Anna Shipman explains why she loves coding, and why it's something for everyone.
I am currently a technical architect at the Government Digital Service, part of the UK Civil Service. A technical architect is someone who oversees the technical aspects of large software projects. My previous role was a senior software developer. But before I got into coding, I had another career, in publishing. So how did I get into the tech industry?
I was never exposed to programming at school; when I went to school it wasn't on the syllabus. At university, I studied philosophy. I particularly enjoyed writing essays – constructing a watertight argument to answer questions such as “Do we have free will?”. I also did a formal logic course as part of my degree, and I really enjoyed that.
After university, I started working in a small publishing company, Barrington Stoke. We published books for dyslexic kids and other reluctant readers. Part of the process involved using dyslexic children themselves as consultants, to give feedback on the books and to allow the team and the author to make changes to better suit them. However, this process was very paper-based. Parents would phone up to volunteer their child to take part and we'd write it down on paper and put it in a filing cabinet; when we wanted to send them a certificate to celebrate their input we'd type their name in and then handwrite the envelope, and so on.
It seemed to me that there must be a better way, so I persuaded my boss to send me on an Access Database training course. As soon as I found out about how to write code, I was hooked. I realised that this was what I should have been doing all along. I built a database for Barrington Stoke to manage their consultancy process. I then worked in another job with a bit more IT to it, and eventually decided to properly go for it, left my job and went back to university to do a Masters in IT. On the back of that, I got a job as a software developer and the rest is history.
For me, I think it has worked to my favour that I had another career before software development. It has given me an insight into a different side of things and I think helps me to understand the user better. However, it was definitely a longer way around, and in some ways my career would have been easier – it certainly would have got started sooner – if I had done coding at school. For me, coding is my perfect pastime – it's creative and logical, the best of both worlds. I would love to see as many people as possible get a chance to find this out as soon as they can rather than go a roundabout route like me, and potentially miss it along the way, so I'm really pleased that computing is now on the national curriculum.
I would definitely like to see more girls getting into coding, and I hope that will be a side effect of everyone getting a chance to learn the basics at school. There is definitely a stereotype that only certain types of people will go into programming as a career (mostly young white men), and we need to stop that stereotype being self-perpetuating. Technology is becoming more and more important in our lives so we don't want to hand over making it to such a small section of society. It's important that women, people from ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and people of all ages are involved in making the products, as we will all use them. And it can also be a really great job so girls should get on that bandwagon too!
As a career, it is really rewarding. It is very satisfying getting your program to work and there is nothing like knowing that your work has directly improved things for people. Sometimes you can get a chance to work on something that millions of people will use. It is continually challenging; if you want to continue learning there are always new things to learn, but if you want to stay in one area and become really expert at that, that is also an option. You can work in pretty much any field; everyone needs technology or a website. You could work in a small charity, any kind of shop, I work in government, you can work in an investment bank. And it's also worth noting that compared to some careers, it can be really well paid.
It's possible to get volunteers to come and help teach coding through organisations like Code Club, and I would really love to see a new generation of young people growing up with these skills, knowing the delight of the moment that your program does what you wanted it to do and using those skills to improve their and others' lives.
Anna Shipman is a Technical Architect at the Government Digital Service. She is interested in infrastructure, open source software, Perl, Ruby, Python, Java and playing pool. She contributed a chapter on DevOps at GDS to the book Build Quality In (http://blog.buildqualityin.com/) and you can see her talking about software and her leaky roof here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1qWzz6liK0). She blogs on the GDS technology blog (https://gdstechnology.blog.gov.uk/) and her own blog (http://www.annashipman.co.uk/jfdi.html). You can also find her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/annashipman).
This article will also be featured in the forthcoming edition of Digital Education, our free ezine for anyone with a professional interest in educational computing and ICT.