How to secure a programming job after a long break?
March 1, 2005 8:36 PM   Subscribe

How to secure a programming job after a long break? Should I mention that when I left my last job, they tried to keep me with a massive salary increase?

I have a bachelor's degree in computer science. I worked as a programmer for about a year and then quit to go to grad school (in a completely different field). It is five years later and I would like to return to programming. Since I only have 1 year experience and since it was so long ago, I am seeking advice on how best to sell myself. When I decided to leave my job for grad school, my employer offered me a 22K increase in salary (from my starting pay of 38K). So they obviously really liked me. I now live in a different state, but have asked my former superiors to act as references (a couple of them said yes, although my former boss never replied). Should I mention the increased salary offer in my current job applications even though my references probabaly can't verify it? Also, any general advice on how to secure a job in this field given my particular situation would be appreciated. Thanks.
posted by crack to Work & Money (10 answers total)
Have you been programming on your own in the meantime? Created any cool applications? Participated in any open-source projects? Got any code samples you can show off? If you don't, get started right away. Being able to deliver the goods is one of the main things a potential employer is going to look for. This includes being up to speed on what the current in-demand practices, platforms, and languages are in the field you want to enter.

Don't hang on expecting the same salary that you got offered five years ago - you will most likely have to back up and pay some dues. On the other hand, don't come off as apologetic for your change of course - have a good story for why you want to return to this field, show some commitment by your words and your actions. You're probably competing for entry level jobs with entry level folks, but you have the advantage of the 5 extra years of maturity and transferable skills such as problem-solving and communication.

I got into this field late, with a couple of liberal arts degrees and a couple of stints in grad school behind me, and I seem to be doing OK.
posted by matildaben at 9:10 PM on March 1, 2005

I wouldn't mention the increased salary offer in your applications if I were you. You never actually earned that salary, and there's no way to verify it. If you get an interview and they ask you about why left your last programming job (and they will), then go ahead and mention it. But keep in mind that five years ago was during the dot-com boom, and every programmer's salary was inflated.

As for how to get a programming job with one year of experience five years ago, you've got your work cut out for you. You don't say what kind of programming you used to do, or what kind you'd like to do now. You also don't say where you live. All of these are significant factors that affect your ability to get a programming job.

Here's my advice: Take a class in something current, like Java or .NET or somesuch. That'll make you more appealing to employers because you'll have more current experience. I'm a software project leader, and I know I wouldn't hire someone even as a junior programmer who hadn't programmed professionally for five years, just because I can find people who've done it more recently. Grow your skills, and you can probably find an entry-level job. Just don't be surprised if it takes a couple of years before you're making the 60K you were offered before.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:12 PM on March 1, 2005

You may be surprised with salary levels for government positions related to what you are looking for. A position with the government may be easier to obtain and after a year or two, you will be up to speed and may have an easier time getting in with a company.

Also, try networking (people).
posted by quam at 9:44 PM on March 1, 2005

I've got to second the networking comment. Get in touch with your old CS buddies and find out what they're up to. This is by far the most useful way of getting your foot in any door at an entry-level stage.

While you're waiting to hear back from friends, start thinking about where you'd like to work. Look at the hiring ads companies put on their sites and see what skills you need to develop. If you decide you need to take more classes, as opposed to self-study, make sure it's taking you towards a job you'd actually enjoy, and do something interesting with your coursework---a project you can call your own and talk about passionately in any future interviews.

Before going to any interviews, read this article.
It's offering employers advice on how to handle interviews. It's just handy stuff to be thinking about when you're coming at it from the other side.

The salary you were making 5 years ago is pretty irrelevant to any position you are attempting to attain now. I'd put it out of your mind entirely.
posted by johnjoe at 2:54 AM on March 2, 2005

You may want to clarify in your cover letter. Something like "I left my programming job at XYZ to pursue a graduate degree in Pre-Renaissance Art. XYZ was very satisfied with my work." Since you'll be putting "Excellent references available" or something like it, on your resume, they'll be able to see that you weren't pushed out of programming. You may even want to say why you left programming to study another subject.
posted by theora55 at 10:20 AM on March 2, 2005

Ditto the advice that you go out and get yourself some current experience in a current environment you might like to work in. Some interviewers want to see code samples these days. Be warned that in these dot bust days, the market's highly competitive, and employers are frequently demanding very specific experience and getting it.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:44 AM on March 2, 2005

Don't just concentrate on spinning your skills and history; actually make sure you have up-to-date, cutting edge skills. If I'm interviewing someone for a job and they have decent skills from five years ago and a good story as to why they don't have relevant experience since, that's okay; but if they're up on what's hot lately, what's coming down the road and is just showing up on my radar, that's far better. Not because they *have* such skills -- I could care less about having trendy skills, a smart person can pick that stuff up easily -- but because it shows that you care about the field and are smart enough to determine the difference between what's genuinely useful and what's hype, curious enough to look into it, and motivated enough to learn something about it. If you are good, learning the basics a new language will take you a week, and getting familiar with a new API framework or development technique will take a few days; they'll be days well spent.

The skills will look good on a resume, and if an interviewee can talk intelligently to me about stuff I'm working with and maybe even tell me something I didn't know, chances are he'll nail the interview.

To prove the skills, interesting pet projects or open-source work is great. I wouldn't bother with certifications and classes, myself; to me a certification shows that you memorized enough to do okay on an exam, were motivated to do it so you could have a bullet point on your resume, and can only learn tech by having someone talk at you.

I agree with others that you needn't make a point of the salary; that won't prove anything about your worth to an intelligent interviewer. Bring it up if asked about salary history.
posted by SeanCier at 12:06 PM on March 2, 2005

Thanks all. Yah, I don't expect a great salary. I'll be happy with 30-35K. I just thought the salary offer given to me when I left might be telling of my value (as one of those types that can adapt, self-teach, communicate well, etc). But I'll let my references vouch for me.

I'd rather not have to take classes as I'm out of work right now. I would love to work on a pet project. Any tips on good places to check out on the internet to find out what's 'in'?
posted by crack at 1:35 PM on March 2, 2005

Sourceforge is an obvious place to look. But even better would be to scratch your own itch: what would you like to have that doesn't exist yet?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:55 PM on March 2, 2005

You didn't say what kind of a programming gig you're looking for (maybe because you don't know or care). If it's internet-related at all, you'd do best to know at least one well-regarded scripting language (Ruby, Perl or Python), something about XML, something about databases, a templating language (PHP, ASP, JSP) and one heavyweight OO language (C++, Java or C#).

If you're looking for a pet project, I'd suggest one that bundles several of these technologies, like something with a web-based front-end (e.g. PHP or ASP) and a back-end data store (XML, SQL).
posted by nev at 4:37 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

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