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What career path options are there for a developer?

23 Feb 2022

Hays’ David Brown explores three roads a developer can take in their career, what these options look like and how to succeed in them.

Be honest. Have you ever really thought about where you want to be in five years’ time? Are you worried your development career might be going down a road that you know probably isn’t right for you? If so, it’s important to take control now.

First up – don’t panic. As a developer in today’s market, you’re in an amazing position. Thanks to the widening digital skills gap, professionals with your technical and non-technical expertise are more in demand than ever before.

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But when you’re in demand, you have choices – which can be both confusing and overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to decide what direction to take your career in.

To focus your thinking, it helps to understand that there are broadly three career paths that developers typically follow:

  1. The future chief information officer (CIO), or leadership/managerial position
  2. The coding chameleon, or a professional who chooses to specialise in a particular technical field
  3. The ‘entreprogrammer’, or a professional who decides to branch out as a contractor

As a first step, I would strongly recommend you consider each of these key options and make a decision in your mind in terms of which route suits you best.

The future CIO

Do you have your sights firmly set on one day becoming a CIO – a hugely influential, senior IT professional whose sole responsibility it is to drive forward business growth through technology and continuous innovation?

If so, making this become a reality will require a great deal of planning, determination and perseverance. Here are a few things to consider, which should help you come to a decision.

You’ll have less time to code

When considering whether this option is exactly right for you, I’d strongly recommend that you reflect on how important coding really is to you.

As a CIO, or even a professional in a managerial position, you’ll have far less time to actually write code. So think about whether or not your heart lies in coding. If it does, this could be a deal breaker for you.

You’ll need a combination of business acumen, soft and technical skills

Like any executive position, the CIO is concerned with strategy, influence and collaboration. If you’re blessed with business acumen, strong soft skills and an unrivalled technical understanding, then this could be the right career path for you.

The first steps to becoming a CIO

Build a solid technical foundation. You need the right educational credentials (including a degree and additional IT qualifications) and technical experience to work as a CIO. There is no exact science here. While almost half of current CIOs have always worked in IT, the rest started out in another role before spending most of their time in IT.

Develop your soft skills. This is a big area – according to the Hays DNA of a CIO report, soft skills are considered more important than technical skills.

People skills are key. The best CIOs are passionate about encouraging the people they work with. If you know you are a team player, then build this crucial attribute. The internet is awash with soft skills training. Set your mind to it and you will find a short online course or a more extensive training programme that suits you.

Focus on your ongoing professional development. This should include attending networking events, keeping up to date with industry changes and completing technical training.

Click here to check out more on the Hays Technology blog.

The coding chameleon

If you’re happiest knee-deep in code and are always obsessively on the lookout for the next big development trend, then you may want to focus on building your technical experience. For the majority of developers, this typically tends to be the path they choose.

In fact, according to a Stack Overflow report, more than half of the respondents said they want to be in the same or a different technical role in the future, while one-third of developers want to work in a different or more specialised technical role in the next five years. These roles include DevOps specialists, data scientists, engineering managers and machine learning experts.

So, if you think this path might be for you, I’ve provided a few considerations below, which should help you come to a decision.

You’ll need to be committed to staying up to date

Becoming a software developer is a moving target. While the daily tasks of architectural design, code writing, software testing and bug fixing remain constant, the tech market is in a constant state of flux and you will need to stay bang up to date to satisfy demand. It is always more about pleasing the end user than indulging in tech-led fantasy.

You’ll need to be consistently using both formal and informal learning, swotting up on the best programming languages, practising how to structure code, understanding algorithms, mastering platform development, as well as developing, testing and debugging in order to ensure your skills are relevant and are those which are most in demand.

But it’s not just your tech skills you’ll need to be committed to improving – it’s your soft skills too, particularly around communication. As a coding chameleon, you’ll need to be adept at explaining your work to others in a way that they can understand.

You won’t necessarily spend all day coding

It’s important to be realistic here. Depending on where you work, you won’t necessarily spend all day coding. This is particularly true if you work for a larger organisation. Life being what it is, you will need to attend your fair share of meetings, interacting with clients and mentoring juniors.

The financial benefits could be more than you were expecting

By choosing this career path, you won’t lose out financially as expertise in some technical fields is valued highly.

For example, the Stack Overflow report reveals developers using languages such as Go, Clojure and F# are paid more than those with the equivalent level of experience in languages like Cobot, PHP and Visual Basic 6.

The first steps to becoming a coding chameleon

If you’ve decided that this is the right path for you, you must start now by building your knowledge in one technical specialism across multiple industries and projects to give you a broad range of experience. There are different ways to achieve this.

Develop your knowledge and experience with external learning opportunities, including courses and hackathons.

Practise across different development environments, maintaining a strong interest in your industry so your skills remain relevant.

Make a lateral move to another department to build your experience with different teams.

Consider technical contracting to work on projects that will help build your technical skillset.

The ‘entreprogrammer’

Do you think it might be time to leave the world of permanent employment and start your own business? IT contracting enables you to take greater control over the projects you work on and, because you become responsible for your own learning and development, how your skills progress.

While there are some amazing positives to contracting, it’s important to realise that this career path isn’t for everyone. So, here are a few things to consider.

You’ll actually be running your own business

One of the huge perks of contracting is that you’ll have the freedom to choose projects that appeal to you, work with people you like and avoid office politics. If you want to take an extended holiday between contracts then, assuming you can afford it, that’s your choice.

However, despite such flexibility, you would be running your own business and with that comes additional responsibilities and risks that you just don’t have to deal with as an employee.

You’ll have to market and sell yourself – your ‘product’ – to generate new contracts, account manage your clients, handle your own financial affairs (or find someone to do it on your behalf) and there’s no guaranteed wage, next contract or even getting paid.

Therefore, you’ll need to be highly self-motivated, adaptable and organised in order to find work and maintain momentum with day-to-day work.

While you won’t have a traditional boss, you do have to manage client expectations and will need self-discipline and commitment to your work. A huge part of this comes down to the strength of your people skills and indeed your own self-belief.

You won’t always feel like part of the team

This can be a hard adjustment for some to make, especially if you’ve previously been in permanent roles and part of a tight-knit team.

As a contractor, you’ll find that your relationships with your co-workers will change – so it’s important that you’re able to hit the ground running from day one and are willing to work hard to build and maintain strong relationships.

So, while contractors typically build solid networks and connections from project to project, would you feel happier to continue to be a permanent member of a team?

 The first steps to becoming an entreprogrammer

Is there demand for your expertise? Establish that there’s a market for your skills and expertise – you need to be certain there’s a large pool of clients out there who are looking to hire for your skills. Try searching on job boards and recruitment websites and speak to a recruiter who can provide their expert perspective.

Proactively upskill in areas you are lacking. Will your role still be hot in two years’ time or are there other skills you need to pick up to make sure you stay ahead of the curve? Continual investment in training is critical to being a successful IT contractor.

Look into setting up your own legal entity. All things considered, most contractors choose to set themselves up similarly to a ‘limited company’ model, as this usually gives them a number of tax benefits. You will need to register your company with the relevant national agency and provide information, such as your company name, address, director(s), shares and shareholder(s) etc.

You will also need to act as an independent company, even when using a recruiter, and market yourself appropriately, ie, creating your own website to promote your services and updating your LinkedIn profile accordingly.

What next?

I hope the above has helped you to crystallise in your mind which career path really is right for you. This is often the hardest decision of the entire career planning process – but do always remember that there’s no right or wrong career path for a developer.

If you don’t enjoy a certain path, you can do something else. Nothing is set in stone if you take a proactive approach to your working life – just don’t waste years journeying aimlessly throughout your development career without a plan.

By David Brown

David Brown is the CEO of Hays US. A version of this article previously appeared on the Hays Technology blog.

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