One of the most common dilemmas beginners face in the tech industry is the question of how to get experience. Even entry-level job listings in tech often require 1–2 years of work history in the field. It’s a classic catch-22, where you need experience to get experience.
In some industries, it’s still common to be expected to “pay your dues” in an unpaid internship, or even take on non-paying projects while you’re just starting out.
You don’t have to do either of those to get your first job in tech. That’s because there are a lot of other ways to get the practice you need to get hired in a full-time job in tech.
It’s important to keep in mind that what counts as “experience” can vary widely depending on who you’re hoping to work for. According to Skillcrush Director of Operations Caro Griffin,
At Skillcrush, we don’t use years of experience requirements [for hiring] because they’re vague and nonspecific. People gain experience at different rates and in different positions. Good hiring managers are going to overlook that you haven’t worked full-time as a developer for two years, for example, if you have a strong portfolio and the skills that they need.
How exactly do you build up that portfolio of experience as a total beginner? In this post, I’m covering some of the best ways you can get experience in tech (without taking on non-paying clients).
1. Start freelancing
The number one way I (and all of us here at Skillcrush) recommend getting the experience you need to get a full-time job is to start freelancing. Even if you are new to the world of tech and still doing coursework, you can charge for your freelance services. That means that you can effectively get paid to practice using your technical skills.
Once you’ve learned some of the most fundamental technical skills, like HTML & CSS, you have the skillset to work on projects that can seriously impact a client’s business. Things like: building a simple website or debugging a malfunctioning Squarespace site for example. Even if these feel like “beginner” projects and skills in the tech world, they are still valuable to people and businesses that need technical help. And you can quickly graduate from smaller, simpler projects to more robust client work as you get comfortable and learn.
In fact, it’s a pattern that many Skillcrush students follow, and some like the flexibility of freelancing even more than full-time work. Sarah Greer is a great example of that. She started freelancing while still taking coding courses, and before long she had a thriving web development business. Now she takes client work while also homeschooling her four children, working when it fits her schedule and taking the clients she’s excited to work with.
When applying to jobs, you can refer to your freelance clients and projects to show that you have meaningful experience in tech.
All of that said, there are plenty of other ways besides (and in addition to) freelancing for you to practice using your tech skills and get meaningful experience in the industry — which we’ll cover in this article.
2. Build your own website
If you’ve started freelancing, it’s important to show off those projects in a portfolio site you can share with clients. But your personal website isn’t just about featuring work samples! It’s easy to forget that your portfolio site is itself an example of what you can do.
In fact, your website is the perfect place to get experience building new things and practicing your skills. It’s usually the first thing that future employers or clients see, so it should be one of the best examples of your work.
We’ve put together an ultimate guide to making an impressive portfolio with guidance on exactly what to include on your portfolio website. But how can you use your website for getting experience, not just showing it off? The best way is to use your site as a playground for trying out important skills you’ll need in the job you want.
If you’re hoping to get into front-end development, make your static HTML and CSS portfolio into a responsive one with Flexbox and media queries. Or, if you’re looking for a position in design, pick an eye-catching palette or font pairing that shows your eye for style.
A great thing about using your own site as a way to build your experience is that you’re the boss. Caro points out that your portfolio website might be one of the only projects where you’re not limited by coursework requirements, the demands and tastes of a client, or a company’s needs.
3. Get experience in tech by doing coursework
If you’ve taken courses to learn coding, design, or other technical skills, you’ve probably already got more experience than you think. The exercises and projects from your classes definitely count — you just need to figure out how to frame it as experience on your resume, your LinkedIn profile, and your website.
Here at Skillcrush, all our courses include work that’s equivalent to what developers, designers, and digital marketers do in “real life” (and that’s something you should look out for when considering an online bootcamp or course). That means class projects are ideal for including in your portfolio.
Share milestone or final course projects in your portfolio, and discuss them with interviewers. Don’t shy away from also including major exercises from your class or breaking down projects into different parts. For example, if you did a UX project, you could showcase everything from your user research and user personas to your wireframe and prototype.
Make sure you’re ready to talk through your projects before going into interviews, and include this information in your portfolio:
- A description of the work (like “sales landing page design” or “content marketing calendar”)
- Link to the site or app itself, or a page with more details about the project
- Screenshots that allow you to click through to show preferably can be clicked to see your work in more detail, or go to the actual site, app, or details page
- The tools and technologies you used to build or create the work
- The requirements for the work and how you met them
- An explanation of your planning and/or work process, if relevant
- The course and program where you did the work (and a link to the course syllabus or website?
4. Dive into passion projects
When I talk to Skillcrush students looking to get more experience with tech skills, a passion project is one of my favorite things to recommend. If you haven’t heard of a “passion project” before, it’s just work you do because you’re excited about it. A passion project could be a way to support a cause you care about, or just an opportunity to play around with a tech tool or programming language you love.
A passion project doesn’t just help you get tech experience, it’s also a way to help potential employers understand more about who you are. Caro says, “A passion project shows me what your interests are, helps build your online presence, and makes you memorable. And that’s what you want because then you stick in my brain as a hiring manager.”
5. Contribute to open source projects
Open source projects are an important phenomenon in the tech community. Open source projects are publicly shared online and openly available for anyone to view and use, meaning that designers and developers from all experience levels and walks of life can contribute. Typically, anyone can make changes to the code through a review process.
There are some well-known applications that have originated from open source work, such as WordPress.org and the Firefox browser. Beyond that, thousands of other open source projects are designed, coded, and maintained by people around the world. And many open source projects support not-for-profit causes — meaning you can often help with something that is genuinely meaningful to you.
Investing your energy into open source projects benefits the whole industry, too. Skillcrush CEO Adda Birnir says, “Contributing to open source tools is really about giving back to the tech community and paying it forward, I believe it’s a part of the social contract of being a member of the tech community.”
Contributing to an open source project is a terrific way for you to get valuable professional experience both using your tech skills and collaborating with others, including industry professionals like the ones you’ll be working with in your tech career.
Adda adds, “Working on open source projects is good for you because it allows you to gain real-world tech work experience, grow your network, and build up your GitHub profile — all things employers love to see.” Many open source projects are hosted on GitHub, a very popular version control system. You can search GitHub’s resource on choosing and contributing to your first open source project, or use a tool like CodeTriage to find open source projects that are right for you.
6. Participate in a hackathon
Hackathons are events where developers, designers, and other tech professionals get together for anywhere from a few hours to a day or two to come up with apps or software that focus on a certain them or solve a specific problem. Of course, all in-person events have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, even tech. But many have gone online and are still looking for participants.
The work you do at hackathons can be included in your portfolio, your resume, and your LinkedIn profile. Just include a mention of what your individual role and contribution was.
Hackathons are another great opportunity to put your skills into action — plus network with others in tech and come up with solutions to local, national, or even global issues.
But… take the time to find a hackathon where you’ll feel comfortable. Unfortunately, hackathons have had a history of being dominated by men, and sometimes being unwelcoming to women and other underrepresented groups. Awareness of this has brought about changes, but there is still a lot of work to be done to make them safe spaces for all participants.
You may be able to narrow down your search by finding niche hackathons too, like these:
Before signing up for any hackathon, read reviews of past events with that organization, check Twitter for any mentions (both praise and complaints), and look for a code of conduct setting the values and expectations for the event.
If you do participate in a hackathon, it’s not just about the skills and relationships you build. You can also share what you worked on in your portfolio and discuss it in interviews.
7. Create spec work
Another way to get experience is to take on spec work, or speculative work. Creating something “on spec” just means you design or code a project even though a client or company hasn’t agreed to accept or pay you for the work.
But you can also do spec work as part of an organized competition, similar to a hackathon. This can happen when a potential client or company asks designers to submit work and then picks one of them to actually do the project. Sometimes they’ll offer a prize or payment, but sometimes it doesn’t pay at all, and is just about adding an impressive project to your portfolio.
Even if you don’t get a reward or new client out of the deal, spec work can be an opportunity for you to develop your skills and bolster your portfolio. That said, you should think carefully before doing spec work. Many designers and design groups feel spec work can put you at risk for being undervalued and makes it easy for your work to be used unfairly.
8. Do recreated or mock work
Spec work usually means you are hoping that a company or client will notice your work and actually hire you. But you can also get this kind of experience on your own through recreated or mock work.
Recreated work is when you try to replicate the code or design for a site or app that already exists. Mock work is creating something you think would work well for an existing company or an imaginary one (even if you don’t actually plan on pitching it to them). That could involve building a page that looks just like the one for Apple’s newest product, or doing your own take on how Slack should have designed their new logo.
Replicating work you admire or coming up with work for an imaginary customer can be an eye-catching and interesting way to show your skills. If you’re stuck for ideas for recreated or mock work, you can try:
- Recreating a well-known web page, like one of my first projects duplicating the Google search page (just be sure you credit the original work and explain yours is a recreation on your portfolio and anywhere else you feature it)
- Building a web page for your dream client
- Recreating a sales email you think is beautiful to show you can create work that’s as eye-catching
- Re-doing a sales email you think is unattractive to show you can make it better — and include “before” and “after” screenshots in your portfolio as proof!
Creating a social media marketing campaign for a local business you love that doesn’t have an online presence yet.
For many of these projects, it might be worth sharing your mock work with the company you designed it for. There’s always a possibility they’ll love it and want to work with you.
Whether you pitch companies or not, recreated and mock work gives you the opportunity to improve your skills and fill your portfolio with more projects.
These are a handful of ways to get experience in tech while you’re looking for your first job in the industry. You don’t need to check all (or any) of these off to start applying for jobs, but giving some of these options a try will help you practice, meet others in the industry, and gain the confidence you need.
She was both one of the first Skillcrush students and one of the first Skillcrush team members, starting as our customer support manager and now serving as our Operations (aka HR) Manager, a writer for our blog, and a career counselor.
This was written by Kelli Smith and originated on Skillcrush