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Tech pros share advice for new computer science graduates

By: Ann Bednarz | 23 June 2016

Computer science graduates are in demand. Last year, 76% of computer science graduates were working full time within six months of finishing school -- the highest full-time employment rate among new college graduates and well above the 58% average across all majors, according to a new report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

But as veterans in the tech world know, earning a degree is just the beginning of a new professional's education. To help this year's newcomers navigate the transition from academic life to the professional world, we asked tech pros to share their best advice for computer science graduates entering the workforce. Here's what they had to say.

Have fun and ask questions

"Find a career you enjoy. There is nothing better than getting up each morning looking forward to your day at work. Once you're on the job, never be afraid to ask questions. Too many times I see people just starting out who are afraid to admit they don't know something. I've been in technology for 18 years and I'm still learning and asking questions." - Jacob Ackerman, CTO of SkyLink Data Centers

Accept the knowledge gap and be ready to learn

"[It's a myth that] the knowledge gained from your degree will prepare you 100% for your role. Fitting into tech culture is all about knowledge. If you don't know how to perfectly manipulate a CSS or how to write a JS script, you will get laughed at. You WILL be an outsider. The key is to OWN it. The knowledge gap is just temporary. The best response to fitting in is to be curious and inquisitive. Asking questions goes a very long way. Trying to learn will garner you respectability. The more you try to fight the knowledge and technical gap, the worse it will be for you. Roll with the waves until you become an integral part of the team." - Pierre Tremblay, director of human resources at Dupray

Practice old-school networking

"Even in the young, hip, tech space, the best way to network is still pretty old-school: build a network of peers. Go to hackathons, engage on social networks, participate in forums, etc. Everyone you talk to and meet can be an asset whether it's now, five years or maybe even 10 years from now. A fellow developer will be an ally when you are looking for your first job or a new job down the line when it's time for something new." - Nishant Patel, CTO of Built.io

Build your own lab

"Develop your specific skills by building yourself a lab with enough basic components that you can test your skills and knowledge. This not only improves your understanding of the field you're looking to get into, but it also helps with getting [industry certifications such as a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)]. It can also give you an edge in an interview, so be ready to market the fact that you have a personal lab. You can build an inexpensive network lab for a couple hundred dollars with old gear purchased off of eBay, and a server for code development is just as easy. I've actually hired folks that had this and impressed me and the team with their learned skills." - Tim Parker, vice president of network services at ViaWest

Participate and contribute

"Online participation in open source is the new job interview. ... A candidates' participation in an open source community tells a lot more about the person. Not just their understanding of computer science concepts, but also their ability to communicate clearly, and how they work in a team. ... No matter what area of computer science you want to focus on, you can easily find a half dozen active open source projects in that field. Participate, contribute, and you may well find yourself being courted by companies looking to hire you before you graduate." - Amrith Kumar, CTO and co-founder at Tesora

Develop problem-solving skills

"Companies who know what they're doing will want to see how you think and problem solve. They may give you a problem or scenario and ask you to talk through how you would approach solving it. They want to know that you can think through the process, ask the right questions, and come to a conclusion. This may or may not involve writing code. ... The specific language(s) you know are not as important as your ability to learn and to problem solve. Anyone can pick up a language. It's much harder to find someone who fully understands software development." - Ann Gaffigan, CTO at National Land Realty

Don't rush into projects

"Make sure you have collected enough data before you begin a task. Become a voracious note taker and investigate problems with the care of an old-school investigative journalist. Know the 'who, what, where, why, and when' behind a problem before you formulate 'how' you're going to address it. Good engineers and developers will operate within the guidelines of a process like Six Sigma DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, implement and control), but too often the definition and measurement [phases are] shortened or overlooked. That leads to assumptions in the analysis and implementation... and often uncontrollable outcomes." - John Chapin, lead consultant at Capital Technology Services

Sharpen customer service skills

"We find that a lot of recent computer science graduates have very similar skills and experience, so when hiring, we look for other things. Any customer service experience is valued here (like retail or waiting tables), because that tells us the candidate knows how to communicate with others well. We look for humble candidates because there is always something to learn - even if someone comes to us with stellar coding skills, we need to know that he or she will be able to take criticism and also be open to learning other programs." - Aryana Jaleh, social media manager at Eboxlab

Get to know the sales team

"You should absolutely spend time with the sales team at your company. Make a point to walk by their cubes and speak with them. Invite them to lunch, go to their happy hours. It will be out of your comfort zone. Good. You need that. Realize that there will come a day when you might want to start a company, and you know absolutely zero about sales. Fix that ASAP. ... Not saying you should ignore your development colleagues, just make an effort to know the sales team. You need to find out who the top performers are and spend time with them. You also need to know who the low performers are and avoid them. Figuring that out is an amazingly valuable life skill that you didn't learn in college." - Robert Reeves, CTO and co-founder of Datical

Work on communication skills

"One of the most critical items that I see missing from many new grads entering industry is a lack of proper communication skills. As helpful as it is to know technical concepts such as algorithm analysis, if your coworkers and management don't enjoy being around you, you are going to find it difficult to have sustained career success. I highly recommend computer science and software engineering graduates to deliberately work on soft skills such as communication and learning to get along with team members. It will lead to a more enjoyable career path and better overall work culture." - Jordan Hudgens, CTO of CronDose.com, co-founder of devCamp, and graduate student in the computer science department at Texas Tech University

While in school, pursue learning outside the classroom, too

"School is the best time to fail because, frankly, you have nothing to lose. Start a business or a company, develop a product, or two or three. Every line of code you write in a practical setting, integrating an API, SDK or learning a new technology will pay you back in the future. ... Build something that works, and publish it to GitHub. Everyone else is also working on a few projects, so don't worry about someone stealing your billion-dollar idea. If you're passionate and skilled, it'll show and you'll win. By joining the community, you give yourself a name and open yourself to learn from others. These projects are also a great way to get noticed by recruiters and to build an identity for yourself in the tech community." - Nishant Patel, CTO at Built.io

Remember the users

"[Staying] mindful of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) is crucial. Not all computer science professionals know how a user actually engages with an interface, but job applicants who understand those nuances will rise above the pool of other candidates. At the end of the day, we don't create programs that are used by other computer scientists. Focusing on the behavior and understanding of the user who will be engaging in the programming, and delivering a product that is based on the other person's perspective, are what will set you apart." - Dane Pelfrey, vice president of product development at Businessolver

Commit to learning business basics

"Harvard's computer science program is rigorous. There's not a lot of time or energy left for studying other subjects like business or sales. But as an employee at Threat Stack, I've learned that software engineers need to understand the business value of the products they're building. I regularly chat with our company executives and sales and marketing team members, which has given me a holistic understanding of what it takes to build, refine and deliver products to customers. Having this kind of hands-on exposure simply isn't possible at school; I'm gaining the critical information and skill it takes to be an entrepreneur, which is something I've always dreamt of pursuing." - Michael Chen, a Harvard undergraduate who decided to defer a full year before his final year of school to work at Threat Stack

Demonstrate talent, personality

"Over the years, I have hired dozens of developers and engineers to build our software application. Some of the hires were young graduates, and a few of them turned out to be stars in the company. In summary, I'm looking for two things: 1) talent - this is the raw skill and technical ability and 2) workability - how easy is this person to work with? For technical jobs, applicants can showcase their skills through an online portfolio. I really like coders who develop things as pet projects on their own time. It shows genuine interest and passion for the industry. And having an active GitHub repository is a good way to showcase this side of the candidate. Now for the second point of workability, the best way is to be yourself. Be natural, transparent and honest. The hiring manager is looking for a 'cultural-fit' in the organization. So if you are a good fit in terms of your work style, then you've a good chance of making it to the next round." - Zaki Usman, CEO of an HR app at InterQ

Work your networks

"Referral networks are one of the strongest ways a company will grow. Generally people will recommend people they know to be competent and will fit well with the organization. Keep tabs with all of your friends at different companies and ask them if there are upcoming openings. A lot of times companies will have referral bonuses for their employees so your friends will be incented to help!" - Pablo Stern, CTO and senior vice president of engineering at Radius

Embrace the cloud

"If you are searching for a systems engineering job after graduation, remember that the most valuable systems engineers are the ones that have fully embraced the cloud. While many organizations still have siloed engineering teams, companies are starting to shift away from that model as they become more sophisticated in cloud adoption. This has created a need for well-rounded engineers who are able to work on cross-functional teams. Let your interviewers know you are up to that challenge and are able to adapt to the shifting cloud landscape." - Stephanie Tayengco, senior vice president of operations at Logicworks

Seize the data opportunity

"Today's graduates are the first data-native employees entering the workforce, but the trickle of graduates isn't anywhere close to the torrent of demand. These graduates will have the opportunity to reshape how access to data and insights are managed in enterprises. Data scientists will be expected to not only be able to analyze big data, but make it understandable and actionable by different departments within the organization. Currently, data science teams work in isolation from the rest of their enterprise. The new batch of data scientists will be much more integrated into their enterprises' workflows, and will need to be able to think creatively, integrate data into business strategy, and communicate their findings accurately to non-technical users. As data becomes more ubiquitous in every job role, it will be the data science team's job to provide data in a way that is visually understandable and workable by non-analysts." - Ashish Thusoo, co-founder and CEO at Qubole

Highlight your soft skills

"Soft skills will set you apart. There aren't that many developers out there, relatively speaking. Even fewer have soft skills -- the ability to communicate effectively, work well with others and handle a leadership role. Look your interviewer in the eyes, speak clearly and confidently." - Ann Gaffigan, CTO at National Land Realty

Think agile

"Enterprises and startups are demanding agile graduates. It's no longer just about the tech skills but can employees work creatively and collaboratively with a cross-functional agile/scrum team made up of business owner, product manager, data scientist, marketer, financial analyst, UX/UI, and others to contribute to the vision and execution. Employers are looking for employees with entrepreneurial spirit who will create/enhance/contribute to product design, and not simply doers who blindly execute against spec." - Scott Amyx, CEO at Amyx+

Lastly, a good reminder for all ages and stages

"Make sure to dry your hands thoroughly when you leave the restroom. You never know whose hand you'll have to shake the second after you exit. Ever shake a damp hand? Ugh. People remember that." - Robert Reeves, CTO and co-founder of Datical


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