A developer’s career path: How to navigate between product & custom software development

The booming IT industry attracts more and more people by offering tremendous job opportunities and compensation well above the average level – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the median annual salary in IT was twice higher than the national rate. While the IT staff headcount increases dramatically (by 48% in the US and 28% in the UK in 2015, as stated by CompTIA), building a successful career in this dynamic industry requires more than sufficient knowledge of technologies and advanced programming skills. Without a thought-out career strategy that implies progression, one day a developer is likely to find themselves stuck in a dead-end job.

We suggest building a personal career roadmap while leveraging every learning opportunity. An indeed effective way to achieve the goal is to find the balance between experience in product and custom software development companies. Here are the tips on getting maximum valuable knowledge and skills with both types of employers.

A product company to master technical skills

Become a team expert. Stability is what appeals most about starting a career at a large product development company. Developers can work for as a many as 10 years on one product, bringing it to perfection. At this career stage, the underlying opportunity for programmers is to master a particular technology and become an expert in their team or even the entire company. A deep technology experience acquired through time will contribute to a developer’s professional competitiveness in case such a narrow specialist is required by other companies as well.

On the other hand, exactly this narrow specialization is likely to block career growth. Staying for too long in the same position can lead to the stagnation of your skills and pay. In addition, at a big product company the customer-centric approach is mainly adopted at the upper management level, while developers focus more on implementation and efficiency rather than on customers’ business needs. As a result, most developers grow biased towards technicalities without understanding a bigger picture.

Learn to keep it universal. Targeting an entire market segment rather than individual customers makes out-of-the-box software developers think universal in order to come up with products that can be used by a range of companies with similar needs. If you decide to continue your career in custom software development, the vision gained through such an experience will pay off by helping to avoid too narrow thinking while implementing technical solutions.

Grow as fast as the business. A dynamic product company is an ideal environment for a fast career growth if you show the required competencies and are ready to work overtime. As the alternative to a salary, a startup employer can also offer revenue sharing for compensation. This can work fine if the startup makes it, or can leave you broke if it doesn’t.

Stay on the cutting edge. Learning never stops for developers as technologies keep evolving. In the cutting-edge tech environment of product companies, developers can’t help but keep up with innovations in the industry.

The bottom line: Despite their in-depth technological skills, developers who reduce their experience solely to product development can get too far from real-life market needs to get promoted. To overcome this challenge, try getting into the habit of stepping beyond the code and putting yourself in the shoes of marketers or salespeople who actually push your product to the market.

A custom software development company to understand the market

Gain diverse development experience. While being a specialist in a particular technology, a developer is more likely to build a successful career if they have understanding of and hands-on experience with different technologies. Every custom software development company stimulates programmers to learn more technologies and tools, as well as gives opportunities to acquire relevant skills while working on diverse projects.

Understand the customer, market, and industry. In the end, be it a product or a custom solution, software is first and foremost a tool to solve a customer’s challenge. To get promoted to a software architect or a CTO, developers have to learn to see software the way customers do. Get used to asking yourself: How well does the software fit business needs? how cost-effective is it? how well does it integrate with other software? what makes it more usable than competitors’ offering?

At a custom software development company, programmers get the understanding of the customer’s needs first-hand, with no additional research required. As customers often come from different industries, you also get a precious knowledge of their domains, which is hardly possible to acquire in another way.

Master soft skills on the go. The trickery of software development is that it’s indeed a team business that brings together extremely clever but largely introverted minds. When less proficient programmers get promoted quicker than their more technically experienced colleagues, the clue is in the soft skills they manage to nurture at work. The most cited ones are communication skills and responsibility.

Engagement in custom software development allows to develop proficient communication and problem-solving skills, as developers get a chance to communicate with diverse customers across time zones and cultures. A highly qualified developer, such as a software architect, not only understands how technology can solve a customer’s problem but can effectively communicate this vision to the team that will bring the project to life. By learning to effectively interact with all the parties involved in a solution delivery – the team, the product owner, the sales people, etc., a developer gets the communicative competencies required for a managerial position. The ability to undertake responsibility should be also developed and manifested over time. Therefore, it’s important to keep taking on more and more responsibility, first, for the design of smaller elements, then for larger ones, until you get capable of supervising a technical design for the entire solution.

The bottom line: With a wide range of projects, custom software development companies offer opportunities for gaining industry and market understanding, nurturing diverse technical competencies and filling the gaps in soft skills required for a career growth. Yet, with too much orientation on the needs of particular customers, watch out for the problem-solution trap. For this, learn how to recognize similar problems of customers and use best practices acquired while working at previous projects.

Learn to navigate your career path in between

Product and custom software development companies alike provide unique career advantages, so the question is not which one to choose but how to combine experience with both for a bright career. There are at least two strategic options:

The custom software-to-product strategy. A developer starts with 2-3 years at a custom software development company so as to gain understanding of industries and customers, as well as diverse technical experience. Then with the customer-oriented approach deep in mind, they become a more valuable candidate and can move to a position at a higher level at a product company. While being employed with a product development company, the developer continues to master technicalities and complements their vision with a universal approach to software. This makes the developer a reasonable candidate for further promotion.

 The product-to-custom software strategy. First a developer gains a deep technical experience either at a cutting-edge technological startup or, ideally, at a stable product company for about 2 years. Working in the corporate environment first will teach them how to do business at a big scale, which is hardly achievable at a startup. Either way, upon getting a solid technical background and getting used to address similar challenges of diverse customers with a single product, the developer can move to one of the leading custom software development companies. With the previous product development experience, they will quickly climb the career ladder, as long as they keep enriching their understanding of the market through participation in a range of projects.


Combining experience in both areas, a developer becomes a competitive specialist and elevates the chances of employment in (or promotion to) a higher position. For sure, it’s possible to stay self-employed or start your own business right away. Yet, the deal appears too risky with the claimed 80-90% percent rate of startups fails. Besides, in the startup environment, the CEO’s, CMO’s and developer’s responsibilities overlap, which means that to succeed, you will need to demonstrate technical and soft skills alike. With such a solid background, it will be easier to start your own business and survive on the market knowing what product the market needs, as well as how to deliver it. In due course, all these will make you look more reliable in the eyes of investors and raise the chances of staying in the 10-20 % of the startups survived.


This post was provided by ScienceSoft, a US-headquartered custom software development company with 450+ IT professionals located internationally. With over 27 years of IT business experience, ScienceSoft is a recognized partner of IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and EPiServer.