Lessons From Becoming a Web Developer at 18

A photo of me typing on a MacBook
A photo of me typing on a MacBook

Almost a year ago, I started my first proper job as a web developer at 2hats: a Sydney startup that connects work-ready university students to startups that need their talents.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the time to have a real reflection on this wild story — how exactly I got here, why I made the decisions I made, and what lessons I could learn going forward.

I landed on four key takeaways from this story and also hope they help other students who are just starting their careers.

🚀 Side projects take you far.

For any developer, a résumé is never enough to get hired. Since employers look for people who have experience (which many students don’t have), I used my side projects as a substitute for formal work experience to even get my foot in the door.

Not just any side project will do, however. It must show off your skills, be presentable, and should ideally be using a similar or the same tech stack as the company you’re applying for. Especially if you’re a student with no formal experience, your side projects must impress the interviewers with either the skills you already have or the potential they show.

A screenshot of my web app, HSCPastPapers.com
A screenshot of my web app, HSCPastPapers.com
A screenshot of the app before NESA asked me to stop showing their past paper files directly on the app. This was the version I showed during my interview.

For me, this was HSCPastPapers.com, a small web app I made instead of studying for the rest of my HSC exams (burnout is real). It showed that I knew how to design and build a great user experience on the web, which also had a real purpose and actually assisted students.

Plus, you can use side projects to experiment with new technologies or frameworks you haven’t used yet. With a clear goal in mind, it’s a lot easier to get through the reluctance to learn something new. My first notable React project was extending HSCPastPapers.com with a different “Downloader” UI that was meant to show a big download button instead of displaying the PDF itself on the page. (At least that was the distinction.)

🙅‍♂️ Don’t expect your degree to be enough when you graduate.

There are a lot of people studying computer science with me. My lecture hall can be filled with nearly 500 people — and that’s only for one university in Sydney. (Oh, and it’s likely not all the students enrolled attended the lecture.) In the end, many of them will be awarded with the same degree as you, regardless of the results you achieved, so you need something to differentiate yourself.

Initially, I wrote that this can be best achieved by having a portfolio of side projects you can present. That’s still quite important: it shows you have a passion for programming and completing projects, two qualities that would translate well into the workplace, you’re more likely to actually care about what you build and ensure it’s fully functional.

But after working at 2hats and witnessing how hard it is to find students for certain roles (especially web development roles), I learnt another great way to differentiate oneself is to learn tech stacks that aren’t taught at university. A lot of people will know C, Java, or Python from programming units, but a lot of companies are using newer tech stacks that aren’t widely taught at universities yet. These include front-end web and app frameworks like React, Angular, or Flutter to newer back-end stacks like Node.js and serverless.

Graph showing the gaps between what hiring managers want and what developers know in terms of tech stacks
Graph showing the gaps between what hiring managers want and what developers know in terms of tech stacks
The 2019 HackerRank Developer Skills Report shows there’s a big gap between the demand for devs on certain tech stacks and supply of devs who know them

Since these technologies are so new, universities (and the professors teaching there) haven’t had enough time to catch up and teach students about modern tech stacks that are becoming more widely used by tech companies, especially startups — so it’s becoming more important to learn these new technologies outside of university.

🔁 Don’t be afraid to apply and learn from mistakes.

When I left high school, I thought the two most viable career paths for me at that moment were something related to visual design and web development. I initially applied for more design-oriented roles because I (incorrectly) thought my rudimentary Behance portfolio was stronger than my GitHub portfolio.

2hats FB ad: “A student in bed will remain in bed until acted upon by a large enough panic” —Newton’s lesser known fourth law
2hats FB ad: “A student in bed will remain in bed until acted upon by a large enough panic” —Newton’s lesser known fourth law
When I see an ad like this, how could I not think “Yeah, why the hell not?”

But interviewing for these roles made me realise that a design job is not the path I want my career to take and that I should focus on something else; that I was more interested in the more technical role of implementing a design.

It was persistence and resilience that got me here— despite the setbacks and letdowns from all the other interviews, when I found out about 2hats, I still applied and held out just a small amount of hope, with a can-do attitude of “Why the hell not?” despite the setbacks.

📚 Study what you’re interested in and see where it takes you.

I took up web development simply from being interested in how stuff gets on the Internet. It was really interesting to me how lines of plaintext could be transformed into beautiful websites and I wanted to know how to build them for myself.

That led me to a path of learning HTML, CSS, JS, and a bit of Python — this knowledge would eventually power my side projects for me to kill some time and have fun and I would never have thought that I would start a career out of these technologies I’ve learnt.

This has made me a firm believer that the best opportunities come from following one’s interests (as cliché as it may sound); that studying something just because it’s popular or because you think it will make you the most money is not going to be the most beneficial for you in the future.

Thanks for reading! Hey, while you’re still here, check out the full story of my journey from dabbling with WordPress to ending up at 2hats here:

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Front-end web engineer @AntlerEng working on 👉 firetable.io 👈 combining the simplicity of spreadsheets with the power of Firestore

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