Career "Advice"

I was invited to speak at a careers event run by the Edinburgh Hoppers, a group at the University of Edinburgh for female computer science students, to talk about my tech career so far.

The slides are embedded below, as well as a rough transcript of the talk I gave.

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Hi I am Phil.

I am a web developer. Which means I develop stuff for the web. That's about as specific as it gets, as I tend to get stuck into just about anything, rather than really specialising on one particular piece.

A brief history of time

I studied electronic engineering here at Edinburgh university, and when I graduated I was offered a job at Wolfson where I had done my masters project. Wolfson designed audio microchips that were used in commercial products like iPhones and the like.

The technical work I was doing at Wolfson was fun, but two things about it sucked:

  • Working in a large company didn't really suit me. It was, for the most part a nice environment, but bureaucracy and negativity was hard to avoid.

  • I realised that engineering hardware didn't really suit me. The projects were really long, so you could be working on a project for 6 to 12 months before you even saw the results of what you had been working on.

I had done a little web development in my spare time and it captured my imagination more and more. The ability to work for smaller companies, or even freelance, was exciting.

The ability to create something in a day or two that actually worked and that you could put in front of a customer and see the reaction of their face! was much better suited to my short attention span.

So I started getting more and more involved in web stuff where I could. I listened to web design podcasts on my way to and from work every day. I took every excuse to use ruby in my day job (as I knew it could be used for building web stuff as well). I started a secret weekly lunchtime session with other people from my office where we taught each other ruby and git, under the guise that it would help us with our day jobs. I attended a bunch of hack weekends where I could meet people to learn from and to build things with.

During this time, I didn't really build anything of note. It was all pretty crap. But that didn't matter. I was learning, a lot. And more importantly, I found that if there was something I was interested in, I could find something online or somebody I knew who could teach it to me, for free, as long as I was willing to put in the time and effort.

Then three a half years ago I met a guy who owned a local web development and design company. I told him about being interested in a career in the web, but that I didn't know how to make the leap. He offered me some contract work I could do in my spare time. I didn't really feel like I was good enough, but he said I should just give it a shot. So I started working on these little websites from some tiny clients of theirs, and earning a little pocket money.

It was fun, but it wasn't all that difficult, and the idea of leaving my very technical role at Wolfson, to build simple websites for tartan companies wasn't quite as exciting as I hoped it would be.

A few months passed and then the same guy came to me and said he had an idea for a startup that would help small businesses (like his) build financial forecasts for their businesses to help them keep a handle on their finances and stop them getting into trouble. He wondered if I was interested in helping him build it?

We started slow, tinkering with the idea in our spare time, then we started getting customers who were excited about the idea. We formed the company as Float, and 9 months later I quit my job so I could focus on Float, living off some savings I'd put aside from working at Wolfson.

So for the last three years I have been working full time on Float. We raised a little money about a year ago which kept us going. We have paying customers, which is great. And we've just raised £110k of investment to grow the team, and we've since hired two developers and a marketing/customer support person.

And the final piece of the story is the future. As of next month I am going to be leaving Float to go work with my heroes at a tiny company in the states called &yet, where I'll be building a lot of really awesome real-time web stuff. This is a job I could have only dreamed of 4 years ago when I was cycling to Wolfson listening to web design podcasts, so I am super excited about it.

What is particularly neat about this job is how I got to be hired by &yet. I came across &yet around the time we were starting Float, and started following Adam and Henrik on twitter. They quickly became heroes of mine - Adam for his views on how businesses should operate, and Henrik for his technical work. I remember dreaming that maybe, one day, I'd maybe even get to meet the two of them (let alone work with them)!

So time passed, and I got stuck into Float, and kept an eye on what Henrik and Adam were up to via twitter. I had the odd conversation with them on twitter, but nothing particularly serious. I kind of assumed they barely knew who I was.

Then one day earlier this year, Adam shared a blog post I had written on twitter, and told me I should come to a conference he was organising in Dublin. I DM'd him and said "sounds cool, but I can't afford it, and I am pretty busy [with Float stuff] right now :(".

He replied saying he'd find me a ticket, and somewhere to crash if I could get myself to Dublin. Needless to say I quickly found a ticket, and ended up crashing with Henrik and Jon (one of their developers) for 3 days which was great fun. From there we talked about me working for them as I'd be a good fit for the company, and I ultimately decided that as much as I've loved Float, it was time for a new start. So there we had it, a job largely acquired via twitter!

Career Thoughts

There is very little stopping you

The web is not a perfect meritocracy, by a long shot, but if you can read this, there is literally nothing stopping you from building a website, right now. There is an almost infinite amount of information online about how to build websites, and the software you need is all free.

The only thing stopping you building things is you.

Learn

You will never know everything there is to know about software development. It is a career characterised by constant learning, which for me is perfect (as I love learning). The thing is nobody is going to force you to learn, or necessarily teach you it. You'll need to find the time to push yourself to learn new things on your own time.

Fortunately as I've said already, the resources available for learning are near infinite and frequently free.

Make stuff, meet people, tell them

As someone who's interviewed and hired people, the first things I look for are 1. can they, and are they willing to learn? and 2. are they proactively building things and solving problems.

The number of people who have done their coursework, done some jobs, but not hacked on anything in their own time that they are willing to show me makes me sad.

You should really go read this as it explains this point as well as I ever could.

I have no idea what I'm doing

Almost nobody in web really knows what they are doing. It's a field that is still finding it's feet, and the goalposts are constantly moving. There are always new things to learn, and things to improve.

This means that you might feel like you have no idea what you are doing. Don't worry! Neither does anyone else. Don't be disheartened. Stick with it, keep learning and do your best. Just don't quit because of that feeling, that'd be sad.

Impostor Syndrome

That feeling of not knowing what you're doing is really exacerbated by the fact that everyone else seems to know what they are doing. Everyone seems to have their shit together. Everywhere you look, someone's making something cool, or knows about something great.

This easily makes you feel like an impostor. Like you don't deserve to be in this career as everyone else is obviously much much better than you are.

This is a fallacy, summed up by a favourite quote of mine:

Never compare your behind the scenes to someone else's highlight reel.

Almost everyone I know suffers from impostor syndrome to some degree. Please don't let it get you down.

Github and Twitter

The web industry runs on github and twitter. Or at least, the really fun bit that I am involved with is. You should really be trying to get a bunch of activity on twitter and github so that people can get an idea of who the heck you are.

And please don't be precious about the code you put on github. Mine is full of crap, but it shows I care, and I am passionate, and I am trying. Besides, if you put some stuff up there that's not great, it will encourage you to publish more code to put that crap further down the list ;)

And most of all, have fun!