My breakthrough into tech by Jane Lawson

Jane Lawson – Software Developer

Imagine someone from a foreign country being placed in the middle of a morning stand up. Everyone talking in unfamiliar words, mixed with the odd giggle and an occasional round of applause which rippled around the department like a Mexican wave.  They stand there with an awkward smile, feeling like a fish out of water and nod occasionally, pretending to know what was going on. Well, you’ve probably guessed? That was me in my first few weeks here at AO. “Rabbit messages are getting lost”, “Octopus tentacles need configuring”, something about a Tortoise… Animals? What is going on? “Red X. Regex. Resex.” Why are they all saying it differently? “API, VPN, CDN, SQL, DNS, IIS, ROBL”. OMG, it’s safe to say IT was unfamiliar ground. Everything was new and scary, the octopuses weren’t real and apparently, CORE lived in a box. And most importantly, when CORE went down, although I wasn’t aware where ‘down’ was, you’re supposed to stand around someone frantically typing at their desk until it came back. How times have changed. I came into AO with no IT experience, I didn’t even know what a cookie was. Now, 4 years on, I thought I’d share my story.

The Classic Tale of The Unused Degree

I completed uni with a degree in Computer Animation. I enjoyed it and I got a 1st but I didn’t see myself pursuing it. It didn’t ignite the fire in me that is essential if you’re going to spend most of your working life in the industry. So, what now? A load of debt and no closer to a career. Great! I felt frustrated. I knew I wanted a good career and that I wanted to work with computers in some form. I just couldn’t put my finger on what. I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be.

Being a single Mum I needed a part-time job to fit around school times. What a task that was. All the part-time jobs I came across were for evenings and weekends, self-employment seemed the only way to go. I ended up opening an eBay shop selling phone and tablet accessories, this gave me the flexibility I needed. It worked around school hours and I could carry on in the evenings when my daughter was in bed. It was going ok, so I wanted to improve the look of the e-shop. After finding some YouTube videos on HTML and CSS I managed to make the design much nicer than the default interface. But, I found it enjoyable and I was hungry to do more. Working my own hours was great as it meant I had the time to play around with this new interest of mine. I soon discovered that I’m terrible at designing, so to practice, I challenged myself to recreate websites I came across. I ended up with a portfolio of sites.

And so, the fire ignites

When creating these sites, I kept questioning how it all worked. How did computers work? How did the internet work? I couldn’t just accept not knowing so back to YouTube I went. I didn’t immediately grasp it but found drawing it out and being able to visually imagine things helps my understanding. For example, filling in an online form. I imagined someone placing a paper form into an envelope and posting it to the post office (server), someone unpacking it, checking the data and inputting it to their computer. Then repacking the envelope with a little congrats message (HTTP response) and posting it back to the sender so they can let me know that all is ok. All in the blink of an eye of course.

I quite often lose interest in things just as quickly as I gained it. This time was different. I had a feeling that this might be what I’ve been looking for. The more I read about the industry the more I wanted to be a part of it. I decided that I wanted to become a backend developer. I like learning, solving problems and building things both physically and virtually. I found blogs containing advice about what it’s like to be a dev and where to start, which languages, which concepts and a few different video tutorial site recommendations. YouTube is great until you get distracted by videos of cats falling off things and before you know it, its school pick up time! It seems tutorial sites don’t have cat videos. Shame. But they do have sensible learning paths to follow and usually have a Q&A forum to post any issues or questions you have along the way, so you don’t feel like you’re struggling alone.

Work Experience for the WIN!

A couple of months later I found myself lucky enough to have landed 2 weeks of work experience at AO. Being predominantly a .Net house I needed to remember how to use windows, as I’d only used Macs for the last 5 years. I bought a windows 8 laptop and had to google how to turn it off. This didn’t fill me with encouragement about how the next two weeks were going to go. Turns out it was great. I wanted to get as much knowledge as possible about what was needed to become a developer, so I could carry on learning at home. I never imagined they’d hire me! Yet here I am 4 years on and what a journey it’s been.

In hindsight, it was a bold move. From both parties. The investment to take on someone so junior is huge. I still feel grateful for the opportunity. I think I always will. And from my part, I was lucky not to realise how much there was to know. Because if I had, I’m not sure I would have believed I could have done it. Don’t get me wrong – you never know it all. That’s one of the gems of the job. IT changes so frequently you must consistently learn to keep up to date, so even being a newbie, you might know a current technology or language better than someone who has been a developer for 20 years. You can always add value too, no matter what level you’re at. Even just having a different perspective on an idea sparks a deeper conversation and can ultimately end in having a better solution. It was overwhelming at times though I must admit. Being surrounded by people who had been doing it for years, I felt like Noddy half the time. Through no one’s fault. Everyone has always treated me equally and have been very encouraging. I found it’s all about your mindset. Remembering how far you’ve come and relishing in the little wins. Like when the penny drops on a concept you’ve been struggling to grasp. Or something taking half the time it did compared to the last time.

So, can you learn on the job?

Knowing what to learn can be challenging. Other than the basics of writing code there are key concepts, design patterns, the IDE, dev ops, agile practices, MANY JavaScript frameworks, SQL, knowing that writing variable names with incorrect casing can give people nose bleeds, plus a whole load of tools. I had to be pragmatic with it. Learning enough to grasp it at first and if I needed to come back and learn it in more depth, then I did. It was soon obvious what to focus on, which concepts don’t change over time, which technologies were fading out and which were here to stay. Looking at code when I first started scared me a lot. It was like looking at hieroglyphics. Now it’s as clear as day. I wonder how I ever failed to understand it. With the right company, the right support and some self-belief, you really can learn on the job.

Considering taking the leap into the world of a software dev? Then here are my top four tips.

•    Get involved in the community. There’s a lovely bunch of people out there that all love software, love to help people learn, share tons of advice and support each other. Join meetup and meet some people. I know that’s scary if you’re an introvert like me. But trust me, you won’t regret it.

•    Learn how you learn. Everyone learns differently. I’m almost a 3-way split between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. So, video tutorials are perfect for me. I can see it in action, hear someone explain it and follow along and get some hands-on practice. Other people want to get stuck in straight away and tinker with things. Some people like to read all the documentation and understand what it’s doing and how. There is no right way. If you understand what you’re learning, then it doesn’t matter how it gets into your brain. You’ll spend a fair amount of time in your career learning so make sure you’re using that time as efficiently as possible.

•    Don’t wait until you’re an expert or until you meet all the requirements on a job description. You can learn as you go along. No employer expects you to know it all. Even if you only have 20% of the requirements just go for an interview and be honest about what you know. It’s more important that you are keen to learn. Even if you don’t get the job you’ll get some valuable interview practice and highly likely to get useful feedback. You really can’t lose.

•    But most importantly of all. Don’t give up. It is hard, but it’s totally worth it. I felt like quitting on several occasions because I didn’t think I would ever ‘get’ it. But I persisted, and I ‘got’ it. And if I can, so can you!