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Current situation: About five months ago I got a degree in something that has nothing to do with programming. Since then I have been intensively studying/working on programming projects the last five months.

(A) Do I continue working full time on projects progressing at a fast rate likely having finished decent enough projects to land a starter position/payed internship in 3 months or (B) do I get a job, almost surely one that has nothing to do with programming, merely so employers can see on my resumé that I did a job in between and significantly reduce my progress in programming?

I assume that HR interviewers from large companies would see my unemployment as a bad thing but on the other hand it's very unlikely I would even apply for a job for such company anyway because they almost always seem to require a related degree. But I am not sure how other employers would interpret the situation.

Btw, I am talking about the western european job market, not the american job market. Also, I have learned WAY more in those 5 months on my own than in those three years altogether in university college.

EDIT

I am actually convinced that the best step is to continue working full time on those projects because I think that there is a significant number of employers of small companies who can look past unemployment on my resumé as long as I can present them with projects I have worked on. But my father fears no employer will be able to look past the fact I have not done an actual job in that period, regardless if it programming related. I want to show my father this SO thread to convince him otherwise. So can any employers or employees of such employers please state if my father's suspicion is correct or not.

This has a great influence in my current living situation so it is important for him to understand that.

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closed as off topic by MainMa, thorsten müller, Thomas Owens Sep 20 '12 at 13:18

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By "Programming Projects" do you mean popular open-source software that you are a major contributor to? Could I go to the mailing list for these projects and see you working well with others? Or do you mean a game you are working on alone in secret? Every programmer has a game they work on in secret. Even if you somehow managed to get an interview, security procedures would prevent you from showing it to a potential employer. I've been a programmer for 20 years, hired and fired programmers and I would throw out a resume that had No Education, No Experience, and a Secret Game. –  GlenPeterson Sep 20 '12 at 13:22
    
It's no secret game, I made a python application that now has about 2000 downloads. Every programmer I have asked to check out the application(even some authors of major python libraries) was enthousiastic about the application. Admitted its scale is modest (about 500 lines) but it is an application every python user can use. I did not work together with anyone to make it though. –  user1685583 Sep 20 '12 at 14:01
    
I have no secret game... –  Rig Sep 20 '12 at 14:46
1  
Set up a personal website offering your services. Dig up a few small paid projects. Viola, you're not unemployed, you're a freelancer :-) –  GrandmasterB Sep 20 '12 at 18:36
    
2K downloads and 500 lines of code is a good start. Wouldn't you rather work on code that already has 200 million users and 50K lines of code, with experienced developers you can learn from and hang out with? I had forgotten that I worked as the shipping department at a music store and ended up taking a Mac home and programming a shipping calculator so salespeople could make instant quotes. That wasn't as good as programming all day though - I still had to ship stuff. :-) I'd still go straight for a programming job you'd want. You can always fall back on your dad or some generic job. –  GlenPeterson Sep 21 '12 at 13:10

3 Answers 3

What do you want to do? If you want (or need) the non-programming job, take it. Any employment experience can be valuable, particularly if it is something you can write software for (particularly banking, finance and insurance). If you want to focus on programming, do that. As long as you have something demonstrable or explainable (such as an internship), interviewers are not going to mind.

The key is that you are confident in explaining this. If the internship does not work out (hypothetically) and you find you do not want to be a programmer, say exactly that to the interviewer. Conversely, if an interviewer asks why you did not take the job, calmly explain the internship is what you wanted to do and supported your goal of becoming a programmer.

Do not worry too much about an "unrelated" degree, either. Yes, having a programming degree helps but a few years of development experience under your belt, a positive attitude and strong desires to work hard and learn will serve you just as well. Remember, once you get that interview, what you say and do has far more baring than any piece of paper.

[Edit: Added the following]

If you are concerned about getting the interview, work on areas outside employment. Write a programming blog. Contribute to open source. Answer Programmers SE questions. It is not a substitute for employment but will help.

Also get to know people. Attend conferences or user groups and network (with people (I have to clarify that on these sites sometimes)). Comment on blog posts you like. Follow people on twitter. Knowing the right people may get you an interview.

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Once you get that interview, what you say and do has far more baring than any piece of paper. I am not so much concerned for the interview itself, rather for the initial resumé screening procedure. –  user1685583 Sep 20 '12 at 12:22
    
@user1685583 Fair comment. I have added comments about getting an interview. In short, there is no magic formula but your degree is not the only thing that gets you the interview. –  akton Sep 20 '12 at 12:28

I am not an HR person. I am a "programmer of the line", though one of the most senior in my office. Generally I stay out of interviews because I seem to be useless in them unless the candidate is interesting, but my other co-workers tell me about promising candidates, things that went well, and things that went poorly. My suggestions here work more like an "ideal" than about what may be involved in reality. Finally, and this is important..., I can speak only to how I see American companies behave. Western European companies may be the same or they may differ. Disclaimers done.

If you need work (and let's face it, most of us at least need to get paid), then focus on the jobs you are qualified for and carve out time to do your programming separately. Most companies of any kind are not going to pay you much attention on programming jobs right now since you have little experience and no related degree.

If you are going the path to really excel in programming, then you are getting into an attention game. "Big Companies" as you call them will not even look at you because you lack the degree. In fact, most HR departments even at small companies will not look at you. You will have to get attention by talking to people and by showing off a significant body of work. Networking... the old-fashioned way and the way that some of us technical people don't do very well. It sounds like you are currently working on a body of work, so you could get attention in a variety of ways

  • have a variety of working software to demonstrate
  • have a journal of problems and solutions that you found while working on your software
  • be social, getting involved with various local programming groups, working with the people there, and learning how to both teach and learn from peers
  • join or build open source projects, and be a significant contributor to them
  • potentially start taking clients for programming jobs. Start with simple ones that you can knock out easily, build up a feel for where your skill lies and also start developing a reputation. Additionally, suddenly you are employed (and with a good potential employer, I imagine that successful self-employment looks pretty darned good on the resume).

I get the feeling that you can either have a body of work to show off or an impressive resume of places you have worked for. I've also noticed that some employers really pay attention if they can see that you stay at a job for a long while.

If I were looking for collaborators or employees, I would be more interested in hearing first about the projects that they have worked on, then about the details of what they themselves did, then about the process they used and the ultimate success or failure of the projects. Much less interested in hearing about your degree or about where you have worked, specifically because I frequently get stories from my co-workers about interviews gone wrong with people who supposedly have The Credentials.

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I've also noticed that some employers really pay attention if they can see that you stay at a job for a long while. That is also a major concern, if I would get a non-programming job now I would quit as soon as I finish projects that adequately show my skills in the required technologies. That means that I would probably not stay very long on that job, reducing my perceived loyalty for an employer. –  user1685583 Sep 20 '12 at 12:41
    
@user1685583: Speaking from an USA perspective, there is more lenience for leaving quickly on the first couple of years out of college. Learning what you like and don't should be part of that, as well as moving up if you excel and get the chance. That said, I'm not talking about 2 months and gone, but more like 6-12 months at a given job (as guidelines). This gets more strict as you gain more experience, and of course contractors are a whole different breed. –  Caleb Huitt - cjhuitt Sep 20 '12 at 16:43

Why can't you get a programming job? I dropped out of music school with no degree, got a conservative hair cut, bought a tailored, conservative business suit, had my resume professionally edited, and called up at least 100 programmer placement agencies on the phone after mailing them my resume. After maybe 20 interviews with headhunters, one had a position that required no experience. They gave me a test which I set a new high score on, and with my tasteful suit and respectful manner (and knowledge/ability), I aced the interviews as well. Not a great salary for a college graduate, but great for me! I was promoted regularly and rapidly because I did great work.

Maybe that's the beauty of the USA. Maybe the industry has changed. But surely businesses need great employees everywhere. At least in the USA, it's really hard to find them, and my experiences with ofshoring to India indicates it's even harder to find them there.

Brooks in the Mythical Man Month states that a great programmer is 10x more productive than an average one. If you're good, you have something that companies need badly. HR departments will match up buzzwords to the fact that you have the wrong degree and discount you without being able to tell whether you are a great programmer or not. But if you really apply yourself to finding a programming job, you can get past that.

I have since gotten a college degree and it definitely helped my career (50% raise within in one week!). I like where I am now, but if I ever change jobs I wish my degree was in CS because I think I would have more opportunities and an easier time getting a masters which could get me into a think tank.

Sitting around writing code for fun is just not that impressive on a resume. Hopefully it's at least part of an open-source project with other people. You are giving up a lot of potential income by not getting a job. The professional experience is really what helps you get other jobs. Might as well start getting that ASAP. Internship is another good path to employment if you can afford it.

Good luck!

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