How do I convert my coding skills into a career? - WebTalksNI
2nd Apr 2018
Gareth: “Welcome to the second edition of our YouTube series WebTalksNI. My name is Gareth Stirling, I’m a senior web development recruitment specialist with Corvus Recruitment. For those of you who don’t know, WebTalksNI is a series we put together aim to highlight the local web development community. We will be interviewing local web development specialists to see the sort of training they undertook to secure their first job or advance their career as well as highlighting local web development companies. To see what sort of skills they struggle to find as well as what sort of products they have in development.
Today, we’re here with Darren McSorley, he is the lead developer and partner with a company called Reflex Studios. Darren is a graduate of the IMD course with Ulster University, I also graduated from that same course but I’m sure you’ve realised that Darren graduated a bit later than I did.
So, thanks, Darren, welcome.
To begin with, maybe you could tell us a bit about Reflex Studios?”
Darren: “Yes, I’m a partner in Reflex Studios, we build website and web apps. It started off Michael, my partner in the company, he started the company by himself in 2010. He was a freelancer for two years and began building up a few projects and clients. Michael asked me if I would be interested coming on full time. So, I’ve been partner for about 5 years now and we’ve just grown from there. We moved into new offices last year and have gone from strength to strength.”
Gareth: “Excellent, so, how did you first get into coding?”
Darren: “I started with a fairly unconventional method into coding, I wasn’t the best student going through school. I did well with computers, I played a lot with them in the evening times. So, my attitude was as long as I’m good with computers I’ll get a job, in the end, you know I never thought about it too much. Then it built up to Computer Science in Queens. So, it was the only computer course Queen’s offered so I thought it’d be grand as long as it was computers. And… it was a disaster to sum it up.
It was my first introduction to computer programming and I just couldn’t grasp it at all. I was sitting in these lectures as they explaining these concepts and they were just over my head. I just couldn’t get my head around it, but oddly enough on that course, there was a module called multimedia design which I did and I enjoyed. I actually did quite well out off.
I had the attitude of I’ll just do multimedia design then I don’t have to code and I can get away from all the sort of techy stuff to concentrate on design. As I say computer science was the only computer course that Queen’s offered, but there was a multimedia design course at Jordanstown. They seemed to do a better range of courses, so I transferred after a year.
I only studied multimedia design to get away from coding but it turns out it put me on a path for code. After I came out of University, I just sent my CV out to as many companies as possible, I got shortlisted for some developer roles and once I landed my first developer role, I just kept going from there as a coder.
Gareth: “Interesting, I can relate to that as I did an HND before I did the IMD course and there was a module in that which was totally dedicated to Java. It was totally above my head but when I moved to IMD, I actually scored highest on the coding side of things. So, I can certainly relate to that.”
Darren: “I think the web-based technologies, the like of PHP are a wee bit easier for a first timer. I think in hindsight it would be a bit more beneficial to me to have a bit of experience in programming before I studied computer science. The background knowledge could have helped with that, as when I started programming, it was Java which was a wee bit too much for me to take on at the time. The weird thing is that I actually use java now day-to-day - I’m grand with it. It was in that initial introduction, it was too much.
Darren: “I think more entry point. They are easier to pick up with. With the likes of Java, there is just a wee bit extra groundwork you have to think about going into them. When web technologies, the browser picks up a lot of
Gareth: “How difficult did you find it securing your first job in software development?”
Darren: “I think I got my first job through perseverance. When I was studying the four year course, by the 4th year I was so focused on Graduation that I never thought what would happen post-graduation. I set myself a target, just get graduated and don’t worry about the jobs, which will all come afterwards. I had this naïve thought - if I had a degree I’d get the job.
Graduation comes, you have that big day and celebration. Then a few days go past and it dawns on you, you have to start looking for a job. So, university life is over, I dropped my CV into a few recruitment agencies. Again, naivety, I just waited for phone calls to come back. I thought it would have been in my sort of area of expertise if you can call it that.
My first job out of university was working for a bank, it was basically copy and pasting, glorified copy and pasting. I simply copied and pasting word documents. So, I was just constantly updating my CV and building my portfolio, just emailing every company. I was getting really frustrated not getting any responses back. Now I see it from the other side, I know those agencies get hit with about 10/15 emails every night. It is near on impossible to write back to everyone.
Anyway, I kept sending out my CV, kept my eye out on the job boards and started looking to events that were happening in Belfast. Back then it was called Refresh - I’m not sure if it’s still going. They used to have these web events in the Black Box. I started to get myself involved in events and looking for job opportunities. Eventually, I landed a junior developer role in February 2009 and my career just kick off from there.
Gareth: “That’s interesting, one of the things we come across every day with candidates is that struggle to get that first job. Perseverance is certainly key. Now that you’re on the other side of the desk as such, how could somebody with no commercial experience either with a degree or self-study, how could they set themselves apart from other candidates?”
Darren: “ I don’t think commercial experience is as important as what you feel it was back then. Back then you thought that’s what is going to hold you back from getting that first job. But, you could almost see not having commercial experience as an opportunity rather than a threat.What I mean by that is, commercial projects you can be limited in what you do functionality or scoop wise. Or possibly the client has directed the project a certain way which doesn’t truly reflect your skill set.
If you just build your own things, if you take an interest or a hobby and build an app around that, it can really showcase what you’re capable off. You’re going to an employer with samples of your work, rather than going to say, ‘I could potentially do this’. You would be showing proof of what you’re capable of doing.
Even to relate back to myself a wee bit, for years I have been working as a web developer. So, often I would get asked about apps. I always said, ‘I don’t do app development, but I’d love to learn.’ I said that answer multiple times until one time I told myself I was going to learn how to develop an app.
So, just using online courses I taught myself app development. Then when I got that same question again, ‘Can you do app development?’, I said ‘yes, but can you show us?’. You see I had learnt but I had never actually built anything with my knowledge. Then I started thinking about building simple concepts, like a hangman quiz which is what we often use when you’re learning a language. Another thing I built was a quiz, just multiple choice and I thought If we themed this around something and I stick it in the App store. At least then you know we would have proof and we could show it to clients and say here are some apps that we have built.
We took the quiz and themed it up around Father Ted. It’s just a TV show that everyone has fun memories about. Stick it on the App store and see what happens - now we can show something to clients. But after it went live, a couple blogs in Ireland picked it up and people started sending it to each other. It became this big viral success. We got asked to come on Q101 radio in Newtownards to talk about the app. We did that, it was a wee bit strange as I thought ‘why am I sitting here?’. We did the interview and talked about the apps but coming from that, every time I get asked ‘Are you experienced with apps?’, we can show them a few example and tell them that story.
Just from that, we were able to secure a few app contracts at work. If you think, had we not went ahead and made that and posted that, I don’t think we could have ever established ourselves as an app agency. Even that first stepping stone, that’s what I think that Father Ted app gave us the confidence to say we can deliver this and give proof.”
Gareth: “So, obviously, that is a great example as it showcases your technical skills and your personality, not only as an individual but as a business.”
Darren: “I think it is a way to stand out because I know the more you get CVs in, you can point to an example. I mean we’re still talking about it now, it’s a way to make yourself memorable and to stand out.”
Gareth: “That is definitely a good tip for anybody trying to get their first job. On a slightly different note, what would be your top 3 tips on how to succeed during an interview?”
Darren: “My first tip would be, to be honest.
If I can relate back to myself again, I will always remember my first developer role. In the interview, he was asking me questions and I was asking them the best I could. Then he asked me a question about SQL security - how to hack into websites. I never studied web security at all, so I tried to sidestep the question. But he wasn’t letting me away with it so he repeated the question back to me. So I just said, ‘look, I don’t know’. As I said this an awkward silence filled the room and I could hear the scratch of the pen as he writes something down. I thought ‘God, I’m never going to hear from him again’.
I walked out, thinking that’s the end. As I was walking away I started thinking what I have to do next when I get home to learn SQL security. When I got home I was thinking of different job opportunities, needed to update my CV again. Then, out of nowhere, the phone rings and it was the agency ringing me back to offer me the chance to start on Monday. I was kind of shocked, taken back a wee bit, but I’d say nothing, ‘Great, I’ll see you Monday’.
I came in, got my legs under the desk and just worked away. He pulled me aside that evening and showed me a wee bit about SQL security. It wasn’t a big topic, I learnt it in about 15 or 20 minutes. So, obviously, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Of course, I couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie, a couple months later we were on a night out, we were having a few drinks and I just said to him, ‘Even though I didn’t know the answer to the SQL security question, why did you still give me the job?’. He said, ‘It told me you were honest. If you had of lied or tried to make something up, I’d of never given you the job. I knew it wasn’t that big of a topic - I could show you. I’d rather have someone in here who was honest than someone who was just going to lie’.
That is something I still carry with myself today. I don’t do job interviews anymore but I do client pitches and presentations. If we were asked about topics I wasn’t sure about, I’d just be honest and say, ‘I wasn’t sure about it’. You know no one has ever marked me down, it’s ok not to know something as long as you’re willing to learn it.
You can come out of university thinking you need to know everything, there are lots of things I still don’t know that I’m learning to this day. Be honest, say you don’t know and it will stand you better in the long-term.
Gareth: “Yes, it’s definitely important and something that we try to advise candidates on as well, honesty is the best policy during the interview. Some candidates try to waffle around the topic or answer a different question.”
Darren: “I think that once you start waffling you’ll be exposed as you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s easier in the long-term, to be honest.
Another tip I’d have is to be prepared. I don’t know if this is just me being cruel but when I see someone put through a CV and they have some samples of their work before they come in for an interview, I will test their projects. You know I’ll test them on mobile phones or desktops, I’ll fill out a few of the forms and I’ll base my questions around that. If I find something not working or broken, I’ll ask them about it. Again, I don’t know if that’s just me being cruel or not. From a front-end user perspective, I get really annoyed if a form doesn’t work or if I added something to a cart and it was gone or mobile navigation doesn’t work. So, I always say, make sure your stuff works. If you give me samples of your work you’re really proud off and I try to use it and it doesn’t work - it will be the first question I ask. Making things work is a fundamental of mine.
I suppose my final tip would be to relax because I know it’s your first job interview you can work yourself up. Especially when you’re first out of university every interview is such a big deal. As you start to perceive it as a big deal, you should just relax because you will get yourself worked up and start waffling and say things which would probably do yourself an injustice. Just relax, be honest and you’ll get yourself through it.
Only thing I would add to that is, it’s very rare to get your first job. You know first job interview means first job. If you don’t get it, come back to them and ask them for feedback. It could be something very minor or simple that you’re not getting and that’ll point you in the right direction. Hopefully, you’ll be luckier the next time around. ”
Gareth: “Ok, what would you recommend candidates should do while they are searching for work?”
Darren: “The first tip would be to keep coding, keep building. Education doesn’t finish when you graduate, I’m still learning - learning is a lifelong part of this industry. So, keep learning whether that is on YouTube or Team Treehouse they are all there. If you sign up for a video subscription service to keep building things. It would do two things, firstly it will help sharpen your skills and your portfolio of work and the second, it means when you start a job you can hit the ground running.
Another tip I’d have is to go and get involved, go to events. Belfast has a big digital community in there, I’m sure every city is the same, but I know PHP Belfast, BelfastJS or any sector you want to get into there is probably community there for it. Go and meet some of the people who work in these industries as it will probably help your chances of getting a job. You’ll find out what companies do and what they’re looking for.
Go to events you’ll learn the industry.
Gareth: “Even from somebody with a non-technical background, I have attended some of those events. They are definitely worthwhile, some of it was definitely above my head.”
Darren: “yes, maybe it’s slightly intimidating attending them on your own, but they are quite small groups. They are quite friendly and welcoming to new people who want to come in. It is very helpful to showcase things, it will also help you in your own development. If you run into a problem, you’ll develop contacts who work in the industry who could help you out if you are stuck.”
Gareth: “That’s great, Darren is an active blogger, so we will include the links below to his blogand of course to Reflex Studio’s website. So, look in summary, you don’t need a degree to succeed in this industry, you don’t even need commercial experience. What you do need, is a will to succeed, put a portfolio of work whether it be some ideas of your own like Darren did or mobile apps, just something to showcase not only your technical skills but your personality as well - both are important. As technical skills are important as well as team fit.
For further tips on how to get into coding, I’ve actually written a recent blog which you can read here.
We will see you next month.”
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