Breaking into the field: the gap between beginner and advanced

EnjoyLife's picture

To become a better web developer, you need experience. But how can you get more experience? How does one get into web development?

I'm serious about getting into the field professionally, have been using Drupal for 3 years, and am taking training through local courses. I also attend as many Meetups as I can in my area. I'm transitioning from one field to another, though I've done web development in jobs in the past as a secondary responsibility. But I'm not seeing many opportunities for beginner/intermediate web developers (front-end dev with interest in design and back-end). I haven't found many internships/apprenticeships in my state (Michigan).

Do people go to graduate school to get the skills and experiences they need? (I've already graduated from college, but with a non-computer science degree.) If grad school is the best option, is it difficult being only one of a few females in a computer science program? I imagine this number gets smaller in graduate school. There are a few community college programs in my area, but I don't think they make sense for my needs.

I've looked for guides about how to get into the field, but only find information about the skills one needs to learn. How does one take that knowledge and make it into a career? Do you reach out to employers and ask about internships if their websites don't discuss internships? Is it worth looking for internships outside of your home state/area in order to break into the field? Should you apply for careers that ask for more experience than what you have in hopes you might be taken on?

There's not a lot of information out there about how to make that transition from advanced beginner/low intermediate to high intermediate/advanced. I'm finding lots of resources for beginners and many opportunities for people advanced in the field. But how can the gap between beginner and expert be addressed?

This isn't necessarily women-specific. But it's certainly difficult to go to community events and be one of few women in the room (and in my case one of few minorities). Though I don't mind being physically different from others in the room, how does a beginner break in? I can't tell if the challenge lies in my gender being a roadblock to finding mentors. (The concept of needing to "break in" also bothers me. I think there should be opportunities in place to take people who are high level beginners and help them transition successfully into the field, especially in locations that need people with that skill set. But it doesn't seem like apprenticeships are a regular thing in web development.)

It's a very perplexing place to be in. I think to myself "I know I can be good at this, I know I like it," but I need mentors and people who know best practices to help me gain real experience.

Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


You can do it.

aarsic's picture

I would say don't expect what you want "to break in" to be there. You might have to create it. Internships are good. I truly believe in ask and ye shall receive. If there is a place you would like to intern to learn more ask if they offer one. If they don't now, maybe they will reconsider.

I have certainly never felt at dis-ease at being the only woman in the room. That makes you stand out! Think of it as forging the way for more women. For some reason you are allowing your (our) gender to hold you back. I don't understand that.

As for "there should be opportunities in place to take people who are high level beginners and help them transition successfully into the field, especially in locations that need people with that skill set." Great idea! Be that person who learns something then offers that to others! You can do it!

Antoinette A

Thanks for your comments. I

EnjoyLife's picture

Thanks for your comments. I understand what you mean. Sometimes feeling uncomfortable isn't about gender and is just the apprehension of being a beginner. I completely get what you are saying. Thanks.

What works for me

cdykstra's picture

I have been a web developer/designer for 13 years, and for the last 2 working with Drupal. But all the job postings out there want "Senior" developers. I was unclear and a bit lost on what technologies to focus on to get me where I was employable by those I wanted to work with.

I got discouraged, and finally just googled 'finding a Drupal Mentor'. What I came across is exactly what you describe that you're looking for. I've been working with OwnSourcing to mentor me on some of the skills I need to enhance the talents I already have and direction I want to take this. After a few months I'm now working with some of the very well-knowns in the Drupal world, and continuing to learn skills and technologies that increase my earning potential, not to mention job satisfaction.

Your mileage of course may vary, but I encourage you to contact about the mentorship program and be prepared to have a frank conversation about what you want. If it doesn't turn out to be a good fit, keep looking for a mentor that will be.

BTW, I'm often the only female and/or one with gray hair in the room :) I've found that the Drupal community is really happy to help most everyone brave enough to ask for it.

Best of luck to you!

Thanks for your response. I

EnjoyLife's picture

Thanks for your response. I will definitely look into this.

Where are you located? Many

Renee S's picture

Where are you located? Many colleges have web development certificates, if you're thinking of spending money on skills acquisition -- but I would not recommend grad school. I work at UBC's Computer Science department, and that's just not what our grads do (your mileage may vary at other schools, but I suspect they're similar). If you want to study algorithms or high-throughput computing or network structure or machine learning or other really specific and mathematical areas of computing, then yes. It's not any kind of toolset learning; it's very theoretical.

I disagree with @aarsic -- I've found that it's not easy being the only woman in the room sometimes, especially when I was a beginner. Even really supportive communities tend to be aloof to beginners until they're able to hold their own in technical discussions, and it can be intimidating to break into discussions and ask for help even as an experienced dev sometimes, still. The Drupal community is better than most, but we're not perfect, either.

As for transitioning from beginner to advanced, the way I and many of the developers I know did it was by... doing it. I do not think this is the most efficient method. Building shitty sites, then building slightly better ones; volunteering to build portals for non-profits (because they're often not picky about what it looks like, or timelines... ;) and then doing tonnes of research and googling and head-against-desk-banging until you solve various programming problems, not necessarily well, but acquire another skill incrementally, and the next site is better, etc...

This is not the best way to become a developer. It was simply the only way, ten years ago. So, you may find many of us are a bit stuck with respect to offering advice on training, because it's a different world these days. At this point in the evolution of dev culture, the options are increasing, though: you can now go to hackathons, which are a good place to pick up skills and watch other people code; go to community presentations, for specific toolset knowledge, and do what you're doing here, which is to ask for help from the community specifically.

If you'd like to chat about mentoring, and OwnSource doesn't pan out, let me know ( I've never mentored anybody, but we can learn together :)

Thanks for your response. I

EnjoyLife's picture

Thanks for your response. I will be unafraid to build some crappy sites until I build really good ones, head-banging and all. Thank you.

I know Renée in real life,

CatherineOmega's picture

I know Renée in real life, and she's quality people. And correct! Building crappy sites is essential practice. If you take nothing else away from this thread, take that advice! As the aphorism goes, "real developers ship". :)

Also, having something relatively finished for others to look at and offer feedback on, that's something I've found is helpful for both me and the person I'm asking for advice. "What's good about this gallery, and what would you do differently, and why?" is a far easier question to respond to than "can you tell me how to make a gallery?"

gender has noting to do with technical expertise

aarsic's picture

I think that you are both confusing "being the only woman in the room" with being a beginner as you say beginners cannot hold their own in technical discussions and that can be daunting -- I've faced that a lot in my past work. But being a woman is not "less than" whereas being a beginner in a way is "less than" by way of technical knowledge. Gender has nothing to do with it. You are either beginner or advanced and technically savvy (or somewhere in between).

Antoinette A

Not to totally derail this

CatherineOmega's picture

Not to totally derail this conversation, but you might want to read sci-fi author John Scalzi's short essay, where he talks about intersectionality by way of an analogy to video game difficulty settings: "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is". ( )

Nobody is saying--okay, sadly, some people are, but at least they're not here--that people of colour or women are less technically capable, but simply that accessing what is often a boys' club takes extra work for some of us. My personal theory is that most female developers have something in common with a lot of female athletes: simply, that we were given permission from an early age to figure out tech skills on our own--or at least not actively discouraged from doing so.

The problem is, that's a terrible way for most people to learn.

I know it sounds cliche

aarsic's picture

But just be the best "you" that you can be and do the best job that you can do.

Antoinette A

Thanks, this is helpful. I've

EnjoyLife's picture

Thanks, this is helpful. I've kind of had that in my head: the "because no one told me I could not" as a way to cope with there not being many women and minorities in the field. It's knowing you are capable but feeling a bit out of place. Thanks.

I get it. I really do. And I

aarsic's picture

I get it. I really do. And I have a good feeling that you will be successful because you did reach out. Just keep asking. One thing I've found is when I have perceived people as being unkind or unhelpful to me and they were way above me technically speaking and in pay-grade, I later found out that their brusqueness was due to having a huge amount of responsibility put on them by bosses who demanded the world but didn't have a clue about what they were asking for. It was a horrible chain to climb. But when I got closer to the top of that chain - I wished I was back down at the bottom! So I guess what I'm saying is it's all relative and in time you'll find out who the really good smart and kind people are and if you are lucky (and possibly willing to work for less money - I know I am) then you will have those people as mentors or bosses. It really just takes a LOT of time.

Antoinette A

Actually, there's both issues

Renee S's picture

Actually, there's both issues that can present problems. My point was that being a beginner can be especially daunting as a woman, because the response you get can be more hostile than the response to a man at a similar level; but for both men and women, being a beginner is definitely a hurdle as well. I'm not sure where you get from what I wrote that being a woman is "less than" anything, except that it does result in some less-than friendly responses sometimes. Thankfully that's changing with the times. But it's still a factor for many of us: read the countless blog-posts of women at cons who have been mistaken for wait-staff, or experienced devs being assumed to be graphic designers and cut out of interesting conversations, or, or. Sexism exists. It makes our lives harder. You're lucky if you haven't experienced it overtly, but sadly that experience is far from universal.

I'm 52. I know sexism exists.

aarsic's picture

I'm 52. I know sexism exists. I've been working since I was 15 years old. You can't let any perceived "less than friendly responses" or a "response you get that can be more hostile than the response to a man" deter you! I've been sexually harrassed and assaulted in my life and on the job! I'm saying do not let something like unfriendliness daunt you! Far worse things can happen. So my point is be proactive and do something about it. I'm not trying to be mean.

Antoinette A

This is hot content of this

smiletrl's picture

This is hot content of this week, so I come here accidentally:) Here're some ideas I'd like to share.

1). I've experienced similar thing when I firstly started Drupal. Leave the gender thing a moment, I was lucky enough to get a job in a company, where colleagues are all friendly and help me learn. This is the real chance to leave the beginner level.

I believe the trick is to work on different Drupal issues continually and when you encounter a problem you can't solve, you can get help from other colleagues. And of course, don't be shy to share your knowledge when other people have problems they can't solve. You can help them too even you are not sure you know the exact answer!

This experience could apply to anyone, I guess. Get a job, as junior developer or something similar, not asking for much pay, but a chance to learn. You don't have to limit it to your local community, while there're remote opportunities out there that you may get such a job.

Maybe you are frightened by all these "senior" job requirements. But I guess applying for those jobs never hurts:)

2). The other way to improve Drupal skills I could think of is to join Drupal core issues. Take part in Drupal core mentoring, work on some Drupal core issues, and get help from Drupal community stars! Drupal community is very open, as long as you are brave enough and work hard:)

Start from simple drupal core tasks and finally you can work some advance tasks I believe. This is a different experience from working on company's Drupal projects. You get the chance to work with the real Drupal stars, and get to know Drupal core!

3). Get back to the gender thing. I have met/known some great woman Drupal developers in my working place, or Drupal community. While I'm a man, and never go to any real-world Drupal events/camp, I can't tell how you feel. What I could suggest is don't worry too much about other people's opinions when you feel these opinions are not true and disturbing you:)

Sometimes, I may feel other people are not counting me much, or kind of despise my skill. I simply ignore them, and don't think much of them in return. The truth is I can't make everyone around me happy, and gain respect from all of them. What I could do is to work hard and let my work speak.

Good luck!

Great advice!

aarsic's picture

Thanks for your post! I know I will look into the Drupal core mentoring link.

Antoinette A