8 Alternative Career Paths For Software Developers
It’s no secret that demand for software developers and engineers is sky high these days. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of developer jobs is forecast to grow by 22% between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average of 4% across all occupations. And there’s already been lots of talk about shortages of software engineers.
This is good news for your job outlook if you’re a developer. As companies across all sectors embrace digitisation, they’ll need people like you to program their new software systems and applications. While organizations want developers with a broad-based skill set, most will specialize in certain areas like front-end or back-end development, web or mobile applications, video gaming or (more recently) cloud-based engineering.
There are no right or wrong choices between these fields - the path you take as a developer will depend on your interests, circumstances and the opportunities that present themselves to you. The important thing is that, whichever route you take, you probably won’t be short of work.
But what if you don’t want to be writing code for all of your professional life? What if you’re looking for a new challenge? What other tech roles are a good fit for your existing programming skills and work experience? Here we’ll look at some of the alternative career paths that might be worth thinking about if you’re a developer with itchy feet.
Choosing an Alternative Career Path
There are a range of alternative career paths open to software developers who are looking for a change within the Information Technology (IT) industry. The direction you take will depend on your personality, qualifications and skill-set. Do you have a relevant bachelor’s degree or are you self-taught? What tools are you comfortable using? Are you a people-focused person or do you prefer the more technical side of things? The graphic below gives a guide to a wide range of options for different personalities, and we’ll expand on a few of the main options below.
Data Scientist/Engineer: The early candidate for the “sexiest job of the 21st century” must surely be a tempting career pivot for some developers? Data science is one of the fastest-growing tech fields now as organizations seek to use analysis taken from the enormous quantities of data we now produce to make better decisions. Like several jobs on this list, it’s a popular option for those with a degree in computer science.
Data scientists are perhaps even more in demand than developers, which is positive for salary prospects, but you need a strong grounding in math, statistics and software engineering just to get started. Knowledge of Python gives you a good platform, but you’ll also need to understand machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to really stand out from the crowd. Communication skills are also important here as you need to present the findings of your data analysis to key stakeholders in an engaging manner to inform decision making.
QA Engineer/Tester: Quality Assurance (QA) engineers often don’t get the same spotlight as developers, but testing software for bugs and user experience is a crucial job that good-quality companies (and employers) will recognise for its value. This might be an interesting option for those with a sharp eye for detail, an interest in creative testing and a talent for problem solving. You can read more about what makes a good QA engineer here.
Systems Administrator/DevOps: Any organization’s software, servers, and security systems need to be well maintained and regularly updated. This is a highly technical role that typically distances you from client-facing aspects of software development. This role is increasingly being re-classified as DevOps, which is essentially the marriage of software development and IT operations to make an organization more efficient and secure.
Project Manager: This job is all about managing the objectives, expectations, workflow and resources of a project. It involves taking a project through its life cycle, ensuring it is delivered as specified and to deadline. Software developers who have already worked on a number of projects can bring important ‘ground-level’ experience and insight to this role. It is important to remember that being a project manager involves taking a step back from actual coding and requires strong organization, communication and people skills.
UX/UI Design: The focus of these jobs is on the user experience with a web or mobile application. But someone with first-hand programming experience can bring an important perspective to this role. That is, an understanding of what is feasible for the developers that need to implement any new design ideas. In other words, your hard coding skills will anchor any lofty graphic design ideas to what is technically possible, helping you reach the optimal solution for the resources available.
Tech Writer/Teacher: If you’re drawn to more public-facing roles, then you could put your first-hand experience as a software developer to good use by commuting knowledge to others. If you can write well, then a developer background will give you an advantage over other writers when covering more technical coding issues.
There are also lots of options to directly teach others what you know at coding bootcamps, colleges or other online platforms. In both cases, the key skill is being able to communicate information - including some complex ideas and problems - in a way that is digestible and inspiring for others.
Research & Development: Some tech organizations have dedicated teams for R&D, giving talented developers, engineers, data scientists and business analysts the freedom to work on experimental ideas and projects. It may be an appealing career path for those with curious and creative minds, though this can be a hard niche to get into. Given the high risks and expenses involved, this is unlikely to be a common job opportunity at smaller companies. This means you’ll need to be comfortable with the idea of working in a large organization.
Freelancer/Founder: One career change that’s always open to employee developers is to create your own path, either as a freelancer or an entrepreneur. Freelancing involves working for clients on a contractual basis, often being paid by the hour or day to solve specific problems or work on a single project. It gives you more flexibility over your work, but unless you have a strong network of potential clients already lined up it can be difficult to get started.
Founding your own company to develop your new business idea is probably the ultimate dream for most developers - the potential rewards are limitless, but the risks are high and even in the best case scenario it will likely be a while before you get paid.
Rising up the Ranks
Whatever career path you choose as a developer, you’ll most likely move into more senior positions as you gain experience and qualifications. The route you take will most likely be influenced by whether you’re more interested in dealing with people and business operations (e.g. lead developer or project manager) or systems and coding (e.g. software architect). Eventually, these paths may converge again at the director or executive level.
Promotions are generally positive, of course, but there are some things to keep in mind. Typically, if you rise up the hierarchy and take on more management responsibilities, you will increasingly need to use soft skills such as communications and leadership more than your hard tech and analytical skills.
If you’d rather keep honing your own coding skills and making yourself a more valuable developer to any organization, then managerial roles may not actually be the right move. Again, there is no right or wrong here - ultimately, to build a successful and sustainable career, you need to be in the role that works for you.
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