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Insights of a Software Developer

This post was contributed by Tony Harris, Managing Director at Terrabase Software Development



For many of those fortunate enough to do a job where it is possible, working from home has now become a way of life. For educators, where delivery has always been in person, this year has of course been unprecedented. Technological boundaries have been pushed forward and new ways of working established. For me, being in software development, an industry where geographic proximity is not so important, it has been possible to work from home for a few years now, before COVID was even a glint in a pangolin’s eye.


Helpfully, it has been a few years since we made the decision for our company staff to work from home too. Being keen, computer programming types, rigid office routines and times did not always suit, and everyone seemed to prefer homeworking. The more flexible hours are an advantage, especially as we do many of our application deployments and system upgrades overnight to avoid disruption to users. The most significant problem I suppose is the lack of physical social interaction, though we do try to encourage pair-programming and opportunities to meet in person. We have found using video conferencing/screen-sharing to work on projects together, as opposed to ‘having a meeting’, can be surprisingly natural, stress-free, and similar to working in person.


In terms of our day-to-day professional routine the pandemic had little negative initial impact. Actually, the demand for our services increased as organisations implemented online learning systems and needed solutions to problems they had previously solved face-to-face.

I trained as a school-teacher, but after a couple of years in teaching I had the opportunity to join the Royal Navy as a Training Management Officer. As it turned out, it didn’t really suit my situation; I was just getting married, so rather than spend the next 2 years at sea I decided to move to London with my fiancée and see what opportunities could be found there. I spent the next two years living above a supermarket in Penge, working as a supply teacher and home tutor, driving around from gig to gig on a 50cc scooter. I have taught in most of the secondary schools in South London and many of the colleges and primary schools. During this time I spent half a year teaching at Ingram High School for Boys which had been on special measures for two years and was subsequently transitioned, becoming Selhurst High School for Boys.


While I was supply-teaching I used to work on my own software project ideas and happened to have an off-hand conversation with a local business owner about these, and how as a child I would spend hours sat in front of my ZX Spectrum creating adventure games which morphed into studying Computer Science as part of my degree in Environment Science from Lancaster University. From this I was asked if I could write a payroll system for a local labour hire company with 300+ staff. Being in my twenties and enthusiastic for the opportunity I said I would be more than happy to write the system, it was the days of the Millennium Bug and they were worried their existing system was about to fall over. Over twenty years later the system I built was still in place being used day in and day out for millions of pounds of turnover. I remember that development with a particular fondness and still meet socially with the managers there.


Since then, I set up Terrabase and we have worked, firstly all over London, and subsequently around the country. The bulk of our effort now is in adult and community learning departments for local authorities like Islington Borough Council and Cheshire West and Chester Council, and university departments such as Academic English at Imperial College London. We host and develop virtual learning environments and develop bespoke web-based database solutions to provide reporting to managers and external bodies.



Common Ground

We have found the first challenge when developing a new software solution is to make sure both the customer and the developer understand each other and speak the same conceptual language, if that makes sense.


As we know, in teaching we need to find out where a student’s understanding is before we move on to the next stage of their learning, however, in software development we need to be on the same page as the customer who, at this stage, knows far more about what they need than we do. Once we fully appreciate the concepts and workflow, and have thrashed out a ‘green paper’ (a side or two of A4) describing the solution, we put together a design. This is where the common ground of understanding moves the other way and the customer has their own homework to fully appreciate the design we’ve put together. We provide as much help and time as we can, but this is still a part that requires focused effort from the customer to make sure they fully absorb the proposed solution. To do this we arrange regular weekly meetings and make sure we are always at the end of the phone/video conference to answer questions or talk through the concepts.


Development Wins

As with many projects, a software development solution can follow something like the 80:20 rule. This being that 80% of the results are yielded from 20% of the effort. It’s important to identify the big wins and make sure they are delivered first and in a way that avoids getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s easy to end up with too much focus on a difficult concept, a small detail, that doesn’t really get looked at very often but because it’s hard to understand, demands a lot of attention. Conversely some small details are important. It’s good to discern these things and gain value as quickly and easily as possible.


Communication Wins

Getting the job done properly within budget is really important to us. You know when you have a tradesman round, and they haven’t quite done things right but “it’ll do”, and you don’t really want to be an awkward customer, or the tradesman’s dismissive, and keen to move on to the next job, it can be kind of embarrassing to make sure the job is excellent and completed to your full satisfaction. We want to avoid this situation and make it easy for our customers to make sure everything is right, so we actively encourage them to tell us any annoyances or anything which is not quite how it needs to be and will thank them for letting us know.


Intuitive Interfacing

In this line of work you regularly come across organisations using old systems based on unsupported infrastructure. These systems are often stressful to use and full of unpatched security holes waiting for a passing hacker to exploit. They rely on security by obscurity, meaning nobody’s tried to crack them yet.


Sometimes organisations are trying to shoehorn in features the system was not designed for. I remember an old government phone reception system which was so slow and hard to use the staff had to scribble the information on post-it notes and stick them to the monitors rather than use the system. User interface design has moved on a lot and there are now decades of accrued wisdom into how to make systems quick, friendly and less taxing. Even a glance at a website like uxmovement.com or Apple’s Human User Interface Guidelines (developer.apple.com/design/human-interface-guidelines) will whet the appetite for UI possibilities. These innovations are backed by academic, psychological research and real-world evidence. Using a well-designed user interface is a subtle joy.

By implementing a successful bespoke software solution we see managers adding valuable new strings to their bows with transferrable skills which are marketable for the next stage of their career. We see them reform organisations, making them the go to person for how things work and for decisions on future changes. This puts them firmly in the driving seat, in the position of deciding who works on what and how everything should operate. Being the implementer of such a system also brings recognition and work satisfaction. This creative satisfaction is very much our driving force.


Finally...


Thanks for reading through to the end and I hope you have found the time useful. Do let me know if you have any comments on what I’ve written here, I would love to hear your experiences. It’s such a vast area brimming with possibilities.

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