Surviving Your First Job after University

In 2004 I graduated from university with a degree in Software Engineering. I spent an exciting 3 years of my life there, during which I met some really interesting people, made new friends and learned a lot. And then, I was ready to face the world. Or was I?
During my second year at university, I had the opportunity to go out for a placement. For those not acquainted with the term, universities work closely with enterprises to offer undergraduates the opportunity to gain real life experience working on a project for a year.


 





I thought this would be invaluable and I could see how I would fair in the "real world". Unfortunately, I didn't get far. In fact, I failed miserably at the interview process. The fail was so spectacular that I almost dropped out of university, thinking that I was useless and that two years of studying had given me nothing. More on this later, but in the end, I discussed this in length with a couple of friends and academics and decided to persist. And boy am I glad I did.
On my third year at university I had a programming course in C++ Microsoft Foundation Class Frameworks. On day one, the lecturer walks in and proudly announces the following:
"There will be no lectures, just labs, workshops and assignments. Your goal is to implement Conway's Game of Life using the C++ MFC framework. Although a working solution is the desired outcome, you have to document every decision, research and source your work. This little notebook will count 60% of your final grade because it will be a testament of your work, effort and time spent."
Needless to say that this caused a riot among the students in the class. Remember that back then there was no Stack Overflow and the Internet in general provided little to no information that could be copied verbatim. Panic ensued.

Looking back, this was the best course I've ever attended at university and I will be forever grateful to the lecturer that gave us this unique opportunity. This is because his approach to implementing a solution based on some requirements was the closest we could get to working on an actual project at some arbitrary workplace. It taught us how to do research, read documentation, work with different APIs, document our findings and thought process and implement a solution that meets the current project requirements.
As you prepare to enter the world fresh out of university, there are certain things you need to understand and that will help you get through the problems that you're about to face.

The role of university

University is not the ultimate source of knowledge. In fact, as my placement interviews proved, you'll gain little knowledge that is applicable to the industry. Things change too often for university courses to stay relevant. In addition, each company has its own technology stack which means that every new role requires more training. Nonetheless, the most valuable lesson you'll gain from university is the ability to acquire knowledge from many different sources and then collate and use that knowledge to solve a problem. The problem doesn't have to be technical or even IT related; your ability to understand the problem domain, break down to small manageable chunks and then solve one at a time is what you are going to gain and this is invaluable. Learn on the job, learn all the time.

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Learn on the job, learn all the time

No company is perfect and no job will ever be perfect. As soon as you join a new company as a graduate, you're destined to get disappointed. Maybe the team members are not perfect, the company culture is not what you really anticipated, the project you've been assigned not as exciting as you would have hoped and so on. You can always find problems if you're out looking for them. Instead, I would urge you to look at every problem as an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and grow as a developer.
Every problem demands a solution and you could be the one to provide it. In your quest as a young developer, find someone in the team that you look up to and/or admire and use them to learn fast. Ask as much as you can without being annoying, rude or disruptive. There's no better way to learn than sitting next to a seasoned and knowledgeable developer who can answer questions and steer you to the right direction. But don't expect or demand that they solve your problems for you. There's no benefit in being "spoon-fed" the solution because you'll never learn.

Your first real job

Getting your first job is always tricky. The market, however, is quite healthy and you should be able to get a job fairly quickly as long as you are proactive. Some people may be luckier than others and get a job straight out of university. I'd rather go with the worst case scenario here and assume that you're not in the "lucky" category. Rather than fret or get disappointed, use your time to your advantage. There are many things that you can do to improve your employability and in the process learn and become a better developer through practical experience. Enter the world of Open Source, where everyone's welcome to contribute and help as much or as little as they want or can. The more Open Source work you do, the more confident you'll become. In addition, having that experience on your CV can be a major asset. In some cases, companies may look to your GitHub account to see what kind of programmer you are.

Extending your academic career

If you're thinking about whether you should go back and do a Master's degree, or even a Doctorate (PhD), make sure you're doing for the right reasons. An MSc degree should be acquired to diversify your skills and a PhD should be pursued if you want to become an academic. The more time you spend in education, the less experience you'll have when going head-to-head with someone who left university earlier to enter the work arena.

Conclusion

There's probably a lot more I haven't covered here but I can promise as you come fresh out of university, the world is yours for the taking and the community is always in need of new sets of eyes and young, enthusiastic developers to make it bigger and better.


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