How to get into software engineering as an IT contractor

Traditionally, the only way to get into software engineering was by studying an analytics-based degree at university -- so think Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics. You’d then just enter the industry as a graduate.

But times change, and while the UK’s need and usage of software-related products has increased, the graduate intake in these subjects hasn’t increased in line with this uplift, writes Matt Collingwood of IT recruitment agency VIQU.

Looking outside the box…

So many employers today seeking software engineering expertise now have to look outside the box -- at different routes, to either engage newcomers or upskill existing techies, including those individuals who didn’t go to university.

Below, I reveal the major routes to get into software engineering in 2023 -- for those of you on the verge of starting a tech careers, as well as IT contractors who are looking to migrate into software engineering.

First then, what if you’re at the beginning of your career and want to get into software engineering?

Keepin’ it traditional: A-Levels and/or University

The main route total newcomers to software engineering like youngsters go down is still A Levels and then university.

My advice? Take this route if it’s AT ALL open to you. I’ve spoken to many freelance developers in recent years who say that although their university degree more often than not wasn’t directly related to what they do now, their degree gave them a more rounded view -- which helped them understand how IT departments function nowadays.

A bit like back in the day, then, analytics-based degrees are still recommended in helping future developers build core skills like attention to detail, problem-solving, and clear visual, written, and verbal communication.

That said, if you’re reeling at the mere thought of university, or are too old for A-levels; don’t despair! In fact, while I would certainly recommend taking the traditional, academic, route into software engineering, if it’s not the right option for you, you can still absolutely make it as a software engineer using other avenues.

Apprenticeships, why not?

Doing a software engineering apprenticeship is a fantastic alternative way to learn your craft, while developing your skills in a workplace environment and earning money.

We work with a client who sees the long-term value of nurturing and developing junior software engineering talent via running an apprenticeship scheme. The client has a yearly intake of 16-18-year-olds and young adults who are studying A-Levels, other apprenticeships, or are considering university.

The client only consider those with grade 7 or above in English and Maths (or A-A* as lots of people still know it!). And then they really just look for individuals who can demonstrate an active interest in coding. This might be via coding their own basic website, or even just doing online introductory courses to software engineering.

Boot camps -- with a caveat

Attending a coding ‘boot camp’ will expose you to an accelerated curriculum of learning that will give you a basic set of programming skills. These boot camps tend to last between three and six months. Despite the name, boot camps aren’t scary places; there’s no drill sergeant and they often let you juggle their curriculum around part-time or even full-time work.  

Be aware of this caveat though -- not every employer will consider this level of education as sufficient to offer employment in software engineering. Nonetheless, enrolling in a coding boot camp demonstrates a real commitment to software engineering which some employers will be attracted to.

Self-directed learning: Gain experience with your own medley of learning

For many developers and software engineers, what started as a hobby became their lucrative career!

Therefore, consider coupling one of the approaches above with some self-directed learning. With such learning, you’ll discover whether software engineering really is something you want to invest further time into, and it will potentially help you conquer those all-important first rungs on the software engineering career ladder.

Such self-directed learning includes reading reputable software engineering sources online, watching related videos on YouTube, picking up a book, and doing some self-teaching. Helpfully, some languages are relatively easy and accessible for newcomers to get to grips with, notably Python, Ruby, Java, JavaScript.  

At this stage, you could decide to build your own website or do some more advanced online courses. Once you’ve done either of those you might then support a family member or friend who requires a basic website for their business or hobby.

Around this point, you might agree -- programming isn’t for everyone! You need to be analytical, patient, and always be up for a challenge. Fortunately, ‘extracurricular’ software engineering activities you can do in your spare time to increase your basic knowledge are numerous, to work out if software engineering is 100% suited to you.

I’m already an IT contractor. How can I move into software engineering? Four tips

Software engineering is highly attractive for a number of reasons. There’s plenty of demand, it’s well-paid, and it tends to offer the flexibility to work in the location you choose when you want.

Therefore, you might already be working in IT, but be looking to make a move towards software engineering.

1. Manage your expectations

Managing your expectations is massively important here! Partly, it’s because moving sideways in your technology career to enter software engineering isn’t a particularly common move for experienced IT professionals to make. That said, I have seen it happen on a few occasions.

Why you’ll need to manage your expectations is worth unpicking. You will probably have similar soft skills and a technical skillset -- but (and it’s a big ‘BUT’), development is its own beast.

If you’re in a senior role in another field of IT, you cannot expect to switch to development and instantly hold the same level of responsibility, not to mention similar pay or/and benefits. You will need to take a few steps back in the initial stages, but be reassured -- you could potentially take multiple steps forward in your software engineering career quickly, if you perform well.

2. Start in safe mode -- learn as a hobby

As I mentioned above, there’s plenty you can do to develop your level of interest in software engineering. You can use this to your advantage to access software engineering opportunities in a safe, sensible, manageable way.

Here’s a real story which might help you. I recently interviewed a candidate who had moved from IT infrastructure to software engineering. As stated earlier, it’s not a common transition to make -- so I was interested in how he did it.

He told me that he had identified that software engineering made a lot more sense for him -- and his personality -- in the long-term. He therefore spent a LOT of time self-learning, in his spare time outside of the IT Infrastructure space. Quite bravely, he then showcased his new knowledge of software engineering to his employer. They were so impressed; they gave him an opportunity to transfer into their development team!

3. Speak with your engager/ employer

So why not learn from this candidate? Consider ask your current end-user whether they have opportunities for you to to reskill and take a side-step into their software engineering (or related) team. If you’re told 'no,' consider even asking them or another outfit if some unpaid work experience would be beneficial to them. It would certainly be beneficial for you; even shadowing a software engineering consultant or contractor can be enormously insightful!

4. Attend tech meet-ups

Tech meet-up are a great place to meet established software engineers. You’ll find them both at general tech meet-ups but at more specialist development groups too. Both these events provide a great opportunity to speak with individuals in software engineering and development. Everything from ironing out your nagging queries to learning about the quirks of the language of the moment, can be achieved in a matter of minutes -- but potentially from contacts who you’ll know for a lifetime! Indeed, most developers are highly passionate about what they do, and my guess is most will be more than happy to share their experiences of the industry. Good luck!

Thursday 14th Sep 2023
Profile picture for user Matt Collingwood

Written by Matt Collingwood

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

Printer Friendly, PDF & Email

Sign up to our newsletter

Receive weekly contractor news, advice and updates.

Every sign up will be entered into a draw to WIN £100 Amazon Vouchers.

* indicates required