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Timothy Hill: from Literary History to Lead Technologist

A few words about me:

I'm a GenX Canadian who moved over to the UK to do a PhD and ended up meeting my (American) wife and starting a family here.

In addition to being a husband and father I'm an inveterate student: my main preoccupations outside work are throwing pottery and playing the violin. Both of these are subtle and demanding physical activities which require a lifelong apprenticeship – and which I am terrible at but love too much to give up.

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

I spent several years as a postgraduate and then lecturer in Latin literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and at the University of Warwick. Paying my way through my PhD years also involved a number of part-time jobs, which included the usual run of service role at places like Starbucks - but also working as a divot-filler, score-keeper, and ... erm ... manure-shoveller on a royal polo pitch. Since moving into IT I've had jobs that have taken me around the world - as far afield as Shanghai - though now I'm entirely UK-based.

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

Non-STEM. As an undergraduate I did courses in Statistics and Biology - but I ended up in Literary History, which is pretty much as non-STEM as you can get.

Where did your professional journey start?

My career path began in lecturing - in Classics, focused mostly on Latin but also some Greek.

How did you get into tech and what motivated you?

I enjoyed writing my PhD, but by the end of it I felt I'd answered all the questions I had about Classics, and I wasn't sure I could see myself spending my life in the discipline.

At the time the University of Cambridge was advertising a position to create some educational software to teach Latin and Greek - and while it wasn't easy to find somebody who could do the programming, it was even harder to find someone who knew the ancient tongues. I got the job on the basis of my knowledge of dead languages - and then had to teach myself the much more recently-invented ones (HTML; ECMAscript) double-quick!

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

Two equal and opposite ones.

The first is that, having done Latin and worked at Cambridge, I must be extremely clever.

The other is that, having devoted my early career to something as useless as the humanities, I must be an idiot.

The remedy to both of these is simply to ask a lot of questions. That's almost always necessary anyway - but also quickly clarifies that you're working as part of a team and not holed up in an ivory tower somewhere.

"... there is no 'best time' to join the industry, particularly in more technical roles: the rate of change means that, with the right training, you can compete on a relatively equal basis with others who have been in it longer."

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

I wish I'd known that there were careers in tech other than simply 'Programmer'. When I decided to jump ship out of academia I knew virtually nothing about the tech industry, so my first priority was to learn how to code.

I ended up following quite a conventional career path, starting as a Junior Developer and gradually moving up the ranks from there - and it wasn't until I'd made it quite high up that I realised there was such a thing as User Researchers, Service Designers, Data Scientists, and so forth.

If I could do it all over again I would have tried talking to people in the industry first.

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

There have been a few. Probably the biggest was working on the Papyrological Navigator, which allowed us to reassemble Egyptian papyri from millennia ago that had been dispersed to collections all around the world.

Bringing together all these fragments to rediscover voices from thousands of years ago was a humbling experience - and the particular programming challenges involved were pretty interesting as well. Trying to create regular expressions for hunting out historical clues in languages long-dead was a mind-boggling task - in a good way.

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

I like the way tech now cuts through pretty much every domain. Over the past twenty years I've worked in the humanities, publishing, medicine, agriculture, corpus linguistics ... all of them extremely interesting domains that enlarged my perspective while I was working on them.

In terms of dislikes - frankly, the relentless neophilia of tech can be a drag. Every new paradigm / language / framework is presented as a revolutionary solution that will remove all the complexity from your applications forever. In point of fact, they tend to shift the complexity around. That can be quite useful - but it's easy to get a feeling of running-to-stand-still to keep up with the pace of not-very-interesting change. It can take a long time to develop an instinctive sense of what innovations are actually going to be useful and which will be time-wasters.

"I wish I'd known that there were careers in tech other than simply 'Programmer'."

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

Probably the day my team announced the launch of a website called Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England – broadly speaking, a digital version of the Domesday Book. The site was very academic and we didn't make any big fanfare about the launch because we thought it would be of interest to a handful of early English-history specialists.

Somehow, though, the Daily Mail got wind of the site and devoted a column to the launch. This promptly slowed the site down to an infuriating crawl and inspired a tidal wave of complaints from Mail readers - most of which were related to site performance, which we could do something about, but a handful of which seemed to still be pretty upset about the Norman Invasion, where we had less agency.

I learned two lessons from this: one about the importance of rapid scalability; the other, that a lot more people care - and care passionately - about the humanities than you might think.

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

First, do your research: find out what career paths exist, what progression looks like in them, and what training is required for each of them. Ideally, go to a few industry meetups to get a sense of the culture, expectations, and entry paths into the area. If you can forge or already have a personal connection with someone already working in the domain, use it to look as much as possible before you leap.

Second, there is no 'best time' to join the industry, particularly in more technical roles: the rate of change means that, with the right training, you can compete on a relatively equal basis with others who have been in it longer.

Third, the flip-side of this is that years-of-experience doesn't count for as much in tech as in some other sectors. Once you're a Developer, you have to be prepared to spend a significant amount of time learning new skills throughout your career. This can be intellectually challenging and exciting - but it can also hit work/life balance hard, particularly at stages such as child-raising where you might not have the option to devote a lot of evening hours to honing, say, your Java skills. The ageist and sexist imbalances this creates is a recognised problem in the industry, but it's one that's in my experience still largely unaddressed.

When you're training as a Developer it's tempting to focus overwhelmingly on landing that vital first job. But it's important to have a plan - promotion paths, career shifts, progressive employers - for dealing with those stages in your life when you're not going to feel like or be able to sustain a dreaming-in-code lifestyle.


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