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Career advice for coders

By nickwkg in Op-Ed
Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 06:48:48 PM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

It struck me recently how little real career advice there is for programmers. As a youth, it's easy enough to be recommended a career as a coder, but that's about as far as it gets - it seems that noone outside of computing really understands that "programmer" really includes a myriad of different jobs.

System developer, Embedded systems coder, Applications programmer, Database developer, Web developer, Script writer, Games developer, Analyst Programmer, Real Time Embedded engineer, DSP programmer, etc.

The result of this unfortunate situation is that people fresh out of college don't always have the information they need to make the correct career decisions. I for example went into web development, only to write a thousand web pages that simply looped through recordsets and spewed out the results as HTML. Not that there's anything wrong with web development, it was just that I had based my decision to do web stuff on the naive theory "Hmm, I can code, I can draw - I know I'll do web development".

So now I want to ask the good users of k5 to ponder over the jobs that they've got and have had in the past and summarise the pros and cons of each plus a description of what sort of skills are necessary for each/what sort of people each job is suited for. With a bit of luck we can provide a lot of help for people out there who are having to make this kind of decision.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


I write code for ...
o the web 27%
o applications 22%
o financial systems 5%
o operating systems 3%
o low-level stuff 7%
o games 2%
o I'm not a coder 16%
o other... 14%

Votes: 111
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by nickwkg

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Career advice for coders | 26 comments (23 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
No different for non-coders (4.50 / 4) (#2)
by GreenCrackBaby on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 11:14:22 AM EST

My wife is studying genetics and has to pick between medical genetics, molecular genetics, genetic counselling, etc. I think the same will hold true for most career paths out of university. The trick is that you have to do your research and talk to people in the field, or go on an internship to get a bit of experience.

In terms of myself, while I was going to school I developed a strong hatred for databases, yet my internship involved coding for a database application. Now I'm essentially a DBA. If I hadn't gone on the internship, I would have veered towards web development. <shudder> Now I know much better! :)

Web Developer != Web Designer (4.00 / 4) (#4)
by mattx on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 11:36:43 AM EST

I have been told I have artistic talent, and I believe I do. I love designing web pages, as well as developing the backend code for it, and I do rather well at both.
What I didn't know was that a typical company has a web designer and web developer, and not a person that does both. I enjoy designing the page I'm coding for, and I work better like that. But the current job I'm at (which today is my last day, huzzah!) the designer has a total fit if I even change the page a little bit. I hate the way he designs the page: he creates it in Macromedia Fireworks, then he takes a screenshot of it and makes it just on big image. You would think a web designer would do their code in HTML at least. It's the way I do it. I visually design my page in Macromedia Dreamweaver, then go through it and correct all the crap code that it produces. Then I have a template, not an image of one. I guess there aren't that many creative and technical minded people out there, which is why the two positions are widely separated.

-- i fear that i am ordinary, just like everyone

Understood and agreed, but... (none / 0) (#5)
by Speare on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 11:57:53 AM EST

I completely understand and empathize with your pain. Why can't so-called creative people also understand and work within the technical limitations of the media? Why can't they understand that this will bloat a page, or that table cells always line up exactly?

Therein lies one strength of the separated disciplines, though: by not working in HTML, the designer can focus on the needs and experience of the user first. It is only once the ideas have been expressed in a very general way, that the technical constraints have to shape that ideal into reality.

Michelangelo's famed sculpture David started with a concept that had nothing to do with chisels, stone, marble or doorways. However, Michelangelo had to work his concept to fit in the block of marble he used, the grain of the stone he discovered, the logistics of how the thing could be moved, and myriad technical details. What came from this "vision first, tech second" implementation is still a masterpiece.

There are so few people who are equally left-brained enough to master the technical limitations of the medium, and right-brained enough to ponder the ideal without distraction, that it is no wonder that most teams find this duality in collaboration.

[ e d @ h a l l e y . c c ]
[ Parent ]
Designers (none / 0) (#22)
by kubalaa on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 06:07:59 PM EST

...by not working in HTML, the designer can focus on the needs and experience of the user first.

I disagree. In fact, I'd say most web designers that I've known are pretty incompetent interface designers, which I think is what you're getting at, while all the interface designers I've known almost always work directly with HTML because it lets them take control over the user experience. "David" is art. Graphic design is art. Most web pages are NOT art. I'm fine with graphic designers providing artwork and aesthetic advice, just like programmers provide code and technical advice, but neither of these two has any business putting together the final product. It's like letting an illustrator or an editor do typesetting.

[ Parent ]

I hate designers who do HTML (3.00 / 1) (#8)
by error 404 on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 12:26:51 PM EST

I'm a web developer. And a designer when they let me be. Most of the time, I get a design as a single big graphic. And I like it that way.

When a designer sends me the design in HTML, I feel obligated to use that HTML, and it is often such utter crap that it would be probably far faster to redo it from scratch.

Last time, it included this god-awful table-like design that had (among other things) the damned columns out of order in the file and then shuffled by using DIV tags with postioning. It made Netscape GPF. Every single time. And because the designer had cursed me with code, my deadline was moved up far enough that I had to try to use his code. Ended up throwing two copies into one big ColdFusion file, one for IE, and the other (with no pretty formatting at all) for Netscape. Heh heh - the Netscape users got their info way faster...

Give me a pretty picture and let me do the code. Or (better yet) give me the general idea and let me design it for the web.

Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

[ Parent ]

Maybe it's not the way it's done... (none / 0) (#9)
by mattx on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 12:35:05 PM EST

But the fact that I can't even think about changing a single thing on the page without the designer bitching about it. That pisses me off. ; )

-- i fear that i am ordinary, just like everyone

[ Parent ]
That would piss me off, too (none / 0) (#11)
by error 404 on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 01:33:44 PM EST

My designers tend to realize that the graphic elements I'll use directly, the text styles I'll approximate as well as practical, and the whole original picture is a first draft subject to modification.

I tend to run changes past the designer - or, more often, past whoever hired us both - but we all realize that web design includes constraints that I know better than the graphic guy does. I try to smooth things a bit by acknowledging that the graphic designer knows more about graphic design than I do.

Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phase
- Donovan

[ Parent ]

Find your calling (4.00 / 2) (#6)
by dgay on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 12:18:09 PM EST

I don't believe someone should make a career choice based on strangers opinions. Explore and find out what you like. My only advice is to try a lot of jobs while you are young (< 25) before you get tied down with worldly debt such as mortgages. Decide what you like and then try to turn that into a job. good luck!

Don't label yourself. (4.00 / 4) (#7)
by ucblockhead on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 12:24:44 PM EST

The more you label yourself, the more likely you are to get stuck in a narrow field. This is especially important in that today's hot careers are tomorrow's dead-end jobs. When I got out of college, the hot ticket was to be a C coder who knew MS-DOS. I've met people who are still doing that. They are not well paid, nor are their jobs particularly interesting.

Make sure that you get yourself a variety of experience as you move through your career. Be careful of people who pay you lots of money to work on obsolete systems.

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
Personal Experience and Observation (4.71 / 7) (#10)
by Seumas on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 12:42:40 PM EST

First, let me layout a quick foundation:

I'm 23. I left highschool in the first month of my Junior year to pursue a career in this field and have no formal technical education. I have no legitimate college education, beyond some audited (out of curiosity) classes, mostly in subjects completely unrelated to the field. Currently, my employer is one of the giants of the field (you could count those that are bigger on one hand and probably have a couple fingers left, I bet). My employment at my current place was made by luck and a transition from my previous employment at what many is considered the "first internet company", which was founded by JC (you surely know how I'm talking about).

Okay, with that crap out of the way -- you can see where I'm coming from and take my advice for what it may or may not be worth.

The first lesson I've learned is that education is important, but desire is more important. Formal education is nice, but well-rounded intelligence is something that can be demonstrated and observed and is often of greater value. Reliability, hard-work and the ability to learn and work well with people is extremely important.

Internships, special classes in high school, college courses and a computer science degree (as expensive a that is) and anything else is secondary -- connections are the most important aspect of finding a career here. It really is who you know. Chances are that someone who has a little input somewhere will alert you to an opening and offer to help you get it. This is how I got my career and I see this happen to other people who otherwise would never have gotten a foot in the door, every day.

I also wouldn't put all your stock into a particular goal for a field. You know, most college graduates find careers that have little or nothing to do with their major -- so if you're going to aim for a college education -- go broad. Enjoy it. Don't learn just necessities for x and y fields -- learn whatever floats your boat and absorb the knowledge. If you're really interested in coding, you'll learn that inside or outside the classroom -- because this high-tech stuff is an addiction. There's a reason people like me work all day for pay and then do the same damn thing all night and all weekend for free.

There are people in my company -- even those who could have effected my hiring originally, who typically frown on and often refuse anyone without a college degree, simply in principal. I was lucky, because they all knew be by the track-record proven at an allied company so it was a no-brainer to bring me on board. So while I say a forma/official/traditional education isn't required, I still believe it's a good idea (and I can't believe I'm saying that, because I've always dispised the routine education system that entails paying a lot of money just to prove that you can follow someone elses rules and be a good boy for four to eight years and follow the system like a nice little brainy-drone).

Again, to shorten this all into a concise piece of advice: learn as much about as many things as you can, don't focus too narrowly, don't set your expectations or desire on an exact aspect of the field -- keep it abstract and make friends in the industry so that they can preach your good name to their managers and supervisors and other friends when people are looking for good employees.

Your eventual first 'career job' may be in technical support, development engineering, quality assurance, systems engineering, system admin, web design, database design or anything else. If you keep an open mind and a broad interest, you'll know which is right for you when it is presented to you, instead of losing those oppertunities due to the blinders the ambition for one job (which may or may not present itself).
I just read K5 for the articles.

Homophone nazi response (1.33 / 3) (#13)
by bjrubble on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 03:32:32 PM EST

I believe in formal education, but the real debate on that topic is for another place, so I'll just take the cheap shot and note that it's "affected" not "effected" and "principle" not "principal."

[ Parent ]
Never grammar flame because... (none / 0) (#17)
by ucblockhead on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 07:56:15 PM EST

You risk being wrong...

He used "effected" properly. "Affected" would not have been proper where he used it.

--v.t. to produce as an effect; bring about; accomplish; make happen: The new machines finally effected the transition to computerized accounting last spring.

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Hmmm (none / 0) (#18)
by bjrubble on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 04:10:55 AM EST

There are people in my company -- even those who could have effected my hiring originally, who typically frown on and often refuse anyone without a college degree, simply in principal. I was lucky, because they all knew be by the track-record

I suppose technically it could be "effected" but that's almost worse. Let's see:

* "could have effected" implying ability -- So there were people who had it in their power to make him hired, yet he was hired? Makes no sense.

* "might have effected" implying a possible history -- Makes more sense but it's the wrong word. If I'm part a "no-brainer" group decision I'm not "effecting" anything.

The context clearly favors "affected" as in "hampered" -- there were people who might have stood in the way of his hiring because of their misguided beliefs, but his competence won them over.

I'm really not a grammar nazi, I just don't like seeing people bash education.

[ Parent ]
Er... (none / 0) (#19)
by ucblockhead on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 12:01:24 PM EST

Now that I read it again, I realize that perhaps I read it wrong and you were right...er...that's what I get for ignoring my own advice.

I agree on education, though the author did say he wasn't against college. I would have said more about that had the story not gotten voted down.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Internships, do them (4.00 / 3) (#14)
by skim123 on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 03:54:58 PM EST

When I was in college I did two internships and highly recommend anyone in college do those. They give you a chance to get out and work on a specific technology in the real-world. At my first internship I knew very little about "real-world" programming (defined Microsoft-centric programming). I had only three semesters of college under my belt at the time - a number of comp sci classes, but classes like data structures/numerical methods/file processing (I think that was the name of it, we had to use COBOL)/discrete math/etc.

So I learned SQL. I learned HTML. I learned VB (I started with GW-BASIC back when I was 10). I learned ASP.

It was ASP that really caught my attention and that's what I've been doing with great fervor through the present. I also had an internship at Microsoft and realized I wasn't too interested in working there (I am fundamentally lazy, and MS demands too much hard work/time/energy...)

So get out there and get your feet wet with a lot of different technologies and see what you like. Learn as much as you can and find what it is that makes you excited to sit in front of a computer. Best of luck...

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

Be flexible, develop basic skills (4.00 / 3) (#15)
by yosemite on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 04:19:17 PM EST

Be flexible: be willing to take something other than your dream job, especially when starting out. A broad base of experience is always worthwhile in the long run, and you could easily find something else you like just as well (or discover your dream job isn't so dreamy after all...)

Develop basic skills:

  • Programming languages: right now, knowledge of C++, Java, and SQL are invaluable. A working knowledge of just one of these is probably enough to get an entry-level job...
  • Platforms: Windows (prolly not real popular with the K5 crowd, but there are a lot of wintel dev jobs out there...), Mac OS 9/OS X, Linux
  • Dev tools: Dev Studio, Project Builder, Code Warrior, Visual Cafe, emacs, g++, make, etc, etc
  • Other software: database servers, application servers, web servers, etc.
Obviously, someone early in a dev career is going to know at best only a little from the above list. Still, the more the better.

[Signature redacted]

My experiences. YMMV. (4.50 / 2) (#16)
by zephiros on Fri Feb 16, 2001 at 06:50:56 PM EST

I've done a bit of job hopping, so I'll bite here.

Web Developer. Small, informal company. 4 years.
Pros: Many opportunities to play with emerging technologies, toy languages, alternate OS's, and software development strategies. Since projects tended to be short, risk could always be mitigated by some eleventh hour overtime. Also, in general, if you saw a project that was cool, it was pretty easy to get involved. Quake on the company LAN was always a plus.
Cons: Too much eleventh hour, panic-mode overtime. Low pay. Poor benefits. No opportunities for advancement.

Web Developer. Large blue company. 2 years.
Pros: Opportunity to work on some real, enterprise-scale apps. Learned the big, blue way of managing projects and development schedules. Huge job security, good benefits, great culture.
Cons: Better, but still inadequate pay. Layers of bureaucracy stifled innovation and made it difficult to "stand out" as an exceptional contributor.

ERP Wonk. Small, business consulting company. 1 year.
Pros: Lots of travel means you're in the same city as old friends all the time, but still home on the weekends. Since clients are paying ludicrous sums for your advice, they actually listen to you when you recommend something. Expense accounts. Comfy salary and benefits.
Cons: Living in hotel rooms gets icky. Constant cellular use is probably bad for you. Laptop keyboards are hell on the wrists. Those old friends now hate you because you spent a month in their city, but never had time to visit them. 5am "strategy breakfasts." Jet lag. Client trust means you can actually screw up important things.

Of course, these are just my reactions, based on my particular experiences. No judgment here, no helpful advice, aside from "if you like that sort of thing, then that's the sort of thing you'd like."
Kuro5hin is full of mostly freaks and hostile lunatics - KTB

"Liberal Arts" and "Hunger" (5.00 / 1) (#20)
by kostya on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 01:59:53 PM EST

Liberal Arts are often viewed as "impractical". But many explain liberal arts as a way to make a well-rounded, critical thinker--leaving the "job skills" to be learned on the job.

Doesn't completely translate to Comp Sci, but I recommend approaching Comp Sci that way. Get a broad understanding of the field. Become a generalist. Understand the fundementals. This will be your greatest asset: understanding the fundamentals and having a broad experience with different ways of solving the problem.

Then take a co-op/internship to score some work experience. Take anything as long as it involves working on an actual project that gets released. Real project experience is very important.

Finally: MAKE IT HAPPEN. You will get nothing by sitting on your ass. You will get nothing waiting for others to help you--they are busy trying to make their own liife work. If you want to succeed, you have to make it happen.

How do you do this? Do your job, but then read up and explore the project. Find areas that haven't been assigned or defined yet. Work overtime and implement something that is useful to the project. Do your work, but then find a way to shine, to really show off your skills. Doing something as simple as writing scripts to make nightly build possible can help you. One of my greatest work experiencs I was hired to do Java GUIs--boring. But it got me in the door. I cooked through the GUIs and then coded up a reporting framework, much like EJBs (before EJBs came out). The GUIs were scrapped for DHTML. But my ReportFramework was used by all the developers--and I got reassigned to the server-side development. CORBA services. Yummy.

Prove that you want to contribute and you can contribute. This is the greatest thing you need in your work experience.

Veritas otium parit. --Terence
can't resist to ask (none / 0) (#21)
by mami on Sat Feb 17, 2001 at 05:40:31 PM EST

Though it seems that most k5 readers are relatively young, I like to post a question, which might not disturb too much, I hope.

Imagine you would be around fifty years old and had nothing to show for with regards to work experience as a web developer or web designer/coder. Also you wouldn't have any previous work experience in system or network administration, nor in graphic design (for print media).

But you got enough sucked into the field to have smelled some blood to seriously think about getting a professional education to become a programmer.

I had some serious "thought blocks" deciding what would make sense under these circumstances. Being female most people automatically think that I would be more suited for web design. I can tell you, it doesn't interest me one bit. I am so content oriented, that I am very happy to do a good job choosing colors, a good typographic lay-out and play around nicely with white space and that's it. I have no interest in anything beyond that. I use the web as a library, not as a medium for video, film, music, game or voice broadcast and therefore I don't like to get involved in programming for web projects which involve those areas. I also don't see me working as a "consultant" of sort any time in the future.

My system and network administration curiosity doesn't go beyond being able to run my own small business/home LAN and configuring everything myself. But I can't see me in a system admin job full time.

My programming curiosity is quite intense, but I would be a fool to believe that I could at my age gain enough skills to compete with people who have all the years and experience under their belts, to see any future employer giving me a last chance to get a decent job, after having been "mami" for too long.

I know that I really like to get a formal education in programming, but that I need a project on which I make my hands dirty and learn to implement what I learned in classes. What I know is that I love to put things in order. Like projects related to library sciences, archiving, documentation, catalogization, and database application in combination with scientific data So far, I have only found one degree program which specifically goes into that direction in my (non-US) home country.

In the US I would have to go through many, many classes, wasting money and time to do prerequisite work for a U.S. degree program, as my own first (science) degree is too old and not from the U.S. and is not taken into account anymore.

What would you do, considering age, the fact that somehow I have to make an income and can't afford huge student loan debts anymore.

If some seasoned people have an advice here, I would appreciate your comments.

You may not know yet (none / 0) (#23)
by kimbly on Sun Feb 18, 2001 at 03:08:21 PM EST

When I started programming in high school, I was really into graphics. Screen savers, fractals, 3D algorithms, computer art, etc. This was in the days of DOS, so I became intimately familiar with memory restrictions, speed optimization, and working directly with hardware (video cards). That knowledge got me my first job, where they gave me a completely different project every six months or so. Over the course of four years, and 10 different projects, I learned databases, GUIs, networking, interpreters, and numerical computing.

Only after that scattershot exposure to different kinds of programming tasks did I realize that my real passion is programming languages and paradigms. I love the concept of replacing thousands of lines of code with a few powerful phrases. Unfortunately there's no real money to be made in working with programming languages directly. So for now, I take any project that's sufficiently complicated to keep me interested, and try to play with (and create) new programming languages in my spare time.

The point: it may take a lot of different experiences before you know what it is you like doing. I still like graphics, but it no longer really gets me hot. Also, consulting in many different industries is a great way to gain that experience -- not only in programming techniques, but in all the other skills that make you a good engineer instead of just a good coder: gathering requirements, scheduling, talking with customers, etc.

My jobs to date... (none / 0) (#24)
by nickwkg on Tue Feb 20, 2001 at 06:59:06 AM EST

Thanks everyone - a lot of good points raised so far.
Here's my opinion on a few jobs...

Web Applications developer. Small informal company. 1 year
Pros: RAD means you see results quickly. Involved in projects from start to completion. 1 man per project meant complete control over each project. Some (but not much) control over the design of pages.
Cons: Coding was mundane. No proper specs. Stupid arbitrary deadlines. Challenged more by time constraints than by interesting problems. Low pay (first job).

C/C++ developer. Small/Mid size very informal company. 6 months so far
Pros: Challenging work (see Cons:). Better salary.
Cons: Have you ever tried programming COM stuff? MS made a right mess of that one...

I'd be interested to know if anyone reading this works in embedded systems (or anything low-level for that matter). How does the work compare with higher level stuff...

Trying to get off the beaten track... (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by stunoble on Tue Feb 20, 2001 at 10:03:12 AM EST

I know exactly what nickwkg means, when it comes to trying to find how you personally define your role in the computer industry.

I myself have done a little bit of hopping from job to job since leaving university over a year and a half ago. My course specialised in C++ programming, which I have to admit I became very proficient in and enjoyed. When I left university I took a job with a company who contracted out to Nokia's R&D in the UK. A dream job for anyone I'm sure, however I had no working experience and felt hopelessly out of my depth.

Then I was offered the chance to work with a small new media company doing web development - in fact the same one that nickwkg refers to. We worked together for a year and both had the same opinions about the way things were done in that part of IT. While he left to seek new fortunes in the land of C++, I was finding it hard to get out of web development - with no formal coding experience in anything than web technologies job agencies just weren't willing to put their reputations on the line with possible employers. So I tried to find a compromise - Java, specifically the J2EE platform.

I ended up taking a job for an "e-commerce consultancy" in London. It appeared to me that I had achieved both my goals: to be doing work that was a little more taxing than ASP and recordsets galore, and to get to London. From there I hoped to find my way back to where I started with C++. However to my utmost dismay I found that the company didn't really have much idea how to do what it advertised, and I was little more than an HTML / content management person. In disgust I approached some more agencies and took the job I am in now - developing an important front-facing web application for a large American company. But I'm back to ASP and web development as before.

Now don't get me wrong - the company I'm with is highly prestigious and treats employees extremely well. I won't just be stuck to HTML and ASP either: I am assured the opportunities to do COM, Visual Basic, and WAP, among other things. I am just saddened by the fact that I tried to bring myself out of an industry that barely uses the skills I spent three years at university to achieve.

The other day, I though I'd have a look at C++ again. When I studied it before, we used a bizarre Windows API developed by Borland and I thought it would be nice to transfer my knowledge to MFC. I was deeply disturbed to find almost all of my knowledge of C++ had left me, and only concepts and paradigms remained. In order to bring myself back to my former capabilities, I am going to have to spend a large amount of time studying at home - a very undesirable situation as my personal time is both limited and busy. Also, just how well can you learn without practical usage for the knowledge gained? But I feel it's important for me in order to safeguard my career as a programmer.

So, my point: I completely understand how nickwkg feels, and I believe it's important to try, if you want a long stable career with one company as I do, to find what you want to do quickly otherwise then industry boxes you in, not according to what you can do, but by virtue of what you have done. Help should be much more on hand to help you define your goals and aims and how to get there. Particularly how to avoid temptations such as a quick career track and high pay, which (as I now know too well) can quickly pull you away from the right direction.

Work and hobbies don't always mix. (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by Scriven on Tue Feb 20, 2001 at 04:45:15 PM EST

One thing I noticed is that certain people shouldn't do a hobby as a full-time job.

I left university for the last time at 23 and dove full-time into web programming. It was something I was good at and no-one else had even really started yet, but it was a hobby of mine, and I enjoyed it. I did it for so long, and got put through so much BS that I can't even program for fun anymore, except in small bursts which are few and far between, these days.

SO, if you like to program, great! If it's a hobby for you, great! Just keep an eye on your happiness, and make sure you don't burn yourself out. It can be a good job and make great money, but jobs and money aren't the most important things in the world.

This is my .sig. It isn't very big. (an oldie, but a goodie)
Career advice for coders | 26 comments (23 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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