From College to Work: How to Build an Online Advantage and Ace Your First Tech Job Interview

From College to Work: How to Build an Online Advantage and Ace Your First Tech Job Interview

(Or: How a Grumpy Old-Timer can help you get a cool job)

Note: This is an updated version of a post I wrote in 2018, after two days of interviewing people – some references were updated, and the tone changed, but the main idea is here

So, what you feared the most has happened: you’ve become “the computer person” in your family, inevitably nudging you towards a tech-related major in college. Perhaps you have that one relative always hinting to your parents how programming/robotics/internet/ is “the future”. Or, even more daunting: you genuinely love the field.

And, after navigating through entrance exams and trying to get into a college that fits your (or your parents’) budget, comes the most challenging part of your academic journey: the INTERNSHIP, or even worse, your FIRST JOB IN THE FIELD.

Being young, full of energy, and brimming with hormones, you probably believe you deserve a job. You see the internship as just a college requirement, envisioning your job interview lasting only five minutes before you’re hired and revolutionizing the company culture on day one. You’re incredible; the world just needs to catch up.

However, you soon discover that the soulless-corporate-capitalist world doesn’t care about your passion, but about what you can do and how you can make them get more money. And, well, you don’t have any experience in your resume. So, you stuff your resume with things you’ve learned (or will learn) in college, making just a bunch of weirdly placed keywords.

Then comes the first rejection. Then the second. And the third. People inquire about your skills, and you’re perplexed about how to demonstrate your experience without ever having the chance to gain real-world experience. Initially, you might think, “Maybe it’s not me; maybe the companies just don’t recognize how proactive, diligent, and capable I am, as I clearly stated in my cover letter after an IT coach on TikTok told me to do so.”

After participating in recruitment processes as a recruiter and reviewing numerous resumes and interviews, I regret to inform you that yes, the issue is most likely you. Well, not you per se, but maybe your attitude toward technology and academic knowledge.

its a me!

You may be missing out on several opportunities to stand out in the job market, relying too heavily on your college education in a field that, frankly, doesn’t depend much on higher education for knowledge acquisition. What I genuinely missed when I interviewed people were resumes and individuals in interviews who presented something beyond “I’m in college, I learn what the professor teaches, I’m seeking an opportunity here because the internship is mandatory.” Or hearing that “the college I went to is bad, so I didn’t learn X properly” or “I wanted to learn X, but couldn’t pay for a good course”.

With this in mind, I’ve compiled some tips (or guidelines, if you prefer) to help you stand out. These are based more on personal experience than on books or coaching courses, so take them as… tips, maybe? 🤔

Remember, what worked for me might not work for you, I’m not a coach, and I don’t plan to sell courses. But trust me: these tips can significantly impact your career start and professional growth.

star wars

BUT FIRST: How I did it

I secured my first official job the same day I started college, without ever taking a formal computer course. And I was a computer instructor before that. “How?” you might ask. That’s because early on, I realized that the tech field brims with learning opportunities. At that time, I didn’t even have internet access, let alone my parents could afford courses, but I had access to a computer and the college books my sister brought home. Amid some pre-installed games (here comes the age alert) in the PC’s MULTIMEDIA KIT, I took the chance to explore what else I could do with a computer and how I could create something from it.

My first program was on an MSX, simply by reading the BASIC manual that came with the computer. My first webpage emerged in 1997, as soon as we connected our old Pentium 100 to the internet, and I discovered, “WOW, I CAN HAVE MY WEBPAGE ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB.” The first time I decided to understand and fix a computer was when Windows 95 crashed, the PC was sent to the shop, and the guy formatted everything without backing up, causing me to lose all my files.

This (and a pinch of networking, let me add) first got me involved with PCs at school, then landed me a gig teaching DOS/Windows/Office to underprivileged kids. This was a time in my life when fixing Windows was cool, programming in Visual Basic and Delphi was fun, and even working on the software that would be my sister’s thesis project was somewhat enjoyable. But let’s be honest, it wasn’t everything. The World Wide Web was maturing, the first bubble hadn’t even popped, and Open Source Software had developed just enough to give birth to numerous projects that would become the foundation of what we now know as the INTERNET. I had a huge field to explore.

Tip 1: Listing Your Knowledge on Paper is Fine, But Online is Even Better

Remember this tip, print this tip, and sleep hugging this tip. We’ll revisit this shortly. In summary: make the most of the internet.

Tip 2: Learning Isn’t Just About Attending College:

My experience creating anime sites using HTML/JS/PHP gave me the knowledge to ace a job interview without a single formal course under my belt. All this took place 20 years ago, in an era where you had to stay up until midnight to connect to the internet without facing a beating as soon as the phone bill arrived. Imagine the plethora of things you can do today without spending a dime, just by having wi-fi access on your phone.

Is Linux knowledge required in your field? Installing a distro has never been easier. You don’t even need to know how to format your device; you can test a Linux installation within minutes using a virtual machine like VirtualBox.

Interested in learning Python/NodeJS/PHP? There are countless ways to install and code in your preferred language, even online.

Are you a woman and family/friends aren’t eager to help you with your career choice? In major cities, it’s increasingly common to find groups of women teaching programming, robotics, design, and other skills in person. Even if you live in a remote area, access to the internet allows you to join various groups eager to help.

There are countless free online courses for various IT fields, numerous services that let you create websites in minutes, and an infinite number of sites offering content you’ll probably never see in college.

(Heck, I’m writing this lengthy text on a free platform right now. Imagine how many others are doing the same at this very moment, just waiting for you to read).

And please, I’m not suggesting you drop out of college or that in-person courses aren’t important. But stop thinking you can only learn something formally, in a classroom.

Tip 3: Plenty of Opportunities Out There to Beef Up Your Resume

What I often heard in interviews when I mentioned a candidate’s lack of industry experience is that “there are no opportunities, and the college doesn’t offer anything practical in this area.” Well, let’s assume you’re not living in the 19XXs (or under similar conditions) and have decent internet access. Remember tip 1? It’s time to put it into practice!

Do you know the coolest thing about Open Source Software, besides the fact that you can use it for free? It’s the best platform not only for learning but also for making your name known across various projects!

My first real project involving PHP+MySQL used PHP-Nuke, a proto-CMS from the early 2000s. But I didn’t just want to download a layout and use it as is; I wanted MY layout. And I didn’t just want to download a bunch of plugins, I wanted to create MY plugins and release them to the world. Even as a beginner in PHP, that was possible. And to this day, my name is linked to PHP-Nuke. My first theme created for the CMS is still available through a simple Google search (though on a Russian domain, so proceed with caution). I remember participating in the development of various plugins, some of which were still available until 2018 (I’m too lazy to search for them again six years later 🤷🏽‍♂️).

But it didn’t stop there. Even while working, I continued to seek more knowledge, beyond what college offered. In the KDE community, I learned how (and the importance) to use a version control system. (To tell the truth, within KDE, I solely focused on translating some modules, but it was enough to grasp many facets that neither my job at the time nor my college could teach me).

I leveraged the community to learn, and in return, I contributed something. This allowed me to be involved in various projects, not only enriching my resume but also enabling me to participate in other projects.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Linux

Today, there are thousands of internet projects that not only welcome but encourage novice participation. Whether your passion/expertise lies in the back-end, front-end, documentation, or user support, there are tasks to do and knowledge to gain. You can list all your projects and contributions on GitHub. You can catalog every theme and plugin you’ve created on the WordPress site. Your artistic projects can be compiled on Behance.

I didn’t even scratch the possibilities: You can demonstrate your ability to provide support by starting a blog where you share advanced tips on a language/OS. A smart home app that regulates your coffee machine or a custom analytics dashboard for your blog can be shown as a personal project. There are forums where you earn points for helping other users, answering questions, or suggesting solutions. Create simple apps with the MERN stack and upload them to Vercel, Netlify, Cloudflare Pages, and any place where they can be stored for FREE.

Those things show passion, creativity, and the ability to apply skills to solve real-world problems.

It might sound arrogant, but if someone in an interview claims to be passionate about programming (or design, or the internet, or any technology-related area) and I can’t find any online projects in their profile (remember tip 1!), I would start to doubt the claim. Obviously, there are exceptions, like people who study AND work, but I’m not exactly talking about them.

Tip 4: Don’t Be Shy to Showcase Yourself:

For those just starting, no project is too silly or too small, so don’t be afraid to list cool projects on your resume, even if they don’t seem “professional”. As I said, my first PHP project was on a news site about anime and also involved supporting an anime forum. This was back in 1999. Through these projects, I combined my eagerness to learn with my passion for pop/nerd culture, making the tedious task of debugging code not so tedious after all. I had a more interesting personal goal than merely passing an exam.

That acquired knowledge scored me several points in my first job interview. Likewise, having taught underprivileged kids also added value. Even if it might not seem like it, various activities of yours can make a difference even during the initial resume screening.

I’m not saying you need to embellish your experience. Being a clan leader in World of Warcraft isn’t exactly “Team Management Experience,” just as discussing the best builds on the Elden Ring Reddit channel isn’t “Advanced User Support.” There’s a balance to be struck.

But believe me: even if a recruiter or manager finds it odd that you included the development of a comic book site layout on your resume, it could still serve as a great conversation starter and a perfect ice-breaker. Good recruiters and managers don’t care HOW you acquired knowledge but WHAT you learned and WHAT experience you gained from the task. In the chaos of real-life business, it makes little difference whether you learned something from a $5000 course or from setting up a pirated Minecraft server; what matters is whether you can solve a problem or at least suggest a solution.

Include interesting projects that are available online in your resume (here’s tip 1 again!). Even if it seems trivial, it could help break the ice and ease interview nerves, giving you a chance to show you know a bit more than the rest.

Tip 5: Be Honest: Don’t lie on your resume.

If you claim to have advanced knowledge in Excel, at a minimum, I expect you to list some basic formulas; Do not fabricate skills or achievements. They might get you to the first interview, but if you falter while explaining something or if the recruiter catches you in a lie because they are knowledgeable about the subject, you instantly ruin any chance you might have had. Even if you seem perfect for the job. If you have any previous experience, do not include projects or work you weren’t directly involved in, or be honest about your role in the project. Were you responsible for assembling the PPTs for meetings with CLIENT X? Don’t just state that you worked with CLIENT X on your resume. Again: a good recruiter wants to know what you learned and how you can apply that knowledge. Hired? Continue being honest. There is no absolute shame in saying “I don’t know anything about this, but if you give me some time to study, I can learn and make it work.” – In fact, this is a trait that should be celebrated.

Tip 6: Be Prepared

OK, it’s the interview moment and your resume is on point, your GitHub/Stack Overflow/Dev.to 👀 profiles are brimming with updates. How can I self-confidently ace the interview?

First, read about the company. Take your time to understand what it does and how it works, via their site, LinkedIn, social media, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that demonstrate your genuine interest in the role and the company.

Then, ask your preferred AI tool for common interview questions in your area and try to answer them out loud – not with the AI answer, but with YOUR understanding.

Finally, in the interview, be confident in your answers, showing your passion for technology and eagerness to learn. As the great philosopher Kamina once said: “You don’t need to believe in yourself. Believe in me! Believe in the me who believes in you!”

gurren laggan, anyone?

There are tons of people on the internet who know you have it, believe in them when talking about your online projects.

Conclusion

Landing your first job in IT can be challenging, especially in small companies or startups, where every new employee is expected to hit the ground running, or when there’s no team/time available to train someone from scratch. But if companies don’t have time to train you, you likely have plenty of time to learn skills that will undoubtedly be useful.

Use this time to your advantage. Leverage the internet. Contrary to the classic song, the internet is not just for porn. Use it to stand out, to go beyond the basics, to acquire knowledge that would otherwise take much longer to obtain through traditional means. Stop being someone who only shows off their ongoing college education and become someone who showcases real projects and real knowledge.


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