How to beat the catch-22 of “entry-level” software engineer roles


It’s the ultimate catch-22 of job hunting at the start of your tech career: employers are hiring for entry-level positions and looking for five years of experience. So when you’re truly an entry-level software engineer, you’re left wondering how you’re going to get experience if no one will hire you. How can you prevent your lack of professional experience from overshadowing what you can actually do?

You’re bound to run into entry-level job postings that require a couple (or more) years of professional experience. On the other hand, many companies understand you have to start your software engineering career somewhere. Because of this: (1) job posting requirements can actually have more flex than you might expect, and (2) hiring managers can prioritize other qualifications in lieu of experience.

Our advice to you? Don’t lose hope. (And keep reading.) We’re uncovering some of the mystery behind what hiring managers are actually looking for in entry-level software engineer candidates based on Seen and Indeed data, plus giving you actionable steps to further develop and sell the skills you do have.

[Report] Complete guide to software engineering interviews

Entry-level software engineer roles explained

What’s “entry level” to one company can mean something entirely different to another. Below, find out how to determine which roles you qualify for—and which ones you should apply for anyway—along with what else employers want besides experience based on our survey of more than 600 technical recruiters, sourcers and hiring managers.

Decoding “entry level” (and why you should apply anyway)

Why do entry-level software engineer job postings want candidates with several years of experience or a long list of skills? It could be one (or a combination) of several possible reasons:

The “requirements” are a wishlist. Job posting requirements aren’t always hard requirements. This means that a candidate with the listed experience might appear more desirable off the bat, but any application that doesn’t match up 100% isn’t an automatic no. The takeaway? Don’t be too quick to disqualify yourself. If you’re confident you can perform the basic functions of the role and will be a strong asset to the team, apply.

The company subs education for years of experience. Some companies consider years spent in school as years of experience. Five years of experience, for instance, might actually mean one year of experience plus a bachelor’s degree.

It’s aftermath from the recession. The Great Recession (2007-2009) caused unemployment rates to skyrocket with one in five employees losing their jobs. During that time, workers had no other alternative than to accept lower-level jobs. This meant that companies could hire more experienced talent for less money, upping their requirements because they could get away with it. The labor market slowly recovered (particularly in tech, where it’s now a candidate’s-market), but the trend stuck. 

Join Seen for free to get matched to an entry-level software engineer role that’ll make you love Mondays 

Aside from experience, most employers favor adaptability

Years of relevant experience is a big decision driver when employers are faced with choosing between similarly qualified candidates. Based on our survey, 47% of small companies, 41% of medium companies and 45% of enterprise companies would agree, though startup companies don’t prioritize years of experience quite as much (34%).

So if you’re one of two candidates with less experience than the other, you won’t always come out on top. But you can if you sell your other highly desirable qualities.

What do companies value the most? 70% of recruiters and hiring managers report that adaptability is the most important quality in tech candidates outside of the job description. Other qualities high up on the list include upskilling and the desire to continually learn, and more than half of employers want candidates with a workstyle that aligns with company culture.

It’s also worth noting that micro (1-19 employees) and startup (20-99 employees) companies are more likely to go for candidates that “express ownership, fit within the company culture, are flexible, have worked in various tech areas and meet the company’s salary requirements.”

Want to know more about what drives tech hiring decisions? See the full report here.

Develop your skills, show off your passion

While you don’t have control over the caliber of candidates that apply for the same role as you, there are plenty of ways to impress recruiters and hiring managers as an entry-level software engineer (even while you’re still in college):

Code on the side. Coding practice sites allow you to get in that extra coding practice to strengthen your skills and help you prepare for interviews. Win-win. Check out our list of 10 free coding practice websites to find out which ones are right for you.

Build a portfolio of personal coding projects. The time and energy you dedicate to side projects is one of the best things you can do as an entry-level software engineer. From an employer’s perspective, side projects signal that you’re passionate, innovative and proactive in your quest to develop your skills and stay current with the latest technologies.

Brand yourself. Demand for qualified software engineers outweighs supply, so tech recruiters are getting creative with sourcing by looking for candidates outside the usual spots like job boards. Develop a personal brand to increase your online visibility and showcase your personal coding projects as well as highlight your value and what makes you unique. Here’s how to do it.

Earn certifications. Certifications aren’t only for seasoned tech pros (when earning them can boost your salary by the thousands), but for any stage of your career. Just know that while being certified might give you an edge over your competition, having one isn’t always a replacement for education and skills.

Connect with other tech pros. Networking turns into new opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. And when you make those connections, you have a new way to learn from others, get advice and gain mentorships. There’s also a real possibility of landing on someone’s radar who might recommend you for a role you want in the future. Slack communities, meetups, conferences and informational interviews are good places to start.

Show off your soft skills. Employers on Seen are actively searching for candidates using soft skill keywords—hard proof that soft skills do matter. Our list of the top five most-desirable soft skills include communication, problem-solving and teamwork.

The right way to build your entry-level software engineering resume

You have the education, you code in your spare time, you registered a domain name to spotlight your personal brand. Now’s the real test when it comes to applying for jobs: communicating your qualifications within your resume to get it past the ATS bots and into the hands of a human (then get you on the phone with a recruiter).

Be honest. At a glance, sourcers may not know that your 10 years of C++ experience actually began in your childhood years experimenting with it on a pretty low level. But once you enter conversations with hiring managers and other software engineers (and they want you to crank out a line of code on the spot), gaps between what your resume says and what you can actually do will become clear. Instead, be honest about your level of expertise and express a genuine passion for learning.

Format resume sections in the right order. Resume sections (e.g., education, skills) should be ordered in a way that brings attention to your qualifications and what you’ve achieved so far. If you graduated less than a year ago, put your education at the top, just after your contact information. Otherwise, move it to the bottom. Your skills section should also be close to the top.

Next comes your professional experience and projects sections—the section that’s most relevant to the job goes first. For instance, say you were employed by your university to provide admin support for the engineering department, but you also independently developed a web app in your spare time. If building a web app is more closely related to the role you’re applying for, list it first. Get more information by checking out our resume guide and template for breaking into tech. 

Stay on top of trending skills. This will help you know which ones to put front and center. Here are the top tech skills employers want going into 2020. Using the job description as your guide, list in-demand skills relevant to the role near the top of your skills list.

Always include projects. Especially if you’re short on relevant professional experience. Along with creating a projects section in your resume, link out to your GitHub, portfolio or website in your contact information. Showing off your side projects is tangible proof to recruiters and hiring managers that you can do what you say you can.

Don’t skip out on your next big break

Whether a software engineer role is labeled entry-level, junior or associate, you’ll run into job postings that want more than you think you can offer. But instead of feeling stuck in limbo, adopt a proactive mindset and use this time to build up your portfolio with projects, hone your skills and practice answering common interview questions.

Remember, don’t pass over what could be a good opportunity because you’re shy a requirement or two. Any time you come across a role that excites you (and you feel you have the skills to realistically take it on), go for it.

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