Your Engineering Path

12 minutes, 3 links


Updated August 7, 2023

You’ve probably already put some thought into the engineering path you want to take. Perhaps you’re learning your first programming language, or you’ve found a framework you like and have built a few projects with it already. That’s great, because that’s the first step to choosing your engineering path.

The engineering path you follow will determine your journey to increasing technical mastery of one or more technologies of your choosing. The technologies you decide to learn early on in your career may seem inconsequential right now, but they will have a drastic impact on your career.

In some cases, the technologies you chose to focus on will dictate which companies and industries you’ll apply to when searching for a job. On the other hand, if you’ve already landed a job, you’ll want to do as much as possible to become an expert in the technologies your company has invested in.

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of those scenarios.

Choosing Technologies to Specialize In

Programmers have a natural tendency to seek out roles that require skills similar to what they already possess. Part of this is because interviewing is hard, so people tend to want to interview in a language or technology they are comfortable and confident with. Because of this, candidates will research and apply to companies that work with technologies similar to ones they are familiar with. So, while it may not be obvious, the technologies you choose to learn early in your career will determine which companies and industries are within reach when it comes to searching for a new role.

controversy Whether companies should filter candidates based on their experience in a specific language, like JavaScript or Rust, is a controversial subject. Good programmers can, of course, learn new languages. But the practical reality is that many businesses have limited time and resources when it comes to hiring and onboarding new employees. They can’t afford to spend more than a few weeks or months getting a new hire up to speed, so they tend to recruit programmers that are experienced in specific technologies the company has invested in.

If a company’s product is built on a codebase consisting of Python code, for example, they’re more likely to consider candidates with strong Python skills over people with no Python experience at all. Taking the example further, if the company utilizes a specific framework or library such as Django or TensorFlow, they will naturally seek out programmers who are familiar with these technologies. The more a new hire is required to learn during onboarding, the longer it will be until they can start to provide real value, so it’s more cost-effective for companies to hire candidates who already possess the team’s desired skills, rather than hiring someone and teaching them those skills.

Most companies tend to be more lenient when it comes to frameworks versus languages, because frameworks are easier to learn if a new hire is already familiar with the underlying programming language. At that point, it becomes a matter of learning the different APIs of the framework, which is arguably easier than learning the semantics of a new programming language in addition to those APIs.

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Which brings us back to what we talked about earlier—that it’s easier to land interviews and get offers at companies seeking experience with technologies you’re familiar with. While it’s still possible to find companies willing to hire candidates with no prior experience in the needed programming language, those companies can be difficult to find.

However, as a junior programmer, you are presented with a unique opportunity, because there are companies that are willing to hire candidates in the early stages of their career even if they don’t have any prior experience with specific technologies. These companies tend to be established enterprises with the budget and resources to invest in their employees over a longer timeline. They tend to operate in niche industries or ones with high barriers to entry, so they can afford to spend a year onboarding a new programmer. Some industries, such as aerospace, healthcare, energy, and many others, may take years to get up to speed in, so those companies are willing to invest in their new hires and teach them everything they need to know.

Startups and small businesses, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of large budgets and longer timelines that established corporations can afford. Startups naturally need to move quickly as they seek to validate and scale their business model, so they tend to focus their hiring on candidates that have the specific skills they need. Smaller companies need new hires to add value as fast as possible, so it may be harder to land an interview at a startup if you don’t have experience with a specific technology.

So, how do you go about choosing which technologies to specialize in? There’s no easy answer to that question because everyone’s situation is unique, but I’ll try to give some advice that will help you decide.

First, think about the languages and frameworks you’re already familiar with. Are you comfortable enough that you feel you could interview for a role in that language? Try solving some practice problems on HackerRank or LeetCode to gauge how ready you are. If you feel like you’re prepared enough to solve interview questions on the spot, then you’re ready to start applying for roles.

Start searching on LinkedIn or other job boards for companies that are looking for programmers with experience in your language. You may even be able to get your foot in the door for interviews with startups and smaller companies that need to hire programmers with your specific skill set.

If you don’t think you’re ready to interview with a specific language yet, that’s okay. That just means you’ll need to keep practicing and learn the language until you feel you’re comfortable enough to interview. You’re not completely out of luck though, because you can still look for larger enterprise companies that are willing to hire smart candidates without any prior experience with a language or technology. These companies tend to hire based on your potential rather than how well you know a specific skill or algorithm.

Now, let’s look at what you should consider once you’ve landed a role and are invested in a specific technology.

Mastering a Technology

Getting hired for your first programming job is one of the biggest hurdles of your career. The next step is to focus on mastering the languages your team uses as best you can.

Unfortunately, you may not have much of a choice when it comes to choosing which programming languages and technologies you will work with. The decision was probably made for you by other programmers who built the company’s systems before you joined. Even if you’re familiar with the programming language they chose, it’s possible they built the system using a framework or library that you’ve never used before.

Like it or not, your ability to succeed is dependent on how well you know the technologies that your team uses. As you’ll learn in the next section, your technical mastery of these tools can actually have an effect on whether or not you get promoted to a role with increased responsibility.

As you gain more experience and work on larger projects, you’ll need to understand the technologies you work with at a deeper level in order to design and scale solutions to meet the business’ needs. You can’t pick the right tool for the job if you don’t have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each technology you’re working with.

So, what are some ways in which you can master the technologies you work with?

The most obvious resource that you can leverage is right in front of you—your coworkers. They are likely the ones who have written large portions of the codebase you’re working in, which means you can lean on them to learn the best practices and core concepts.

Most programmers need some help early in their career as they make the transition from learning how to program to learning how to solve complex problems through code. It’s a small but important difference that requires a different way of thinking about problems. You’ve learned how to use the foundational concepts of your language to build programs, but now you need to learn how to break down a problem and construct a solution using the building blocks available to you.

This transition can be difficult if you try to do it entirely on your own, so it’s best to try and leverage the experience and knowledge of your coworkers as much as you can early in your career. Read their code, review their pull requests, and ask questions about how they come up with their solutions. There’s a lot that you can learn from reading code and asking the right questions, so we’ll cover those topics in depth in later sections.

With the help of your coworkers, you’ll be on a good path to mastering your first programming language. Early in your career, it’s important to stay focused and get really comfortable with the language you’re using. Don’t worry too much about learning other languages at this stage in your career. Your priority should be to get really good at one language, because you’ll always be able to fall back on that as your foundation. Assuming you chose a language that has a large community and is used by many companies, you’ll have job security because you’ll always be able to find work at companies looking for your skill set.

It usually takes a few years to reach an advanced level with a programming language. Once you approach this point, you have to start thinking about where you want to go in your career. One decision you’ll have to make is whether to take a generalized approach with your skill set or a specialized one.

Let’s take a look at both of these options.

Generalist vs. Specialist

At some point, you’ll need to decide whether you want to branch out and learn additional languages and technologies, or double down and become an expert in one or two specific ones. Programmers can be successful in either path, so it mainly comes down to personal preference and some careful consideration about where you want to take your career.

Let’s look at each path in detail.

Going Broad

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