Advice to a School-Leaver Who Wants to Be a Programmer

Today I met with a former colleague’s son who is applying to Skype for a tester position. It turned out that he is still probably too early in his software development learning to work here but I ended up giving him some general advice hoping that it would help him focus on the right stuff when he goes off to study Computer Science at University.

  1. Learn to use the console / terminal, bash, vim / emacs, grep etc. This is absolutley essential and the sooner you become an expert the sooner you will achieve all of your programming goals.
  2. Install Virtualbox (https://www.virtualbox.org/) on your computer so you can use virtual machines with different OSes (e.g. Windows 7, Debian) This will allow you to test everything properly and will open up a whole world of opportunities.
  3. Try making a web site (HTML / CSS / Javascript) with a database that uses an MVC framework to solve a problem that you personally need to solve. Put the Database on a remote server and give it a REST API that allows it to be controlled from web clients.
    (e.g. in my case I made a site that is a showcase for recordings I made when I was working as a musician / sound engineer http://xoundboy.com). Learning web technologies will ensure that you are always able to find well paid jobs :)
  4. Collaborate with others on a Github community project. You can clone code from any public project and play around with it. Once you’ve improved it in some way you can ask the project owner to include your code in the project (Pull request). Through this you will meet other developers and make friends and most importantly learn how to communicate properly when creating software.
  5. Always write automated tests for any application code you write. Learn to write unit tests first, then functional tests and then end-to-end (integration) tests. Then learn how to add these automated tests to your build script so they always run every time you hit the build button. You won’t get a decent job without knowing how to do this!
  6. Learn almost everything here: http://stackoverflow.com – This website is pretty much the only resource you need to get online help.
  7. If you want to work for Microsoft, learn C#.NET and WindowsAzure
  8. Write a technology blog. Every time you solve a programming-related problem that was previously undocumented on the internet, give back to the community by writing a well thought out “How-to” and provide the documentation for others. The process of writing the blog will a) re-inforce your knowledge b) raise your online profile and c) become part of your portfolio that can be shown to potential employers in the future. (Here’s mine for an example, http://blog.xoundboy.com/ although I stopped writing regularly quite a while ago)