Calico Challenge 2016 – Students Land Jobs!

Alexander Nicholson and Javon Davis, both 2016 Computer Science graduates from UWI Mona, have started working at KnightFox, a Caribbean app development company. We wanted to hear about their academic and professional experiences so they could be an inspiration to future graduates. We interviewed them on how they had managed to land their jobs.

It turns out that the process wasn’t as speedy nor as easy as it appears. Javon, by the time he graduated, had gathered over three years of experience developing mobile applications for both Android and iOS. He had been simultaneously working on quite a few personal projects, reading blogs to keep up to date with what is happening globally, and had taken quite a number of online courses in areas that hadn’t been offered at his school such as machine learning and Android application development. Alexander had followed a similar path in to gain software development experience. He wrote code for websites and mobile/web applications, and expanded into software testing and system administration. He had completed a few internships, hackathons, and paid projects to make sure he was “graduating with some experience.”

Their first advice to students wanting to pursue a career in the software industry is an emphatic “work on a lot of projects outside of the required coursework”. Interestingly, Sebastian Lauzon, talent acquisition manager at RealDecoy, whom we interviewed as well to learn about current industry requirements, validates this counsel by mentioning that employers these days want precisely the kind of “students who have been working on broadening their skills beyond the curriculum.” He remarks that students working on personal projects related to the Internet of Things (IoT), exploring new hardware such as the Raspberry Pi, creating mobile apps, or developing an idea that has value to this world are especially appealing to employers.

Alex and Javon single out the role that their friends and connections played during their job search. Javon got to know the work environment and culture of the companies he was applying for through friends who worked there, and reached out to a lot of recruiters as well. Alex got a referral from a friend at KnightFox, whom he had worked with on a project previously, and who willingly passed along his resume. He says “to work closely with peers on projects, network with faculty, and keep your eyes open for opportunities involving research, internships, competitions, or app ideas”. In fact, he stumbled upon his first opportunity for internship when he struck up conversation at a car dealership!

They emphasize following tech news sites such as Hacker News, and being a member of the Reddit forum and the LinkedIn professional network as being important. They say that these not only inspire learning and accelerate awareness but have also become an integral part of the job hunting expedition. Sebastien seems to echo the same views when he declares that membership in clubs and organization committees, and having Stack Overflow and LinkedIn accounts are important as employers look for candidates who are not “invisible to the world.”

When asked if they could name one thing that undeniably gave them an edge over the rest in securing their jobs, their responses are again strikingly similar. They both put a finger on their Github pages. GitHub is a public online website where developers can publish their work. In Javon’s opinion GitHub tipped the balance in his favor for “it allowed him (the interviewer) to see how I code, and it helped guide the kind of questions he wanted to ask me to assess my thought process.” Javon even goes on to add that Github is fast replacing the traditional resume for developers looking for jobs. Sebastien, on the other hand, representing the employers’ perspective, expands upon this sentiment by saying that the “type, amount, and quality of contributions of code” on the Github is what actually matters.

Speaking of contributing code, Javon and Alex concur that their contribution to open source via the Calico Challenge enabled them to point at “a valued addition” and “a tangible work result” on their Github page, and articulate the challenges and learning that came with it. They give credit to the organizing skills and commendable expertise of their Calico project mentors who, in the words of Alex, engaged him in “the highest levels of sustained technical discussion” he has experienced thus far. The significance of being a part of open source projects is amplified in Sebastien’s response, “Open source is highly relevant to the hiring process as it shows that you are expanding your knowledge, have a passion for development…. and that you want to go the extra mile.”

So what are the technologies and skills in the software industry that students should be versed in? Alex identifies Microsoft technologies .NET and MSSQL as being widely used in Jamaica for software development and system administration respectively, while Javon highlights the demand for data scientists right now, and predicts that the future looks very promising for machine learning. Sebastien reports that RealDecoy seeks persons with Java, and general database experience for their software developers, with Python being valued for DevOps roles. With their focus on site search, the company does a lot of backend development with technologies such as Solr, Elastic Search, and the Oracle ATG web commerce platform. Exposure to automated software testing tools is essential as all their developers are responsible for the quality of their code.

The recent graduates insist that the most indispensable general skill is the ability to solve problems, which is sharpened through practice. Javon states that his understanding of object-oriented programming unfailingly guides his thought process while tackling problems. Demonstrating a thorough understanding of the core concepts of programming and their various applications is critical to success. Perhaps, this is what Sebastien alludes to when he says “there is a difference between producing code and creating production ready code”. Students who exhibit knowledge of database techniques and are interested in adding new frameworks to projects, he believes, are in demand.

But getting a job is just the first hurdle. New employees sometimes experience disappointment in the first few months on the job and may want to quit. When questioned about how RealDecoy prevents or lessens the risk of employees leaving in such a case, Sebastien says, “It is always a risk, especially when you specialize in custom work like we do. We assign a mentor, a buddy and a development manager to each new hire. There are a lot of one on one meetings to help define goals and set expectations. Developers all start with entry level bench projects which are showcased to the company. After a few months of work there is an assignment to a team with multiple mentors. The process is slow taking 3 to 4 months and it’s very intensive.”

In the final analysis, a planned, concerted effort seems necessary for both landing a job and faring well at it in the industry. However, even this may not be enough since, according to Sebastien, employers also look for the right personality fit, the right attitude, and the right work ethic. It’s, no doubt, a competitive and demanding environment. But a compelling combination of all these factors can certainly help you “own your career”. Curiosity, experimentation, contributions to large scale projects, the use of new technologies, and exposure to new techniques all give new graduates an edge. The learning never stops. So good luck and all our best!  Congratulations Javon and Alex!