James Byrne — Software Engineer at Codat

From PR to software development, we talk to James about teaching himself to code, the environment you want around you as you start your tech career and the importance of having people from humanities in tech.

We meet at Megan's on Clapham Common — an area where James has called home for the last year.

We escape the incoming rain and settle in to discuss life at Codat, James’s journey into tech and the value that folk from non-tech backgrounds can bring to the industry. James moved to Codat 6 months ago, working as a full-stack developer coming from software company Huddle.

“It’s interesting, Codat doesn’t necessarily believe in back-end and front-end — they instead hire full-stack. It’s been great, it’s allowed me to work across the front and back-end on areas I’ve worked on less in the past — it’s great to broaden my experience.”

Codat recently raised $40 million to continue its growth — an exciting time to be joining the company. “It’s really motivating to be in a fast-growing company — the speed at which we release is great and there’s minimal tech debt.”

"I knew that I wanted to focus on front-end  — I loved the idea that you can write some words and then it will change the colour on the screen — it was magic to me."

Graduating in 2012 with a degree in English and Journalism, tech was not an obvious choice for James. He spent the first four years after university building a career in PR, but ultimately discovered it wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“I realised it wasn’t for me — I wasn’t progressing as I wanted to, so I looked for another option.” James was at a bit of a crossroads. “I thought what can I do at this point — I’m not getting anywhere in PR and I can’t really take on another three years at uni.”

James reflected on both the skills he nurtured in PR and what he had enjoyed in the past. “I had always had an interest in coding — I hadn’t devoted a lot of time to it but I enjoyed it. My first experience of coding was actually MySpace! I loved that you could customise your homepage by playing with the HTML.”

James developed strong writing and communication skills during his time in PR and at university and combined with a natural interest in technology a career in tech began to look achievable. Reading online, James began to educate himself on the paths he could take to get into technology — paths that didn’t involve another degree. “I started devoting more time to it. During my lunch breaks at work, I would jump on Codecademy — basic stuff but it was a starting point.”

“I eventually decided that I needed to invest the proper time into my learning to make it a reality. So I left my job and began, full-time, learning how to develop. I utilised all the free resources available from youtube tutorials, Udemy and freeCodeCamp.

Self-directed learning can be difficult to navigate. What skills do you focus on and how do you prepare for the world of work? James found the area he was particularly interested in and framed his learning around projects to help build a professional portfolio.

“I knew that I wanted to focus on front-end  — I loved the idea that you can write some words and then it will change the colour on the screen — it was magic to me. I followed freeCodeCamp’s projects and adapted them to incorporate the skills I wanted to develop. With that, I built up a portfolio on GitHub that I could bring to interviews.”

“Always keep in mind that although it feels that you are starting from zero — i.e with no technical knowledge — this isn’t the case... You have a lot to offer from day one — remember that!”

James acknowledges that learning these skills can be difficult and motivation can wane. “I found it so helpful to frame my learning around something I’m interested in. It can be easy to lose motivation when learning but when you flip it from a generic project to something you enjoy it can really help.”

“That’s how you learn, by bumping into problems, googling a solution and asking people — this is still true for me!” After refining his portfolio and with the support of technical recruiters James landed his first technical job at Sky Digital.

I was keen to understand what work environment James recommends people aim for in their first role.“Look for a company where you’re going to be learning a lot. During the interview process, think to yourself, ‘Am I going to learn a lot from these people?’ — you want to be surrounded by smart folk. The place where you will learn and grow the most is where you want to be.”

James is candid in describing what it was like making the change into tech after committing time and a degree to another industry while friends and colleagues continued to develop their careers. “That was definitely difficult — you put all this time into one career (PR) and then you change. It can feel like you wasted a lot of time. Especially when I left my job and was learning full time — you have mates who are smoothly getting on with their careers, it can be difficult. I feel especially with tech, if people aren’t in that industry it can be difficult to explain the career change. In your early twenties, it’s easy to lose perspective that you are still just starting out in your career — it was definitely worth it in the long term!”

James emphasises the point that experience outside of tech can be hugely useful for going into the industry. “There are always things to take from whatever experience you’ve had. Whether you’re going into your first job out of university or you’ve had jobs previously you can bring so much from that. Communication for example is so important. I think that’s really helped me appreciate the wider context of businesses I’ve worked in.”

James goes further to describe the broad traits he sees in great technologists. “Empathy is a big one — people who have broad understanding not only of the technology but the end-user experience do really well.

James ends with his advice for those thinking of going into tech without a technical background. “Always keep in mind that although it feels that you are starting from zero — i.e with no technical knowledge — this isn’t the case. Whatever non-technical background you’re coming from you’ll have a skill set that you’ve developed. Whether that’s communication, presentation skills, ability to write grammatically correct documentation and even devising tickets. You have a lot to offer from day one — remember that!”

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