10 Years as a Professional Developer
It was 2006 and the developer landscape was very different. Facebook wasn’t yet popular in the UK, Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant browser and the iPhone was nowhere in sight.
CSS (cascading style sheets) was the new language back then and the majority of websites were still being built using a table structure to create the layout, this is something that isn’t even considered these days.
I’d been learning to build websites for a couple of years and was just about to finish at Glasgow Caledonian University where I was studied "Internet Software Development". Just about all I was interested in at the time was working for someone that would let me update their websites, anything else was a bonus.
It was approaching graduation and I was eager to get out there and start pursuing my passion. I printed off a few screenshots of websites I’d built and sent them off en masse to anywhere that piqued my interest. I thought I would be waiting ages but to my surprise, I got a reply!
A local non-profit asked me to come in for an interview and told me to bring ideas for their website. Being young and naive at the time, I stupidly read this as “please re-design all of our homepage”. I’m not the best at design, so at the very least it was an ambitious feat.
I hadn’t had worried though, I got it!
Based on the design for the interview I was told I could come in for 3 months and modernise the website. I managed to introduce CSS, a modern layout and to my surprise at the end of it I was able to stay on full time!
Jack of All Trades, Master of None
The majority of my experience so far seemed to be in Microsoft technologies, but I didn’t see it like that. Apple was beginning to hold my attention, as was the open-source scripting language, PHP. Mac OS X was far superior to Windows Vista at the time, and I could use it to learn PHP (the language used by Facebook) in projects I was working on at home.
It was actually fun to learn one skill at the office and another at home, but I could see I was at risk of becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. Something had to change.
I decided to go back on the market and start looking for new jobs. It was a long time, and a lot of interviews, before I finally heard back. I was going to be a PHP developer!
Starting in a new job after 5 years is a big change for anyone. I was also in the private sector and it seemed a lot more intense than what I was used to, it was all changing so fast.
Over 9 months I built up my PHP knowledge by working on a “customer relationship management system” and I also got to help out on their websites built in WordPress. It was great being part of such a small business, you really can make a big difference.
The business had planned for growth, but to my knowledge this didn’t happen. 6 years into my career and I was suddenly told I was going to be made redundant, it was an eye opener!
What do you do in this situation? Go back to familiarity, or start afresh?
I’d left my last employer on good terms, so I decided to see if they would have me back. In addition to emailing my first boss, I thought I would try and see what else was out there.
What interested me was a digital agency that used PHP, ASP.NET and SQL Server for clients including Disney and Royal Caribbean. I thought, why not apply for both? It can’t hurt, after all I was now unemployed.
Somehow, I managed to get interviews for both and in the end had the choice of either! I really wanted to join my old workmates, but I just couldn’t turn down the chance of working at an agency.
I jumped head first into my new surroundings and was made responsible for a PHP e-learning platform for Royal Caribbean. There were new features to plan out, code to write and bugs to fix, it was great!
Supporting one PHP application was sufficient in the beginning, but the majority of their websites were built in modern ASP.NET using MVC and C#, all technologies I hadn’t used. I was beginning to feel like my days as a “PHP specialist” were numbered.
Being encouraged to learn new technologies had a major impact on me. I will always remember the phrase “if you don’t enjoy learning, you’re in the wrong job”. If you are wanting to get a lot of experience in a short amount of time, look for a digital agency.
At this point I was starting to explore the Microsoft community and was pleasantly surprised by the amount of useful resources out there. People like Scott Hanselman, Shawn Wildermuth and Paul Thurrott, as well as the podcasts .NET Rocks and Hanselminutes are all ones to check out.
It’s really helpful to go on a training course when you admittedly know nothing about a subject. I went on a 3-day course by Hands on Technology and got to learn all about Visual Studio, the IDE by Microsoft, the “MVC” approach (model, view, controller) as well as an introduction to C#.
If your company is going to send you on a training course… you should probably start to use your new knowledge. Luckily a new project for Disney was about to start, so I jumped at the chance to work on it.
The holiday period was approaching and a website was to be built for parents to book a call for their child to receive a Christmas message by Mickey Mouse. Having visited all the Disney parks in Florida, and being a fan of all the classics, this was right up my street!
We needed it to scale up to one million users for Christmas day and I can remember being paranoid it was going to crash. I couldn't possibly comment on the magic we used to talk to Mickey Mouse, but it involved a SQL database to store all the requests, an API to send out calls and a load-balanced server to handle all the traffic. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it all worked, and so far, this might just my career highlight.
I'm still enjoying using Microsoft technologies today and it just keeps getting more interesting. Open source, cross-platform and mobile support, it's a great time to be a developer.
I think the hardest part is to try and determine what to learn and what to ignore, you can’t learn it all but you can’t limit your knowledge too much either.
I would encourage anyone out there to find out what they’re passionate in and just keep focusing on it until it becomes a reality.