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How to become a software engineer in 2021: A step by step guide

Hack Reactor

One career that can be lucrative and rewarding is software engineering. How do you get from where you are now to there? Here’s a roadmap to help guide you toward that change.

By Kevin Juhasz for Hack Reactor

The new year will be upon us shortly, and will hopefully be less chaotic than 2020 has been. This might be a time when you’re looking for a new direction, either because the pandemic has forced you to finally explore your options or you decided on your own that change is needed.

One career that can be lucrative and rewarding is software engineering. How do you get from where you are now to a new career?

Here’s a roadmap to help guide you toward that change.

1. Decide on your path

The first step to take on your journey is to decide if you truly want to make the trip. Take some time to explore if you actually want to be a software engineer. Don’t pick a tech career just because it is one of the most secure careers to have. If you want success, you have to have the desire.

“I would always suggest that students have a good understanding of what they want to do in a professional capacity,” said T. Brad Smith, Enrollment Adviser at Galvanize and Hack Reactor. “Find something that motivates you as far as tech, and use that to motivate you to learn the skills.”

2. Explore education options and apply

Once you’ve explored your options and decided you want to pursue a software engineering career, the next step is to explore your education options:

  • Traditional education – There is no shortage of software educational programs at your traditional colleges and universities. If this is the path you prefer, then go for it. The advantage of traditional education is easier access to financial aid and a well-rounded education. The disadvantages are that traditional education may not fit into your current situation, the overall cost will be significantly higher, and you may be forced to take classes you have no interest in.

  • Bootcamps and online bootcamps – One of the great things about tech jobs is that a traditional degree isn’t always needed. A much shorter and immersive program is one of the best ways to get the knowledge and experience you need to get started in software engineering. Although financial aid sometimes requires a bit more effort for these programs, bootcamps are significantly shorter than traditional education and are designed to prepare students to begin work upon graduation. Programs like Hack Reactor and Galvanize, however, have dramatically improved financial aid options for bootcamp students.

Once you’ve picked your program, you’ll then need to apply for it.

3. Prep work

With traditional education, your prep work will be part of the program, starting off with easier classes and moving up. With bootcamps, your prep work will be different.

Each program will have its own methods, but this article will start by looking at what you need to do to prepare for a bootcamp at Hack Reactor. Before you can begin the regular bootcamp, students must complete a prep course, either a free Basic Prep course where you learn on your own or an affordable Premium Prep course with instruction and community support. The other nice part about the premium option is that the fee can be applied to your tuition if you’re accepted to the immersive course. Prep courses teach you the basics needed to be successful in the regular course.

After completing the prep course, students are tested to make sure they have learned all the things needed to advance. The regular course at Hack Reactor is an intense course that makes sure you’re a software engineer as soon as you complete your education, so instructors need to know you’re ready for the next three months.

“Our Technical Admissions Assessment is a test that students will have to pass, demonstrating they have a good grasp of the basics and JavaScript specifically,” Smith said.

4. Financial aid

If you’re taking the college route, this step should be completed before you even apply to a school. This includes filling out a FASFA to see if you can get grants, then exploring loan options if need be.

If you’re taking the bootcamp route, then you’ll want to begin your financial aid process after your acceptance to a program. Bootcamps' tuition assistance differs from traditional educational funding but has some similar tuition assistance programs, including military funding through the GI Bill. That said, there are many different ways to pay for your bootcamp including Income Share Agreements, where you don’t have to pay tuition until you get a high-paying job.


5. Start your classes

You probably have 3-5 years of education in front of you if you opt for the university path. This will include classes outside of software engineering and a structure that takes you through one class per semester. 

If you choose to get your education through a bootcamp, then you’re looking at about 12 weeks of intense work that is designed to make sure you’re ready to be a software engineer upon completion and also have the skills to expand your education on your own.

The program starts by officially being accepted, signing all the necessary paperwork, then beginning pre-course material, which expands on the prep course work completed earlier.

“The reason we have such an elaborate enrollment process is because of how fast the program accelerates once you start as far as the amount of information that is provided,” Smith explained.

Once the program begins, students learn everything there is to know about full-stack JavaScript development, including development on the front end and the back end. For three months, students only get Sundays off, working 9 a.m to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday. The entire bootcamp is designed for people who may have never done software development, but have the grit and determination to succeed.

“We’ve developed and employed a method that is tested and proven to be effective,” Smith said, adding that the program is not just giving lectures and telling students how to code, but takes a hands-on approach. “It’s more along the lines of, ‘Here’s a new technology; let’s go put this into practice.’”

The program has three capstone projects, the final one of which is building a website. The students start with the concept, apply all of the things they learn during the bootcamp, and finish with a fully functioning site.

6. After graduation

Whether you choose a bootcamp or a traditional school, you’re likely going to have career services and an alumni network that will help you further your career. What those services offer exactly will vary by program. To give you an idea of what you can expect, here’s what Hack Reactor does for its students.

Hack Reactor wants you to have a successful career, so their post educational services are as comprehensive as the program you take. Students have full access to the services for six months after completing their bootcamp, with most students finding a job within three months.

Since software engineering isn’t a typical career, Hack Reactor helps you prepare for the unique requirements of the career with:

  • Resume prep

  • Setting up LinkedIn and GitHub profiles that are consistent and match your resume

  • Creating a portfolio and personal brand

  • Interview prep

  • White-boarding

  • Networking with software engineering professionals and alumni

“The biggest thing you can do to be successful after our program is to apply for as many jobs that interest you as you can,” Smith suggested.

That will pretty much complete your journey toward becoming a software engineer in 2021. From that point, it will be up to you to continue enhancing your skills as technology changes and nurturing your network to make sure you successfully use the tools you were given.