Simon's career change to Software Engineer in the UK
Hey, so can you introduce yourself?
I’m Simon Barker, Full Stack Web Developer. I live in Warwick in the UK and am the founder of Career Switch To Coding. I arm new and early stage developers with all the skills required to go from unknown coder to turning down more job offers than you ever imagined.
I’ve had a very varied career since I learned to code and there was a period a few years ago when I was struggling to transition my career and find a dev job. My focus now is to make sure that no new developer has to suffer through a similar soul crushing journey.
Why did you learn to code?
I had three failed attempts at learning to code, once when I was 12, then again at 16 and once more on my degree at 18 years old. With each attempt I didn’t have a real reason to want to learn, I had a vague idea of making a game but I couldn’t draw a line from the boring terminal applications the books had me making and that destination of making the next Crash Bandicoot or Metal Gear Solid.
It wasn’t until I started my PhD in Electrical and Electronic Engineering that I had a real concrete reason to learn to code. I had been unleashed on a lab full of amazing equipment and an open remit to spend three years building something cool, it became very clear I needed to knuckle down and actually grok this coding thing. If not, my PhD was dead in the water, so I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in.
How did you learn coding?
When I talk about when and how I learnt to code I always refer to the 2008/2009 period where I worked through all of Harvard’s CS50 course, watching every lecture and every problem set in 3 months of evenings and weekends.
Back in 2008 there weren’t all that many places to learn to code that were fun, engaging and started from the fundamentals, CS50 was on iTunes U, it was free and the website made it seem incredibly fun, which it was. It was also very challenging and I had many days where I wanted to throw in the towel. The spell checker problem set took me more attempts than I would care to admit!
CS50 is still a wonderful course that is actively developed and has built a reputation far beyond what would be expected for a university course. It is a bottom up approach to learning code so has a large time commitment, with a full time job and family commitments I may now go for a more focussed option like a front end web dev course and then back fill any knowledge gaps on the job.
How has your life changed since learning to code?
If I hadn’t learned to code my PhD would have been very different and the software I wrote for my first business and all the side projects I made wouldn’t have existed. When I had to close my company down in early 2019 I wouldn’t have had the skill of coding and 11 years of making apps and services to fall back on so finding that elusive first job, after 8 years of entrepreneurship, would have been far more challenging than it was.
Knowing how to code has given me confidence that I will always be able to find a well paying job regardless of how my entrepreneurial endeavors are going. Some entrepreneurs are fortunate to have a safety net of family money or a lucrative existing career, for the rest of us who are less fortunate we have to provide our own safety net, being able to code is min, and it can be yours too.
It’s a highly sought after skill that is hard to master and provides companies and employers with an outsized return on their investment in paying you, you can leverage that to always make sure that you have a way to put food on the table.
What does a typical day as a software developer look like for you?
This really depends on the type of company you work at and what their focus is. If their dev team is the primary value creation center of the company, such as in a tech company, then there will be good systems in place to make sure you spend as much time as possible writing code, you will have very few meetings and you will be focussed on writing as much code and creating as much value as possible. This goes for agency work as well, with the slight difference that you may have more meetings so you can work with the client on their requirements.
If you work in a dev team at a company where the primary revenue driver is not tech then you will have much less structure, less budget and likely spend more time in meetings with stakeholders from across the company. This is my preferred style of working because the feedback loops tend to be shorter, you have a wider variety of greenfield, brownfield and support work and you can see clearly how your work improves your colleagues day to day. The downside is that salaries are generally lower as you are lumped into the IT department and that is a cost center.
What was the interview process like for your first developer job?
While I had 11 years of dev experience under my belt at this point, I was still an unknown quantity so the role was fairly junior and the tech testing light. When I left 14 months later I was asked to test the new senior developer hiring tech test which was much more involved. I still passed it :-)
During my time at that company I realised how valuable and extensive my self taught dev skills were. I was missing some of the Agile, Git and team aspects but my problem solving, debugging and feature development skills were far ahead of a junior, as soon as my probation ended after 6 months I was promoted to Software Engineer and then my next job was senior level. Don’t underestimate your self taught abilities.
Understand why you want to learn to code, this journey is hard, you need a north star.
- Don’t try to map out the perfect plan, commit to a minimum everyday that you know you can hit, even if it's just 15 minutes. A plan you can stick to is better than an unrealistic perfect plan
- Find other developers to talk to, for the first 10 years of writing code I was the only developer I knew, I had no help, no support and no one that I could just talk to about code - it was lonely and I didn’t even realise it
- Pick a stack and stick to it, don’t mess about and change every 6 weeks. There is nothing wrong with learning Java or PHP even though Twitter memes would have you think they are terrible languages. Java is everywhere in enterprise and most of the web still runs on PHP so both have high demand for devs. Learn to code and then specialise.
- The trick to writing good code is to write lots of bad code first, don’t be embarrassed to share your code and get feedback.
What are your career goals for the future?
I am full time on CareerSwitchToCoding.com which is a 100% free resource to help you land your first or next developer job. The podcast is chock full of great developer stories and the blog is full of advice for all stages of your career. The book is the most actionable 80 pages on landing a developer job anywhere on the internet.
If you want daily updates then join nearly 10,000 developers following me on Instagram @allthecode or, if Twitter is your thing then come say hi over there @allthecode_.
The next stop is building the YouTube channel!
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