5 Experiencing your future

So, tell me, are you experienced? Why is experience valuable and what kind of experience are employers looking for anyway? How can you get some more experience? 🤔

Do you respond with a sheepish experience not found error message when people ask about your experience? Is your experience like the classic page not found HTTP 404? The client sent you a valid request for your experience, but your server couldn’t find it. Awkward. Embarrassing silence? 😳 Don’t worry, there are some simple and easy ways to build your experience so that instead of negative 404’s, you can respond with a cheerfully positive 200 (OK), as described in this list of HTTP status codes. We’ll look at some of them in this chapter. Experience not found sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 5.1: Do you respond with a sheepish experience not found error message when people ask about your experience? Is your experience like the classic page not found HTTP 404? The client sent you a valid request for your experience, but your server couldn’t find it. Awkward. Embarrassing silence? 😳 Don’t worry, there are some simple and easy ways to build your experience so that instead of negative 404’s, you can respond with a cheerfully positive 200 (OK), as described in this list of HTTP status codes. We’ll look at some of them in this chapter. Experience not found sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

5.1 What you will learn

By the end of this chapter you will be able to

  • Describe why having experience can improve your chances of getting interviews
  • Identify what counts as experience and why it’s valuable
  • Recognise opportunities to get more experience before you graduate
You might be surprised by which of your experiences are relevant, and what kinds of experience are relevant on your CV. What’s relevant sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 5.2: You might be surprised by which of your experiences are relevant, and what kinds of experience are relevant on your CV. What’s relevant sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

5.2 Why is experience so valuable?

It’s common for students to be focused on their grades, whether those grades are low, middling or or high. At the extremes, if you have got lower grades than you’d like, you might be anxious or unhappy about them. If you’ve got higher grades, you’re probably focussed on keeping them high. Either way, you are much more than your grades, because your education is only a part of who you are. You are the sum total of your experiences, this is one of the reasons that experience is so valuable, see figure 5.3

Experience is one of the best ways to develop know-how. While your formal education and academic study can help you develop know-what, you need to complement this knowledge with a range of experiences and on-the-job learning. This astronaut is training to work in microgravity by completing tasks underwater in a space suit. Like the astronaut, your education needs to combine academic study, with practical experience on-the-job. Public domain image of Christer Fuglesang training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) by NASA on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3WBf adapted using the Wikipedia App.

Figure 5.3: Experience is one of the best ways to develop know-how. While your formal education and academic study can help you develop know-what, you need to complement this knowledge with a range of experiences and on-the-job learning. This astronaut is training to work in microgravity by completing tasks underwater in a space suit. Like the astronaut, your education needs to combine academic study, with practical experience on-the-job. Public domain image of Christer Fuglesang training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) by NASA on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3WBf adapted using the Wikipedia App.

Your experience tells a story about who you are and what you’re capable of. Experience makes you more employable which means:

  1. experience will improve your chances of being invited to interview
  2. experience will improve your chances of being offered a job after an interview
  3. experience will broaden your skills and knowledge, see figure 2.1

Paul Redmond at the University of Liverpool describes experience as a key part of employability (Redmond 2010) as expressed in his graduate jobs formula shown in equation (5.1).

\[\begin{equation} E = Q + WE + S \times C \tag{5.1} \end{equation}\]

According to Redmond, your employability (\(E\)) is the sum of your qualifications (\(Q\)), your work experience (\(WE\)) and your strategies (\(S\)) multiplied by your contacts (\(C\)). It is difficult to quantify employability so precisely but Redmond’s equation (5.1) is a good starting point for discussion. We will look at strategies and contacts in chapter 8, this chapter will focus on how to maximise your experience (\(WE\)).

5.3 Are you experienced?

So what counts as experience? Employers use terms to describe jobs and experience for undergraduates and graduates inconsistently. So I’ve defined and outlined terms for relevant kinds of experience shown in table 5.1 and we’ll use these definitions throughout the book.

Table 5.1: Are you experienced? Terms used throughout this guidebook to describe experience, employment and their definitions
Experience Description
Casual Part-time or casual work, for example in hospitality or retail etc
Voluntary Unpaid, both in technical and non-technical roles
Entrepreneurial Self-employment, freelancing, contracting, “moonlighting” in a side job or starting as a sole-trader or small business
Insight Usually no contract of employment. One to three weeks, sometimes known as work experience, work shadowing, spring weeks, vacation schemes or even externships. Usually unpaid, but often expensed. See ratemyplacement.co.uk/insights for some examples
Internship Fixed term contract of employment, typically 3 months full-time over summer, but anywhere between 1 and 6 months. Sometimes part-time, may be an assessed part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.
Placement Fixed term contract of employment, typically 12 months long and an assessed part of a degree. In Europe they are sometimes known as a “sandwich” or “industrial experience” years because they typically take place in the penultimate (last but one) year of a degree. In America, placements are usually known as co-ops
Graduate job Full-time permanent contract typically working in one department of an organisation
Graduate scheme Full-time permanent contract. Fast-track or high-flier managerial scheme, in your first two years, you’ll probably rotate around different departments in an organisation

Some of the experience outlined in table 5.1 was probably what you were already thinking of as experience, however there are three important sources of experience that students often overlook:

  1. Voluntary work: Any kind of work where you’ve given your time and labour to a community. That could be non-technical (working for a charity) or technical, such as contributing to open-source software, see section 5.3.3 and figure 5.4
  2. Casual work: Working in hospitality or retail (etc) is often overlooked by students as an important source of relevant experience. It doesn’t have to be technical to be relevant to employers, see section 5.3.5
  3. Student societies Your students’ union will have hundreds of official societies you can get involved in, and they’ll be plenty of unofficial fringe communities too. As well as helping you develop new or existing interests, these societies give you an opportunity to serve a particular community of interest. Many societies seek members to take on positions of responsibility, above and beyond merely participating in their events
Volunteering is a great source of experience that employers value. That could mean volunteering for charitable causes, taking responsibility in a student society or getting involved in open source projects. Picture of volunteers cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Z96 adapted using the Wikipedia App.

Figure 5.4: Volunteering is a great source of experience that employers value. That could mean volunteering for charitable causes, taking responsibility in a student society or getting involved in open source projects. Picture of volunteers cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Z96 adapted using the Wikipedia App.

Before we discuss these experiences, lets look at some of the more conventional places for getting experience:

5.3.1 Big name experience

It’s probably easier than you might think to get a big tech or big employer name on your CV. For example, many large employers run insight days, vacation schemes and spring weeks. These are often aimed at first year undergraduates, and are sometimes less competitive to get into than a longer term commitment such as a summer internship, year-long placement or even graduate job. A big name on your CV early in your degree can help it stand out later, as fluff bucket the grinning cheshire cat demonstrates on their CV shown in figure 5.5. 😻

It’s easier than you might think to get a big name on your CV, sometimes these can help your application stand out from the competition. Big name sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 5.5: It’s easier than you might think to get a big name on your CV, sometimes these can help your application stand out from the competition. Big name sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Other ways to get a big name on your CV include joining a big name competition or event, for example:

Big names can look good on your CV, but they are not the only way to make your CV stand out.

5.3.2 Small name experience

Any experience will help your CV stand out. Smaller employers have the advantage that they tend to be less picky than big names so it is often easier to get a foot in the door. It might not be what you see yourself doing for long, but the experience gained in a small company can be invaluable. You might even prefer working in a small company to a big corporation or conglomeration.

5.3.3 Open source experience

Open source software projects are a great way to get some solid experience of software engineering, see for example Why Computing Students Should Contribute to Open Source Software Projects. (Spinellis 2021) There’s two ways to get started:

  1. Raise a new issue via the project’s issue tracker, such as github issues (Octocat 2020)
  2. Fix a bug by picking existing issues. (Robertson 2020) It might sound trivial, but fixing a bug demonstrates that you can collaborate with others, understand the architecture and toolchain being used (which might be complex) and solve problems. See firstcontributions.github.io and the <good first issue> tag which helps new contributors identify starting points, see goodfirstissue.dev for some aggregated examples.

There are lots of different motivations for getting involved in open source, shown in figure 5.6. Whatever your motivation, contributing to open source software is fun, you’ll learn heaps and it will look great on your CV. Open source software is widely used by, so contributing is a great way to get some real world experience of software development. Many open source projects are funded by employers both large and small, and you can get paid to develop open source software through projects like Google’s Summer of Code. (Anonymous Googler 2021)

There are lots of good reasons for getting involved in open source software, gaining skills and experience of real software engineering in the wild is just one of them. Open Source Motivations by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 5.6: There are lots of good reasons for getting involved in open source software, gaining skills and experience of real software engineering in the wild is just one of them. Open Source Motivations by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

If you’re looking for a project to get stuck into, here are Diomidis Spinellis tips for getting started (Spinellis 2021):

  1. Choose a project with several active contributors, so that there is a community to help you
  2. Choose a relatively popular project (with some GitHub stars) so that you can avoid abandonware but…
  3. … Avoid “blockbuster” projects like tensorflow or vscode , so that your contributions will not get lost in the politics and bureaucracy of a large project
  4. Verify that you can build and run the project from your own setup
  5. Ensure the project regularly accepts pull requests from outsiders, so that yours contributions will have a chance of being accepted
  6. Contribute a trivial fix to start with to test your ability use the project’s workflows

5.3.4 Voluntary experience

Experience as a section of your CV usually means paid work. However, experience in the context of this chapter means anything where you can show you’ve been part of a bigger team, taken responsibility for something or tried to make the world a better place somehow. These include:

  • Volunteering: Doing voluntary work is a good way to pick up new skills
  • Being involved in societies: e.g. taking responsibility for things in a society
  • Getting involved in a community, either physical or online

5.3.5 Casual experience

You may already have experience of paid employment as a casual or part-time worker. This could include jobs such as waiting tables, serving in a bar or working in other areas of hospitality or retail, for example as a Saturday job.

Casual and part-time work tell an important story about you on your CV. For example, from the age of 12, I was a paperboy, delivering newspapers directly to the doors of paying customers. This demonstrates reliability and work ethic, because I did this in all weathers (sun, wind, rain, snow, hangovers etc) for six years. If you have casual experience like this, don’t forget to include it in your CV. Public domain image of the Titanic paperboy, Ned Parfett selling newspapers in London via Wikimedia Commons at w.wiki/35HA

Figure 5.7: Casual and part-time work tell an important story about you on your CV. For example, from the age of 12, I was a paperboy, delivering newspapers directly to the doors of paying customers. This demonstrates reliability and work ethic, because I did this in all weathers (sun, wind, rain, snow, hangovers etc) for six years. If you have casual experience like this, don’t forget to include it in your CV. Public domain image of the Titanic paperboy, Ned Parfett selling newspapers in London via Wikimedia Commons at w.wiki/35HA

It is important to recognise that these jobs have value. Many students make the mistake of overlooking their casual work experience because they disregard it as non-technical or consider it “low-skilled.” In the section 7.6 we saw that one of the stories you want to tell in your job applications is that you:

  1. take responsibility
  2. achieve things
  3. are nice to have around

Doing casual work can demonstrate all of these things. For example, from the ages of 12 to 18 I was a paperboy, except unlike the Titanic paperboy selling newspapers in the street in figure 5.7, I delivered newspapers directly to the doors of paying customers every morning. This was not a particularly highly skilled job, but it does demonstrate:

  1. work ethic: getting up early every morning (including Saturdays). Sometimes work is about just turning up everyday!
  2. taking responsibility and being reliable
  3. understanding the value of money by earning a wage

I’ve often spoken to students who neglect to tell me about their paid work in retail or hospitality. “But it’s not technical” they say, “it’s low skilled and irrelevant.” However, serving customers demonstrates your ability to provide good customer service and work as part of a team, often under pressure, see figure 5.8. This is good evidence of the “nice to have around” bit that Jonathan Black refers to (Black 2019) and is something your formal education will not typically provide much evidence of. So, don’t fall into the trap of discounting the value of casual or part-time labour.

Early in your career, casual work in hospitality or retail, such as a supermarket like Budgens where I used to work as a teenager, is worth mentioning on your CV. If you have any experience of this kind, make sure you mention it and describe the skills you developed. Think carefully about the verbs can you use to describe casual experience, see chapter 18.

Figure 5.8: Early in your career, casual work in hospitality or retail, such as a supermarket like Budgens where I used to work as a teenager, is worth mentioning on your CV. If you have any experience of this kind, make sure you mention it and describe the skills you developed. Think carefully about the verbs can you use to describe casual experience, see chapter 18.

5.4 Breakpoints

Let’s pause here. Insert a breakpoint in your code and slowly step through it so we can examine the current values of your variables and parameters.

* PAUSE ⏸️
  • What experience do you have to date?
  • What activities could you do to get some more experience?
  • What are the pros and cons of summer internships vs. year long placements?
    • Which one is right for you?
* RESUME ▶️

5.5 Summarising your experience

Too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)? Here’s a summary:

This chapter is under construction because I’m using agile book development methods, see figure 5.9.

Just like the Death Star, this galactic superweapon chapter is under construction. Image of agile weapon engineering in Star Wars via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/32PB adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 5.9: Just like the Death Star, this galactic superweapon chapter is under construction. Image of agile weapon engineering in Star Wars via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/32PB adapted using the Wikipedia app