Is it a good idea to be a student programmer?

One of the questions I get most from new students and students that are one year into their studies which are not related to the topic I am teaching is: Do you think I am ready to be student programmer or something very similar. For some time, I wondered why this was until I talked with a former fellow student who has had a hard time getting a job after graduation. Not because he is a bad programmer or software engineer, he is quite good, but because he lacked experience. He was the type that focused 100% on his studies and did not believe he had time enough to be a student programmer. But this had been a significant problem because he did not want (in his words) a job in a consultancy company that hires a lot of new graduates and develop boring stuff. He wanted a job in machine learning and/or computer vision. But every place he applied, he did not get the job, and the main reasoning from the company was his lack of experience. This made him regret not being a student programmer so that he could have gathered some experience during our studies. I sit on the other side of the spectrum, having had student developer jobs or full-time developer jobs throughout my education and have accumulated “a lot of experience” due to this. So it got me thinking, is it a good idea to be a student developer? And if yes, what advice do I have for students who would like to follow this?

Well first of is it a good idea? I have often questioned this. From my perspective, it comes down to a work/life balance. Can you handle both your study and work, will still having time to see your relatives, friends, and have some time to yourself? This is the key for me.

  1. You study must be the priority
  2. You need some leisure time

If you decide to study, then that is your primary job and therefore, should be the focus. Removing to much focus from your study will have a negative impact on your results or at least that is my own experience and what I have observed amongst other students. You study to be able to get the job you want in the end (hopefully) and therefore you should put great efforts into doing your best. Now, I know that in Denmark we are incredibly privileged by having our SU (student support) which should cover housing and food, which allows us to focus on studying and that students in other countries do not have this privileged. But I still believe my point of view to be valid in those situations, though much harder to balance. Next, if you overwork yourself weekly (take that from someone who did), you will burn out. Young people tend to say; that will not happen to me… and then it does. This will affect, not just on your study and work life, but also your private life. You can lose connections with friends and family, and you can become extremely unlikable. Which can spiral you down a dark path where you feel alone and do not know how to cope with anything and then the circle goes. This is my personal experience. If you believe you can keep the focus on your studies and have a work/life balance, then I think a student programmer position can be really good.

BUT! There is always a but. Having a student programmer position is only beneficial if you learn something and if you feel like you are contributing something. So let us move into the advice section. First, are you too green? What I mean is, if you know how to write print('Hello World!') in Python and nothing else, then there is a 99.9% chance of you not being able to contribute anything to a potential employees product value. This is a problem because you will not be able to give anything of value back to your employer. An employer should know that hiring a newcomer will mean that it takes some time for them to start producing work of value, but it should not be with an unreasonable timeline. You will need to know the necessary software development skills (programming, architecture, design, etc.) for this not to be a problem. It will also give you a feeling that you are not contributing and in my experience, that is the worst feeling for a newcomer. Essentially wait till you are ready to contribute something useful. As an example, one of the first things I did for a former employer, was to extend the number of programming languages bindings to their library, such that a wider array of developers could use their library. It was a thing they had wanted to do but never had the time. It is a reasonably simple task when you know how to do it, so it was put on me to do it. Therefore, the first task I had, brought value to the company, and I felt like I was contributing, all in all, a win-win for both. As a counter-example, I worked in a company, where I was thrown into deep-waters, and I had no idea what I was doing. I had to implement an intranet for the employees of the company, but in a specific framework that, in my opinion, did some weird stuff. I was unable to find out why it did what it did, and I ended up having to ask too many questions and spend to much time on information search. In particular, the questions was a problem, because I had to ask developers who were supposed to work on something else, taking time from them and reducing the value they brought to the company. All in all, a bad situation. As a side note, the framework was Umbraco. I still to this day have not found out what went wrong. But I have found out that some configuration has had to be wrong because I have never experienced those issues since.

The second advice is going to contradict the first one a bit. Where you work, you need to learn, and if you do not learn, then you are in the wrong the place. One of the main reasons to be a student programmer is to try out what you learn in school in the real world. This is a learning experience, and you will most likely learn that what you are taught in school is just a foundation to build upon. Now, it takes time to learn, and as a newcomer, there is a pretty good chance you will make mistakes also so bad once. But it is a learning experience, and you need it. Additionally, it is okay if it takes you some time to figure out a problem and how to solve it. Do not expect to solve every problem in 10 minutes. Additionally, if a more experienced developer offers you to pair program or to review your code. TAKE THE OFFER, TAKE IT and soak up everything that the developer tells you. Then afterwards take notes about what you thought was right, what was wrong, and reflect on how you can implement what you have learned into your work.

Finally, do not work at a place that does not have time for you. You will need help getting set up, getting into the project(s), and so on, and you may need help to do so. If there is no time for helping you set up, there is (most likely) no time later for you later, when you have a problem that requires more than one brain. I have seen this a couple of places I have worked (i.e., the Umbraco situation) and it was super challenging for not just student programmers, but also new full-time developers, to get to a state where they were productive. Simply because there was not enough time amongst other developers to get them to a place where that was the case. Which is a huge problem not just for you, but also for the company itself. All companies have crunch times, some have a lot, which is fair. But in those periods they should not hire new employees, it is terrible planing.

In conclusion, it is a good idea to be a student programmer, if you can manage a work-life balance and my advice is that you should be reasonably proficient in coding before starting a job, you should learn from the job, and you should work in a place where they have time for you.