Straight outta Uni: Interviews

I’m looking to share things I’ve faced personally or seen as part of regularly interviewing candidates – to give the best possible start to new people joining the web development industry.

It’s graduation season here in Dundee and I’m seeing a lot of new candidates dressed up in their gowns facing the winter weather. Bristling with enthusiasm, many of these candidates are on the look out for their new role in their chosen industry.

“In the last five years, the PHP ecosystem has improved dramatically. So much to the point that it barely resembles its former self. Yes, today, PHP is a joy to use. Sure, it has its quirks, but so does every language.”

Universities are slow at delivering changes to their curriculum and in my experience help shape two key things: your desire to learn, and the fundamentals to move forward. It’s a massive shift from high school, where your expectations are clearly defined.

As the curriculum can be aged, there’s cases where what you’re learning may not include any of the systems or tools you may use day-to-day. Often junior candidates have not heard of Composer, Laravel, Symfony, Drupal, or even WordPress – despite its strong use in the PHP ecosystem.

Expectations vs. Reality

At uni, it’s not just about the work in front of you. You need to apply and use it to move forward. Fundamentals will be there, but it’s up to you to understand these and apply them in practice.

You will be given projects throughout your university career. Some will be solo projects, and some you will work as a team. The problem comes from this experience being the only experience you have to show when it comes to sending in your CV.

Applying your learning to other projects shows prospective employers that you can learn self-sufficiently, and are exited to use the skills you’re learning.

I made a lot of small things when I was in uni, which showed skills I’d later use today. A few examples:

  • I built small websites for friends and family, testing my HTML/CSS skills. I later built that into a freelance business, giving me a little more income at uni – learning WordPress along the way.
  • I learned how to work with APIs, first to make an ‘Is it t-shirt weather’ page (similar to – which used location data and weather APIs.
  • I made extensions for an up-and-coming social network, Plurk, which taught me how to handle logins and encryption, scheduled tasks, and working with larger amounts of data.

Stepping Up

When I’m reviewing a junior developer I’m looking at their mindset rather than their experience. Have they shown that they have a can-do mindset, and a strong ability to learn? If so, we can help them move things forward. If a candidate has done little to show self-learning, then this can look unfavourably.

What could set me apart?

  • Show a learning mindset by showing what other work you’ve done out-with of coursework.
  • Be aware of the necessary skills, especially in PHP, as universities will be behind. There will be tools we use daily, such as Composer, you may not be aware of at all. I always recommend PHP The Right Way or Laracasts to provide a step up.
  • Share what you’ve done in your CV – if you don’t tell us, we won’t know!
  • Attend a few local meetups. There you can meet practitioners, and often learn – with talks often aimed at all levels. In some cases, conferences sell discounted tickets (let us know if you attend!).

Edit 2020-06-13: I never did end up making this a series, so removing reference to that. Maybe sometime in the future!

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