Step By Step Path to Becoming a Great Software Developer

This post originally appeared in http://simpleprogrammer.com/ but after reading it I felt this contains a whole lot of helpful information for new programmers and even experienced programmers. I can relate with some of the points mentioned in this post as when I started out programming, sometimes i felt lost when i couldn’t wrap my head round certain concepts. Although, I have been gradually improving my coding skills I still believe there is more coding territories to conquer for me. I hope someone finds this useful.

 

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Step 1: Pick one language, learn the basics

Personally, I think this is a very important part of becoming a good programmer. Often times beginner programmers make the blunder of trying to learn 50 million things at once. Well, it’s illogical to expect to fly when you have not learnt how to run. So, pick one language whilst starting out on your programming journey, master it before moving forward.

The programming language itself doesn’t matter all that much, since you should be thinking for the long term here. What I mean is you shouldn’t try and learn an “easy” programming language to start. Just learn whatever language you are interested in and could see yourself programming in for the next few years. You want to pick something that will have some lasting value.

Once you’ve picked the programming language you are going to try and learn, try and find some books or tutorials that isolate that programming language. What I mean by this is that you don’t want to find learning materials that will teach you too much all at once. You want to find beginner materials that focus on just the language, not a full technology stack.

As you read through the material or go through the tutorial you have picked out, make sure you actually write code. Do exercises if you can. Try out what you learned. Try to put things together and use every concept you learn about. Yes, this is a pain. Yes, it is easier to read a book cover-to-cover, but if you really want to learn you need to do.

When you are writing code, try to make sure you understand what every line of code you write does. The same goes for any code you read. If you are exposed to code, slow down and make sure you understand it. Whatever you don’t understand, look up. Take the time to do this and you will not feel lost and confused all the time.

Finally, expect to go through a book or tutorial three times before it clicks. You will not get “programming” on the first try–no one ever does. You need repeated exposure before you start to finally get it and can understand what is going on. Until then you will feel pretty lost, that is ok, it is part of the process. Just accept it and forge ahead.

Step 2: Build something small

Having gathered a basic understanding of your programming language of choice, it’s time to put to practice the concepts you have learnt. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to actually build something to consolidate the concepts you have learnt. I made a mistake of just reading through books and watching tutorials without actually building stuff when i was starting out and off course it took me a longer time to understand what i was doing because I hadn’t put my understanding to practice.

Just a sound of warning here Don’t get too ambitious at this point–but also don’t be too timid. Pick an idea for an application that is simple enough that you can do it with some effort, but nothing that will take months to complete. Try to confine it to just the programming language as much as possible. Don’t try to do something full stack (meaning, using all the technologies from user interfaces all the way to databases)–although you’ll probably need to utilize some kind of existing framework or APIs.

You could  build a small web application, but just try to not get too deep into a complex web development stack. I generally recommend starting with a mobile app, because web development has a higher cost to entry. To develop a web application you’ll need to at least know some HTML, probably some back-end framework and JavaScript.

Oh, and this is supposed to be difficult. That is how you learn. You struggle to figure out how to do something, then you find the answer. Don’t skip this step. You’ll never reach a point as a software developer where you don’t have to learn things on the spot and figure things out as you go along. This is good training for your future.

Step 3: Learn a framework

Now it’s time to actually focus on a framework. By now you should have a decent grasp of at least one programming language and have some experience working with a framework for mobile or web applications.

Pick a single framework to learn that will allow you to be productive in some environment. What kind of framework you choose to learn will be based on what kind of developer you want to become. If you want to be a web developer, you’ll want to learn a web development framework for whatever programming language you are programming in. If you want to become a mobile developer, you’ll need to learn a mobile os and the framework that goes with it.

Try to go deep with your knowledge of the framework. This will take time, but invest the time to learn whatever framework you are using well. Don’t try to learn multiple frameworks right now–it will only split your focus. Think about learning the skills you need for a very specific job that you will get that will use that framework and the programming language you are learning. You can always expand your skills later.

Step 4: Learn a database technology

Most software developers will need to know some database technology as most serious applications have a back-end database. So, make sure you do not neglect investing in this area.

You will probably see the biggest benefit if you learn SQL–even if you plan on working with NoSQL database like MongoDB or Raven, learning SQL will give you a better base to work from. There are many more jobs out there that require knowledge of SQL than NoSQL.

Don’t worry so much about the flavor of SQL. The different SQL technologies are similar enough that you shouldn’t have a problem switching between them if you know the basics of one SQL technology. Just make sure you learn the basics about tables, queries, and other common database operations.

I’d recommend getting a good book on the SQL technology of your choice and creating a few small sample projects, so you can practice what you are learning–always practice what you are learning.

You have sufficient knowledge of SQL when you can:

  • Create tables
  • Perform basics queries
  • Join tables together to get data
  • Understand the basics of how indexes work
  • Insert, update and delete data

In addition, you will want to learn some kind of object relational mapping technology (ORM). Which one you learn will depend on what technology stack you are working with. Look for ORM technologies that fit the framework you have learned. There might be a few options, so you best bet is to try to pick the most popular one.

Step 5: Get a job supporting an existing system

Ok, now you have enough skills and knowledge to get a basic job as a software developer. If you could show me that you understand the basics of a programming language, can work with a framework, understand databases and have built your own application, I would certainly want to hire you–as would many employers.

The key here is not too aim to high and to be very specific. Don’t try and get your dream job right now–you aren’t qualified. Instead, try and get a job maintaining an existing code base that is built using the programming language and framework you have been learning.

You might not be able to find an exact match, but the more specific you can be the better. Try to apply for jobs that are exactly matched to the technologies you have been learning.

Even without much experience, if you match the skill-set exactly and you are willing to be a maintenance programmer, you should be able to find a job.

Yes, this kind of job might be a bit boring. It’s not nearly as exciting as creating something new, but the purpose of this job is not to have fun or to make money, it is to learn and gain experience.

Working on an existing application, with a team of developers, will help you to expand your skills and see how large software systems are structured. You might be fixing bugs and adding small features, but you’ll be learning and putting your skills into action.

Pour your heart into this job. Learn everything you can. Do the best work possible. Don’t think about money, raises and playing political games–all that comes later–for now, just focus on getting as much meaningful productive work done as possible and expanding your skills.

Step 6: Learn structural best practices

Now it’s time to start becoming better at writing code. Don’t worry too much about design at this point. You need to learn how to write good clean code that is easy to understand and maintain. In order to do this, you’ll need to read a lot and see many examples of good code.

Beef up your library with the following books:

Language specific structural books like:

At this point you really want to focus your learning on the structural process of writing good code and working with existing systems. You should strive to be able to easily implement an algorithm in your programming language of choice and to do it in a way that is easy to read and understand.

Step 7: Learn a second language

At this point you will likely grow the most by learning a second programming language really well. You will no doubt, at this point, have been exposed to more than one programming language, but now you will want to focus on a new language–ideally one that is significantly different than the one you know.

This might seem like an odd thing to do, but let me explain why this is so important. When you know only one programming language very well, it is difficult to understand what concepts in software development are unique to your programming language and which ones transcend a particular language or technology. If you spend time in a new language and programming environment, you’ll begin to see things in a new way. You’ll start to learn practicality rather than convention.

As a new programmer, you are very likely to do things in a particular way without knowing why you are doing them that way. Once you have a second language and technology stack under your belt, you’ll start to see more of the why. Trust me, you’ll grow if you do this. Especially if you pick a language you hate.

Make sure you build something with this new language. Doesn’t have to be anything large, but something of enough complexity to force you to scratch your head and perhaps bang it against the wall–gently.

Step 8: Build something substantial

Alright, now comes the true test to prove your software development abilities. Can you actually build something substantial on your own?

If you are going to move on and have the confidence to get a job building, and perhaps even designing something for an employer, you need to know you can do it. There is no better way to know it than to do it.

Pick a project that will use the full stack of your skills. Make sure you incorporate database, framework and everything else you need to build a complete application. This project should be something that will take you more than a week and require some serious thinking and design. Try to make it something you can charge money for so that you take it seriously and have some incentive to keep working on it.

Just make sure you don’t drag it out. You still don’t want to get too ambitious here. Pick a project that will challenge you, but not one that will never be completed. This is a major turning point in your career. If you have the follow-through to finish this project, you’ll go far, if you don’t… well, I can’t make any promises.

Step 9: Get a job creating a new system

Ok, now it’s time to go job hunting again. By this point, you should have pretty much maxed out the benefit you can get from your current job–especially if it still involves only doing maintenance.

It’s time to look for a job that will challenge you but not too much. You still have a lot to learn, so you don’t want to get in too far over your head. Ideally, you want to find a job where you’ll get the opportunity to work on a team building something new.

You might not be the architect of the application, but being involved in the creation of an application will help you expand your skills and challenge you in different ways than just maintaining an existing code base.

You should already have some confidence with creating a new system, since you’ll have just finished creating a substantial system yourself, so you can walk into interviews without being too nervous and with the belief you can do the job. This confidence will make it much more likely that you’ll get whatever job you apply for.

Make sure you make your job search focused again. Highlight a specific set of skills that you have acquired. Don’t try to impress everyone with a long list of irrelevant skills. Focus on the most important skills and look for jobs that exactly match them–or at least match them as closely as possible.

Step 10: Learn design best practices

Now it’s time to go from junior developer to senior developer. Junior developers maintain systems, senior developers build and design them. (This is a generalization, obviously. Some senior developers maintain systems.)

You should be ready to build systems by now, but now you need to learn how to design them.

You should focus your studies on design best practices and some advanced topics like:

  • Design patterns
  • Inversion of Control (IOC)
  • Test Driven Development (TDD)
  • Behavior Driven Development (BDD)
  • Software development methodologies like: Agile, SCRUM, etc
  • Message buses and integration patterns

This list could go on for quite some time–you’ll never be done learning and improving your skills in these areas. Just make sure you start with the most important things first–which will be highly dependent on what interests you and where you would like to take your career.

Your goal here is to be able to not just build a system that someone else has designed, but to form your own opinions about how software should be designed and what kinds of architectures make sense for what kinds of problems.

Final notes

There are a few things that you should be doing along the way as you are following this 10 step process.Keep going, share your knowledge with others, read and practice, practice and do some more practice.

Every stop along the way, don’t just learn, but do. Put everything you are learning into action. Set aside time to practice your skills and to write code and build things.

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