For a lot of people who don’t get the opportunity to attend university, starting a career as a developer can be hard. Without a certificate, you run into the 21st century’s most complex conundrum for job seekers: How do you get a job without experience, and how do you get experience without a job? This was my situation as well. However, instead of waiting for experience, I went out and created it for myself by starting a YouTube channel, which eventually helped me secure my first job. Here are some lessons I learned along the way, and some tips if you’re keen to start your own channel.
I grew up in East London in the Eastern Cape, and when I finished high school, my first job was in irrigation. I wasn’t earning a lot of money and felt frustrated at the lack of opportunities in the area.
Fortunately, I had learned to code at high school. It was by far my best subject and I had enjoyed it a lot, so I decided that I wanted to become a software developer. However, I didn’t have the chance to attend university, so I had to upskill myself before I could start looking for a job.
With the little money I had, I bought an HP laptop with an i3 processor and a 3G USB stick with 10gb of mobile data. While this setup was basic, it was all I needed to get started.
After acquiring my setup, I started learning Python in one of the most unlikely places I would ever have thought of at the time – YouTube! This was in the early 2010s and, though it’s hard to imagine now, a lot of these sites hadn’t taken off in nearly the same way that they have today.
Around 2011, when I was still new to coding, YouTube opened up their partner program to everyone. This program meant that anyone could be paid to make videos. This was a lightbulb moment for me: With this opportunity, I could build an online presence for myself by creating videos about what I was learning, and include on my CV as evidence of at least some kind of experience. It could also be a way to generate some extra income, which would help me a lot.
Three years later, I moved to Johannesburg and landed my first job as a developer. My YouTube channel was what got me in the door, and has been the talking point in every interview I’ve had since.
Here are three key lessons from building my experience online through YouTube that have helped me in job interviews. I’ve also shared some tips in case you’re interested in starting your own channel.
Learn first, record second
It might sound obvious, but one of the most important things I learned is to take time to master the skill you’re going to be sharing before you share it.
When the opportunity first came up, I was tempted to start churning out content as fast as possible. I thought this would help me build up my presence and earn money faster.
However, no one wants to watch videos of someone uhmm-ing and ahh-ing, and I found that if you do upload videos like that, you’re actually more likely to lose viewers.
By taking the time to work through the skill and think about how I want to present it to my audience, I achieve two things:
- I feel a lot less stressed when I’m sitting in front of that blinking red recording light, and
- I also give myself time to think about how I can bring my own spin to the content, and present it from a unique perspective.
There are thousands of people creating content out there, so standing out from the crowd and delivering high quality material is really important.
It also counts a lot down the line when you’re looking for a job: You can show your interviewer your video, but it only counts in your favour if you can actually deliver on those skills in real life.
Interesting content is more useful than new content
I started this venture being new to coding. I didn’t want to pretend to be a pro at complex or novel programming ideas, so I started with learning and sharing more basic knowledge.
What I’ve learned after making videos for a while is that some of the most effective ones I create are in fact the ones that make standard information more interesting.
Turn software textbooks into bite-size chunks
One of the most useful hacks I learned is that people hate reading textbooks – and in the coding world, there are some very big, very thick ones. If you are committed to reading them, you can always break them down into easily digestible bite-sized video chunks.
It’s a really easy way to start, because you don’t need to think up new content, and can rather focus on taking old content and giving it a fresh coat of paint.
Of course, you have to make sure that you understand the content and can put a fresh spin on it in your videos for them to be effective. I personally found this really exciting. Not only was I getting access to what my peers at university were learning, but I was also tasked with the challenge of reinventing it and making it stimulating, so that said peers would actually want to engage with it.
Explain how everyday things work
If you don’t have access to textbooks, or find that you learn better through more practical applications, I’ve found that making videos that show people how the things around them work is also a really useful way to get traction online and learn real, applicable skills. In today’s world, people turn to the internet whenever they need to learn something, so if you make something that shows them what they want to know in an easy and accessible way, they will engage with you.
These could be simple demos on how calculators work, or they could show the tech behind how marketplaces like AirBnB functions. You could also research what tech trends people are searching for most, and develop content based on that. A video building a “to-do app” in your favourite framework is also a regular go-to topic.
The main thing – as with turning textbook content into videos – is to make it your own and feel comfortable and confident presenting it.
Getting experience online is not just about having volumes of videos uploaded: It’s about building up a repository of skills for yourself that you’re able to share with your viewers in a meaningful way. Developing yourself as a teacher – someone who can break something down and then rebuild it for someone else in a way that makes sense – is what is going to catch an employer’s eye because it demonstrates a solid understanding and skillset.
So, I focus on what I find interesting, and what I want to learn about. If I’m passionate about the material, I’ll be able to turn it into something that is both useful and enjoyable for others.
Pretend you’re talking to a friend
When you first start recording videos to share online, it can feel very weird talking to a screen knowing that (hopefully) hundreds of people are going to see it.
With my first setup, I didn’t have a webcam, so all of my content was screen recordings with me narrating them. Because there was no video of my face, and because I had no idea who was out there listening to my stream, it was easy to feel isolated. That distance crept into how I spoke: You can quickly pick up on when someone feels removed from their content, and I’ve found that when people sense this, they quickly become disengaged.
So, to avoid this, I started pretending I was talking to one of my friends. By imagining that there was just one other person in the room with me, I found that it was a lot easier to be animated and excited in the way I spoke.
I started thinking more about how I described things that would help a human understand them, instead of just saying words to a dark screen and hoping they would stick.
When I started looking for a job, the speaking skills I developed from filming videos like this also really helped me in interviews. Being able to talk to someone and unpack ideas on a personal level also proved to be a very useful skill. Whiteboard questions, for example, are often the most intimidating; but I found that I could communicate my ideas more effectively by speaking to the person in the room, not at the technical scribbles on the board.
Getting your own channel up and running
We live in a world where we have so many opportunities at our fingertips. While some of the YouTube technicalities have changed since I started my channel in 2011, there are still a few key tips I can give you if you’re keen on starting your own channel:
- Set your channel category to “Education”. You can’t change this setting later.
- Make your profile pop by having great channel art and engaging thumbnails. Remember, you are competing with thousands of other channels, and your video thumbnails are the first thing that a viewer sees, so make sure yours are good. Research shows that if you have a face in your video thumbnails, people are more likely to click on it.
- Link to your other social media accounts in the channel settings. Make it easier for people to find you, so they can engage with you across platforms and share what you do with their friends.
- People won’t interact with you unless you ask them to. That’s why you always see YouTubers asking viewers to like and subscribe. I’ve found that it’s a good idea to ask viewers to do these things at the beginning and at the end of your clip. You need to ask for engagement to get it.
- Be patient. YouTube has updated their policy such that you can only start earning money after you’ve got 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours watch time. While this might sound intimidating, I’ve found that sticking it out and focusing on producing high quality content will get you there in no time. Remember, you’re doing this to learn and gain experience, so don’t lose sight of that even if it takes a while for other people to start engaging. Personally, it took me 10 months and more than 50 videos uploaded before I picked up any real engagement from viewers on the platform.
There are a lot of really talented tech YouTubers out there who I have drawn a lot of inspiration from. Check out Traversy Media, Wes Bos, CodeCourse , Andre Madarang and Adam Wathan to see how they’ve set their channels up and how they engage with viewers.
In conclusion, I’d say the most important thing I learned from using YouTube to launch my developer career is that you have the power to influence exactly what path you want yourself to take. You have the opportunity to learn and create content about anything – there are no limitations – and you don’t need much to do it.
Quentin Watt is a web developer & YouTuber based in Cape Town. He has been teaching programming online for 8+ years. When he’s not coding, he loves outdoor activities like hiking, running & soaking up the sunshine at the beach.