that was built on a world of hard absolutes is probably going to be a good fit for software development.

  • Good point about the time conversion factor. I hadn't thought about that. Thanks. – 1.618 Apr 20 '15 at 20:59
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The value of your time as a self-taught developer greatly increases if you have something to show to the interviewer for those seven years. If your seven years were spent puttering around with stuff that never got beyond "Hello, world", then it's not going to be that impressive.

On the other hand, if you can show the interviewer a complete application you wrote, with source code, and a history of updates for new features and bug fixes, and the application does something non-trivial, your resume is a lot stronger.

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