The transition from student to full-time developer is tricky. While you can study for years and rack up degrees, certifications, and an impressive portfolio of side projects, in many ways the academic world can have little in common with the real world of work. For students used to the comfy confines of the classroom, a cubicle or home office (this is 2020, after all) often requires a completely different set of skills.

On the Decoded podcast, we spoke to Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Royce Willmschen and Katie Mallinson. Willmschen is a senior manager of software engineering, while Mallinson is one of HPE’s newest full stack developers, having recently graduated from North Carolina State. We spoke to Willmschen and Mallinson to hear from both sides of the manager’s desk about what it's like to make the transition from student to employee.

From Academics to Ambiguity

For Mallinson, one of the biggest surprises coming out of school was the structure. In school, you are given concrete assignments, deadlines, and instructions. However, the working world is far more nebulous, with constantly shifting requirements, due dates, and project needs. New developers need to get used to working with ambiguity, where the solution and even the problem aren’t always clear.

To make the transition smoother, Mallinson suggests finding and leveraging mentors.

“One mentor was assigned to me, and he was really good with helping me get familiar with the company and the ins and outs of how everything works. One of my coworkers also took me under his wing and would just pull me aside to help me get familiar with the different languages.”

This combination of formal and informal mentorship can help new developers adjust to a professional environment and do their best work, elevating the entire team.

One thing many students don’t think about is the practical requirements of a work schedule. In college, classes start at all different times, and often have long gaps in between. This lets students create their own schedule that fits their lifestyle. But at work, you’re expected to work a full shift — whether you’re sleepy or not.

“One of the hardest parts of transitioning from college to the workplace is having a consistent sleep schedule. I had to go from getting four hours at night and then a few in the afternoon to actually sleeping through the night.”

Said Mallinson.

“Fortunately, we have all the free caffeine you could want in the office when we are there.”

Adds Willmschen.

Preparing for the Working World

Students can do a lot in school to make themselves more attractive candidates to recruiters while easing their transition into the corporate world. Here’s what Willmschen looks for when evaluating junior developers:

  • Internships: Employers want experienced employees, even if they’ve never had a job. Better yet, they want employees they know can already do the job. “Internships are extremely valuable not only because they give you some real-world skills, but it’s a good way to get your foot in the door,” said Willmschen. “They’re known commodities that we already have experience with.
  • Projects: In addition to internships, project work in school can provide a portfolio of work that shows a hiring manager that a candidate can do the job. When sharing a project, don’t just focus on the code. Willmschen suggests “selling” the project by explaining your contribution if it was a group project, the project’s challenges, and how you solved them.
  • Communication skills: Being a developer isn’t just about writing code. It’s about going to meetings, brainstorming solutions, and working as a team. “Look for opportunities to build communication skills,” said Willmschen. “You can’t be an introvert on a software team.
  • Adaptability: The technology industry changes by the minute. You have to be able to quickly adapt to new languages and new ways of doing business. “The thing that you’re working on today, it might not be the thing you’re working on in a month,” he said. Use your school experience and dev portfolio to demonstrate your versatility during the interview, and be ready to quickly pivot at work to face new challenges.

Check out this week’s Decoded podcast to hear more advice from Royce Willmschen and Katie Mallinson about making the transition from college student to working developer. Listen to the episode, and subscribe to the series today.