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Posted Date

June 8, 2021

Author

Alice

Hi Ruth! Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about yourself?

I’m a software engineer with Click Travel, working primarily with AWS, Node.js and Java, and I work remotely from home in Sheffield.

How and why did you first get into software development, as you came from originally doing a degree in Chemistry? What age were you when you started coding?

I was always interested in computers in primary school (way back in the early 80s) but my family couldn’t afford to buy one for me. However, when I was 11 years old, a friend of my dad’s gave me an old Mattel Aquarius computer. This was a fairly obscure and low-end computer, with just 4K of RAM, and pretty much no games available for it (unlike the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, etc, that were popular around that time) – but its limitations were actually a blessing in disguise, as they challenged me to learn how to program from scratch in order to do anything, and to make the best use of very limited resources.

A few years later, I got a book out on machine code from the library, which was when I figured out that the Aquarius had a Z80 processor, and so I learned machine code in order to be able to write more elaborate games – even though that meant manually entering code as hexadecimal strings, as there was no assembler available. At one point, I even started to try and reverse-engineer the operating system by examining each byte of hex and trying to translate it into the corresponding assembler instructions.

My Chemistry degree at Oxford was a 4-year Masters course, where the fourth year involved a research project and writing a thesis. I wanted to join a research project for Hewlett-Packard’s CoLoS (Conceptual Learning of Science) involving creating software for helping teach chemistry concepts, while another professor really wanted me to work with him on a computational fluid dynamics project. So I ended up doing both – working on the computational fluid dynamics, but creating a really nice front-end for it, where you could visualise the fluid flow over time.

Upon graduating, I started looking for work in Trowbridge in Wiltshire, where I was living with my parents. The only vaguely chemistry-related role that I was able to find in the local area was as a lab technician at a factory that made shampoo – where I was not offered the job as I did not drive. Thankfully, a few days later, I was invited for an interview at a software house that specialised in engineering software for the transport industry, where I must have impressed them, as they gave me an offer that evening, hand-delivered through our letterbox, which was paying 50% more than the lab technician role would have offered.

Working with primarily Java and Node.JS now I believe, how did you find what technologies to work with when you were learning programming?

At Oxford, my research project was written in C, and ran on an HP-UX workstation. After graduating, I worked primarily with C and C++ in my first job; about 3 and a half years after starting my first job, I was head-hunted by someone I used to work with, who was then working for a company in Surrey doing e-commerce development in Java. I went for an interview, and they offered me a role, which was quite a big hike in salary compared with my first job, so I took the opportunity. I then returned to Wiltshire a year or so later, as I hated the traffic jams in Surrey. Since then, the majority of my roles have involved Java, although I have since cross-trained into Node.JS during my current role – which was fine, as I’d already done quite a bit of Javascript development in previous roles. I also did a bit of .NET from 2011 to 2013.

I’ve found that Java and Javascript are both very sought-after skills for web projects – and the syntax is similar enough between the two to be able to easily switch between the two as required.

Are you a self-taught developer? How did you begin your learning?

Yes, I am. I began learning BASIC on the Mattel Aquarius computer that a friend of my dad’s gave me, and later Z80 machine code. At Oxford, I did a bit of FORTRAN as part of my chemistry course, but most of the experience that I’ve since drawn on for my career was in the final year of my degree, where I learned how to program in C. I picked up C programming from books while in my final year at Oxford; however, it was only upon starting my first job that I started to learn proper software development practices – the code for my research project at Oxford was very ropey by comparison!

When you’re not working your day job, what do you do in your spare time? What are you passionate about?

I’m a massive home automation geek – there are at least 20 Raspberry Pi’s in various places at home performing roles such as CCTV cameras, music players, etc – I prefer to build my own stuff with Open Source software and have control over it on my local network, rather than rely on a third-party system that’s often dependent on the cloud. I run Home Assistant on a Pi 4, and everything else connects to that.

I’m also a huge music geek – especially with synthesizers and electronic music – although I also play the flute. I love creating music that features both my flute playing and synthesizers.

My partner and I are massive rail geeks too – especially heritage steam railways – so we spend quite a few of our weekends travelling to steam railways, riding on steam trains, and doing rail photography.

I’d like to touch upon your own personal experiences with gender identity, if that’s okay with you? 

Absolutely. I’m a trans woman, and began my transition back in 2012. Before then, I was very concerned about the impact that transitioning might have on my career – whereas in fact the converse was true – I found it made me far happier in work, and a better team player.

In your personal blog, you talk about your transition into your true self, while working as a software developer. Can you talk a bit more about that experience?

I began my transition whilst contracting for a very small company in Wolverhampton back in 2012. Thankfully the business owner had known trans people whilst living in the States, and was fine with my transition. The following year, I found a new contract with another Wolverhampton-based firm, who offered me a permanent role a few months later, which I accepted. I’ve found software engineering to be a great environment to work in for someone who is transitioning – all the companies I have worked for since starting my transition have been welcoming and accepting, and I have not experienced any problems. Conversely, I’ve found huge benefits from being able to work as my true self – especially around feeling happier and more engaged at work.

What steps do you think employers can take to make the workplace more inclusive?

I think, at the very minimum, having an equality and diversity policy that explicitly mentions gender identity – as well as race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. But – more importantly, to live equality and diversity day-to-day through the company’s core values, rather than it just being a box-ticking exercise. So, at Click Travel, for example, we put a lot of focus on respect, psychological safety and mental health – as well as having a no-blame culture – and it’s certainly a place where being different just isn’t an issue – everyone is accepted for who they are.

In your own experience are there any groups, Twitter pages, communities, websites that have helped support you through your experiences?

Certainly earlier in my transition, I was a lot more active on Twitter – especially when I was living in Shropshire and commuting to Birmingham each day by train; I used to spend quite a lot of my train journeys to and from work chatting on Twitter. However, that tended to mainly be with other trans friends who I’d met online. There is a Trans Workers UK group on Facebook that can be quite useful though.

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