How I Got Here From There

May 17, 2016

On a recent episode of the Shop Talk podcast there was a discussion of the varied career paths that people take to end up in web development. I found it reassuring to learn that I’m not the only person who’s gone from studying philosophy to working in front end development. It got me thinking that I should write about my own career path. It feels a little egotistical, as if I’m writing a mini-autobiography, but never mind.

It’s taken me a while to write this, but another shop talk show episode reminded me about it, with Khoi Vinh talking about his book on people’s careers, and how “nobody’s career is predetermined - you don’t get out of college with a master plan of how to spend the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years and execute against it perfectly”. This is definitely true for me.

Like a lot of teenagers, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, so after spending a year playing in a band and working in a nursing home, I went to university to do an arts degree. I’m just old enough that I graduated before tuition fees came in - my first job after graduating was doing data entry for freshers’ student loan applications.

Most of my time at university was spent working as crew for events at the students union, doing sound and light for gigs, discos and conferences. That experience probably taught me more than any other about the value of teamwork and professionalism, even though we got paid in beer and band t-shirts.

After graduating I spent a while trying to become a sound engineer, but only got as far as loading trucks at big London venues. Just as I was complaining that it isn’t about what you know, it’s about who you know, a friend got in touch to say his tour needed a new lighting technician. So I spent six months touring the UK doing lights for musical theatre, in spite of my general ignorance about theatre and a total lack of interest in musicals.

The experience of touring the UK made me want to get as far away from the place as possible, so I did a TEFL course in Barcelona, and then went to Japan to teach English. Teaching was a good experience, but the main thing was living on the other side of the world. It also gave me my first taste of development, creating teaching materials in Flash for a CD-ROM.

After coming back to the UK via Siberia I still didn’t know what I wanted to. For the moment, I didn’t want a career - I just wanted something to pay the bills while I did music and writing.

Meanwhile I needed money, so did an absurd range of short-term menial jobs, from labourer for some pipe fitters on a sewage works, to carrying suitcases at a girls’ boarding school, with the jobs in between including postman, massaging mileage statistics, packing books in a warehouse, and rewriting people’s CVs. I probably identified more than was healthy with Henry Chinaski.

Eventually I ended up doing a relatively respectable 9-to-5, as an account manager for a corporate language training provider. It mainly involved recruiting teachers of every language imaginable, and trying to placate city bankers who didn’t want to pay for lessons that they cancelled with 5 minutes’ notice. By virtue of being the most technical person in the office, I ended up as the de facto IT department, being first line support for my colleagues.

One lesson that taught me was that if you make yourself too available, people become dependent on you. 9 times out of 10, if someone asked for my help, and I said I’d get back to them in 5 minutes, they’d have figured out the solution to the problem themselves.

The other part of the job was maintaining a Heath Robinson system of interconnected spreadsheets for reporting to clients. I gradually became convinced that there had to be a better way, which led me down a path to building an online course management database, which took me to teaching myself PHP and MySQL.

At the same time, I was playing keyboards in a band, and started looking after the forum and thinking about improving the website. Meanwhile, my wife, a freelance graphic and web designer, had been let down by the person who was doing development work for her. How hard could it be?

I built a few sites using Wordpress, but the person I knew who knew the most about computers was working with Drupal, so I thought I’d give that a go. How hard could it be? I hadn’t heard of the Drupal learning cliff before I started, but I soon experienced it for myself. Somehow on my first few attempts, nothing seemed to click, but when I came back to Drupal a few months later, things made a bit more sense.

Although the band was doing fairly well, with all the travel it was starting to feel like a job that didn’t pay much, and we were all reaching a certain age, so it felt like it was time to think about getting a proper job.

Still not entirely sure where I was going, I signed up for a part time computer science degree, along with a very mixed bag of fellow students. Some were already doing IT jobs and needed a piece of paper to back up their existing experience and help them get the next job up. Others were career changers like me - a pharmacist, some teachers, an actor who wanted to move from game voiceovers to game development.

In the meantime, I carried on building websites - I think what I learned from that was more valuable than the content of the course, and certainly more valuable than any of the exercises in programming books.

After graduating I spent an intense spell at a small digital agency, working on dozens of different projects in a typical week, before joining an enormous IT consultancy, to work on bigger projects. Nearly 5 years later, I’m still there, somehow with the word “senior” attached to my job title, and still in denial about the fact that I work in IT - I cling on to the idea that I work in the media.

So, where do I go from here? I’m approaching 40, and although I’m only a few years into this career, sometimes I wonder where all the older developers go. Do they all go off to become project managers? Sometimes I’m tempted to go down that road myself, but I don’t think I’m ready to give up being a code monkey just yet. I’ve still got a lot to learn.