There’ve been a lot of memes about “Fatima going into cyber” here in the UK after a government advert to encourage people to seek careers in “cyber” showed a ballerina with the quote “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber”. Whilst the advert was released last year, it’s attracted a lot of attention now as the arts are suffering so badly during this pandemic

In my opinion, these memes are more than justified and some are hilarious: the only way we’re all getting through this trying time is through enjoying arts: whether that be television, books, computer games, watching live recordings of past productions. The list goes on. So on a personal note, I find the suggestion of someone who has gone through hundreds of pairs of ballet shoes to become the epitome of grace on stage shouldn’t get government support at this time rather, to put it lightly, a poor show.

That being said, we are entering a job crisis that looks like it’s going to make the early 2010s look like a doddle (remember when we were told that was a once in a generation recession, never to be repeated? Hah!), and this has led a steadily increasing number of my friends to ask me how to get into software development, especially those who work zero-hour contracts or in fields with little scope for upward mobility. I admit that this number has now become high enough that writing a blog post on how to get started seems like the thing to do, and if people seem interested then I’ll do what I can to follow it up with “what to do next”.

The main thing to note is that software development (not cyber specifically, the skill gap there is much larger) is an area where the demand for employees massively outstrips the supply, meaning that there are plenty of companies out there willing to take a risk on someone who can demonstrate that they’ve put the work in to develop those skills. 

It won’t happen overnight, but I have several friends that I know from my time helping mentoring at CodeBar in Brighton who after a year or so of putting part-time work into personal projects landed paid internships, which within a year led to full junior developer salaries. For some this was with no degree, and for others with degrees that were utterly unrelated to software development. The only prerequisite is an interest in logical problem solving and (more challenging in these trying times) the energy to spend on doing the learning. If you’ve got those, you definitely have what it takes to work in software.

So, how to take your first steps? You’ll be pleased to know at this point that everything you need is free! Well, beyond needing a computer and an internet connection, but for now I’m going to assume you have those. There are a bunch of resources you can use to teach yourself and some will feel overwhelming at first, others will feel too easy, just trust me – push through, revisit things and you’ll soon start to get a good feel for it and be writing your own little programs in no time!

Which languages you choose to learn early on isn’t really important, but JavaScript and Python are particularly employable right now so it’s worth focusing on those. To start though, please, please learn some of the basics of computer science. You may well hate it, but the biggest issue I’ve had with developers throughout my career is that they don’t learn how their code works underneath, leading to websites that run at a snail’s pace and horribly unreadable and unmaintainable code. This leads to the very first thing: Computer Science 101, by edX. Run through the course and you’ll have a good grounding of how things work.

The next thing is to enrol with CodeCademy – this is where you’ll need to choose what to start looking at first. If your interest is in designing beautiful and easy to use websites, get dug into HTML5 and CSS. If your interest is in building the full stack of a website then kick off with JavaScript. If you want to eventually go down the route of data science and analytics then I’d suggest Python. The courses are well paced, there’s no need to do anything but the free ones, and the almost-gamification of the courses gives you a nice little dopamine hit when you complete a challenge. Like Duolingo, but with fewer owls getting up in your face.

Finally, peer support is a huge help in motivation. If you have friends who are wanting to learn similar things, do it together. If you have friends who are already working in software ask if they have the energy to help with the odd question. CodeCademy itself has forums for users to support each other, but my favourite is to reach out to your local CodeBar and join their (currently virtual) support and learning groups. They focus on under-represented groups in technology (women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and so on) so they might not be the group for you but I can’t sing their praises highly enough.

Remember: things are tough right now, but we can get through this. And if a career change is something you want (rather than something that’s being forced on you, in which case I send you all my love and care and hope things get better as soon as possible) just know that software is a much more accessible field than you think.