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Career pathways into tech #3: lead software developer

Amaal Ali

Lead software developer Amaal Ali has transitioned from a planned career in mathematics to one in software development. He offers advice for those looking to move into the industry – and shares his typical day.

How did you start your career in tech?

“I didn’t start in technology – I was a teacher in Trinidad where I’m from and was also studying a masters degree in maths at the University of the West Indies, which I was doing in the evenings. The masters had a bit of programming involved and I got hooked. I decided to take the jump across to tech. My wife and I moved to the UK when she started a PhD at Newcastle University and I attended a bootcamp to study coding. That’s how I got into it.”

What were the transferrable skills from being a teacher?

“I come from a STEM background and these subjects are all about problem solving, which of course is what tech is fundamentally about. Technology has got to the point where it’s very high-level, and it allows a vast array of people to get into the field and solve different problems. It’s about bringing value by solving problems.”

Was there a reason why you didn’t conclude earlier that technology was for you?

“It was a field that I was always interested in – I had a cousin who was into tech, and I thought he was pretty cool. I did maths, which wasn’t so cool! But I was also intimidated by tech. One of the things I always assumed was that as a techie you needed to understand how machines and computers work. It turns out that isn’t the case. It’s a lot more about solving business problems. I didn’t come into it initially because I was interested more in science, but I also thought that there was higher barrier to the field than there is.”

Do you think we can get more people interested in these roles at an earlier age?

“I think so. Technology and computers have come a long way – and when I say ‘computers’ I mean programming languages, frameworks and tooling. It’s much easier now, so we need to bust that myth that there’s a big barrier. The reality is it’s becoming easier and easier.”

You’re a lead software developer, but what other roles are there in the same area and what sort of progression routes are there?

“Thankfully, once you’re a software developer it doesn’t mean you’re pigeon-holed into the role for the rest of your career. There are a lot of roads leading outwards. For instance, you can become a technical business analyst (BA) or a software architect – that’s a role where you care about how things plug together and solve problems at a higher level.”

What advice would you give to people who are at the start of their careers?

“The main advice would be that there’s a lot of space in this field. There are a lot of opportunities, so find the thing that you really like. If you’re a visual person, front-end development could be an area to consider. Play around with HTML, CSS, JavaScript and give that a go. If you like data or statistics, you may want to consider data science, or data engineering. We have colleagues at Opencast who are software developers, but who lean towards the data side of things. So you can still be a software developer, but with a leaning towards data. Some people will always prefer working on code. Figure out what you like and there are opportunities in that field.”

Day in the life

“Days vary depending on whether work is calm or chaotic! Some days are much faster paced, and on days like this we might be gearing up for a go-live event or there may be a live incident with one of the team’s services.

“At the moment I’m working remotely. I log on about 9am and sign in to Slack. I’ll spend a few moments checking messages for alerts I need to be aware of. If there are issues, I’ll follow them up.

“If everything is OK, I’ll start working on what I was looking at the previous day, then if I’ve cleared my workload the previous day, I’ll open up Jira and pick up a new task.

“I’ll answer any calls or requests, then at 10 o’clock we’ll have a short team meeting to see where we’re up to with tasks and workload. After that I’ll check to see if any members of my team have any problems or issues and help them if they do.

“We have fortnightly morning team meetings, where we’ll go through what we’ve been doing, assessing how things went and agreeing how we can improve. We also have regular demo meetings with stakeholders.”

“From about 11am I’ll carry on programming, most likely working with someone I’m paired with.

“After a lunch break, I’ll attend community meetings I’m needed at, then check on Slack for any further messages. I’ll regularly check in with my team and will continue until we finish at about 5pm.”

“In the evenings and spare time I’m into Anime. I grew up in the Naruto generation and that’s hooked me into that world. At the moment I’m enjoying Haikyu!”

Lead software developer links


The Phoenix Project

Julia Evans blog

InfoQ software development news

Amaal was talking at Opencast’s recent ‘Exploring career pathways into tech’ webinar, as part of its OpenForum initiative. Watch our YouTubes from the session here.

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