Sunday, 26 October 2014

Three years later

I would ordinarily scoff when I looked at a blog and saw that it hadn't been updated for a long period of time. I am now scoffing at myself. The last post that I made was just before I started working at Brandwatch, which was a few months after I finished my Ph.D., which was, more precisely, 3 years and 1 month ago. I've now been working here for longer than I was undertaking my doctoral studies and time has passed very quickly indeed. Work and life are very different now.

There's a lot to be said about teams of engineers tackling big problems. My doctoral years were very solitary in terms of my work. You toil on a deep problem in a niche so narrow that at the end of it all you are the world expert on it. This is an empowering proposition, however, it does mean that nobody truly shares your burden and successes along the way apart from yourself. I thrived in this environment because I can command a substantial amount of self-determination, and to an extent, stubbornness. This is what got me out of bed in the morning and kept me pushing through until late in the night, day in and day out. It paid off. But it's not sustainable. Research in academia is being overtaken by the pure creative power of industry. I'd make the conjecture that industry is solving the most important and interesting problems in computer science right now, and that's where I want to be.

The true joy of engineering is not sitting in an ivory tower and becoming a specialist on a particularly arcane area that few people know about. The true joy is building things with people, for people. Fundamentally, software engineers are not that different from traditional engineers. When Brunel built bridges or railways, he did so to solve people's problems; to connect people. Software engineering is the same, and connecting people resonates both inside and outside of the workshop.

Inside the workshop, engineers connect with each other to dream, design and build things that help enrich the lives of others. Teams of engineers, when they work together well and have proper guidance, can do incredible things. Working closely with exceptionally smart people has been extremely rewarding. My programming skills have improved vastly. My ability to transfer this knowledge on to others has also improved, and I feel the audience has been infinitely more attentive than those that I taught at the university (intriguingly those that were most receptive in my seminars now work for the same company). Through pull requests, pair programming and technical talks the interactions where I learn something new can be counted daily.

Outside of the workshop, engineers are connecting people together. When I read and hear feedback from our users that compliments our work, I feel genuinely happy to have made a difference. Even if the contribution was something small, it doesn't matter - we've made someone's day better: perhaps we fixed a common frustration, maybe we saved them a few minutes each morning, or we've delivered some great new functionality. When hundreds of clients turn up to one of our events to learn more about the platform and products we are building, I feel part of something much greater than myself. When I spoke at JAX London earlier this month, a whole room of people were really listening to what I had to say and I felt that I'd given something useful back to the community. That was the biggest struggle I had with academic work; collaboration seemed fueled by the need to publish more papers for one's own citation count, rather than tackling a problem the world really needed solved.

If you're an engineer and you want to make a difference, then know full well that you can. There's never been a more exciting time to be alive with the skills that you have. Join a start-up and help it grow into a world-class organisation. Join a world-class organisation and make it better. Work for yourself while traveling from place to place with a laptop and a minimal set of clothing - it's all possible. There's so much to build for everyone out there - there's just not enough time to do it all.

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