Back to school as a mature student
Ok, I’ll give it to you straight: studying as a mature student WAS hard, especially for someone who didn’t have a whole lot of practice in the studying department. However, as you heard before he soon found that previous experience with studying (or the lack thereof…) wasn’t necessarily a show stopper, and that he had plenty of things going for him.
For anybody thinking about going to university, as an older person, the first year… is HARD, ’cause you’re expected to do Maths, at a high level, that the school students have just finished their Leaving Cert, so they’re at a level now where doing higher Maths is rhythm for them, they’re in this rhythm…
1st year’s quite broad in its scope of what they’re gonna teach you, in computer science. But after the 1st year it gets easier, but the content is harder; it’s more connected and more in the sphere in which you’ll be working. I’m doing computer science so I’ll be doing programming, artificial intelligence, machine learning, all these things, you know – it’s all in computer science. It’s more targeted and it’s connected to the other subjects. The syllabus is very well designed and it’s very easy to do things you’re interested in!
I just need to say this again: if you found the mention of higher Maths unnerving :), remember that it was never David’s strong suit during his schooling, so chances are you could rock it too! Stay with us!
So what is it like, studying computer science?
Is it all programming? Are there specialisations? Plenty of options, according to David.
OK, so – it’s gonna be hard work. After you have the formal degree, you’ll never need it again, but you need it to open the front door. Once you get in, it seems like it’s only programming when you’re studying, ’cause that’s what you’ll be taught at first. That’s the core of what technology is. It’s being able to program and give machines instructions. That’s what it is!
Then you’ve got DevOps tooling, you’ve got scripting, you’ve got stuff in the cloud – you’ve got Docker containers, which is a whole other way of programming… The you’ve got serverless, which is smaller than Docker, but it doesn’t store any information, they’re ephemeral, they just disappear…
There’s a massive range of different technologies you can get into. I think having a look around, trying stuff, would be the best way to do it. When you start to study computer science, you’ll get a nice flavour of a lot of stuff. Not everything, ’cause it’s too broad, but… even that… when I was in college, Docker wasn’t even around, you know? So what you’ll work on probably hasn’t been invented yet!
So tech is really wide in scope, as you’ll know if you’ve read this piece. David is here to confirm it for you:
Sometimes people who end up in a career in tech are like: Am I just gonna be a programmer? If I don’t really love programming am I not gonna be a good fit for a technology career?
NO! Rubbish! Technology is huge!! If someone joins university tomorrow, and starts a degree, what they’ll have their career in probably hasn’t been invented yet. So when I was gonna be a Java programmer, because that’s what we kinda arrived from uni trained as, like… I could do it, it would just be harder for me than for other people who are just more in tune with that area of programming.
When I discovered DevOps and the tooling and, you know, getting stuff keeping stuff up, and the DevOps principles, the 5 ways, all these things really spoke to me. I was like: ‘YES!’ I love this area, this is gonna be me! And when I got an opportunity as a project manager to share those ways with other people and run teams, not just run my little bit, that REALLY spoke to me and I’m grateful for Genesys, my buddies here for giving me the chance, and… we’ll see. Check back with me in a couple of years and I’ll tell you how it’s been!
So no need to fret. Moreover, as a mature student, you have all good things on your side. You are (hopefully) way past the point where the mere presence of a professor / instructor gave you chills; instead, it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to connect with both your peers and the teaching staff on a whole new level. Ok, you might still feel a pinch before you sit your exams, but overall, it should be a rewarding experience.
Being able to study is very different in university than it is from what I remember of school… Because everything is so disjointed and distinct in school, nothing means anything – with any other subjects. It’s all a separate, isolated box, not inter-relatable. But when you get to university, you’re doing what YOU want, and all the bits in there are all related to what you want, and even if there’s something you don’t like so much, it’s probably related to something else and you can kinda see how it works, you can get through it…
Speaking of experience: the one thing that most transitioners find difficult is getting some experience under their belts. Going back to school, as David did, is likely to take up a significant chunk of your time. And as a mature student, chances are you also juggle a job and/ or a family, or other responsibilities. Still, there are plenty of things you can do to enrich your resumé with relevant experiences.
As I mentioned earlier on, David knew, by virtue of his previous positions, that he was a people person, and that he valued community and cooperation above all. So his take on gaining some experience and professional contacts was well aligned with his values and his personality while also feeding on his curiosity about the new field he was getting into:
I wanted to get a job so I wanted to know what all these companies do – what do they ACTUALLY do not just what their product is, at the end. How does it all work? I was quite curious about that. I went to the Careers place [at the university], and I said: ‘Hey, we want to have a career event for computer science, ’cause there isn’t one’. They said: ‘OK’. ‘So… can I be involved?’, and they said: ‘Sure’. ‘Can I run it?’ ‘OK’.
So we dreamed up this event called ‘Synapse’. We wanted to invite tech companies to the university. We decided that we wanted to have some talks, and maybe have some stands where students could go and approach these companies and talk to them a bit about what they actually do, not just… we didn’t want to speak to the HR people, we wanted to speak to the engineers that work there, because that’s what we wanted to know… we wanted to know about their daily work, what languages they used, what they got to play with, how they got stuff into production… In brief, how did it all work.
It was a massive success, so we held it again the next year, and we made it even bigger. We got Google to come down from Dublin, we had Microsoft, we had Salesforce and a lot of big players that came from all over the country this second year, ’cause now we had something we could say: ‘hey, we did this’ and we had photos taken and a video of the event, and we had some great speakers. So it worked really well!
He also got into organising developer groups, which helped him cement his new knowledge and expand his professional reach:
So, I started developers groups. We’ve a lot of new people coming in that weren’t born in Ireland but they’re learning to play their trade here, and they’ve got a family maybe so a community might be great for them, just to share some of their experience.
So I got to bring on some guys who it was maybe their first time delivering a talk, or maybe it wasn’t their first time delivering a talk, but it was their first time in English, so we ended up growing quite a sizeable community and we got a lot of notoriety from a lot of companies in Dublin; we had people from Google, we had people, like I said. from IBM… people from all over coming to deliver talks… and it turned out really well…
So yeah, starting those two communities, and being able to run them, and encouraging other people to run events was something I could then say: ‘Hey, this is what I’m really good at and here’s kind of the proof of the pudding, so to say’… I started these groups, and they’re still still going, even though I’m no longer there. They’re still run, they’re still holding talks, we have a couple of thousand members, we have maybe 40 people every month that arrive to do technical exercises, to get brought through different areas, we encourage people to go for certifications… so that was an area I could point to in my CV and say ‘I did that!’
The whole point of all this? As David puts it: ‘It’s hard to entrust somebody with responsibility if they haven’t shown that they can handle responsibility’. In other words, your best bet is to get active and get involved in things where you can prove what you’re made of. At first, these migth be school events (as was David’s case), but you can also attend hackathons, or volunteer with open source projects.
So what does David do, as a project manager?
First up, though, you might wonder what were the steps that landed David in his current position.
To get his first job, he crashed an internal company event (and didn’t even dress up for it!):
My first tech job was with Codec-Dss. I went to see their launch in a small hotel room in Galway. There was an article in the paper: ‘Galway company, doing Microsoft stack, having a launch’. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go to that!’.
They weren’t expecting public visitors, I just came in and was like ‘Can I sit down’, ‘Yeah sure!’… I wasn’t well dressed – I think I had on jeans and a T-shirt… I just wanted to see, I had an interest – college was finished, and I got speaking to Aaron Keane [one of the organisers] and he asked ‘What made you come here’. I said ‘Well, I’ve been working on this, I’ve been working in this area, I have skills of this set, you guys are doing this stuff and I wanted to see what you’re about’. And he said: ‘Do you to come on with us, and we’ll see what you can do?’. And I said yes, and I started the next week!
But Aaron Keane was my first mentor, and the way he approached business and people influenced me a lot in the way I would continue to march down that technical footpath; it’s nice to have a mental image of where you wanna be, or who you’re gonna be… And you can find comfort in that when you’re feeling a little bit lost, like ‘How do I deal with this situation?’, you know?
Fast forward a number of years, and he’s now a project manager with Genesys. In his – very few! – words:
I moved from developer to devops – which I love, then into project management – which I love even more!!!
More specifically, he works as a security and compliance project manager. As a rule, people in this role are responsible for monitoring, coordinating, and implementing policies, standards, procedures, controls, and guidelines to support security, compliance, and audit requirements. This sounds rather abstract, but he took a moment to ilustrate the value of his work by detailing some of his responsibilities – such as ensuring alignment with GDPR (securing data protection across all internal tools and teams), and making sure Genesys is fully accessible for use by persons with disabilities.
Join me on the next page to discover David’s tips for making the most of your going back to school and for succeeding in your transition into tech in general.