Humans of dxw: my life in software development

I’m forever grateful to my first employer for giving me the space to experiment

From a very young age, I’ve been obsessed with technology. I got my first computer at the age of 7, a beautiful rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum. I consumed games at a rate of knots – Jet Set Willy, the Dizzy games, and all of Ocean’s masterful coin-op conversions.

Also I got interested writing programs in BASIC (the simple, but powerful, programming language that shipped with the Spectrum), and even got my parents to buy me a copy of HiSoft Devpac so I could try my hand at machine code (too hard, it turned out).

However, having a Spectrum didn’t directly lead me down the path I’m currently on. My parents convinced me that all good computer programmers needed to be good at maths, which I absolutely was not.

I was pretty good at English though, and was an avid reader of computer magazines. The worlds of Your Sinclair (and latterly Amiga Power) were not just vital fonts of knowledge for the latest games, they were also a portal into a world of absurdist humour, in-jokes, and a parasocial relationship with the writers who worked there. This made me decide, at the tender age of 8, that what I really wanted to be was a journalist.

Early ambitions

This ambition followed me through primary school, where I made my own publications and sold them to friends in the playground (one included a free Chomp bar on the cover, which I obviously had to buy, eating quite a lot into the cover price of 15p). I did well in my English GCSE and spurned all the science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects at A-level, studying English, sociology, and theatre studies.

When the time came to go to university, I chose to study journalism. The course didn’t inspire me and I switched to an English degree, before moving again to Communications in the second year. Communications had a good balance of theory and practical work, and it was here that I picked up on web design.

I’d tried my hand at HTML during secondary school, building a website for a mate’s band and running an online wrestling roleplaying game with some mates. However, this was the first time I’d been able to spend a reasonable chunk of time tinkering with websites.

The world of work

Despite this, I was still determined to make my way in the world of print journalism. After graduating university, I started a “pre-entry” course in newspaper journalism at a local college. I learned the fundamentals of newspaper journalism, as well as courses on public affairs, law, and the dreaded shorthand (I never got beyond 80 words per minute).

After leaving college I had a couple of interviews at local newspapers, but none of these actually turned into a real job. It was after a particularly arduous week-long trial at a news agency (which was like being plunged headlong into working on a national daily), I decided to adjust my sights a little and look beyond journalism.

My first digital job

While looking around, it just so happened that my mom noticed a job at the local council for something called an “eCommunications Officer”. I applied and after waffling my way through the interview process, got the job.

It turned out that my main job would be moving the council’s website from a static site managed by the council’s designer with Dreamweaver and an FTP client, to a brand new, all singing, all dancing Content Management System (CMS). My job was mainly content-related, helping write the copy on the website and get it on the CMS, as well as designing pages.

As the site grew, it became clear that the new site wasn’t up to the task in terms of interactivity. If residents wanted to make a planning application or order a new bin, they still had to print off a form, fill it out by hand and send it off by post. This didn’t seem like progress to me, so I started looking into ways I could make things better. I designed some simple forms and started to teach myself a bit of PHP to generate and send emails to the relevant departments in the council.

OK, so maybe I can code…

After a few years we switched to a better CMS, which was built in PHP, and I took the opportunity to build some plugins for the site, as well as building some subsites for the council in WordPress. The environmental health department got wind of what I was doing and approached my team to see if we’d be interested in building a website to list food safety ratings. This wasn’t something that was publicly listed, and there was government pressure to start doing that.

I built a beta site from scratch in PHP (there were very few frameworks at this time to help me), but it was still a tad clunky, and the design (done by me) left a lot to be desired. We managed to get some central government funding to build the final site, and with some of this money I got signed up to a course to teach me something called Ruby on Rails.

While all this was going on, I also became deeply interested in opening up the council’s data. As well as building an API for the food safety site (inspired by the work which was being done by mySociety). I also looked into what other sources of data the council had that we could open up.

There was a big war with the Ordnance Survey going on about rights to open up geographical data at the time. I was inspired to go around the district plotting and generating my own open datasets of things like car parks, toilets, and grit bins. This got me a mention in the Guardian (I got called “fashionably dishevelled”, which I took to be a compliment).

Moving on

This push for open data led to the formation of the Open Data Institute (ODI) in 2012, headed up by Tim Berners-Lee. They were hiring developers, and while I was never a fully-qualified developer, my background in open data, as well as my Ruby experience meant I was given a chance.

At the ODI I learned a bunch of things, not least how to write tests for my code (honestly I wonder how I managed to get on for so long without writing tests!), and, after a year or so I finally felt confident enough to call myself a professional software developer.

This, and my previous job, led me on a trajectory that I would never have imagined when I got my first computer back in the Christmas of 1987. I’m forever grateful to my first employer for giving me the space to experiment. Without that space, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now.