BLOG

Reskilling to become a Software Engineer at BJSS Manchester

Jameson Bell
Apprentice Software Engineer

It’s Christmas 2017, I’m thirty years old and I’m about to fall into a pit of despair. Not a turkey coma or a chocolate overload, but a real crisis. I’ve just realised that there is the very real possibility that I’m going to have to work a job that I hate for the rest of my life and I don’t see any way out of it.

I’m a musician by trade. I’ve been playing the Bass Guitar since I was fourteen years old and had put a great deal of time and energy in writing, recording and performing original music. I’d spent three years at a music school in London, though I left halfway through my degree because the school was not a good fit for me. The thing with being a musician these days is that if you don’t play in a covers band, tribute band or function band, you probably aren’t getting paid when you played a show. The last time I got paid for a gig was £5 and that was seven years ago. I learned very early on that you must “work the terrible job to fund the music until the music funds itself.”

Unfortunately, at 30 years old, the music had yet to fund itself and so I found myself working in a call centre selling Home Insurance. Before that it was running a deli counter at a grocery store and before that, it was working in a warehouse, and so on and so forth. The only job I could really get was a customer service job. Mostly because I’m fantastic at talking to people and because I had zero qualifications. I wasn’t going to give up making music because I love it – but I also saw no way out of working these awful, soul-crushing jobs. Until…

I’d met up with a friend of mine over the Christmas period, a guitarist from a band I used to be in. We hadn’t spoken for a while and I discovered that he had taught himself JavaScript and HTML and gotten himself a web developer job. Just like that. Here was a guy who had worked jobs like I had – call centres, customer service, mostly bar stuff – and found a different path.

“I could do that,” I thought to myself. I immediately contacted another friend of mine, a game developer who I had once worked with and had remained close with. He recommended that I investigate what languages are being looked for in my area and start learning. A quick search revealed that C# was popular. C# also happens to be the language that the Unity game engine scripts with. A plan began to form. I could learn C# and Unity, program my own games, then score them myself and use them as portfolio pieces to get composing work. Perfect.

A few Udemy courses later and I discovered that I liked coding and I liked it quite a bit. I’d always thought it was a bit of witchcraft (part of it is, let’s admit it) and that it was something I could never do. If I had a morning shift at the call centre, I was coding in the evening. If I had an evening shift, I was coding in the morning. I poured myself into it, making all these little half-games, and really enjoyed the process.

Seeing how much I was enjoying coding and that I had really taken to it, my wife suggested I start looking at Apprenticeships. There was no way I could afford to go to school to get a degree in Computer Science and an apprenticeship seemed like the best way to go – I’d much rather get some real working experience than sitting in a classroom again. I applied for a few – there weren’t that many that I could find – and received e-mails from two. The first one had me come in and film a video talking about myself that they would send to companies looking for apprentices.

The second e-mail was from Manchester Digital, inviting me to an assessment day.

I won’t go into the details of the assessment day (imagine standing up in front of sixty strangers and having to tell them who you were, your background and who your hero was, and that was just the start of the day), but I ended up being interviewed on the day by two people from BJSS. The interview was one of the best I’ve ever had and a week later, I was asked to come in for a second interview. A few hours after that interview, I got a call from my contact at Manchester Digital.

They wanted to offer me a contract as an apprentice.

I’ve been an apprentice at BJSS for almost a year and a half now and it has been an incredible experience. A challenging, brain-busting, humbling experience, but one that I am extremely grateful for.

After a four-week boot camp put on by Manchester Digital where I learned about Java, JavaScript and Agile, amongst other techy things, I started at BJSS properly. I got to be a part of the previous graduate scheme and attended weekly lectures with four other graduates, cramming my head full of all sorts of information about the tech world. I was also on the bench, waiting to be assigned to a project.

In January, I was introduced to the deep end in a big way. Within the space of a month, three big things happened:

  1. I was assigned to a team at ITV and was soon fixing (or trying to fix) bugs in Angular, which I had no idea about. There was also some Java, but I wouldn’t get to that until later.
  2. The grad project for the year started. We were going to build a WordPress micro-site for Digital Her. This meant learning PHP, HTML and CSS. We also had to choose different roles for the project, and I decided to try and be a Business Analyst.
  3. I was later made the QA Tester for an entirely different project. I knew what a QA Tester was, but I hadn’t done anything remotely like what was required of me then.

Unlike the other apprentices in my cohort, I was suddenly very busy. Keep in mind that I was also working on the tasks set for my apprenticeship, too. I had to study for the Java OCA exam so I could get the qualification required to pass the apprenticeship scheme. After that, I would need to pass a Software Methodologies exam. They even made me do GSCE Maths and English exams because my Canadian grades wouldn’t translate to a British equivalent. Don’t get me started on the 30k word portfolio I’ve put together and the weeklong design-build-test-document project I’m prepping for now.

But I’ve loved every minute of it. My team at BJSS have been incredibly patient with me and haven’t hesitated to share their knowledge and time with me. A few members have even taken on mentor-like roles with me, investing themselves in my personal development. I’m challenged every day and every day is different. Gone are the endless boxes of pork pies that I had to line up on a counter, only to do it all over again the next day. Gone are the endless queues of people wanting to buy insurance or complain about their policies. I’m spending my days doing something I really enjoy, and I’m trusted by my team to work on bigger, more complicated features with every passing Sprint. These features are real parts of the application, an application for a real client that will be used by real people.

A few of my fellow apprentices haven’t even been allowed to write real production code yet.

Granted, being the first apprentice that BJSS Manchester has had comes with its share of pain points. When I first started, I was assigned a mentor who was meant to look after my personal development. Unfortunately, he was on a project in Sheffield most of the time with a client that wouldn’t let him use Slack. I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me and so for those first few months on the bench, it was up to me to direct my own learning. I also think that being on so many projects, while a fantastic experience and one that has given me a really wide view of the tech world, was also a bit detrimental to my learning as I couldn’t focus on any one thing for too long before I had to context switch.

Luckily, its all an iterative process and I’ve been able to help make the next apprentice’s experience a lot better. As it was coming time to recruit the next apprentice, I was asked to talk experience on the program and give any thoughts I might have on how to improve the process. I had one or two to give.

I’m nearing the end of my apprenticeship now, with only a month or two left before I’ve completed everything required. Being the first apprentice, again, things are a little up in the air as to what is going to happen next. But it has been an incredible year and a half and has given me a foothold into a world that I never even considered being something I could do. Admittedly, I’m terrified that this has all been an elaborate dream and that I’ll wake up to find myself having to put out another box of pork pies or deliver another home insurance policy. Until then, I’m going to make the most of it.