A Developer Career Doesn't Have to Be Linear

Tips for finding your unique path in your career development as a developer.

I found myself in a rut about 10 years ago. I’d been working as a developer already for some time and I wanted to move forward in my career. However, the only path that I could see was one from developer to team lead to development manager. There is nothing wrong with this path, but it wasn’t an appealing one to me.

The truth is, as I’ve since learned, that just as there is more than one way to become a developer, there are also multiple career paths open to you as your career develops. The key, for me, was to change my own mindset. In this post, I want to share what worked for me in the hopes that it might help those of you for whom the traditional career path for a developer also isn’t appealing.

Don’t Rely On Your Job to Teach You What You Want to Learn

There are certainly more engaging jobs out there, but the reality is a lot of us do work on little fragments, work that is often tedious and devoid of any kind of creativity. As a developer I’ve often had trouble figuring out if a job would be Snow Crashy or not, and been seduced by promises of engaging work only to find myself ferreting out bugs on some enterprise CMS. “I just don’t want to be a software developer anymore by Melissa McEwen

The reality is that, while a career as a developer is a great one and the work can often be exciting and challenging, the day-to-day of a traditional developer role can be tedious. Younger me thought this was a problem that my job should solve by offering me more interesting challenges and pushing me forward, and if it couldn’t then I needed to find the next job that could. However, the truth was that it was up to me, and realizing this was the biggest revelation for my career.

For instance, if there was some new tool or framework or type of development that I was interested in learning, I needed to find the time to learn it rather than wait for my employer to come up with a reason for me to do so. If you are learning the things you want to learn at work, all the better! But if you cannot, don’t let your job stop you.

If you are thinking, “I want to learn X but work won’t let me use it,” then find a way to learn it outside of work. This doesn’t mean you should live and breath code and spend all your free time on side projects, but it does mean that you shouldn’t let the needs of your current job limit you - follow your interests and make it happen!

Find Ways to Explore Your Creativity Beyond Code

While it is important to not let your job limit the skills you want to learn when it comes to coding, if you aren’t looking to follow a traditional career path, then it is important to explore your creative skills beyond just code. These can help illuminate a different path for you.

For example, I had always loved writing. My college studies were not even in computer science but in areas that focused heavily on writing skills. So I started writing for journals and blogging. Sure, my writing was about coding, but it was allowing me to explore skills and interests that I’d let atrophy somewhat. As it turned out, my alternative career path would be heavily focused on writing, so exploring this skill was the first step in opening up that path.

Whatever your interests are beyond code, explore them. You may think that they are too far unrelated to your job as a developer to be relevant, but you never know where they may lead. Coding skills are relevant in so many creative fields nowadays that you may be surprised what doors this opens up for you.

Don’t Take No For an Answer

This follows on the first two tips - don’t let yourself be limited. Some of the best things I have done in my career have been when I was told no. Following the things that I was passionate about was a key to changing my career path - and there was no better way to realize I was passionate about something than when someone told me it couldn’t be done.

For example, I really wanted to attend some developer conferences. My employer at the time didn’t cover attending conferences and I couldn’t afford to attend on my own (especially since I’d have to take vacation days to do so). I decided that, since I couldn’t leave to attend a conference, I’d start one! That conference sold out nearly all five years I ran it and, in fact, I eventually had to sell it because it helped lead to that career change that I was looking for all along (it still runs under a slightly different name, in fact).

That’s just one example, but I could list a number more. The point is to follow your passion and don’t let it be dictated by other people.

There Are a Lot of Paths You Can Follow!

What I’ve learned in the ten or so years since that rut I was in is that there are a ton of paths open beyond the traditional one - I just needed to broaden my horizons a bit. There are some more obvious paths such as developer relations, community management, product management, product marketing and even marketing. Many companies see developer skills as something useful beyond the straightforward developer roles.

There are also less obvious paths that many developers I’ve met have followed, often through paths involving entrepreneurship or even philanthropy (such as starting a non-profit). Honestly, the more developers I talk with, the more amazing stories I come across, and the more I realize that a developer career isn’t really like a path but more like a wide open field with countless destinations…I hope you find yours!