We’re a diverse bunch at Starling. Bump into anyone at the office and you’ll soon realise that many of our career paths have come from unexpected places — from teaching maths to working in fashion. So what’s brought us all together to work at a tech startup? One of our recent recruits Rory tells us about his unconventional start to programming and how his thirst for learning and passion for problem solving has led him to joining Starling.
In 2014, before life at Starling, I was running a real estate investment and management company that I founded. I started it because I wanted to run an estate agency that looked after tenants and landlords, operated in an ethical manner, and still turned a profit. I succeeded at this, and realised that if I wanted to grow my business I would need to use technology — it was at this point that I decided to learn how to code.
The decision was prompted by having a conversation with software developer friend. I have always been interested in computers and how they work, and a part of me wished I had learnt to program when I was younger. I felt that I had missed my chance; that because I hadn’t started when I was a teenager there was no hope of ever gaining enough knowledge to be a professional developer. My friend told me that I could realistically pick it up in a year, which surprised me. So I decided to give it a go and see how I got on.
How it all began
In January 2016, I visited Code Academy and started their course on HTML and CSS. I also used other free online courses from websites like Treehouse and Udemy. It was my introduction to programming, and while I was intimidated at the thought of how little I knew and how much there was to learn, I quickly became addicted to the feeling of success that came from making things work the way you wanted them to.
For me, the most effective way to learn was through a mixture of interactive exercises and videos where people describe and explain concepts. I bought a textbook for Ruby but found it hard to learn from effectively; there wasn’t much point reading it on the tube as I needed a terminal in order to try things out for myself, and when I was at home I always preferred other resources.
A tricky subject
Learning programming is hard, for two main reasons: firstly, the subject matter is difficult. The fundamental concepts of how programming languages operate take a long time to understand, and even longer for them to become intuitive. It is an incredibly complex field where there is always more to learn. The second factor is the emotional difficulty that most people experience during the learning process. You doubt yourself, you feel overwhelmed like you’re not up to it, or you feel like an impostor. Impostor syndrome is a reality for many successful professional software developers, and it can strike people particularly hard when you’re learning.
There are some brave and persistent people who are entirely self-taught, but I knew that to reach the level of competency I wanted to achieve in the time I had allotted, I would need to be in an environment where I would have the support to learn and grow. I wanted to be surrounded by people on the same journey as me, and immerse myself in a learning environment. To this end, I enrolled in a three month full-time coding bootcamp at Makers Academy to take my education to the next level.
Makers Academy was an incredible experience, which involved living and breathing (and often dreaming about) code for six and a half days a week. It gave me the skills I needed to begin my career in software development. At this point my goals changed; I wanted to work for a company that was improving people’s lives by disrupting established industries.
Searching for alignment
I looked at property companies that were doing things similar to the ideas that I had before I started my course, but while I could see that they were making renting easier, they weren’t really revolutionising the experience of the tenant. I began to look at other companies, and that’s when I discovered Starling Bank. Here was a company that was doing things that aligned with my values: giving people power and visibility over their money without charging them anything. The customer experience was put at the heart of the company.
As soon as I learned about Starling Bank I wanted to work for them. I was really impressed by the company product and mission, and the staff I met at the careers fair were engaging and enjoyed talking about their work.
Nearly 18 months after I first opened a terminal, I started my first paid programming job at Starling Bank…
A day in the life
My day-to-day experience at work is full of variety. As a software engineer you find yourself working solo or in pairs depending on the nature of the job, and you’re always a part of a team working to build something bigger. The stereotype of a genius coder sitting in a dark room by themselves is a myth. Our teams have excellent communication and collaborate on projects, meeting once or twice a day to discuss progress and and any difficulties that arise.
I work with senior engineers most days, and they are amazing at mentoring me and helping me to grow and contribute towards the company code base. I’ve had the opportunity to work in several different departments of the company and will eventually have spent time in every department. It’s deeply satisfying knowing that I’m improving my skills and benefitting the company at the same time.
Hitting the ground running
In my first few weeks here, I wrote integration tests for our iPhone app using Appium, which simulates gestures on the emulated iPhone running on my laptop. This was a great introduction to the apps and the codebase as I had to think of ways the code could break, and how to test that. Next I moved on to SRE (site reliability engineering), which is more to do with creating and maintaining the infrastructure of the bank such as our cloud services, our pipeline for deploying code into production or our test environment, and backing up our sensitive data correctly. Now I’m working on the platform team, writing the code that will allow us to make international payments. It’s exciting working on something that I’ll get to see operating in the real world, one day soon.
My advice to working in the tech world
If you think you may want to be a software developer, start with a free online course at Code Academy and see if you like it. If you do then keep going, don’t be afraid to fail or to imagine a different future for yourself. To anyone wanting to break into tech who doesn’t want to be a developer, you can already use the skills you have, or skills you’re acquiring, to work in tech companies. Without stating the obvious, it takes a lot more than software developers to make a tech company succeed: companies need product managers, marketing specialists, graphic designers, UX designers, legal teams, customer service operatives, accountants and hiring teams. If you want to change careers, learn to code, or pick up another skill, then my advice is to make the leap and go for it! You may be surprised at where you end up.
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