Candidate blog Chris Northwood

Q and A Guest Blog with Chris Northwood.

Chris Northwood headshot

Chris Northwood

Senior Technologist

Chris Northwood bio.
I'm a senior technologist working in the research & development department of a major broadcaster. Although software engineering is a large part of my role, my role also covers DevOps, Agile, QA and UX, hence the more general job title of "technologist". I've been working as a software engineer for 7 years, after graduating with BEng Computer Science from the University of York and an MSc in Speech & Language Processing from the University of Sheffield. I've had roles both in-house and as a consultant, and have led teams undergoing transformations towards Agile, lean and continuous delivery ways of working. I love my job and the challenges it throws! You're also likely to find me on a ski slope when snow starts to hit the Alps.

1. Hi Chris, thank you for making the time to talk with us today. Your career in IT looks very impressive; can you tell us what first prompted you to a career in the tech space?
I was fortunate enough to be interested in technology from quite a young age, and it’s something my parents actively encouraged! My dad’s a bit of a gadget guy so we always had interesting bits of technology lying around the house. As it so happens our first computer was a BBC Micro, and the only way to use it involved learning to code so once I realised I could make a computer do whatever I wanted, I was hooked!

2. Can you tell us a bit about your early career in IT?

My first job in the tech industry was an internship at the computer security firm Sophos whilst I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Computer Science. In this I spent 6 months working as a tester (manual and automation) and then 6 months as a UNIX developer. It was a pretty eye-opening experience to the world of professional software development and how things don’t really work in quite the way academia expects it to.

To this day I really value the short level of experience I gained as a tester and equally as a developer,  it helped me gain empathy with my peers in QA which in turn gave me a better understanding of what their role involves.  After graduating, I joined a software engineering graduate scheme and took the opportunity to spend 6 months there working as a business analyst to give me more insight into the non-technical side of IT too.

3. What are the day to day challenges you face in your role?
One of the biggest challenges is communication as in trying to understand the visions of peers in non-technical roles, as well as trying to explain technical possibilities and constraints at the same time. Another challenge is whatever we build is usually something that’s different in some ways to what’s been built before. However our creations are also not completely unique so trying to find similarities to projects and products that have been built before and figuring out what we can learn from those is also a major challenge. It can be very tempting to dive in head first with code, without using what we’ve learned previously and spotting similarities we will often end up re-inventing the wheel and therefore coming across the same problems time and time again.

4. Which part(s) of your role do you enjoy the most?
Delivery of the end-product is always the best part of the role. Seeing what you’ve spent weeks or months working on getting “out there” and then actually making a difference in people’s lives is very rewarding. I take a lot of pride in my work and I’d never ship something that I wouldn’t be proud to put my name to.

5. If you were to offer advice to those starting out in software development, what would it be?
Don’t get bogged down in technical arguments and become detached from the problem you’re trying to solve. In development, our job isn’t to build things, it’s to discover and solve problems, building things is a side-effect of that. A beautifully engineered system that doesn’t solve the problem is worse than a badly-engineered one that does.

6. Which techs have you seen recently that inspired you the most to learn more about them?
I think the cultural changes that are currently permeating IT are more interesting than the tech that enables them. Microservices are making big waves in enterprise architecture spaces, but microservices only really work when your organisation is structured around outcomes and capabilities rather than technologies. Similarly with the Cloud and DevOps movement, a lot of great tooling is coming out to make it much easier to manage and applications in production, but the real value isn’t the tools, it’s the new way of thinking and the cultural shift that’s really paving the way for progress.

7. Which advancements, in any tech areas, are exciting you the most currently?
The speed at which web technology is moving is truly astounding. It’s only 25 years old, and in the past decade the web has gone from a way of browsing documents and articles online to a fully-fledged platform that’s a way of building apps that are available to everyone, delivering incredibly rich experiences. Unlike other walled gardens, like app stores, the web has remained open to everyone who wants to create anything, and as we can do more and more on the web, and as more people come online, the web really has the potential to become a level playing field globally.

9. In the past, how have you found new jobs?  How would you approach seeking a career change given current technology and market conditions?

For me, it’s not the tech stack or the salary that attracts me to new roles (although that certainly helps), but rather the culture of an organisation, the products they build and what kind of impact it or they have on the world. I don’t want to work in an organisation where the work I do is never seen by anyone. The kind of organisations that are actively involved in open source, sharing their internal workings with the world and where their existing developers are attending and speaking at meetups are the main characteristics that can make organisations attractive to me.

The current tech scene is moving at a very fast pace, especially for those in the app market. A developer who is over-specialised in a tech stack, for example, can quickly find themselves behind the times. So I believe it’s important to have a diverse set of skills, which demonstrates a person’s understanding of the fundamentals of object-oriented programming, web development, etc., rather than the specifics of just PHP, Rails, etc. Culture and team fit is becoming increasingly important, as more and more senior managers realise that IT teams are not just “resources” that are interchangeable. I also believe developing softer skills can really make you stand out from the crowd for the most desirable jobs.

10. We’re sure 2016 will bring us additional new and innovative trends and gadgets, which are you most looking forward to?
VR is incredibly exciting. I was first very sceptical, but I had the opportunity recently to play in a HTC Vive, which actually allows you to physically move inside a virtual space. It’s very hard to describe without actually having been in one, but it’s a world away from just moving your head inside a headset, which is slightly less fun. Technology has finally caught up to the vision of what virtual reality wants to be, and it’s no longer just a bit of a side joke of bad graphics and clumsy experiences, I believe VR is something to keep your eye on for the next few years.

11. If you were invited to create a new app, what would it be for?

One of my rather “geeky” interests for a long time has been the railway, and several years ago Network Rail and National Rail made a lot of their railway related data available as “open data” for developers to play with. It’s an absolutely fascinating and detailed set of data that has lots and lots of possibilities around how you could visualise it and derive interesting discoveries from it. I’d love to make a web app that makes that data available in a simple way that would allow people (who are less geeky than me) to gain insight into the rail journeys they’re making!