How Unemployed Developers Use Open Source to Get Hired

Wednesday Jan 19th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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If you’re between developer jobs, contributing to an open source project is a great way to stay visible.

It's a tough economy out there. It doesn't matter which industry you happen to be experienced in, people need to be focused on keeping themselves as competitive as possible -- at all costs. Even more so when you're underemployed, or worse, unemployed. If you’re between gigs, would-be employers may look at you with unfair doubt due to a perceived lack of an edge in the workplace.

This is especially true for those within the software development community. If those development skills aren't being kept razor sharp at all times, you’ll find yourself without many job prospects. After all, there's much more to staying competitive than merely becoming a resume dynamo. It's critical to find creative ways to keep your programming skills sharp while ensuring you're very visible within the public eye.

Staying visible to employers

One of the biggest challenges for the underemployed or unemployed software developer has to be appearing "relevant" when they go in for a job interview. The problem for most people in this situation is that their coding skills might be a little rusty due to the time away from programming.

Worse yet, the potential employer is less than impressed by the applicant's months of idle time without anything tangible to show for it. The applicants are developers, after all. Why aren't they developing something of value with all of their free time?

Despite the challenges developers face with unemployment, being seen as "active" within the development community is more important than ever. Hands on participation may be even more important than sending off countless resumes every single day. Without something compelling to report, what's the point in expecting employers to call you?

An open source approach

Java, C++, whatever your programming skills happen to be, the best bet is to focus them into a suitable software project that will show off the very best you have to offer. Why? Because you'll have a finished product to show off to potential employers along with the satisfaction of knowing you’re still competitive in a tightening job market.

Now many developers out there might not see themselves as open source developers. Perhaps the bulk of their expertise focuses around proprietary code projects from previous employment. But if using a proprietary project to earn a living was working for you, then you'd likely be gainfully earning a living now and not in such a tough position in the first place, right? Clearly it's time for a new approach.

It should be noted that starting up an open project is no small feat. Despite many great tools being available at no cost, you still need to decide early on whether you'll be going at it alone or starting off with help. Also consider what will the project's focus be and what is the expected end result?

And finally, realize that seeing anything monetarily is unlikely unless you're targeting business owners instead of casual consumers. By targeting enterprise users, the odds are decent that you may gain enough user attention to line you up with some freelance work while you wait to land the next full time job.

Solve an enterprise level problem

Solve a problem, provide a solution and watch your name circulate among all the right people. Sounds like a fantasy, yet if you play your cards right, you might just be surprised at how easily this can happen. The key however, is finding that ideal "pain-point" that will make the enterprise user want to try your new open source project in the first place. Perhaps the best approach is to find a problem that the enterprise market is either not addressing or – an even better opportunity – costs a fortune with its current proprietary software options.

By saving the end user money, time or creating a fix that didn't exist before, you'll be gaining a lot of positive attention. Just remember, this project is a living resume. So when dealing with each person using it, treat them as if they might be the one to hire you. Check any personal attitude issues or frustration with "dumb questions" from users at the door.

Plays well with others

Besides showing off your ability to create a product that solves a specific problem for enterprise users, having others on board with you might be a great way to demonstrate how you're able to work well with others.

This might sound trite to some readers, but how well you work with others is a consideration for most employers hiring today. By providing evidence that you can work with and even lead other people, you'll have a solid foundation for any future job interviews. Who wouldn't want to hire a team player?

One of the greatest skills to showcase with an open source project is the ability to find what each of the project participants assets are, then put those assets into action. If someone with a writing background is looking to contribute to your project, logic might dictate that they help out with documentation. If another developer with skills in an area you're not familiar wants to help, they'd be a natural fit as well.

Showcasing your project to find gainful employment

Your open source project has its target audience and you've found other individuals who are participating with you in this endeavor. Now what?

How does a developer take this open source project and generate a job from it? You cannot simply staple it to a resume! And waiting for jobs to come to you will generally attract the freelance variety. So what's the best approach to getting all of this hard work in front of the right people?

Here are my suggestions for getting your open source project in front of potential employers.

1) You're not unemployed, you're freelancing. Recent news stories have indicated that firms aren't hiring those labeled as "unemployed." Your best bet is to demonstrate that you're still working. You just happen to be doing so without a steady paycheck.

Adding your open source project to your resume, under what you're “currently working on,” will not only allow them to see what you can do from a development sense, it'll ensure you don't have the unemployed stigma attached to you, either.

2) Demonstration videos. YouTube, Facebook and other video sharing sites allow you to demonstrate how your open source project works, the value it offers its users and that you're also available for hire.

And, using a $10 domain name with URL forwarding, you can send your perspective employer to a YouTube video so potential employers can see first hand what you have to offer their company. The URL forwarding gives you the ability to point the would-be employer anywhere you wish, even if the target site for the video happens to change. This puts your resume in a very powerful position. With a bit of luck, employer curiosity will help get your demonstration video in front of the right people most of the time.

So remember, find creative ways to show off your open source project so that employers are able to understand first hand what you have to bring to the negotiation table. Text on a resume only goes so far. It's critical to find creative ways to make sure prospective employers see your coding efforts in action.

Getting hired vs freelancing

Developers may face a situation where an employer asks if they’d like to freelance for them on a project. Some developers might think this is a bad idea as it means that you would only receive one project(s) worth of compensation, while preventing you from looking for work elsewhere.

But look, there’s nothing wrong with freelancing even if a regular job opportunity should arise. Most of the time, you'll find that you can be hired even while working on something else as the freelance project can be completed during your non-work hours.

So that explains how to handle existing freelance work. What about your open source project then? My advice: pay it forward. Document your success at using the project to find gainful employment and leave the project to the other individuals who participated in the development.

Obviously you want to make sure your name remains on the list of people who created the open source project in the first place. But by stepping down, you allow the next developer to learn from what you've done and hopefully, emulate it with similar success in finding gainful employment.

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