How software engineer should invest in career growth

by Wojciech Adam Koszek   ⋅   Mar 31, 2017   ⋅   Menlo Park, CA

How to invest money in yourself, your education and a career growth as a software engineer.

This post is for people who look for ways to spend money on personal growth, as a software engineer. Previously I covered how much one should spend to growth. Here let’s talk about the best resources you can invest in.

You should seek for ways of saving your money and after-tax earnings.
Before you apply any of the suggestions, remember to ask your school or employer about them. They have a way to bring resources to you, because funds for training and growth are specially allocated in big institutions. Let’s start from the cheapest to the most expensive.



Price: $1$100

Risk: low

Benefit: high

Books are pretty cheap, assuming you understand what you’re getting for the price. Lets take the $40 book, for example. If you live in the US, you have the natural perspective on what’s worth $40; of what this money can give you. Forty dollars is several coffees and couple of beagles. Maybe one visit to the cinema with your second half. Or maybe three lunches, if you eat out.

Yes, I do know forty dollars is a lot of money in most parts of the world. I’m from Poland originally, and the currency ratio makes $40 be approximately four times as much. But by buying books you buy yourself a leverage against all the people who you meet, interviews you take and all the business opportunities.

Let me give you an example here. I remember paying $70 for a fourth edition of the Computer Organization and Design. It was around 320PLN (Polish Zloty), amount equal to my monthly stipend from my school’s dean. When I told my friends I got a book for 320PLN, they couldn’t believe it. They didn’t know you can buy a book for this much. “Why don’t you just torrent it?”, “Why don’t you just print it?”

This book let me ace an interview for a Xilinx internship couple of years later. I’m highly confident I wouldn’t have had enough computer architecture/Verilog/C fu to pass it without studying from this book.

My intern’s salary made the return on investment for this book alone be somewhere between 100x and 500x.

Taken into perspective, is $40–$70 book still expensive?

If you want to learn how to make good book picks, you can take a look at my Reading 101 for software engineers Previously I talked about looking at your learning as a business, and it’s inevitable to make mistakes on your R&D budget.

Library membership

Price: $0$500

Risk: low

Benefit: high

Libraries are great. I still can’t believe libraries exist and are free. You should use the library to read, study and proof-read books and do work.

In the US libraries come with several perks. One of them is Safari Books Online available at no cost. Others are programs for audio-books like OneDigital and OverDrive. You can “borrow” an audio-book for two weeks, listen to it, and then “return” it. It simply disappears from your device after these two weeks. Cost is similar: zero.

Libraries are probably the cheapest co-working spaces out there. When you’re sick of being at home and need more focus, go to the library. Everybody is studying and working there. So will you.

Many books aren’t great and library helps with those. No need to buy them, if you only like one chapter. Three week lease term is fine because it brings focus and motivation (“I need to finish this book first to be able to get the next one”)

University libraries prioritize students. For an unaffiliated person it’s $80 for 3 months or $200 for a year to be able to just enter the library, sit and read. It can be as much as $500 for a year to be able to borrow books.

Kindle isn’t great for technical stuff, but you can also borrow Kindle books. Graphics and diagrams looks bad on Kindle. No more comment here: I have yet to see a decent computer title to look decent on a Kindle.

Magazines, journals

Price: $10$40

Risk: low

Benefit: medium

Magazines and journals have a function of keeping you in touch with science and the industry. It’s less of a solid block of knowledge, and more about juicy pieces you may have not heard about yet, but should.

There are good “popular” tech magazines nowadays, I’m sure, but I just don’t know any. I saw several issues of Code and it was decent. I may subscribe to it.

Around twelve years ago I used to spend quite a bit on “Software 2.0” magazine (now: Software Developer’s Journal) and Linux Plus (now: Linux Magazine). They cost 30PLN in Poland (around $10). They were “extremely expensive newspapers” as my parents referred to them. One special edition of SDJ titled “BSD systems” introduced me to FreeBSD, which changed my life. I still have this edition of a magazine. One day, I’ll frame it. So yes, magazines can have an impact on your career. Don’t feel bad if you buy them.

If you have scientific interests, there are plenty of good journals. Just visit ACM and IEEE. You’ll have to become a member to get them, and I think it might be worth it, if that’s your thing.

ACM is $99/year, which isn’t bad. I’m an ACM member. I like their ACM Queue. It sums up to $8.25/month for a printed version of the magazine, which isn’t bad. You get free Safari Books Online access, and some additional perks. In fact I joined an ACM because of the conference discounts they offer to members.

IEEE has Computing Edge magazine, but I never fell in love with it. IEEE is also expensive: $200/year. Future of my IEEE is unclear, since the benefits are actually duplicated with ACM. Being a member of both doesn’t give you much. Let me know what’s your IEEE membership reasoning.

USENIX looks great. I’m thinking of becoming a member of USENIX. UNIX systems and software systems are my major interests though. If that’s not your cup of tea, maybe evaluate this before. Their USENIX ;login magazine looks great. I’d subscribe just to get it in a printed version.

Online classes

Price: $1$200

Risk: medium

Benefit: high

Online learning is really appealing. Having an expert in the field introduce you to difficult topics is very convenient. What I like is an ability to stop, rewind, watch the same difficult piece several times. To me it’s very valuable and the real live lecture doesn’t offer that. What online class doesn’t provide is the ability to interact with other students and having a discussion, but I believe online learning is getting there.

Online classes are probably the second cheapest after books to benefit from. They cost anything from $0.99 (for 3-month Skillshare account) through $29/month for Code School and Treehouse up to $200/month for Udacity. Authors and companies try to compete to make their name in the education industry. That’s how you get a great content for little money.

To people who wonder why it’s worth to buy a training instead of watching YouTube videos I need to answer: “you get what you pay for”. At least that’s my experience, and while I think there are some great resources (iOS class from Stanford), you shouldn’t feel bad about spending on online education. It pays of.

Boot camps

Price: $2000$20000

Risk: medium

Benefit: medium

I never participated in a boot camp. The idea you can start from zero, go to a twelve week boot-camp and get some knowledge to get you jump started sounds fine. The idea of getting a job afterwards sounds a little bit unrealistic. You should study first, so that you’re not a total newbie by the time you go to the boot-camp. Then do it. Afterwards try to do as many projects on your own as possible.


Price: $0$80

Risk: low

Benefit: low

Meetup is where interest groups are organized. Example: People who program in C++ will have a monthly or bi-weekly meeting scheduled. You can come, interact with people, talk C++ and learn.

My first contact with Meetup was a Silicon Valley Forth Interest Group. It was great. Organized every month at Stanford, was very well prepared, with speakers every time, group discussion. Everybody was a Forth expert with many years of experience. I loved it.

Most meetings aren’t well organized. People come to eat and drink for free. Sometimes organizers are bigger companies, and they flash perks in front of you, because they want you work for them. Then they sit. Speaker, who is there just to be able to list his/her presence on the meet-up flashes slides quickly. And then there’s the end. Little interaction, little discussion. This is a mistake in my opinion, and you should refrain from those. It’s a waste of your time. Go to the library and read a book for two hours. You’ll benefit more.

There’s a little quirk here: pick a Meetup with $10–$20 fee, and it’ll be fine. Or better: $60. Those are mostly financial/entrepreneurial meet-ups. Only people who really care go to those. It’s a great crowd. I went to maybe three of those Meetups, but investment was worth it. Advice I’ve gotten there I still remember till this day.


Price: $0$5000

Risk: medium

Benefit: medium

Conferences are good, if you know what you get out of them. To me, it’s more about networking with people; talking to others from the same field and learning what they use to solve problems which you have as well. It’s less of a solid knowledge transfer. Think of a conference as a source of hints.

Scientific conferences are where the real fun is. You have academics competing with each other for attention from professors and PhDs. Everything is peer reviewed, and after the presentations you’re the judge. Audience and reviewers will often vote for the best paper and presentation. This makes scientific conferences to be great. You go there and see that people actually work and learn. Unfortunately these aren’t common, and you have to be a part of the circle: do a PhD, be a student or a professor. Focus is narrow, so you may end up not understanding anything otherwise.

Technical conferences are good if you want to understand what the top of your field is doing, and what direction you should take for your career. You meet with other people who paid their own money for the conference (typically several hundred dollars), paid for the flight and a hotel. It’s good in the sense it’s, in theory, all people who do the same. You can brainstorm.

Picking a good conference is hard. You’ll have to burn some patience and study reviews before you go to any. Unless you want to waste your time.

It gets worse for commercial conferences. People will try to recruit you. To sell you something. To get your e-mail and subscribe you to their mailing list. Once you get your badge scanned, and your e-mail stolen, you’ll be unable to unsubscribe from all the lists you’ll become a part of. If you reveal your mailing address, they’ll be sending you offers and invited for expensive classes.

On those, you get employees of the companies are participants. They didn’t pay anything–they were sent there, sometimes against their will, by their companies. Or they volunteered to have a day free of work. They’re there to have fun, not to learn. You will talk to some people from the industry. You’ll get some LinkedIn contacts. But that’s it. It’s a waste of time.

College classes

Price: $300$100,000

Risk: high

Benefit: high

College is good if you like structured study program. If you’re a student already, and can afford it, don’t resign from college. Pick good, difficult classes about topics which are hard to learn. Examples: operating systems, networking, compilers. Do complex projects whenever possible.

Some countries make colleges accessible and free. In Poland you could drop in to the class, sit and listen. No need to be a registered student. If there are enough sits, you wouldn’t get kicked out. Some, like the US, have colleges that are very expensive. I don’t know if you can drop-in for a class here.

One unit of class in the US can be $1300 dollars, so three-unit class is around $4k. Being able to say you’ve graduated from a Stanford or Berkeley class has some charm. This is one of the things which are hard to quantify. It’s possible that your future employer will scan your resume, Stanford name will stand out, so you’ll get the call.

Practically, it’s hard to say if this happens. For sure you can get the same amount of knowledge cheaper. It’s likely it’ll take longer to assimilate the knowledge, but you’ll get there.


My attempt was to help you understand where the biggest benefit is. With books and online classes, you’ll get the biggest bang for the buck. In terms of the rest of the ways to learn, it all depends on your conditions. Let me know if I missed anything. I’d like to pick up some of your ideas for learning.

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About the author: I'm Wojciech Adam Koszek. I like software, business and design. Poland native. In Bay Area since 2010.   More about me