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How to Jumpstart Your Programming Career

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If you've felt yourself stagnating as a programmer recently, I have a cure for you. That's right, a ticket out of the back room or cubicle you've been stuck in for the past few years, into an exciting world that is changing daily. The secret is joining an open source community.

This is a step-by-step path to making more money AND having more fun at the same time. It may not always be easy, but doing something worthwhile almost never is. Here's how:

  1. Pick an Open Source Project
  2. Read a Book
  3. Attend a Meetup
  4. Launch Something
  5. Write a Blog
  6. Commit Some Code
  7. Travel to a Conference
  8. Create a Presentation

1. Pick an Open Source Project

First things first, you have to find a project with a growing community that excites you. Speaking for web developers, I'd highly recommend either Drupal or WordPress. Both of these projects are on a crazy growth curve, have glut of career opportunities and a vibrant community. Between the two, my personal preference is Drupal, so I'll examine the next steps from the perspective of someone looking to get involved with Drupal.

2. Read a Book

It's amazing what you can learn from a book, and books are hands down the best intro into most Open Source projects; they are cheaper than training seminars and more digestible and structured than Google Searches. The current best introductory book to Drupal (for a programmer) is the Definitive Guide to Drupal 7. Go out, buy it and read it from cover to cover. If you find that you don't like a few of the approaches, don't worry about it right now. Standards exist for a reason, and many coding practices take some getting used to.

3. Attend a Meetup

Once you've got your bearings (you did read that book, right?), it's time to meet other members of the community. Meetups for Open Source projects exist everywhere. For Drupal, it's simply a matter of finding your closest group on, finding out when the meetings happen and making the trek out there. For a lot of developers this step can be pretty tough. You may run into groups that feel like they have established cliques, but in general people are friendly and are very open to new visitors showing up. The meetup is a critical part of your professional evolution because this is one of the most likely places to hear about fabulous new employment opportunities and/or interesting chances for collaboration.

4. Launch Something

If you've already read an introductory book and said hello to your future peers, you've probably gone past writing "Hello World" and done a little tinkering. Now it's time to actually launch something in the real world. Pick a project (your friend's band, your cat, etc.), build a website using your new platform and then launch it. Taking the project from beginning to live-on-the-internet is absolutely critical. Put it on DreamHost, GoDaddy, whatever - just make sure it's out there in the public sphere. In the case of Drupal, doing this will give you exposure to:

  • Initial setup
  • Creating a dev environment
  • Webserver configuration
  • The theming system
  • The module system (remember: don't hack core!)
  • Real world issues

...and many more things I may be forgetting to list. In a few years, you'll look back on this first project and shake your head at all the mistakes you made, but hey, you have to walk before you can run.

5. Write a Blog

No matter what your first project is, someone, somewhere will be interested in your story - so put it out there. You likely already have an established online identity (mine was metaltoad), so it's time to start defining what that name means. Don't get to hung up on how you publish your blog. Yes, you can use Drupal, but you can also get it out the door by posting to Tumblr or Blogger. What you say is way more important that the platform you use. And saying something is way more important than "getting it right". Get it out there.

6. Commit Some Code

Committing code to Open Source projects may seem like a daunting task, but like many things just getting started is the hard part. Start small, and start looking at existing bug queues and help people patch them. In Drupal, you'll need to get setup with a Git (some open source project host their own version system, and others use public services like GitHub). So start there, and then head on over to the Drupal Getting Involved Guide. Remember, consistency across the project matters and you don't want your commits to be rejected for cosmetic reasons, so be sure to adhere to established coding standards.

7. Travel to a Conference

The next step in your career is hopping on a plane and going to a conference. If you are lucky, you may be able to convince your existing employer to pay for your ticket, hotel, meals and/or pay you to attend. If you aren't so lucky, pay for it out of your own pocket. A lot of people get hung up on this, but if you can afford a flatscreen TV and a game system, you can afford to invest a few thousand dollars in your career (how much did you spend on college for that matter?!). Getting on a plane and completely immersing yourself in this code & community you have selected is an amazing experience. Recruiters abound, epiphanies will be had and friendships will be forged. For Drupal, the big one is DrupalCon, which happens to be in Portland for the year 2013. Last year it was in Denver, but no matter where it is, get on a plane and go. You won't regret it.

8. Create a Presentation

By now, you should have a decent blog, have some code commits under your belt and be a regular at your local meetup. It's time to give something back and help people avoid some of the pitfalls you fell into along the way. Everyone has something to say and creating a presentation is a key element to raising the visibility of your personal-professional brand. You can present at local meetups to start and move on to larger events. If public speaking is really not your thing, you can always publish something on Slideshare.

What's in it for You?

That's it for the step-by-step process. If you do get involved in an Open Source project here's what's in it for you:

  • More money
  • More job satisfaction (money isn't everything, right?)
  • Fantastic peers
  • A greater sense of accomplishment
  • A sense of community
  • More options

Sounds pretty good, right? So what are you waiting for? Get started today.

Date posted: August 29, 2012


Just wondering why you mention Drupal as starting CMS platform? Any personal preferences?

Anyway, I'm just starting looking at Drupal right now. I tried Joomla and Typo3. What really like about Typo3 and Drupal is the ability creating custom content elements, which is really helpfull especialy for clients.

Thank you for the post!

Drupal is more then just a CMS or a software. by choosing Drupal, you choose a community that you can grow with.
I'm sure that if get involved in the community you will be addicted to it ;-).

Totally agreed. More than one person has identified the Drupal community as the true value of the platform, and that's one of the reasons it's such a good place to invest your time.

I'll try Drupal for sure for the next project. Do you have any interesting resources to get started?
Thank you!

Writing a book about the open source project you are involved in helps you to get in touch with the most involved developers within the community, study in depth one area of the project and proves that you are able to structure your knowledge effectively.

Writing a book would be amazing. If I were to go back and revise the section on creating a presentation, it really boils down to getting published. I hope that writing a book could be a natural extension of creating a presentation - which itself builds on blogging.

I am going to share this on Twitter and LinkedIn. After taking my new position as a Drupal developer, a friend sarcastically remarked, "oh, I guess I should have studied more in college..." I informed him that I taught myself how to be a web developer, and I really didn't hit my stride until I started using Drupal and began participating the the Drupal community. It is truly a great place to learn and grow , and for me, to launch a new career path.

Interestingly, I don't believe there is a strong educational track to becoming a web developer. Most of the academic programs I've seen focus on Object Oriented programming, centered around C++ or Java. That's great, but that has very little to do with actually getting things launched on the web. I also believe the Drupal community (and other advanced open source platforms more generally) have far surpassed what is available for plain-jane Java or C++.

You seem to have forgotten about DrupalCon Sao Paulo, Sydney and Prague.

It would also be worth moving you CAPTCHA above your Save button as I totally missed it.

Too true! My article is suffering from a bit of Portland-USA-centricity. I'll add that in.

PS. Regarding the CAPTCHA, it's out of the box Mollom. I've been flagged by it more than once. :-(

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About the Author

Joaquin Lippincott, CEO

Joaquin is a 20+ year technology veteran helping to lead businesses in the move to the Cloud. He frequently speaks on panels about the future of tech ranging from IoT and Machine Learning to the latest innovation in the entertainment industry.  He has helped to modernize software for industry leaders like Sony, Daimler, Intel, the Golden Globes, Siemens Wind Power, ABC, NBC, DC Comics, Warner Brothers & the Linux Foundation.

As the CEO and Founder of Metal Toad, an AWS Advanced Consulting Partner, his primary job is to "get the right people in the room".  This one responsibility is cross-functional and includes both external business development functions as well as internal delegation and leadership development.

A UCLA alumni, he also serves in the community as a Board Member for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, and Stand for Children Oregon - a public education political advocacy group. As an outspoken advocate for entry-level job creation in tech he helped found the non-profit, P4TH, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of entry-level jobs in the tech industry, and is in the process of organizing an Advisory Board for the Bixel Exchange, a Los Angeles non-profit that provides almost 200 tech internships every year.


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