Our Tech and Data blog series kicks off with a fantastic contribution from University of Edinburgh alumnus, Nyalls Hemingway, who graduated with an MA Philosophy in 2017. Nyalls is a software developer for Bad Dinosaur and his career journey is an excellent example of how your career choice doesn’t have to be closely related to your degree.
How it all started
University was the de facto next step at my school, hours every week were set aside so that we could prepare our UCAS applications. As a student, I had always been fascinated with History and Politics. Our Politics teacher would often hold after school school sessions where we would discuss broader political philosophical topics that were not included in our exam specification. So, when the time came to apply to University, I found myself drawn to Philosophy. I’d had an interest in technology and computers, but believed I lacked the grades and experience I would need to get accepted. I hadn’t taken Maths and Sciences seriously enough to study them at A-Level. Humanities was what I knew, so humanities was what I chose.
Reflecting on my degree
There was plenty of my degree that I enjoyed. We had a lot of freedom to take credits outside of our programme, so I continued to study History, Politics and even picked up Italian for a semester. For the first half of my degree, the breadth of topics we studied within Philosophy allowed me to explore my intellectual curiosity. In the second half, classes were a focused domain of one of the broader branches.
Initially, I believed I would be interested in Morality, Ethics and Political branches of Philosophy. Whilst I was correct in my assertion about Politics, I soon found myself drawn to Language (the relation between language, language users and the world); Metaphysics (being, existence and reality); and Logic (the validity of an argument in of itself). The latter is what truly nurtured my interest in software development – propositional and modal logic both relied on using simple if statements and expressions, which was my first introduction to some of the basic logic that now, as a software developer, I use every day.
Starting my degree, I had not considered where it would lead. It was not until halfway through my second year where I’d started to think about the implications of my choices. In fact, I had tried to switch my degree to Computer Science – but didn’t have the prerequisite credits, and could not afford to take a year off to catch up, so I continued on with Philosophy.
However, I came back to third year with a renewed vigor. I had come to the realisation that I enjoyed these topics because they fell under the analytical tradition of philosophy. These traditions used analysis to provide answers to some of the more complex questions of the world, in contrast to the contemplative traditions that instead relied on internal belief and feeling.
In school I convinced myself that I lacked the analytical skills and enjoyment required to succeed in a technical role. Whilst Philosophy’s primary purpose might be rooted in academia, it also provides the transferable skills needed to thrive in any workplace. I wanted to use these skills and channel them into my future career. I was determined to become a software developer.
Transitioning into tech after University
With my degree complete, I focused on the next steps in my aspiration to become a software developer. Having played around with coding during my teenage years, I needed to build on that knowledge if I wanted to succeed. I started with a few interactive coding courses that taught the basics of programming, and watched a few online lectures. However; I had been in Education for the best part of 21 years and was starting to lose steam. There was no structure or consistency to my learning and I quickly became frustrated. I was learning of a lot of the how, but very little of the why. Furthermore, balancing a full time job and prioritising time to learn was proving difficult. I worked in hospitality so I often only had a couple of hours a week to dedicate to this – I wasn’t learning much, and retaining even less.
If I were to become a software developer, or work in the tech sector at all, then I would need to dedicate as much of my time as possible to learning. I’d heard of a Coding Bootcamp, CodeClan, running in Edinburgh, and nine months after graduating I took the plunge. In a Cohort of 25 we studied full time for three months. They provided structure, with clearly defined lesson plans, nightly homework, and personal projects to demonstrate what we had learned in each four-week block. In just three months I went from building basic html, to building fully functional projects. We lived and breathed software development.
The part of CodeClan that appealed to me the most was that they offered speed networking events with companies looking to hire Juniors. We all had the same technical background, so were encouraged to lean on our skills outside of that. I leant on my degree: being able to read philosophical literature from a range of authors meant I could digest documentation easily. Philosophical essays are meant to be concise and arguments clearly signposted – I could defend my ideas well, and understand a range of viewpoints. Having developed strong analytical skills meant I could find problems and provide a range of solutions, whether that be pinpointing the cause of a bug, or providing technical guidance to an implementation.
I interviewed with multiple companies, but considering my interest in Politics, the logical choice was a position with the Scottish Government in the Corporate and Business Application Development team, building applications for internal use in the Civil Service.
My first job in tech
Working at the government was a great introduction to a technical role. They had clear job specifications – room to grow, and plenty of opportunities to learn. I started with fixing small bugs on legacy projects, giving me a great understanding of the various codebases I would be working on. Our team was small, so I was able to progress rapidly: I find the best way to learn is to constantly challenge yourself. During downtime, I would try to improve existing projects by creating small reusable packages, and regularly return to my old code to refine my earlier implementations.
During COVID, I began to feel like I needed a change. There were two key reasons behind this. First, whilst having clearly defined job roles is certainly a good thing, it meant that it was hard to stray from my lane. I was able to build my experience as a developer, but with resources dedicated to project management, business analysis and infrastructure management; if I wanted to expand my skills in these areas I would have to look elsewhere. Whilst we had started to explore the cloud, every change or new experience needed to be approved in order to progress. I was new to Software Development, I wanted the freedom to explore different tech to achieve goals without needing to go through multiple layers of management.
Second, most people who join the government stay for life and I wanted to experience different working environments before committing to one job in that way. I genuinely thought I would work elsewhere, and then return to the government, and maybe I still will, but I’m less sure of that than I was 24 months ago.
Where I am now
This brings me to my current role, working for Bad Dinosaur, a web development agency based in Edinburgh. I was immediately drawn to them because they use the newest tech stack, Bad Dinosaur works with a range of clients with different needs. I believed that with a smaller team (in the private sector), I would be able to wear many hats if I wanted.
In the last two years I have worked with multiple technologies, across a range of sectors. From financial data analysis, to risk management, and even knitting. We’ve built for the web, and for mobile. I am responsible for the infrastructure of all my projects, and unless the client has a specific requirement, the implementation of features too. I have built several project improvements that are utilized throughout the agency, on our template project.
Alongside our project management team, I regularly meet with clients to discuss their projects, taking their feedback and ideas to produce user stories. Since working at Bad Dinosaur, every few months I look back at the developer I was and am shocked at how much I have grown. The amount I have improved in such a small period is exactly why I chose to move into an agency environment.
I am able to regularly feed my appetite for problem solving, and have the benefit of providing working software for a range of sectors, which means I’m rarely bored. I had thought that my early subject choices had locked me out of a technical career., However, by using the skills I had developed throughout my education, and pushing myself to take risks I have been able to secure multiple software development roles, and continuously prove myself wrong.
The Careers in Tech & Data Fair on 3rd March offers the chance to meet around 50 organisations recruiting for a variety of tech & data opportunities . No matter your subject or year, this fair is for you – exhibiting organisations will have a huge range of opportunities for all. You can use the hashtag #EdTechDataCareers on MyCareerHub and socials to find employers with relevant vacancies and events. Drop by McEwan Hall between 12.30-4pm explore! Go to MyCareerHub to find out more about the event including which organisations will be there.
Keep an eye out on Inform.ed for our next #EdTechDataCareers guest blog.