Stories about Software


How to Get that First Programming Job

If I think through the corpus of posts I’ve published, it seems they rarely focus on concerns at the entry level.  Or, at least, at the entry level of software, specifically.  Today, I’d like to look at a reader question about getting that first programming job.

My question is, what if I’m not exactly a developer yet?  I’m just wrapping up one of those full stack coding bootcamps, and I’m anxious about finding that first job.  Can you offer any advice?  I want to show that I care about doing things right.

First, I’ll offer a few caveats.  Nothing in the reader question spoke to how much experience the asker had outside of the programming industry.  That can matter, but I’ll write this post in such a way where it won’t.  Secondly, because I’m not entirely clear on the context for the last sentence, I’ll assume it exists as a way to show (and provide) value to prospective employers.  In other words, I’ll assume that “I care about doing things right” means “I want employers to see that I have good work ethic and care about the craft.”

The Entry Level Conundrum

When I graduated college at the end of 2001, I graduated into the teeth of the .COM bubble bursting.  Offers I had received dried up, and interview invitations I had received evaporated.  A new reality emerged — a reality in which entry level folks found themselves subject to a paradoxical conundrum.


Nobody wanted to hire software developers without experience.  And I couldn’t get any experience without getting hired.  I did what anyone in my position would do and went to work at Radio Shack.  I’m actually dead serious about going to work at Radio Shack.  That’s how bad things got in my search, and I needed money.

Eventually, after almost a year of peddling cell phones, freelancing a bit, and looking for work in my spare time, I landed a job as a “Software Quality Engineer,” or, as I like to think of it now, “Software Engineer with Training Wheels.”  I took the job, shed the training wheels and never looked back.

While my story eventually ended in joy (or at least employment), I believe the entry level conundrum holds true in the industry to this day.  Developer fortunes as a whole have improved substantially since I graduated with my CS degree.  But it can still be hard to find that first gig.

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Reviewing Strangers’ Code on Github

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, check out some of the pieces by their other authors.

I make part of my living these days as an IT management consultant, and in this capacity, I’ve developed an interesting niche: evaluation of codebases.  Specifically, an organization’t management will bring me in to spend a week or two looking through a codebase, sizing it up, and making recommendations for what to do with it going forward (e.g. “stay the course, rework the architecture, targeted training, scrap it, etc.”)

As you might imagine, this part of my practice leads me to looking at and quickly grokking a lot of unfamiliar code.  Every few weeks, I’m squinting at strange classes, running static analysis tools, and making lists of assumptions and questions to ask the development team.  And I’ve found that this practice has benefits to me beyond helping me earn my living.  I’d argue that it makes me a better programmer.

Consider the opposite situation — one that describes an enormous cross section of industry developers.  They come in to work each day and deal with the same codebase.  This continues day in and day out for weeks, months, or even years.

This year, my wife and I are hoping to make a visit to the Galapagos Islands, which are noteworthy for the uniqueness of the wildlife there.  The animals living there have been isolated from the wider world of fauna for millions of years, and the result is that they’ve developed unique and unusual characteristics that cannot be found anywhere else.  This is what tends to happen to codebases in shops where the majority of developers work in relative isolation.  A bubble forms, and practices drift toward the unusual.


For an individual, this isolation tends to put a damper on skill acquisition and can even be career limiting.  It’s the polar opposite of the situation in which I find myself — constantly immersed in unfamiliar code.  So how can you remedy the isolation if your professional life shows you the same code in day in and day out?  (Without drastic career moves, that is).  Well, the dead simplest thing I can think of is to seek out and review other people’s code.  And to do that, there’s no better place to go than Github.

Here’s what you can do.  Every few weeks or so, poke around idly on Github, searching for random codebases in your language of choice.  Big or small, popular or niche, active or forgotten — it really doesn’t matter much.  They just need to be different and new.

Once you’ve found one (and just about any one will do), clone it and get the code locally on your machine.  Open it up in your IDE/editor/environment of choice, and start looking around.  If you start to perform this exercise with some regularity, here are some benefits that you can expect, in my experience.

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What to do when Your Colleague Creates Spaghetti Code

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look around and give NDepend a try.

I write for a number of different outfits and earn my living consulting around software and IT.  Because of the intersection of these three concerns — writing, offering advice professionally, and software — I field a lot of requests for advice on how to do the right technical thing without everyone around you shooting holes in it.  Consider an example.

“How can we get started with unit testing?”

Considered as a technical question alone, this invites a fairly obtuse response.  “First, write a unit test.  Second, run the unit test.”  Obviously, that’s not really what anyone is asking when they ask this question.

Instead, they want to know something orders of magnitude more complex.  “How can we overcome years of inertia, a nasty legacy codebase, Bill, who has been around for 40 years and hates everything new, and the fact that management doesn’t want to pay us to write ‘extra’ code… and then start unit testing?”  Oh, yeah, that.  Well, that’s complicated.

I frequently hear such apparently-innocuous-but-actually-complex questions about code quality.  “This idiot on my team is writing mountains of the most unmaintainable garbage imaginable — what should I do?”


Usually, this sort of question comes to me from people at client sites.  And, accordingly, I have to balance the answer that makes the most sense for the individual with the one that keeps the client’s best interests in mind.  The client pays my bill, and I have a charter to lower the cost of ownership and development of their code.

But when I’m in writer mode, and only the asker’s interests matter, I’l give a subtly different answer.  Today, I’d like to offer advice on what you should do in this situation.

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How to Get an Edge As a Consultant

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, have a look around at some of the documentation around code metrics and queries.

I’ve made no secret of, and even frequently referred to my consulting practice, including aspects of IT management consulting.  In short, one of my key offerings is to help strategic decision makers (CIOs/CTOs, dev managers, etc) make tough or non-obvious calls about their applications and codebases.  Can we migrate this easily to a new technology, or should we start over?  Are we heading in the right direction with the new code that we’re writing?  We’d like to start getting our codebase under test, but we’re not sure how (un) testable the code is — can you advise?

This is a fairly niche position that’s fairly high on the organizational trust ladder, so it’s good work to be had.  Because of that, I recently got a question along the lines of, “how do you get that sort of work and then succeed with it?”  In thinking about the answer, I realized it would make a good blog post, specifically for the NDepend blog.  I think of this work as true consulting, and NDepend is invaluable to me as I do it.

Before I tell you about how this works for me in detail, let me paint a picture of what I think of as a market differentiator for my specific services.  I’ll do this by offering a tale of two different consulting pitfalls that people seem to fall into if tasked with the sorts of high-trust, advisory consulting engagements.


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Code Review Beyond Meeting Rooms and Projectors

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re over there, have a look at their Collaborator offering.

It must have been a decade ago.  I was sitting in a spaciously appointed conference room around a large, round table, surrounded by fellow software developers from my company.  Coffee and bright lights notwithstanding, we were all struggling to varying degree to keep alert.

The reason for our struggle was that we were spending the day doing a marathon code review, and we were barely halfway through the morning.  A representative of the team that had written the code was on hand, walking us through it, showing the code against a pull down screen with a projector.  We were being treated to file after file after file, in alphabetical order, in a text editor.

There were hours of this yet to go.  And yet, it was an unavoidable matter of due diligence.  In spite of our wandering attention spans, we believed this, as did our management.  Our company had contracted with a custom software vendor to write an application that our company would take over and maintain.  This firm had scurried off for 9 months or so, and they were now presenting “phase 1” to us.  This was our chance to raise concerns and provide input.  Theoretically, anyway.


As you can imagine, this was not an especially effective way to spend a day (or several, as it would turn out).  We technically saw all of the code that was being delivered, but it wasn’t as though this activity produced a lot of meaningful output.  There were some obvious reasons for this, such as the enormous batch of reviewing 9 months of code and the marathon, all-in nature of the session.  But there were also some issues related to tooling and process that were pretty limiting compared to what we have now.

10 years have elapsed since this yawn-inducing series of days I spent in review.  And, while you’re still going to be in trouble if you try meaningfully to review 9 months of a team’s code in a few days, tools and workflows have emerged in the interceding years that make code review much easier.  You should be taking advantage of them.

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