Bytemark at LRL 09

How I came to work at Bytemark

At the end of September, I left my job at Bytemark where I’d worked for the previous 6 years.

I’ll be sharing more, about the future in due course, but I was reflecting on my path to Bytemark.

I first was introduced to technology by the #manlug IRC channel, where I quickly became affiliated with the local fundamentalist free software group (and not ‘open source’), launched by Matt Lee. Matthew gave the first talk of that group about – as I seem to remember – how lack of open source cpanel was a big issue.

Lots of members of that IRC channel were Bytemark customers, and one (later, briefly) even went on to become an employee.

I remember going to LugRadioLive 2008 – where Bytemark had installed LTSP on some servers and figured out some way to run Team Fortress on them via WINE or something. For their efforts mbloch and employees [at the time] ahowells & lupine were given some kind of miniprize of tshirts by the LugRadio crew.

Bytemark at LRL 09
Bytemark at LRL 08

Around that time I was helping one of the largest Manchester tech community events to date, and managed to persuade Matthew to sponsor it (eg I asked, and Matthew said “yes”).

One of my two first jobs was as a contract Xen sysadmin for BBC R&D, (relying heavily on Skemp‘s work on xen-tools !), and also for a VoIP provider. When we needed a virtual server, and the VoIP company’s existing hosting supplier couldn’t provide Ubuntu because their bought-in virtualisation platform didn’t support it, I emailed Matthew to go to York and have a chat. We were very nervous about hosting VoIP servers in a datacentre in those days.

We went on to buy several servers, and I spent several months annoying the support team with correct and incorrect diagnosises of networking issues that may or may not have related to Bytemark. (I was a bit like a monkey with a sword using mtr at that point – I knew it was powerful, but I couldn’t always point it with the right end).

Around the middle of 2010, I was subscribed to the dolphin emporium mailing list, and looking for something technical, with clearer troubleshooting possibilities available. VoIP call quality issues are surprising tough to do automated monitoring on, and it seemed like there must be more clear-cut types of technical problem to diagnose. My thought was that web hosting had to be easier – either the web server was there, or it was not – nobody could complain that only half the page was there, or that it sounded like it was underwater.

I tried to get into M247, Melbourne, (M247 said no, Melbourne said they wanted more Windows experience), considered approaching some others, and then I saw this Bytemark job posting on the debian-uk mailing list.

I remember feeling terribly underprepared for the job interview. I knew about ~1/3 of the technologies mentioned, and had used very few of them. This was my dream job, but I felt the chances of me getting it were.. “slim”. But y’know, you gotta try! The first time I read about Varnish and caching proxies was on the train to York for the interview!

My sense is that the interview didn’t go ‘well’. I didn’t complete the technical task within the timeframe given, and I was conscious of that and pitched myself right at the low end of the spectrum.

A few days later, my heart leapt when I got an email offering me a job. I accepted and celebrated with a curry.

And so with the start of November 2010, so began my time at Bytemark in the office in Turing house.

If you’d told me then, where I’d be in 6 years time, I never would have believed you. But that’s for the next blog post!

Feel free to check out my LinkedIn profile.

Funny interview questions: how stupid are they?

Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?
Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?

I was recently debating with someone on Facebook about this article on the Top 10 Worst/Funny interview questions.

My answers to the questions were:

  1. Not sure, can I use google to find out find out the volume of a golf ball, and volume of a bus?
  2. Can I just ask Bing?
  3. Some kind of consideration of qualities usually associated with Mahatma Gandhi and how that relates to software development. Probably point out it’s not a battle, and that a gentle, peaceful approach with your colleagues is likely to achieve the best results.
  4. Some kind of dig at suggestion that one person can’t do it by themselves, but companies like Amazon have a corporate responsibility to support organisations that can help.
  5. Explain how you’d look at and analyse the nutritional information collectively for each outlet. Be aware employer is insurer and has keen interest in datamining and profiling.
  6. “Yes” + chat about something interesting you read on reddit /r/TodayIlearned yesterday.
  7. Explain how a scientific study works in very basic terms
  8. Talk about something you’re passionate about. DO NOT SING – unless you’re passionate about singing and are good. Explain how you collected your coathanger collection and lovingly take them to coathanger rallies for people to admire. They will find it interesting if you find it interesting.
  9. Say a number then talk about some kind of quirk – they’re not interested in the number (unless it’s a multiple choice question), but more interested in your explanation why. They probably want someone “a bit” weird.
  10. Simply have a good go. They’re looking at how you cope to the challenge – so just try.

I don’t think the questions that were being asked were particularly unfair – they’re testing things that you can’t prepare for. For instance, when, as a software engineer, your manager asks you to look at something urgently because a colleague is away, is your answer “No, I don’t know anything about golf balls or trains, I’ve no idea where to even start”, or is it “Urgh, I’m not sure, let me go and google a few things, I can’t promise anything, but I might be able to work it out.” – someone who will try, given a problem they have no idea how to solve, is a valuable problem solver.

My friend’s response, in my opinion, was just wrong – “I miss the time when official things meant going in for the serious talk… All this is, is telling is how much you can bullshit on the spot”.

To some degree they’re right – except that occasionally ‘bluffing it”, “having a go” at some moments, is the most useful skill you can have.

In my field, brutally ugly, ‘dangerous’ lashups involving cronjobbing crashing apache restarts, can save many many pounds of revenue for someone over a weekend, until the appropriate person is available to look at it.

In other fields, it might be like a lorry mechanic, breathing an extra days life into an alternator, before he can get back to the depot and have it replaced, or

Having robot staff who just follow instructions is good, and I expect there will have been many other questions about the candidates working style before these questions.

But robots are unable to work out what to do in situations they’ve not been trained for, the staff who can work out what to do in these situations, are clearly the most valuable.

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

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 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.