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Stuart Harrison: from Journalism to software development

Social media handle(s): @pezholio (Twitter)

A few words about me:

I’m a Lead Developer at dxw with a background in journalism. I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years, mainly working in and around the public sector.

I have recently been diagnosed with ADHD, and I’m trying to be open about the challenges and benefits of my condition.

Because of my ADHD, I’m super flighty with my hobbies. I play saxophone, DJ (these hobbies have stuck for a few years now!) and I used to brew beer. I honestly don’t know how I fit it in with two kids and a busy home life!

Are there any professional experiences you've had that are quite unexpected compared to what you do nowadays?

→ A couple of service industry jobs, such as working behind the bar or in a warehouse

→ A resident DJ

→ A Journalist

→ A Content Designer (before content design was a role)

Is your background more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) or non-STEM related?


Where did your professional journey start?

When I was growing up, I was massively into computers, I had a ZX Spectrum for Christmas in 1987. I used to read computer magazines like Your Sinclair, Crash and Sinclair User, and it made journalism seem like it would be a fun career. I was good at English, so it seemed like I would end up doing something related to that.

At university, I started a Journalism degree, but that wasn’t quite what I expected. I switched to English Literature for the first year, but something still didn’t feel right. I decided to switch my degree again to Communications. This gave me the opportunity to do theoretical Media Studies type work, but also hands-on practical modules too, such as web design and photography.

After my degree, I went to college to do a journalism qualification (where I also met my wife). I learnt a bunch about the industry (as well as getting a shorthand qualification!) and I got to do work placements at different newspapers. I had a few interviews, but I became quickly disillusioned with the industry. I ended up getting a job at a local council who were in the process of building a new website. They needed someone to move content over and develop new content as well. Besides writing content for the website, my job was to help with design and encourage others across the council to write their own content.

I became progressively frustrated with what users could and couldn’t do with the website. I taught myself some PHP (a programming language) to build some extra features for the website. I started to make some changes and my skills got noticed so the council asked me to do more work for them.

I continue to up-skill myself. I learnt Ruby (another programming language) and expanded my knowledge of open data and data transparency. I did some talks at conferences and ended up getting a job at the Open Data Institute which was my first real Developer role. My development career snowballed from there. Before joining dxw, where I currently work, I also worked at mySociety and FutureGov.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

I’ve always been interested in programming and computers. I was really inspired by the early 1980s DIY software scene. It was really cool to see teenagers like Matthew Smith (who made Jet Set Willy) writing games from their bedrooms which went on to become massive hits.

While I’m really lucky to have a job that pays well, I’m passionate about using my skills to impact people’s lives. I find it much more rewarding to make a difference in the world, rather than impacting a company’s share value. I really enjoy building tools that make people’s lives easier, and I’m always thinking about the user.

Have you experienced any 'career in tech' challenges / stereotypes?

I’m a middle class, cisgender white guy, so, on the whole I’ve had it pretty easy! But from my point of view, the challenges I have faced have been mostly related to my ADHD. Growing up, I was always led to believe that people with ADHD were naughty, hyperactive kids running around and getting into trouble. As I’ve learned more about my condition, I’ve discovered that it’s more about regulation of attention. If I’m interested in something I can get hyperfocused on it and work for hours.

ADHD has presented challenges for me as I have moved up the career ladder, it has been a bit difficult for me because I’m expected to switch tasks more and sit in long meetings. Being open and honest about my challenges has really helped though. Reasonable adjustments like breaks in long meetings are really helpful. However, I don’t always know what it is that I need and what will work for me, so it’s not always easy for me to articulate these needs.

"... study what you enjoy and are interested in, not what you think you should to work in tech."

What you wish you knew before getting started in tech...

One of the things I’ve learned throughout my career is that no one really knows what they’re doing! I used to be quite intimidated by folks who I perceived as “better” Developers than me. I had terrible Imposter Syndrome and always assumed I’d be “found out”. As I’ve gone through the system, I’ve realised that everyone is making it up as they go along! No one is born a fully formed genius. Everyone struggles.

What has been your biggest 'wow!' moment related to working in tech so far?

I’ve been working in the government tech space for a long time, and I think the most amazing thing was seeing the Government Digital Service (GDS) come together and rebuild the entire sector of government technology from the ground up.

Initially, I was just interested in seeing developers do techy things, but this has also led to entire specialisms, such as service and content design, and user research being key elements on any online government service.

We improved where the sector is and how the government works now. I think the private sector in general could learn a lot from GDS. It’s great to see folks who started over at GDS going over to the private sector and taking their experience there, but more could be done.

What do you like / not like about working in tech?

I personally like problem solving. It’s my number one motivator to be facing a challenge that needs solving and finding creative ways to tackle it. I find this really rewarding and there are many opportunities within the tech industry to work on solving problems creatively.

What I don’t like as much relates to the tech industry at large and working within it rather than a specific organisation. There seems to be a lot of solutionism within the tech industry which means that tech people can think they know everything and that tech will save us all. It won’t on its own and we need to work with all aspects of society to make the world a better place. One thing can’t be the answer, which is why I feel sometimes tech people need to just sit down and listen to other experts.

"As I’ve gone through the system, I’ve realised that everyone is making it up as they go along! No one is born a fully formed genius. Everyone struggles."

What's been your favourite / most memorable / funniest 'career in tech' moment so far?

I was working with a friend on a continuous integration system controlled by configuration in GitHub. We wanted to make some quick changes and my friend edited the config in the browser and modified it.

However, he had a browser plug-in installed at a time when a lot of talk was happening around “The Cloud”. The changes made (accidentally!) meant that every mention of the word 'cloud' in the browser would change the word 'cloud' to 'arse'. It broke everything. Thankfully once discovered, it was an easy problem to fix. But to this day it makes me laugh. I’ve even got a mug that commemorates that line of code!

And to wrap up, is there any advice you'd like to give to others interested in a career in tech?

My advice, based on my own personal experience, would be to not get hung up on doing a computer science degree. Do what you are interested in and passionate about. A degree will teach you self organisation, critical thinking, and writing. These are skills you’ll need in all jobs and the act of studying is what makes you employable, not what you are studying.

If you’re interested in coding too, do it in your spare time. You can always pick up coding skills in a bootcamp. Programming is a skill that can be taught quite easily, but what makes you a good developer is being a creative thinker, being collaborative, and thinking outside of the box. We often label these as “soft” skills, but to me they are core, so study what you enjoy and are interested in, not what you think you should to work in tech.


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