How I sneaked into the tech industry without a degree and got my first job.

When I started writing this blog post, back in 2008, I’d just got my first real job, quite an achievement by any standards, and wanted to share my experience, but I could never quite capture what I wanted to say.

Those who knew me well at the time, will remember I had been actively looking for a job. Not at MacDonalds, or a waiter, or one of the many low level jobs in the retail services sector, but in the tech industry. My reasoning behind this was relatively sound – a entry level job in Tesco would be unlikely to help me get a job in the tech industry at a later date, so jumping straight in was the best option.

I started looking around, for a job…anything where I could get money for using my technical skills. I had previously been employed freelance for a webdesign project for an e-commerce website so I thought perhaps I could be a web designer. Every day, I would read the the Manchester Evening News and Metro, “Jobs” pages for positions in IT. Whilst this didn’t help me get a job in the tech industry, it did help me understand a bit about how the job market worked. The only things that were frequently advertised in the newspapers were for expendable call centre staff, and relatively traditional organisations (like schools), searching for well qualified, well experienced staff – not entry level positions.

Anyway, all the good jobs seemed to want 3 years industry experience and/or a university degree, and I had none of those.

Fortunately, over the previous year, I was lucky to have made with a bunch of people in the technology industry. Techies who already were sysadmins and developers, who hung out on IRC, friendly people who ate curry and drunk beer in curryhouses and pubs.

I mentioned to some of them that I didn’t have a job but wanted one and it became apparent that one of the companies they worked for was always on the look out for students to be software testers for their product (a propriety virtualisation platform). Straight away though, I encountered some issues and I was advised that I would probably need to be 18 to apply because of “child protection issues”.

This was quite a frustration and stalled me from applying for sometime until I emailed the company and asked them straight out whether this would be an issue. It was interesting to note that the company website did not list these student tester positions on it’s website at all and appeared only to be advertising for relatively high powered people. Unfortunately, my email went unanswered and I celebrated my 18th birthday still not knowing whether they would have picked me.

However, from what my friends had said the position looked very attractive to me – the pay seemed good, the hours were very flexible, and the atmosphere friendly. I talked to one my friends and they then gave the email of someone I should send my CV to. I sent my CV to them and waited. And waited. And nothing happened. I never received even an acknowledgement of my email. I was very disappointed.

At the time I was in the second year of my two year studies at sixth form college. For some incomprehensible reason, I had the whole of every Wednesday with no lessons, which frankly, seemed like a giant waste of time. Fortunately for a lazy teen, Wednesday seemed like a good a day as any to snooze and sleep in, so that’s I aspired to do.

One day, whilst reading my mail, I came across a newsletter from Manchester’s digital trade association (an organisation I’d somehow signed up to online) which mentioned some kind of day for graduates to meet employers in the digital sector or something. It was on a Wednesday at around midday. I’d been to an event the night before and figured I wouldn’t be out of bed in time to go to it.

Somehow, I was woken up, and not being able to get back to sleep, I figured I’d get the train into Manchester and go to this thing.

I found the place, walked in and saw lots of tables of people. As I wasn’t a student, and felt vastly under qualified and unnerved by the whole thing – it wasn’t my world, I’d never encountered a “full service agency” before and the smooth talking men in trendy suits talking about Adobe and ASP.net was quite unnerving.

Then I bumped into Wini from Code Computer Love, and introduced myself. As I explained how I actually wasn’t a student, but had been to some tech events in different parts of the country, and explained about some things I was interested in, and to my surprise (at the time!), Winnie was very enthused explaining how he’d also travelled to events when he was young and whilst Code probably didn’t have anything for me right now, he commended me on being there. With a little fire in my belly, I set out to try and find out what was what.

For various weekends in my youth, I’d tried to complete various projects – write really poor software – do this, do that. One of the things I’d tried to master was installing a Voice over IP server on an old server so I could make phone calls. I was sure this was possible, but I never really understood it far enough to make it work – I’d get the turnkey distribution installed, but then never quite know what I was doing enough, to make anything work. (One of the main problems at the time was that I hadn’t figured out it also had a web UI.. ah, if only I’d read the manual or something).

First dabbles with Asterisk - I didn't have two computers so I had to take a photo of the help commands page just so I could come back and try things

First dabbles with Asterisk - I didn't have two computers so I had to take a photo of the help commands page just so I could come back and try things

Just as I thought I’d spoken to everyone and was hoping to run away home, I bumped into this guy standing on his own, who explained that his company built Voice over IP phone systems.

Instinctively I asked him whether he used the turnkey VoIP linux distribution I’d originally tried out, and his face lit up.

Colin at DMC had been looking for 2nd year or sandwich year student to help part time with his business whilst studying, with a view to going full time at a later date. He’d been looking for someone with Linux experience, and had had a few possibles that afternoon, but (as I understand it!)  few who sounded very confident with linux, and no one who knew anything about Asterisk – the open source PBX software in question.

Whilst my failed expeditions into Trixbox, had hardly helped me develop any working systems, this vague knowledge of how things worked, coupled with the laptop running Debian in my rucksack, and the not particularly stunning, yet disastrous, understanding I had of the Linux CLI, meant that despite my age and qualifications (or there lack of), I was actually the best of the bunch. Apparently.

The day I walked back from the subsequent interview, having been told I’d got the job, was memorable. I hadn’t expected to walk into an entry level technology job, with working hours that fitted around my college work, working with technologies that were open source, and an employer that didn’t seem mindnumbingly dull. It seemed too good to be true.

Pay wasn’t what was important, heck, lots of things didn’t seem important that day.

The important thing was that I’d been looking for the start of a path, and somehow, with neither qualifications nor a CV to die for, I’d found the start, and could take my first steps along it.

I celebrated with a curry, I think I’d earned it. Somehow.

2 Responses to “ How I sneaked into the tech industry without a degree and got my first job. ”

  1. [...] Tim Dobson How I sneaked into the tech industry without a degree and got my first job. [...]

  2. Hi Tim,

    What a great story. It’s good to know that a little knowledge, confidence, and being in the right place can lead to better things.

    I too started in the software industry with no qualifications (I didn’t even finish A-levels) and no experience. At least no professional experience. By the time I went for my first computing interview (back in 1990), I’d been playing with home computers (Atari 8- and 16-bit) for a few years, and had taught myself Turbo Pascal on a green-screen PC (no Windows or even Linux back then) that I used to help run the video rental shop I’d just had to close down.

    What I did do was take a floppy disk (5.25 inches!) with a program I’d written to manage sale stock in my shop. I later learned from one of the guys who interviewed me, that the fact I had a real working program I could demonstrate was what clinched it. Mind you I was applying for an unpaid position as part of some mad back to work government scheme so it was relatively low risk for the company to take me on.

    From there, I managed to rise pretty high in various companies over the next 18 years — before giving it all up to work with WordPress, but that’s another story for another time.

    Mike

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