The Secret Backdoor to Becoming a Software Developer

The Journey

Mine is a familiar story. You do all the mandatory schooling, you then stick around for A’Levels (because that’s what your friends are doing). At 18 you are terrified of getting a job and decide to go to University (because that’s what your friends are doing). You have no idea what your passions or interests are, so you choose to do Chemistry (because you were attracted to your Chemistry teacher at school!). By the time you have graduated, you realize that your passions and interests certainly do not include chemistry.

On graduation, you sign up to a recruitment agency, who sends you to an admin job for a local Social Landlord. You spend the next 20 years doing various jobs in Social Housing until coming to the conclusion that your passions and interests certainly do not include Social Housing. Well, perhaps my story is not too familiar. But the theme of feeling like you don’t want to carry on in the career you started out in does seem to be common.

Following a life long obsession with all things ‘tech’, I started to learn the Swift language as I wanted to make iOS apps. I spent a few hours here and there on my app and it was slow going as I was still working full time as a Housing Officer. Then there was an incident at work (almost 2 years ago) where I was assaulted by a tenant. This left me at home for the next 4 or 5 months on full pay. I began spending 8 hours a day learning to code, and more importantly, building a portfolio; a website dedicated to selling myself to potential employers with links to my projects and a daily blog I had started to write.

After a couple of months of learning everything I could about a range of languages, I started applying for Junior Software Developer roles and used my portfolio as part of my application. I must have applied for 20 jobs and the responses were all the same: ‘we are looking for someone with a degree in Software Engineering’, or ‘we are looking for someone who has a least 2 years experience as a Software Developer’. So, I looked at the options: I could get a degree which takes 3 years, costs £20k and I’d have no income for that time, or I could attempt to get the 2 years experience I needed by working for free (I have heard stories of people doing just this!). Neither sounded appealing, but then I stumbled upon the solution while looking on the job boards.

An apprenticeship! ‘But wait’, I hear you say, ‘aren’t you Middle Aged?’, well, yes, I am, but the UK government recently changed the rules. In April 2017 the Apprenticeship Levy was introduced and the previous maximum age limit of 24 years was lifted. The only age stipulation now to become an apprentice in the UK is a minimum age of 16. A lot of the apprenticeships are still aimed at the 16–24 age range with starting salaries of around £8k, with a family to support I discounted these immediately. However, there were still several opportunities being advertised in my area with more realistic salaries.

I am now working for a prestigious technology firm while completing the exams and coursework required for the apprenticeship. The best thing is, I automatically become a Graduate Engineer at the end of the course. If you are going to attempt this back-door way to becoming a Software Developer, make sure you apply to the large international companies. They won’t spend 2–3 years training and developing you, only to pack you up and send you on your way with no offer of employment. This could happen in the smaller firms who perhaps see the apprenticeship as a way to get cheap labor for a couple of years (since the government pays half the salary).

Age as an Advantage

I was told there were over 250 applicants for my role. Here’s why I think I managed to fight off the competition.

  1. The Application: As previously mentioned, I spent a lot of time on my portfolio which made up part of my application. Also, I spent a great deal of time on all the job applications I’d been applying for. This meant I had built up a word document full of perfect examples and phrases that I could copy and paste into any future Software Development application. Also, I had successfully (and unsuccessfully) applied for several jobs prior to this one, and through this experience know what kind of answers the recruiters are looking for.
  2. The Assessment (Team Building Exercises): I was required to go to a pre-interview, where we were split into a team and asked to carry out team tasks. Having done these before, I understand that the purpose of the exercise is not about completing the task, but about working as a team, communication skills, leadership, and social interaction. A lot of the younger applicants failed to make an impression on the recruiters whatsoever.
  3. The Interview1: Someone who has been working for two decades has been in plenty of interview type situations. I can’t say I enjoy interviews, but I would say I have developed the ability to stay calm and make sure my answers are concise but detailed. The younger applicants potentially haven’t had the opportunity to develop these skills.
  4. The Interview2: The interview was made up of two parts. The first part comprised of technical questions, testing for programmatic thinking, and basic language comprehension. This was a level playing field for all age groups as it was to gauge whether the potential apprentice had the right base skills for the role. The only thing that perhaps elevated my interview in this first part, was the fact I had recently completed several coding projects that were fresh in my mind and were able to speak about them in detail.
  5. The Interview3: The second part of the interview consisted of questions related to skills in the workplace: communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, equality and diversity, past successes, and failures. I genuinely believe that anyone who was fresh out of university or anyone that had only had a couple of jobs would struggle to find satisfactory answers to these questions.

Conclusion

It’s never too late to completely change your career. We spend such a large proportion of our lives in the workplace, it’s important that we aren’t bored or unhappy. Since I made the move, I find my work completely engaging and challenging. My life has changed in this one fundamental way: I used to dread Monday morning, and now I can’t wait for it!

You are not too old to become a Software Developer. There is a misconception that Software Development is a young person's game and I believed this right up until I started to work for a technology firm where there was a huge range of ages, with the older members leading the charge!

Looking back, the preferred route would have been to chose a Software Engineering degree at Uni, but then I wouldn’t have met my wife and some other wonderful people along the way. Good luck to anyone in search of a new career, you won’t regret it.