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Seven steps towards becoming a professional developer

April 9th, 2011

When you first start learning to program, the best thing you can do is just write code, and lots of it. Coding is a muscle, and it needs to be exercised.

That’s just a start though. If you enjoy it, and it’s something you want to do professionally, then there are some essential practices that you need to learn, and make part of your routine.

This list is split into two parts. The first items are directly related to coding. They all take some time to setup and master, but once you’ve got to that stage you’ll get nothing but good out of them. Think of them as an investment in your future.

The second bit is about the world beyond coding, and they mostly involve interacting with real people. If that’s not a problem, then great, but if it is, you’re gonna have to get over it, because dealing with people is a surprisingly big part of this job.

Coding

  1. You need to be testing your code. You won’t get everything perfect the first time, so at some point you’ll need to refactor. And if you refactor without tests, “you’re not refactoring; you’re just changing shit”.

  2. Your code needs to be under version control. I use git, but there are plenty of other options. Code that’s not under some form of version control may as well not exist. And using something with easy branching like git makes it much easier to experiment with big changes to your code that might not work out.

  3. Learn to touch-type. It’ll take a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. If you’re serious about being a professional, then you’re going to be spending a lot of your time on a keyboard. Learn to use it properly. Steve Yegge wrote a great blog post on touch-typing. If you want to learn, I don’t know of anything better than GNU Typist.

Everything else

  1. Start a blog. Write about code you’ve written, problems you’ve solved, things you’re learning about. It’s not for anyone else, just you. The act of putting your thoughts into words forces your brain to look at issues from a different angle. There may come a point that people start finding your content and making use of it, so it’s worth making it public.

  2. Join Twitter. Find local developers and the big names in whatever languages you’re currently learning. Twitter’s like a global virtual watercooler. People talk a lot of shit, but some of the most important conversations happen there as well, as well as job offers, so if you’re not involved you could miss out.

  3. Use and participate in Stack Overflow. You can get a lot of useful guidance if you learn how to ask questions sensibly, and you can learn loads by answering questions as well. Also, once you’ve got a good amount of answered questions, Stack Overflow becomes a great showcase of your knowledge and writing.

  4. Find a local user group. Google for the name of your town or city, the name of a language you’re interested in, and ‘user group’ (in Ruby that would be "#{city_name} #{language} user group"). There’ll be something out there.

That all looks too much like hard work to me

If you’re just starting out, these lists may seem a bit daunting. You don’t need to do everything at once, but if you’re taking this seriously then at some point you should be doing them all.

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