How to Become a Software Developer in 2021

If you’re curious about becoming a software developer, chances are you’re a why person. Knowing that something works has never been enough for you. Instead, you want to peek behind the curtain or flip open the hood to see why all the proverbial cogs fit together the way they do.

This curiosity and determination to make projects work are what drive software developers across all industries to create intricate, functional and aesthetically interesting programs and websites. But if you want to apply your passion for why to this particular profession, you’ll need to turn your attention to a different question: how.

5 Steps to Becoming a Software Developer:

  1. Decide Which Languages to Learn
  2. Get the Necessary Training
  3. Practice on Your Own
  4. Make Connections
  5. Start Job Hunting and Prepare for Interviews

In this article, we’ll walk through these steps and the best ways to learn software development. You’ll also learn how you can leverage your innate curiosity to build a highly rewarding career in the field.

But first, let’s get started by understanding what a software developer really is.

What Is a Software Developer?

If you’ve ever played a video game, watched a movie, opened an app or even browsed the web — which, given that you’re reading this article online, you have — you’ve experienced a software developer’s work firsthand.

While software developers can work in a broad host of industries and on a variety of projects, their primary goal is always the same: to design software or digital applications that empower users to accomplish a specific task.

Think of it this way: The developers that built your favorite social media platform, for example, achieve this goal by writing code that allows you to share, post and comment in a few taps on your smartphone.

That said, software developers aren’t only tasked with creating new applications. Professionals in the field might:

  • Assess and improve computer systems
  • Perform maintenance on existing programs
  • Create code for updates and patches
  • Develop operational manuals
  • Collaborate in teams to identify opportunities for product improvement
  • Create progress reports

Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive! The actual responsibilities that a software developer takes on will depend heavily on their employer’s business needs and focus.

In any case, those who get into software development tend to stretch their skills across a wide variety of specialties. As one researcher for Slash Data concluded in a 2018 report, “Developers may be involved in multiple sectors professionally or, most commonly, in some sectors professionally and a few more as hobbyists, working on side projects, or as students. On average, developers are involved in close to five sectors concurrently.”

The same report concluded that of those sectors, the most popular was web app development, which encompasses 16.9 million active developers globally. Other popular fields include back end services (13.6 million), mobile apps (13.1 million), machine learning and AI (12.2 million) and IoT (9.3 million).

 

Graph of the most common software developer specialties

No matter which area of expertise you choose to pursue, you can bet on a rewarding career. U.S. News Money currently ranks software development as #1 across three lists: 100 Best Jobs, Best STEM Jobs and Best Technology Jobs. The career also netted an 8/10 rating for salary, job market prospects, future growth and work-life balance.

It’s a secure job field, too. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of software development job listings will grow 21 percent from 2018 to 2028, more than four times the average 5 percent growth anticipated for all other professions.

What’s not to appreciate about the job? The prospects are excellent, and the opportunities for growth are evident — but before you can take advantage of either, you need to learn the relevant skills and get your foot in the door. With this in mind, let’s look into how to become a software developer.

5 Steps to Becoming a Software Developer

1. First, Decide Which Languages to Learn

While aspiring software developers don’t need to know exactly what they want to do, they should have a general idea of their direction before they start training. Your intended career path will determine which languages and skills you’ll most need to develop.

Generally speaking, you can separate your learning path into three major “roads”: front end, back end and full stack development. Here’s a quick overview of each:

  • Front End Development: This area of development is primarily concerned with the client-facing aspects of a product or website. They deal with the layout and design, ensure that a product is functional and that any information it displays is readable and accessible.
  • Back End Development: As you might surmise from the name, back end development considers all of the server-side aspects that the average user doesn’t see. Back end developers write the code and establish the databases that allow programs to function as intended.
  • Full Stack Development: Full stack developers can do it all. These multi-talented professionals can code a program from the ground up and handle both front and back end challenges with ease. That said, so much goes into modern development work that most professionals choose to specialize in one “side” of the process; developers who can navigate both tend to be both rare and valuable.

Below, we’ve highlighted a few of the languages that you’ll need to pay attention to as you learn how to become a software developer. Keep in mind that those interested in a full stack career path will need to brush up on skills in both lists!

Front End Development

  • HTML: HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is a scripting language that defines web pages using regular text. Because each web page that you visit is an individual HTML file, every website encompasses a set of multiple files. These files make use of a series of keywords called HTML tags, which can be used to structure each web page with text, photos, videos and more.
  • CSS: Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are used in tandem with HTML script to establish a website’s aesthetics. These style sheets define text size, position and color. Moreover, because they cascade, applying a given style to a parent element (e.g., text color) will ensure that the chosen theme remains consistent throughout the page, removing the need for piecemeal coding.
  • JavaScript: JavaScript is a programming language that empowers front end developers to add dynamism to their website designs and is typically used in conjunction with HTML and CSS. With JavaScript, developers can create interactive tools, animations and scrolling features. Whenever a page feature moves, changes or is in any way dynamic, you can bet that JavaScript was probably involved.
  • jQuery: jQuery is a lightweight JavaScript library specifically designed with the intent of making it easier to use JavaScript. It automates several common and normally code-intensive tasks by summarizing them into methods that you can apply with a small snippet of code. jQuery is also useful for DOM manipulation — i.e., changing the logical structure and object-oriented representation of a website.
  • AJAX: Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) isn’t so much a tool or a language as it is a set of development techniques that allow software engineers to send and receive data between a database and server without disrupting the user experience. This capability provides a tremendous usability benefit without any loading hiccups.

Back End Development

  • Python: Python is one of the most popular and usable programming languages in back end programming today. It is easy to use and well-suited to complex software development tasks, data analysis challenges and infrastructure management. As one writer for InfoWorld describes, Python “is no longer a back-room utility language, but a major force in web application creation and systems management, and a key driver of the explosion in big data analytics and machine intelligence.”
  • DjangoDjango is a versatile and comprehensive Python web framework that allows developers to create new apps and programs without, as one developer at Mozilla describes, “needing to reinvent the wheel.” This open-source framework provides ample paid and free support, offers a ton of documentation and maintains a bustling community of developers.
  • SQL/NoSQL: If you intend to make it as a back end developer, you’ll need to have more than a passing familiarity with relational and non-relational databases, as well as how to access them.

Structured Query Language, colloquially known as SQL, was developed in the 1970s as a means to query and edit data in relational databases — i.e., those that organize data points according to predefined relationships. Today, SQL stands as the industry-standard language for communicating with such databases.

NoSQL, in contrast, is a term that refers to databases that are “not SQL,” and therefore don’t abide by relational logic. They can be organized in a variety of ways, depending on a project’s given data needs. NoSQL databases tend to be flexible and can scale quickly to accommodate massive data loads and high user traffic.

  • Node.js: Node is an easy-to-use and open-source runtime environment that allows developers to create non-web, server-side programs and tools with JavaScript. Node is convenient, as it runs on a variety of systems (macOS, Windows, Linux, etc.) and has a thriving and supportive developer community.

2. Get the Necessary Training

Now that you have a general idea of your preferred software development career path and the skills required to walk it, you need to start figuring out your next steps — namely, how you plan to obtain the skills to be competitive in the workforce.

It does not matter how naturally talented or smart you might be; if you don’t have any training, few employers will bother calling you in for an interview.

But, what’s the best way to learn software development, exactly?

Thankfully, there are a variety of educational options available to learners today, each with their own pros and cons. We’ll go into those in a moment — but before we do, we recommend that you take a few moments to think about what you, individually, want out of your education. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much time do I have available to dedicate to upskilling? Can I accommodate a full-time schedule, or do I need a part-time program?
  • What is my preferred timeline?
  • How much money do I have budgeted for my education?
  • What kind of learner am I? Do I need a lot of hands-on support, or do I prefer to learn independently?
  • Do I like a class environment, or do I prefer the flexibility of an online course?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a better idea of the educational experience that will suit you, your schedule, and your available resources.

Let’s dive into a few options.

College

A four-year degree is one of the most conventional means of accumulating the skills necessary for a career in software development. Those who choose to receive their training via an undergraduate degree receive comprehensive theoretical and practical training over several years of full-time study.

The vast majority of aspiring software developers gravitate towards intuitively-suited majors, such as software engineering or computer science.

In a 2020 Stack Overflow Study that reviewed the educational backgrounds of development professionals, researchers found that 62.6 percent of respondents with college degrees had majored in computer science or software engineering. An additional 17.2 percent majored in another engineering discipline.

That said, the researchers also note that “There are a variety of academic paths to becoming a professional software engineer […] Interestingly enough, almost 10% of the respondents have a business related degree or a degree in a humanities, social science, or fine arts field of study.”

These statistics demonstrate that you can make it in software engineering even if you don’t graduate with a major that dovetails perfectly with your chosen profession. That said, if you don’t study software engineering specifically, you may need to enroll in a few additional courses to learn the technical skills and languages required for your desired career.

Self-Directed Learning

If you like independent learning and would prefer a low-budget, time-flexible educational route, you may be best off exploring the plethora of online tutorials, classes and books that are available to avid learners today.

We’ve included a few examples in each category below to help you get started in your learning journey. But, before you set off, it’s worth gauging whether self-guided learning is right for you. The self-directed route is best for those who are highly self-motivated and can hold themselves to the task of developing and following a self-guided curriculum. Those who can do so enjoy a tremendous amount of flexibility and can obtain their professional skills at a very low price.

However, if you find yourself struggling to piece together different tutorials into a cohesive curriculum or skipping lessons, you may want to consider in-person or instructor-led courses that offer more hands-on support.

Also, keep in mind that while free and paid resources are abundant on the Internet, not all are equally well-organized or high-quality. Make sure to vet your self-guided classes and tutorials thoroughly before you dedicate your time, energy and resources toward completing them.

Interested in a self-guided path? Check out these resources.

Books:
Online Learning Platforms:
  • Freecodecamp — A free learning platform that provides a wealth of easy-to-follow tutorials and maintains a thriving community of programmers.
  • Khan Academy — One of the go-to online learning platforms for those interested in math and programming. Khan Academy has a structured course available for those interested in learning the basics of programming.
  • Udemy — An online platform that offers both paid and free courses to aspiring coders, data analysts and other tech-savvy professionals. This platform distinguishes itself with an enormous library of learning resources.
Video Tutorial Channels:
  • Programming Knowledge — This channel provides a library of straightforward tutorials that aim to help beginner programmers acquire practical development skills. Programming Knowledge has several multi-episode tutorial courses, including Java for Beginners, Python for Beginners and a C++ course.
  • Derek Banas — Derek Banas is a Youtube creator who is perhaps best-known for his “Learn JavaScript in 30 Minutes” playlist. He specializes in creating short but highly informative technical tutorials.
  • Mike Locke —Mike Locke is a UX/UI professional and instructor who provides in-depth tutorials on topics relating to front end development and design.

Coding Boot Camps

Coding boot camps have enjoyed an explosion of popularity among aspiring software engineers — and for good reason. A recent report published by Career Karma indicated that the coding boot camp market grew 4.38 percent and graduated 33,959 students in 2019 alone.

 

Chart showing the growth of boot camp graduates

These intensive, skills-based programs allow aspiring software developers to gain the practical, marketable skills that they need to be professionally successful in as little as three or four months, and at a fraction of the cost of a conventional degree. These programs typically offer full-time, part-time, virtual and in-person class options.

What’s more, employers tend to value boot camp professionals as high-potential hires. In one 2017 study conducted by Indeed, a full 72 percent of employers felt boot camp graduates were “just as prepared and likely to be high performers as candidates with computer science degrees,” while 12 percent viewed boot camp grads as more prepared than traditional candidates.

If you’re looking to upskill quickly and at a relatively low cost, you may want to look into the boot camp programs in your area. Interested in what a real boot camp program’s curriculum might look like? Check out Berkeley Coding Boot Camp here.

3. Practice On Your Own

Don’t limit your software engineering knowledge to practice. If you genuinely want to become a software developer, try putting the skills you gained in class or via self-directed study to the test by embarking on independent projects!

The benefits of prioritizing independent projects are twofold. First, they help you reinforce the skills you’ve gained in class and turn your theoretical understanding of key concepts into practical knowledge.

Second, projects can hold a valuable place in your professional portfolio and prove to employers that you have the skills necessary to succeed in the roles you apply for. Building a strong portfolio is especially crucial for self-directed learners, who may not have the formal education or certifications that employers typically look to for proof of training.

Drawing a blank on where to start? We’ve got you covered. Below, we’ve listed a few resources that might help you get started.

4. Make Connections

It’s a universal, if not universally loved, truth: Networking is important.

No matter which field or specialty you find yourself working in, you will need to know how to network. It’s true, not everyone is enthusiastic about putting themselves out there at a business event or talking to total strangers at a conference — but that shyness doesn’t make the tasks any less important.

Networking is critical to career growth. By building connections with other professionals in the field, you can develop a greater understanding of your craft and what others are doing to improve it. You gain access to a talent pool that might provide a connection to your next job, inspire your next project or even workshop your current project.

But we get it; networking can be intimidating. Here are a few resources that might help you put yourself out there.

5. Start Job Hunting and Prepare for Interviews

Finally, you’ve done it: You’ve concluded your education, established yourself in coding communities and are ready to apply to your first industry job. You’ve plotted your own best path to become a software developer — and walked it.

…so, now what?

The first step you’ll need to take is to put together a fantastic packet of interview materials. Revamp your resume and polish your portfolio; make sure that you have a few stellar references lined up.

Then, start looking through job listings on platforms such as Indeed, Monster and ZipRecruiter, taking careful note of how role requirements align with your experience and capabilities. Don’t be afraid to put your name in for roles that you might see as a reach! Even if you don’t land the job, you’ll gain valuable interview experience and gain a greater understanding of how you can appeal to employers a little further down the line.

Who knows; the experience you gain interviewing for a reach job might be what propels you into your first position!

Here are a few resources that will help you prepare for the job search:

What Are You Waiting For?

Now that we’ve walked you through how to become a software developer, it’s up to you to take action. You have the drive, ability and opportunity to build a rewarding and challenging career in a high-potential field.

Are you going to act on that potential?

Don’t let “maybe” and “someday” hold you back from pursuing your dreams. Look into your educational options today to figure out how you can become a software engineer and kickstart your career.

 

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