Reflecting on my career so far - Retail to Tech Support to Software Engineering

I graduated in summer 2017 with a BS in Network Management. I was fresh faced, no idea what career I wanted, but loved everything to do with technology. I didn't expect that 5 years later I would be in my dream career, doing something that genuinely made a difference. But let's take a step back to the beginning.

The dreaded Retail job

After graduating, while I applied to any tech jobs I could find, I worked in Retail as a Sales Assistant. I hated it. Stacking shelves, folding clothes, unpacking boxes... it felt mindless, it bored me. I wanted a challenge, something to keep my mind active. Reflecting on it though, this experience ended up being a huge help in my tech career, giving me vital 'people skills'.

My first job in tech

Fast forward a few months and my contract was ending, I was travelling (literally getting on the plane to go!) to the UK to visit family, and I got a call from what would be my future manager. He offered me a "Junior IT Administrator" role. It was a 2.5 hour journey each way, the pay was - let's be frank - awful, but it was a start. A job in IT. Something i'd only dreamed of as a student. I was excited - ecstatic - that I was going to work in tech. I hastily accepted and couldn't wait to get back to start!

This role was a very generalist role. I would build & upgrade Windows machines - during the vital rollout of Windows 10 during the time Windows 7 was going EOL, do onsite user support for the office, manage a service desk of tasks, set up new equipment & run new start inductions... But more importantly, I learned how businesses heavily rely on technology, I learned the best practises for implementing and managing technology in a business, I learned how to communicate with stakeholders. My mind was active, I was kept busy, I loved every minute of the job. But the travel taken it's toll. Taking trains for 5 hours a day over a 2 year period had me burned out and tired. Moving to the city wasn't an option, so I went on the job hunt for closer to home roles.

Cheese, glorious cheese

I spotted an ad for an interesting role. I didn't meet the job spec, but it was something I was ready for. A new cheese factory was to be built 20 minutes from my home. They were looking for an "IT Support Officer". But it was more than that. They needed boots on the ground to implement the IT infrastructure during the build & commissioning... and do tech support. It was a big shift, I would be the sole person on the site. But I was excited about it. So, after applying, I was invited to interview. One evening I met with the HR & IT managers - out of office hours - and they believed in me. My enthusiasm for technology and to learn.

I had to learn, and fast. I was blessed to have a great mentor in this job, the IT manager who interviewed me and believed in me. There was also a vast network of extremely knowledgeable people in the parent company to soak up information from - Project managers, network architects, system admins... I was like a sponge. I soaked up everything I could in order to get the job done the best I could, and gain the knowledge I needed to kick start my career.

COVID... A blessing and a curse

And then COVID came. Construction came to a halt. Everyone had to work remotely. Luckily, I had already implemented everything required for the team to work effectively from home with little productivity loss. I thought this was a curse, that it was stopping me from going to work and getting the job done and learning more. But how wrong I was...

I was at home. Spending time with my fiancé (now wife). I loved being there and being able work from home. We live in a rural area, so even the COVID restrictions didn't make much of a difference. The business had some old PHP CRUD databases they wanted me to look at, built by a predecessor. I told them I always had an interest in web design, I had made a few websites for local businesses with WordPress, but no professional experience. I had to redesign them and implement new features. And... I was hooked. Using my head to implement business requirements into an application. I found it, this is what I wanted to do. But how to go about learning it? I had no idea...

Springboard to the rescue

I took to the internet. Searching for courses, bootcamps and everything inbetween. Then I stumbled upon a post on an Irish forum site about Springboard. To get you up to speed quickly, Springboard is an Irish government initiative which subsidises qualifications in the technology sector. They would pay 90% of my course fees if I went back to study. I scoured their website for days, searching for the right course for me. That's when I came across it, the HDip in Computer Science at SETU Waterford. A 2 year, part time course delivered fully remote in agile semesters with modules that sounded exactly like what I wanted to learn. I applied, interviewed, and was accepted.

Summer... Learning?

6 months later, semester 1 was over. It was summer, I was hungry to keep learning, and I had an idea. I reached out to my lecturers, who had developed the software used to deliver the course remotely. It was open source, I didn't like the design of it, and I offered to implement a new design system. I'd never worked with a full stack application to this scale before, but I was ready and willing to learn. After some back and forth, we settled on a design system and I got to work. After many evenings breaking things and putting them back together, silly questions and googling, I got there. I put in a pull request with the new design, and it went live. And I got positive feedback from my classmates. I had made a difference.

A brightly coloured Fedora

At this point, I was proud of the work i'd put in. I continued to make incremental updates to the application, to improve both user experience and functionality. Then I was approached with a proposition I couldn't refuse. Red Hat had provided some manpower to help with the project. I was brought on board with the team to work on Tutors alongside them. I couldn't have had a better opportunity than this. Working with a remote agile team on something that made a difference to students and educators and making remote learning open source and accessible. All the while getting the technical experience of implementing the infrastructure of the cheese factory as a day job.

Build complete...

After around 2 years, the build & commissioning of the cheese factory was complete. My mentor left the business for greener pastures, along with a huge overturn of staff - from senior leadership down to production operatives - and the role felt more and more mundane. The goal was reached, my hard work had paid off and the infrastructure was implemented. But now I was just doing day to day maintenance and tech support. My mind wasn't kept active, and I had a new goal. I was still learning in my own time, putting time into Tutors, I wanted to branch out into Software Engineering, build things that made a difference. But I was still a student - surely I wouldn't get into it without the degree?

Online communities really are useful

I had been a part of an online community, the Irish Tech Community, for a few months. It has a jobs channel which I kept an eye on, and something caught my eye. A well written job description outlining a tech stack that matched what I was learning, open source friendly, in a field that would make a difference. They were looking for engineers of all levels, with a specific callout for 'superstar junior folks' with strong JS experience, which I felt like I met with my work on Tutors. And to top it all off, it was remote. I could work from home, spend more time with my wife and work around my life.

I put forward my best foot, sending the poster a DM with my CV, my Github, and outlining my work on Tutors and past experience in tech. I went through a few rounds of behavioural and culture fit interviews, and a technical interview involving a practical React test and a leetcode question, which I thought I done terribly on. I talked through my thought process, googling as I would on the job while sharing my screen. Just being myself.

Believe in yourself

I couldn't believe when I got the offer. I would be working directly on software which would help in drug research and bring life saving drugs to market. They believed in me, just like I believed in myself.

A lot has changed in 5 years. From being a fresh faced grad with no idea of a career path, I have found my footing in something I am enthusiastic about, and doing something that will make a difference.

I am still a student, I am still learning every day, and I believe that the work I am putting in, and what I am learning, is going to make a difference. If it wasn't for the hard work, the enthusiasm and believing in myself I don't believe I would be where I am today.

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Written by Jordan Harrison

Software Developer I, CXE @ Charles River Labs


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