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Best approach for self-taught developer looking for job?
112 points by stc on Nov 5, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments
I have a degree in social sciences and after several years of unfullfilling employment at various jobs I started learning some programming and found I really enjoyed it. I taught myself some basic python and django and have been getting some freelance work to pay the bills however I would much rather get a full time programmer job. I have been applying but have not been having any success. I have a github account and developed a site however I do not seem to be gaining any traction. What technologies/skillset should I focus on to get an entry level job? What is the best way to demonstrate proficiency in a technology? Any help would be much appreciated.

Pulled up your github account. Aside from you accidentally adding your home directory, you're making good progress. If you're looking to get a job quickly, I'd encourage you to focus on one area and I think your shortest path is the front end technologies. Pretty much every firm I know of in NYC is hiring front end developers and the main limitation is finding people who actually know javascript.

If you know (not just read, know):



And you can demonstrate it by sticking something on github (fix a ticket on stylus/express/some other node.js project, write a jquery plugin, help out with the django admin) then go to some meetups in SF and talk to people who say "we're hiring frontend developers" which is pretty much everybody. Being able to design entire applications isn't generally required since what people are usually looking for is someone they can say "go make this new dialog" and you go do it using their established design patterns. It is crucially important, however, that you can demonstrate knowledge since I have yet to meet a developer who doesn't "know" javascript.

If you do this and want to work in NYC, shoot me an email. I'll at least give you feedback and probably give you a referral for contract to hire. Nobody cares about your education/work background as long as you can get the job done.

This assumes, of course, that you actually like front end development since quite a few people don't.

Thanks for the insight, you really hit upon several things I have been thinking about, namely my shortest path which I also think is javascript/frontend. Been looking into javascript alot more and am developing some couchapps as they let me use javascript/html/css. I am also building some bookmarklets for which I need to use plain javascript as opposed to jquery. I am also interested in mapping/gis so have been putting effort in learning that. Do you think that can be useful or should I focus on javascript right now?

If you want to go this route, I strongly recommend you focus on javascript. There's enough going on in the frontend that it'll take you a year or two of solid effort before you're good in a number of them. By focusing heavily on one area, you'll get yourself marketable much quicker.

Now, the context in which you learn javascript and demonstrate it is up to you. If mapping/gis is your passion, then go with that. There are plenty of good mapping projects in the browser on github that could use help. If you would prefer a personal project you could, say, do some d3 visualizations using the geo facilities and have a great demo piece.

I'd be interested in shooting you an email (similar situation).

Feel free to get in contact. I'm not too busy to help people out.

The Eloquent Javascript book is excellent, thanks for the heads up. Definitely helping to expand my mind as I work through it. For anyone else here trying to learn I have also been using it conjunction with this tutorial here http://ejohn.org/apps/learn/ that has lots of interactive examples but not so much on explanations.

Same here. Let me know if you're interested in talking.

Feel free to get in contact. I'm not too busy to help people out

I was in the same boat. I graduated from a liberal arts college with a degree that no one has ever asked about. After lots of non-profit work after school I was tasked with 'updating the website' one day. Cut to 3 years and $100+ in library fines later and I've been the lead developer on Fortune 50 websites and now work for for a 'rent a Rails shop' company. Here's the advice:

Learn how to interview well. Knowing what github is, having actually launched a site, and wrangling some freelance work together puts you ahead of 90% of the people I worked with at my Big Co. job, you just need to be able to prove it and convince people of it. The competition for most positions consists of bored CS grads from Java schools who never learned how to use version control and for whom programming is just a job. You have passion it appears, and that can't be overrated.

I was willing to be aggressive with my first interview, noting that I would be able to accept a lower-than-market rate if they would do a salary review shortly after I started. Not everyone is in the position to do so, but I took a 'whatever it takes' attitude to get started, with the confidence in myself that once people saw how effective I could be, things would get better. Programming is as close to a meritocratic profession as exists, so get in a position to prove yourself.

Thanks for the reply, always nice to hear about liberal arts majors that have walked the road ahead of me. I think I need to improve on the confidence as I feel less sure of myself now than I did six months ago, something of a more you learn less you know scenario. I do have a ton of confidence in my abilities to get a job done however so maybe I should tap that part of my psyche during interviews.

I was a Philosophy major (yay Lewis, Kripke and Quine) and didn't really get into programming until I wanted to build websites for my friends. Back then we didn't have jQuery, so I learned PHP.

But I agree with this thread -- keep pushing on JavaScript. CouchApps are a great way to learn front end while having the back end more or less taken care of for you, but most apps are gonna require an extra degree of freedom on the back end. You'll find that your JS skills travel well, especially now that node.js is viable.

If you haven't read this article yet, read it an grok it: http://javascript.crockford.com/remedial.html

If you know this stuff cold, then the only thing standing between you and a well paying developer gig is personal networking and a bigger open-source portfolio. Go to node.js and Couch meetups, they are vibrant welcoming communities that value beginning coders as much as veterans.

Assuming that this project on GitHub is yours https://github.com/cirsteve/courseslate and you show it to potential employers, I would recommend you to learn pip/virtualenv, read about django best practices, (http://lincolnloop.com/django-best-practices/) Also I would recommend to cleanup your repository from files that are not completely necessary (varios .tar.gz files, .ssh folder, .bash_history, etc.) Those things give you away as a beginner.

Thanks Andrew, virtualenv is next on my list as my system is starting to get mucked up with different packages and you are absolutely right that I need to clean everything up. Thanks for the input.

Go to conferences and meet people! Make a network in your city/closest metro area and use it.

Having a github is a great start, that's one thing I want to see before I bring you in for an interview. andrew_k has good advice as well.

You'll probably need to start with a small company, bigger companies usually aren't willing to give someone their first "big break". I started out just doing my own projects and then did some work for relatives, etc, then, finally I was able to find someone who was willing to hire me a few hours a week to do remote development. From there I just kept incrementally jumping to the next better opportunity I could find. Its not necessarily the smoothest path but you can progress quickly if you keep pushing yourself. Basically, don't think of anything as being beneath you as long as its related to development, take the first job you can find with a company that will even give you half-time to where you can go into an office each day and work. A lot of companies are weary of letting people "short on years" work on development so its an uphill battle, but even working in a QA position could lead to a solid developer job as you usually can expose yourself to the application's code (some QA guys do and want to become developers, some don't). If you're a QA guy who reads code and finds bugs then... to the next job you apply to you can say you were a junior developer, and so on

I come from a similar situation. I graduated with a degree in commercial art and illustration. After slinging coffee for a year, and trying to get freelance work started unsuccessfully, I threw in the towel.

I went into programming, as it was a good fit for me. Since I too had no formal experience, I got involved with open source as a way to gain experience and learn from people who were more experienced and knowledgable. Getting involved in open source, was probably the single best move for my career that I ever made. It opened opportunities I would have probably never had, allowed me to talk to really brilliant people, and gave me visible experience that has helped me land all of my employment. I highly recommend contributing to an open source project as a way to get experience and exposure.

Thats a great idea. I am a big believer in/user of open source technologies and would love to contribute.

I'm a self taught developer as well.

I started with the front end because I had a decent design sense and attention to detail. If you can care about pixel perfection, I think it's a good route. JavaScript, HTML, and CSS aren't the most difficult technologies to start with, and you get a little more leeway to make mistakes or write sloppy code in the beginning, learning as you go.

It's a good time to be doing this. There is need for developers enough that if you can prove that you're smart, a mid-sized or smaller startup may take a risk with you.

Try putting up a personal website. Set up your own server if you can, write your own code, and get something up showing what you can do.

At this point, do whatever you can to show that you've taught yourself a decent amount. You want to prove that you can learn, not so much that you're already a pro.

Well, I've been working as a full time dev for 3 years now and never went to college.

What I did was start low as a jr. system admin for linux systems. I'm not very social so I never made 'connections' so I hade to improve my skills. So from jr I went to sr, and within a couple of years got my first job as a jr. dev for a small company.

It's at these kinds of jobs that you will learn the essentials:

MVC Databases HTML/CSS/Javascript Message Queues

From here, it's up to you to keep improving your skills and building projects. Managers don't like github profiles, so I highly recommend you have your own app (not just a website.)

From there you can move on to things like: Mobile Apps Function Languages Socket Servers Low Latency Systems

Of course, always make sure you study and learn the basics. Such as basic sorting algorithms, working with bits/bytes, etc.

And so on.

Try http://www.djangogigs.com, I get contacted frequently through that site. Also you may want to post you resume online, like http://www.cvstash.com.

The best way to demonstrate your python and django expertise is to create a web app using that stack. Find some cheap hosting and you're set. Who knows, your app might even be a hit and you can skip the job seeking routine altogether.

Another self taught developer here who found work just after I started to take it really seriously and let my ambition take hold.

You say you have been getting freelance work. Put all that on your CV if you haven't already. And work on building a proper online portfolio using your current skillset. The benefits of doing this are thus:

1. Professionalism. You're a bona-fide freelancer ostensibly running a business under your own name. Taking advantage of this shows you mean business.

2. Publicity. Potential employers can find your website (after pimping it out everywhere and making it known wherever you can) and have all the information they need to consider you as a candidate right there. It also helps for contracts until you find full-time employment.

Speaking of your site/portfolio, it's dreadful. Setting a proper site up for yourself and identifying what makes a good portfolio would be a good thing to do.

Finally, and being totally honest, the last thing I would do when looking to hire a developer is trawl through a potential candidate's github account, finding out what sort of contributions were made to the JS flavours of the month. I'm not interested in seeing code samples right off the bat, I'm more interested in seeing how you sell yourself - how your website and portfolio and demonstrable skills* paint a picture of the sort of person you are - and how enthusiastic you are about getting a job.

I'm interested in you, the person, and the specifics of your work (eg. the code samples) and other contributions would come up later in interview.

I don't mean to be overly harsh but your online presence and how you present yourself/your work are, in my opinion, key to better finding the work you want.

*demonstrable skills not as in bug fixes on github but as in the work put into your website.

Thanks for the feedback but perhaps you can give me more insight into what is dreadful about my site/portfolio. When you say site/portfolio, which are you referring to? Is it the design, usability you find dreadful or did it crash on you? Developing a web application requires many different skills and this is where I am trying to get some feedback on. I appreciate your feedback that it is dreadful but perhaps a bit more insight into what would make it less dreadful beyond improve it.

Don't focus on the end goal, focus on the journey. I'm a self-taught web developer (used to be a self-taught designer) and I learned my way through development by simply building stuff. I've had stable jobs for over 5 years now.

Once you've built some useful projects (I built Backbone Todos amongst other things), people are going to find you through them and contact you with opportunities all the time.

You've already started putting your work out there on Github, now you just need to market yourself a little better. a Github account isn't enough. Blog about your experience, build a Twitter following and other promotion techniques.

Maybe extract some smaller bits out of your bigger projects. Those are usually more useful and get more popular quickly. Abstract some of that application-specific code and release it. It's both an exercise in programming and marketing.

Why don't you come interview, we're hiring smart motivated people in San Francisco. http://chartboost.com/jobs

As far as general advice, I'd say if your skills are not good enough to get you a full developer's job right now, try to get hired as an intern, or as a community manager or something that doesn't require coding, at a startup. Suck up the bitch work for a while, try to automate a lot of your work using scripts, learn as you go and make it clear your end goal is to move to development—if you're smart, you'll be promoted in no time. I have some friends who've come in knowing nothing about development, and been promoted to junior developer within 6 months.

That is definitely the type of role and organization I would like to join. I am in NY right but will be back in the bay area soon and would be interested in an interview. I am certainly open to an internship, do you know if internship opportunities are paid?

Yeah, internships are definitely paid. Shoot me an email, kenneth@chartboost.com

Awesome! I think you're on the right track.

I'm a big believer in public portfolios. When I've been on the hiring side of things that's the first place I look. Now it's just a question of improving the both the quality and quantity of projects you're showing off.

How about getting a mentor to review your project(s)? You're not in an organization yet, but you can pretend you are--request a code review from a programmer you look up to.

Teaching others has helped me learn myself in the past. You didn't mention activity on stack overflow--answering questions there can improve your skills and visibility since SO is integrated with SO Careers as well.

Great luck to you!

The github account is nice, but it requires effort to explore, and you're trying for an entry-level position. You may need a better presentation of your skills.

That probably means an online portfolio with tools, summaries and screenshots. It's not hard to put one together, but here's a really simple "step-by-step" one that you can push to Heroku within about 15 minutes: https://github.com/noahgibbs/bobfolio

ETA: My own portfolio is here, for comparison: http://angelbob.com/portfolio

I was in similar situation. I've learned most things on the job but it's good to know some basics about hardware, operating systems, and the network.

You might work as a programmer and do only that but software development is much more than just programming. There are framework, libraries, and architectures. Not just fancy words but ways to do more in less time. And of course: testing, debugging, and rewriting. The last three make good programmer great.

I come for humanities and I can say that programming is not much different than writing a book: read a lot and write a lot ... I think Stephen King said that.

Help us build the Permabank project for #occupywallstreet! https://github.com/FLOSolutions/permabank

It's a Django gifting platform that will be pretty well-trafficked once we launch it in a couple weeks, that we hope to turn into a full-blown alternative economy platform one day soon. We could use dev help and have lots of people down here who could offer pointers for dev job opportunities to good coders. We're on irc.freenode.net #nycga-iwg. Best of luck!

Same here. I'm really trying hard to get into freelancing but since I'm not really good in networking I haven't come around to get a decent project yet. My current plan is building a strong online portfolio, which is hard to do without find any gigs.

If anyone is looking for a jr. front-end Dev., Wordpress Dev. or beginning Rails Dev. drop me a line. I'd appreciate it :) Languages: JS, Python, Ruby, PHP

Learning front end languages is essential as an employer wants to know that you can get a site live when the hits the fan. If you can't slice up a PSD and build a basic site there MIGHT come a point when you're useless to them.

I'm self-taught and found learning HTML, CSS, JS and a bit of PHP and MySQL was more than enough to get a job in the UK.

Build some sites, get some experience.

In a previous experience, I found that companies hired me without even glancing at my CV or portfolio after I started my development company.

There was some level of pre-created trust purely because I had a business operating in the field.

It's not hard to put a nice looking website together, choose a business name and start operating on the side.

It might make it easier for you too.


Use the same approach that works well for classically trained engineers:

Make something good, keep learning. Then show you are doing both of these.



Well, do you have a resume? That's the big obvious box to check, and what I'm surprised not to see here. You can include personal and class projects on your resume, as well as links to your github account and, if you have one, a portfolio or other online project(s).

I'm in the same boat as the OP except I'm just about to finish high school with 2 years of part-time experience in a web dev shop.

The main problem I'm having is not even being able to land an interview. Where should I look for a dev job in Australia?

Meetups: eg roro, cocoaheads, sydjs, etc...

Make an iPhone app, make some money, and never get a job.

I would recommend you either make a Bible app, or a Menstruation Calendar app. Those would both not require any server-side programming, and they are proven ways to make money.

I see so many people suggesting this, and I just don't get it. A very small percentage of iPhone apps even get into the high four-figures. That's not even quit-your-side-job money, much less quit-your-day-job.

Most people don't try and build apps that they know will suit an audience, and most people don't try for long enough (as with anything).

I believe that anyone who works on an iPhone app in their spare time for a year, and who picks a known winner category (GPS tracking, bible app, free book downloader, offline city maps, etc.) can make a living.

Remember - most people who try at everything fail. Right now, the mobile market is red-hot, and it's a good way to make a living. It's got to be the easiest way to sell software and make money, with a much higher success rate than making a website or a Facebook app.

Moreover, you can command ridiculous rates as a contractor right now for iOS expertise - much better than for JavaScript programming on average.

I don't mean to be argumentative, but I still think you're making it sound a lot easier than it is. For example, I know more about iPhone dev than most people who aren't full-time iPhone devs, but I have no idea what is a "known winner" category or even how I'd go about guessing. AFAIK, Apple doesn't release the kind of numbers I'd need to figure out what categories are profitable. With a web app, we can use analytics, keyword tools, A/B testing, etc.

This feeling — that releasing for the iPhone is a crapshoot and that anything I release would probably be crowded out by the absolute flood of junk in the App Store — is why I've never bothered with the iPhone, despite having done Cocoa development since the early days of OS X.

Not this. Even if you want to do mobile apps, just starting out you need to work with other developers as you learn a lot from them. If your goal from day 1 is to work solo you aren't going to have that feedback loop where you are pushed by your peers and can learn from your (and their) mistakes. This is compounded by the fact that you will probably develop proficiency working solo to where you can do things well enough to make money, but the customer doesn't know software design patterns, writing maintainable code, etc, they just know whether something specific works or not. Overall, without working with others I feel a career can stagnate. Its a bit of a cliche, but a lot of developer bloggers write about how if you aren't working with people smarter than yourself than you need to find a new job, by always working solo you're missing out on this entirely.

This is absolutely true. I've worked both solo and in small teams many times and whenever I've worked with others (particularly senior developers) who had decent skills I always learned a lot. When you work by yourself you don't have the benefit of other people to bounce your code off of, or of being exposed to various techniques, methodologies and tools you may not have discovered if left to your own devices.

I'm hiring developers for handl.it and I look for a concise summary of your objectives and skills.

Feel free to send me a message with this info and I'm happy to give you feedback. Good luck to you!

Get a helpdesk job at a company with an internal helpdesk. (NOT a call center). Those jobs truly are entry level, and will hire people without experience. Once you are there, start building tools on the side to help your department. If you do well, they'll see the value and give you more programming work. If not, at least you now can put real IT experience, including programming on your resume.

Admittedly, this is not an exciting path, nor a fast one. But it is an effective one.

Please, take this advice under no circumstances. This might well be the worst career advice for programmers I've ever seen.

...says the student to the 20 year veteran who lived this path.

If all you care about is startup work, yes this is bad advice. If you want a solid career in technology, this is a viable path. You don't have to agree, and I don't expect anyone to like it, but denying its viability is just short-sighted.

Where are you geographically located now? From your prior comments, I've seen NY and SFO.

Thats where I spend most of my time. NY right now for the holidays.

I'm curious if you've considered work that isn't 100% dev focused, but a combination of tech/people focused. e.g. systems/sales consultant? Do you like to travel? Can you talk to people? Do you desire to be deep in dev, or more surface level?

Funny you should ask. I come from a sales/marketing background and can talk to people. I do not need a 100% dev role but also do not really like sales however something that included consulting and really providing value I could be interested in.

You can be very technical and still involved in the sales process and add value! In fact, the combination of people skills and tech skills is very rare and commands a pretty good salary. If you're totally turned off by the sales process, you can go into professional services and be much more technically involved, but still work with people. Professional services requires almost 100% travel, and isn't for everyone. Let me know if you're interested in either of these and I'll reach out to you.

Contact the people you have interviewed with and ask for their feedback.

Work for $10/hr.

Hopefully Im not rehashing a bunch of the information people have already tried to give you here, but I happen to be a self-educated programmer with zero college, now going on two years experience, and my third opportunity at promotion (read: third new job) in that timeframe(never been fired). This time, it's for a highly successful software engineering company, so I like to think I'm making the right choices.

Step one is getting grounded, for me, that was understanding the basics of web development, how web pages work, and how to get them onto the web. Full stack development even with static sites can be very valuable: know how to bootstrap a brand new project, add it to version control, set up a production stack(e.g. Apache/passenger), have a basic workflow set up for yourself, do diverse things and solve stupid problems you're having for yourself. Got freelance clients? Give an invoicing app or client portal a go, it won't hurt for people to see you fix problems and don't dally with newnew technologies for now.

Try to stand out, for me, a lot of developers I meet don't grok photoshop and basic UI/UX, so I made it a months long focus to be able to design static mocks and live sites from scratch, and trying to make them as elegant and experience friendly as possible. Knowing HTML and CSS extremely well also has helped, for every programmer I meet who is a DOM wizard with JS, they don't understand modern HTML standards or how to write elegant CSS. I also understand photoshop as well as most graduates from Ringling(I know, I'm marrying one) and took serious time to grow my tool set(like using bash and vim effectively). Make yourself stand out, grok shit engineers aren't interested in or don't have the desire to fully learn(JavaScript is a fair example) you'll be thankful for it come interview time.

Finally, be modest. Once you have a professional looking online presence, you've done all you really can to make a good first impression. The rest is all desire to make shit work, to do something you've never, ever done before. Don't act like you can be put in over your head, know that the nights and weekends for many young people in technology are when you catch up to senoir peers.

I tend to agree somewhat with the 'get Into the community' observations people have made, but am employer has never asked me 'which meetups do you enjoy?' or 'what kind of open source things have you contributed?' - they honestly largely do not care in my experience, it can help you get a strong recommendation from someone inside the company, but this is unusual so don't lean on it, look at it as a badge or ribbon to accent your developer coat.

Which leads me to my last point, my best opportunities so far have come from very strong software engineers who appreciate my attitude, attention, and willingness to ask Smart questions while trying to explain what I do understand. They go to bat for me when they have an opening in the company, and that's huge for me. Something insane like 80% of professionals received a recommendation from family or a friend to land their position; in fact just a few weeks ago there was a forrst post from a UK kid who needed a rails job, he had a so-so online presence, but a bunch of people went to bat for him, saying that he showed real competience and that someone should really give him a chance; within the same day as the original post, he was employed( p.s. he had a compsci degree).

The market is starving for competent developers, I must get 5-10 hits every month from recruiters for all kinds of positions in San Fran and NY, so there's hundreds of people looking for new talent. Ask yourself why they haven't called you for an interview yet, and take example from the people you admire who are getting those calls.

Addendum: Just for the sake of clarity; these tips aren't necessarily the way to get into an entrepreneurial company, or one that's particularly very small. A lot of those opportunities, in my experience, come from open source visibility. Engine yard really nailed it here(http://www.engineyard.com/blog/2011/the-number-one-trait-of-...) -- but some companies _want_ a Jack; decide which one fits you better, though, because it's difficult(impossible?) to be both.

Just to elaborate after looking for you on Google; I'm assuming this is you: http://ropeadopeandwink.com/

The comments below are pretty accurate, this is kind've a terrible (mostly design) site. If you're not a retarded strong developer(read: compiler tweaking or core lib contributions, etc.), this kind of lapse in design and usability really stands out. Do you know enough about CSS to remove the underlined text decoration property from an anchor wrapped in H1? Why didn't you? Lets take a look at a pretty strong vanity domain for a developer (who needs to update their shit, but that I follow on Tumblr) not seeking employment: http://matthewmachuga.com/

Did you notice some instant difference? Did you notice his site design is a template from Tumblr? Was it easy to read and scan for information? Check out http://www.tumblr.com/spotlight/developers for some more examples of easy, but strong, blog examples. Detest the idea of using a service for this kind of thing? How about http://zachholman.com/about -- pretty strong site, compared to yours, don't you think? This kind of stuff is /just/ intended to get you in the door, to show that you're serious and that you're not coding only for a job, you're coding because you have a passion for the web/mobile/whatever-device-your-potential-employer-is-producing. Don't over think it, but don't produce design like http://ropeadopeandwink.com/steven-ciraolo/ or http://courseslate.com/ -- it's hideous, hard to scan, and people will have an extraordinarily hard time getting over those facts to try and give you a chance(especially if they need their developers to wear UX/UI or design hats from time to time). If you need to use things like Twitter-Bootstrap, do it, but don't be a capable coder who does not understand shit about design or user experience; like I said above -- stand out.

Thanks for the insight. I agree ropeadopeandwink.com is an ugly design I will go in and clean it up shortly, font sizes especially need help. Comparing it to the blogs you suggested I honestly do not think my design is that far off from those but definitely needs improvement.

I was in the same boat as you for a while. The short answer is, don't look for a job, make one. In my case I'm in a CIS college program with a concentration in web development but I'm not too far in and so far have taught myself more than the classes aside from the C++ I was taught there. While you build your skills there's a huge market for local businesses that need some cheap web dev stuff done and you can make a great living off it. In my case I've increased my income tenfold. Of course my first job was free and the second was o ly $400 but the work comes in consistently with a minimum of 2 jobs a month and an average of a 2 month turnaround per job. It's not much to start but you can build it and I really encourage it to anyone so long as you don't set the client's expectations higher than what you can achieve.

You say you learned Python and Django and I think that's a great place to start. Add on to that with a solid font end knowledge and you're good to go until you get hired.

If you're in the Chicago area you should get in touch with me as I'm looking for help as we speak.

Absolutely agree. Find customers, not a job. It may lead to a job, or you may fall in love with the freedom if being able to fire your boss (namely your customer) and make it a permanent lifestyle.

It's what I did and I never looked back.

Oh, and don't worry. If you go this route you will find a niche which will challenge you, stretch your skills, and so forth. I never knew when I started that I'd become the primary developer for an open source accounting package (LedgerSMB).

Happy hunting, and may fortune smile upon you!

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