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Developers who stand out bring both technical skills and life experiences to the job

Coder, bootcamp founder, CEO and former family therapist, Dave Hoover offers tips to help developers stand out in a crowded job market and explains why companies should focus on growing talent from within.

In this episode of Dynamic Developer , I talk with Dave Hoover about how you learn the skills to become a developer, and how companies build dev teams with the right skills for today and tomorrow. Dave is not only founder and CEO of Red Squirrel, a custom software development firm, he is also a coder, author, and co-founder of Dev Bootcamp. The following is an edited transcript of our interview.

From family therapist to software developer

Bill Detwiler: So you know before we talk about what skills developers should have when they want to get into the development field, or talking about companies and how they develop a team with the right skills for today and tomorrow, what’s really interesting, I think, is your story as a developer is, like so many people who get into coding and technology in general, you didn’t start out in IT and development, did you?

Dave Hoover: I did not. There are so many people that take a side door into software development and IT. My side door was not normal. There’s many not normal doors, but mine was coming through psychology and a four-year stint as a family therapist in my twenties. So yeah, it was an exciting journey.

Bill Detwiler: What made you want to change careers like that? That’s a pretty big shift. I mean I can’t really say anything. I started out in college as an engineering major, but then I had two degrees in criminal justice, and I was in IT, and then moved into tech media. But what prompted the move from a social science skill like therapy in campus, to a technical skill like coding?

Dave Hoover: It wasn’t just out of the blue for me. A couple of things were happening. It was 1999, it was 2000, and so we were at the height of the dot-com boom. And so that was happening. And I also just had a baby for the first time. My first kid, my daughter, was just born, and so suddenly I needed to earn some extra money. So I had a couple of different things happening that came together. But the other thing was, for most of my life, or since I was whatever, 11, 12, 13 years old, I was really interested in computers.

But at some point in my teenage years, suddenly I just couldn’t figure out how to reconcile being a football player with being a computer guy. And I didn’t know anybody in my family or any friends who knew about computers, and so I just never was able to reconcile that. And it wasn’t until I was out of college, and away from being a jock to be honest, that I could… Finally when the stars aligned, I could, like jump into it.

I had actually taught myself BASIC in the 80s, when I was about 13 years old, tried to push on it a little bit, couldn’t make it do what I really wanted, and I gave up. And it wasn’t until I was like 25-26 that I gave it another real hard try, when I needed to, to make some extra money like I said. And that’s what got me over the hump. Thankfully, the programming languages between BASIC and PEARL had advanced enough to… It was pretty easy for me to get at least started with a scripting language like PEARL in 1999.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: So what about today? When you look at how you got into coding, how is it different today than it was 5, 10 years ago? What tips do you have for people who may be thinking about making that same transition that you made, but doing it now?

Dave Hoover: It’s hard for me to say how different it is because, of course, I have wildly different perspectives, back in the late 90s, early 2000s to today. Now I’m on the employer’s side and I’m hiring people. So I feel like people are more open these days to people from various development upbringings, I guess you could say, but I might be biased. There might still be, there probably is still a lot of bias out there towards people who have a certain pedigree versus just hiring for skills.

That said, I do think, when I got into the field in the height of the dot-com boom, or right as it was cresting and probably starting to pop, there was just this deep, strong desire for talent, which was one of the ways I snuck in the back door and got into the industry. And we’ve had waves of that over the last decade or two, but it’s been pretty constant. And I do think there’s just a general desire to find people who have the skill.

I remember early on, I had… I definitely felt at different moments, a lot of insecurity, and almost fear, to let people know about my background because it was so just not typical, so nontraditional. I feel like because of bootcamps, because of all the different tools and curriculums that have been created online, that there’s just so many more people from so many different backgrounds that are in the field today. And so I do think it’s more inclusive than it was. But again, I might be missing some things.

SEE: 15 books every programmer should read (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Life skills can help you stand out as a developer

Bill Detwiler: Do you think that that makes it harder for people to sometimes stand out? Because there are so many more opportunities for people to learn code, whether it’s programs sponsored by specific companies that maybe are promoting their product, versus maybe 10 years ago when it was maybe third parties, or you came in through a traditional IT college background, engineering background, do you think it’s harder for folks to maybe stand out in today’s marketplace?

Must-read developer content

Dave Hoover: I do think it’s challenging to stand out. So I was a co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, and these folks would go through a program together, a curriculum together. And if we didn’t do our job right, they would have a hard time differentiating from each other, because they just went to the same program. They just learned all the same stuff. I remember interviewing some folks at Berkeley back in 2011. And so many of them had the same answers for me when I was asking things because they had all gone through the same courses, and they’ve been coached a bit to say about certain buzzwords.

And if we hadn’t done our job right with our students, our students would struggle with the same things. All of their get repos would look exactly the same because they… Stuff like that. That said, I do think people with nontraditional backgrounds have an opportunity to stand out more than most people, because of your nontraditional background. We all have a unique experience.

I think people who are transitioning careers in their twenties and thirties or beyond can draw upon what they’ve done previously to stand out because it’s going to be hard to stand out as an early junior developer when you only have six months or a year of just even playing around with this stuff, or an internship under your belt. It’s going to be hard to stand out and that’s where you have to use your background.

That’s one of the ways that… The only ways that I can stand out early in my career was work as hard as I could, which not many people are doing that, and just talk about the fact that I used to be a therapist, which is a way to stand out. And a lot of people have a lot of different ways of doing that. And some are more privileged than others. You might stand out because of the trials and tribulations that you’ve had in your life. Some people might not appreciate that as much as others, but it is really challenging to stand out given the number of people that are entering the field.

If you can create that [apprenticeship] program, that on-ramp into your company, you’re going to see a lot of benefits from that. Dave Hoover, CEO Red Squirrel

Companies should focus on growing talented developers instead of competing for developer talent

Bill Detwiler: Now that you’re on the other side of the equation, now that you’re doing the hiring, that’s a whole different challenge in and of itself, because you’re looking for people who can stand out, who bring skills to the table that you need both today and tomorrow. What are some advice that you can give to other IT leaders who are looking to build dev teams with the right skillset, whether it’s looking at projects they’re working on now, but hopefully looking at things that maybe they might be doing in the future, technologies that might be just around the corner. How do you do that in your business, with what you’re doing at Red Squirrel, and what advice would you give companies?

Dave Hoover: My go-to advice on that front generally revolves around growing talent versus competing for the diminishing supply of existing talent. That requires, though, a certain longer term or medium term view on things, which is especially difficult given the economic crisis that we’re in right now, where people are either surviving or not surviving, let alone investing in long term or medium term things. But we will get through that. We will get through this situation. And there’s great talent out there.

What I’ve seen… There’s great talent that’s untapped. There’s amazing skills that have been developed and those folks will be in short supply no matter what. But in terms of growing, what you were describing about, trying to prepare for future technologies as well as just growing great teams, my experience at Red Squirrel and my experience at a couple of previous software consultancies, one was called Artiva, which existed for about five years or it was acquired by Groupon, 11 years or nine years ago. ThoughtWorks was a company I worked at before that. Both had really strong cultures of learning.

And so what I’ve seen is, if you can invest in bringing… If you can invest in creating an apprenticeship program specifically, a program that allows people to come in that are more junior than your entry level programmers, entry level software developers, maybe just two months more junior, or six months more junior, depending on how much you want to invest in them and how much of a risk you want to take, but also how much wider you want to cast your net in terms of bringing in a more diverse and interesting group of people. If you can create that program, that on-ramp into your company, you’re going to see a lot of benefits from that.

What I’ve seen from that is loyalty. Folks that have been through an apprenticeship program that have been mentored, that the company has really invested in their growth, those folks really tend to stick around a lot longer. They also end up often coming out of their apprenticeship with specialties because of the way we generally structure these things, where they have a research project, and they get to choose their technology.

They usually choose, of course, the bleeding edge hot technologies, and they usually come out of that apprenticeship program with a stronger expertise in that than most of the people in the company often, especially at these companies where a lot of us are generalists. We’re software development consultants, so we need to be able to jump back and forth and do lots of different things. And so when someone goes for six months into something much deeper, they come out of that with an expertise that the whole company can benefit from. Even though this person is junior, they often come out with a deeper expertise in something new because the rest of us are just doing our jobs. And so that’s my golden hammer. Go ahead.

SEE: 3 essential hiring kits for key developer jobs (TechRepublic)

Apprenticeship vs. internship: What’s the difference? 

Bill Detwiler: No, I was going to say what’s different between an apprenticeship program and maybe what some people would know or have more experience with an internship program?


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Dave Hoover: The easy metaphor for that that I’ve used in the past is, sometimes they’re not different at all. Sometimes they’re fairly similar, and it’s just a matter of semantics, but sometimes they’re fairly different. And so in the stereotypical cases, I would say an internship is like dating, and an apprenticeship is like getting engaged, where you’re going to go through college, and maybe you have an internship after your sophomore year, after your junior year, after your senior year, and it may or may not go anywhere.

An apprenticeship is like this fairly committed thing where nine times out of ten, you’re going to get to the end of the timeframe, you’re going into a job, similar to engagement. Most of them work out in an actual wedding. And so there’s just a greater amount of commitment and intention to an apprenticeship, and it tends to have more structure. Now, there’s apprenticeships that can be barely free flowing and it’s just about having a mentor, or just maybe it’s just the expectations that you’re going to be learning more than working at first. But in general, I do find them being more structured. Internships are also structured, but they’re not generally leading straight into employment the way apprenticeship tends to do.

Bill Detwiler: So Dave, thanks for joining us. Where can folks go to learn more about your journey as a developer and what you’re doing over at Red Squirrel?

Dave Hoover: Our website is There’s not a lot there, but it does have some contact information. I think probably in terms of what I was just talking about, probably the best place to look is my book, Apprenticeship Patterns, which was published in 2009, so it’s been out for a while and people are still enjoying it, so it’s held up fairly well. Those are the two places. 

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