1 Rebooting your future

The first part of this book is about designing your future. So before we get started, we need to reboot and tackle a fundamental design issue. Why the hell would you want to bother reading this guidebook when you have so many other things to do right now? So:

  • ✅ You are a busy person, YES!
  • ✅ Your time is a precious and finite resource, YES!
  • ✅ You could be spending that precious time right now in lots of other ways, YES!
  • ✅ There are mountains of self-help guides and courses already, YES!
  • ✅ Do you really need yet another guidebook? YES!

You should read this guidebook because it is different to all the other guidebooks! It will help you design, test, build, debug and code your future in computing.

Before you start coding, we need to reboot. Come with me down the rabbit hole in figure 1.1 and let me explain… 🐇

Shall we go down the rabbit hole? Rabbit Hole learning by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 1.1: Shall we go down the rabbit hole? Rabbit Hole learning by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

1.1 What you will learn

After reading this chapter you will be able to:

  • Reboot your future by
    • Setting your expectations for using this guidebook, and open some doors to your future
    • Travelling down the rabbit hole into the underworld of employment
    • Discuss some of the gaps and differences that exist between education and employment and how you can bridge them

1.2 Let’s go down the rabbit hole

In the novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Caroll 1865), the protagonist Alice follows a white rabbit down a hole. What she discovers is a strange underground world populated by weird and wonderful characters. The world of work can sometimes be a mysterious underworld where you adventure in wonderland accompanied by colourful characters.

You will spend lots of time in this wonderland, potentially as much as 80,000 hours of your life. (Investor 2019, 2020) So join me down the rabbit hole, it’s fun (honest), and sooner or later you’ll have to come down here anyway. So open up the door to the new possibilities in your future.

1.3 Opening your future

Studying at University opens new doors to your future, some of which will take you down rabbit holes. As the poet Lemn Sissay puts it (figure 1.2):

Open all doors, open all senses, open all defences, ask: What were these closed for? From Inspire and be Inspired by Lemn Sissay whose poetry is even better when you hear it, rather than just read it youtu.be/WzZs1w3NWzg. (Sissay 2015) Portrait of Sissay speaking in 2010 by Philosophy Football via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3VYT adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 1.2: Open all doors, open all senses, open all defences, ask: What were these closed for? From Inspire and be Inspired by Lemn Sissay whose poetry is even better when you hear it, rather than just read it youtu.be/WzZs1w3NWzg. (Sissay 2015) Portrait of Sissay speaking in 2010 by Philosophy Football via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3VYT adapted using the Wikipedia app

1.4 Maximising your future

As well as opening your future, studying at University is about investing in your future. You’re spending lots of your time and money at University. Hopefully, you’ve picked a subject that stimulates and challenges you intellectually while allowing you to find and develop your unique talents. But there’s another reason that you probably chose to study at University and that was to improve your job prospects. This guidebook will:

  1. Help you maximise the return on the substantial investment of time and money (ROI) you’ve put into your study
  2. Give you an overview of important professional issues that are sometimes neglected or sidelined in University curricula
  3. Highlight and review essential resources beyond this guidebook that will help with the above

All of the resources that can help you are scattered around in lots of different places. There are books, there are videos, there are podcasts, there are websites and jobs boards. There are online courses, blogs, social media, newspaper columns, journal articles, marketing material and many other good resources. It is overwhelming.

1.5 Your future is your responsibility

When Andy Stanford-Clark started working at IBM, fresh out of University, his boss gave him the career advice shown in figure 1.3:

Nobody cares about your career except you. Quote via Andy Stanford-Clark (Stanford-Clark 2019) to an unattributed IBM boss. Image of Andy by Gizmo~enwiki via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3TSn adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 1.3: Nobody cares about your career except you. Quote via Andy Stanford-Clark (Stanford-Clark 2019) to an unattributed IBM boss. Image of Andy by Gizmo~enwiki via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3TSn adapted using the Wikipedia app

Andy is now Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and IBM Master inventor in the UK so it was probably good advice. Another, slightly more positive way of putting the advice is, the person who cares most about your career is you. So while there are people who can help design and build your future, ultimately it is YOU who has to take responsibility for the implementation (if you like, the code). The sooner you get coding the better.

At University, there are lots of people can help design and build your future: peers, friends, academic staff, your careers service, employers and your wider social and professional networks but ultimately it is your responsibility to sort out whatever comes next. That might sound obvious but don’t wait for somebody else to do it for you, because it probably won’t happen.

1.6 Your degree is not enough

You have worked hard to get the grades you needed to get into University. You’ve spent (or are spending) a significant amount of time and money studying your chosen discipline. You are really geeking out by going deep into your subject for a substantial period of time. Geekery, by which I mean being interested in a subject for its own sake, is a good thing. Earning the title geek is a compliment, not an insult, and you should wear your geek badge with pride! Some people even say the geeks will inherit the earth, see figure 1.4. You are a geek, so where is your inheritance?

Blessed are the meek geeks, for they shall inherit the earth. (Anon 1611; Robbins 2012) You are a geek, so where is your inheritance? Image of stained glass window by Norbert Schnitzler via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/43LN adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 1.4: Blessed are the meek geeks, for they shall inherit the earth. (Anon 1611; Robbins 2012) You are a geek, so where is your inheritance? Image of stained glass window by Norbert Schnitzler via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/43LN adapted using the Wikipedia app

As a studious geek you might be tempted to believe that the world owes you something in return for all your geekiness. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

At some point during or after your study, you might find yourself applying for a graduate job or graduate scheme. EVERYONE applying for these opportunities will have a degree or be rapidly on their way to getting one. So having a degree isn’t going to set you apart much from your competition. Even having a first class degree may not distinguish you that much your competitors (Coughlan 2019a; Borrett 2019). Some employers would rather not know (or don’t care) what University you went to, so your education might not make you stand out as much as you might like anyway. (Agnew 2016; Garner 2015)

What will distinguish you from your competitors will be your experience (see chapter 5), your projects (see section 7.6.4), your communication skills (see chapter 4) and any awards or honours you might have picked up along the way. If you think that your degree will be enough to get you the job you want, bear in mind that:

  1. There are more and more graduates, the UK for example recently passed the milestone of 50% of young people going into higher education. This compares to just 15% of over 18s who stayed in higher education in 1980 (Coughlan 2019b)
  2. The increase in the number of graduate schemes and graduate jobs has not kept pace with this growth in graduates which means that each graduate job or graduate scheme has more and more graduates applying for it
  3. There are lots of graduates in your discipline. In the UK, for example, around 9,000 students graduate every year in Computer Science. If you’re studying in the UK, what makes you different from the other 8,999 computer scientists graduating in your year?
Percentage of young people in the UK going into higher education between 1980 and 2018. Over the last forty years, the proportion of young people going into higher education has more than doubled from 15% in 1980 to over 50% in 2018. Data taken from BBC news article on the symbolic target of 50% at university reached (Coughlan 2019b)

Figure 1.5: Percentage of young people in the UK going into higher education between 1980 and 2018. Over the last forty years, the proportion of young people going into higher education has more than doubled from 15% in 1980 to over 50% in 2018. Data taken from BBC news article on the symbolic target of 50% at university reached (Coughlan 2019b)

Computing is one of the largest subject areas in UK higher education, and is taught in almost every institution, graduating around 9,000 students every year –Sally Fincher (Fincher and Finlay 2016)

Now, don’t be disillusioned by the statistics because a degree can open doors to many careers in computing. What the data in Figure 1.5 show is that you’ll need to look beyond your formal education to distinguish yourself from your competition. Your degree can certainly help you start a career, and computer geekery is a commercially valuable skill but it is typically not enough by itself.

1.7 It’s too late when you graduate

You might be tempted to postpone making difficult career decisions. I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll do it next week. I’ll do it next year. I’ll finish this assignment. I’ll finish this exam. I’ll finish this semester. I’ll finish my degree first, see figure 1.6. Procrastination is a part of the human condition. Software engineer Paul Graham calls this good and bad procrastination (Graham 2005).

Procrastination: the attitude of “I’ll get my degree out of the way first then worry about jobs and careers when I finish University” is bad procrastination. It’s too late when you graduate to start thinking about what might come next (Graham 2005) Stresssed procrastinator picture by MismibaTinasheMadando on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3TXo

Figure 1.6: Procrastination: the attitude of “I’ll get my degree out of the way first then worry about jobs and careers when I finish University” is bad procrastination. It’s too late when you graduate to start thinking about what might come next (Graham 2005) Stresssed procrastinator picture by MismibaTinasheMadando on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3TXo

Postponing decisions about your career is usually bad procrastination. It probably doesn’t help that many of issues described and discussed in this book are typically not closely integrated into the curriculum in Higher Education. You’ll often find them on the edges, or completely outside of, standard University curricula.

Despite being sidelined, these issues matter and it is in your own self interests to start thinking about them right now. According to recent estimates by Investors in People, the average person spends 80,000 hours working during their lifetime. (Investor 2020) So, whatever you end up doing after University, you’ll be spending a lot of time doing it. Difficult decisions often get sidelined but it is never too early to start thinking about them and doing something.

If you want to work for a big name like those in section 5.3.1 or 8.2.1, many of the larger graduate employers expect you to have some experience (see chapter 5) before you graduate. A large chunk of vacancies on graduate schemes are filled people who have already been employed as interns or placement students within that (or another) organisation. So the sooner you start investigating employers by getting some experience the better decisions you’ll be able to make about what comes next. It’s (usually) too late when you graduate.

That doesn’t mean you have to know EXACTLY what you want to do when you finish. Lots of students don’t and I certainly didn’t when I graduated. I’d done a gap year teaching in India, two summer internships (in Sweden and the United States) and a year-in-industry in the UK and I still graduated with no clue as to what I wanted to do next! The important thing is that you make a start, and sometimes knowing what you don’t want to do is just as valuable as knowing what you want to do.

Computer scientists call this problem “search space reduction,” (Ferrari, Marin-Jimenez, and Zisserman 2008) because you have a feasible region of future possibilities and you need to narrow down the candidates. You could think of coding your future as an optimisation problem. Start optimising now because it’s too late when you graduate. 🎓

1.8 Yes, this WILL be on the exam

Students love to ask their teachers “will this be on the exam?” The short answer is YES (and NO)! Yes, this will be on the exam, but NO the exam won’t be set by your University. Unlike other courses you’ve done, the examinations for this course aren’t set by your University but by employers. Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of examinations that you’ll need to get good at, shown in Table 1.1

Table 1.1: Examining your future: The “exams” used by employers, what gets assessed and the grades you can get. For written “exams” see chapters 4 and 7, for speaking “exams” see chapter 10 and for your employee “exams” see chapter 11.
Examination What examiners are assessing Grade
CV, application form covering letter
  • Should we invite you to interview ?
  • Can you communicate well in writing?
  • What experience do you have?
pass/fail
Interview
  • Should we offer you a job?
  • Can you communicate well verbally?
  • Can you communicate well nonverbally?
pass/fail
Employee performance
  • Should we promote you?
  • Should we give you a pay rise?
  • Should we extend your contract?
pass/fail

So, yes, this will be on the exam, but no, the exams are obviously not set, administered, invigilated and marked by academics at your University. The exams are set by employers and the results are brutally binary:

  • PASS: you’ve got the interview, job or promotion or…
  • FAIL: none of the above. Next!

One of the challenging things about employers exams are, they typically do not have the bandwidth to give applicants useful feedback, other than a simple pass or fail. When it comes to job applications software engineer Gayle Laakmann McDowell calls this the “black hole.” The gravitational force of employers black holes is so strong that no CV or Résumé can escape, we’ll say more about this in chapter 7 on debugging your future.

So no this will not be on the exam set by University, but yes it will be on the exams set by employers. Some of the most important exams you sit at (and after) University are set by employers. This guidebook will help you prepare for those exams and increase your chances of passing them. Gimme some credit figure by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 1.7: So no this will not be on the exam set by University, but yes it will be on the exams set by employers. Some of the most important exams you sit at (and after) University are set by employers. This guidebook will help you prepare for those exams and increase your chances of passing them. Gimme some credit figure by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

It’s a similar story with interviews, if you fluffed and interview question or came across badly, it can be really difficult to find out from the employer what you did wrong.

1.9 Practicing your future

There are practical exercises, for you to get your hands dirty with. Each chapter incorporates activities including individual exercises, group exercises, quizzes and points for wider discussion. You’ll get a lot more out of this guidebook by doing the activities, rather than just reading it.

1.10 Navigating your future

There are lots of resources out there that offer self-help, career advice and techniques for self-improvement. It can be hard to know where to start, or even how to find your way around the mountains of advice.

There are tonnes of resources out there offering advice on a huge range of professional issues. You can’t read them all, but this guide aims to help you navigate the resources that will be most use to you

Figure 1.8: There are tonnes of resources out there offering advice on a huge range of professional issues. You can’t read them all, but this guide aims to help you navigate the resources that will be most use to you

Lots of professional advice is readily available, but how will you navigate it? This book signposts you to what I think are the most important resources, each chapter has a signposts section, and they are all gathered together in the signpost at the end alongside everything (yes, EVERYTHING!) that this guidebook cites in the references, chapter 20.

1.11 Crediting your future

Get credit for your contributions. As well as being openly accessible on the web, this book is open source too. What this means is, you can contribute in several ways described in section 0.7. All the written content for this guidebook is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND, see the license in section 0.10.1.

1.12 Your future is different

I wrote this guidebook because I needed a resource for students to help them design, build, test, hack and debug their futures. I needed a book that could help students compete for jobs while at University, or shortly after graduating. I could not find anything suitable that met all the requirements of the students I was teaching. So I wrote this one which contains some new material and recommends the best resources if you want to know more. These are found in the signposts sections of each chapter.

This book aims to combine these perspectives and to be different from existing resources in the following ways:

1.12.1 Your future is signposted

Some career resources claim (or imply) that they are the all you will need to solve a particular problem or worse: solve all of your problems! Just buy this book, do this course, watch this video, listen to this podcast and all your problems will go away! Rather than continue this trend, this book signposts some of the most useful resources, see figure 1.9.

Wondering which way to go at the traffic sign? I’ve signposted the resources that will help you navigate the start of your professional journey. Which route will you take? Picture of a signpost in the Åland Islands, Finland by Sal via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xop adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 1.9: Wondering which way to go at the traffic sign? I’ve signposted the resources that will help you navigate the start of your professional journey. Which route will you take? Picture of a signpost in the Åland Islands, Finland by Sal via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xop adapted using the Wikipedia app

Scientists call signposting citation, so I’ve signposted and cited sources in this guidebook so that you can :

  1. Follow them if the destinations are interesting or useful
  2. Check and verify any facts and claims I make in this book for yourself

While this guidebook cites lots of resources, some of them are more important than others. Each chapter summarises these in a signposts section. You’ll find everything else in the references, chapter 20. University and public libraries may also have physical and electronic copies of some of the books listed here.

We’re not suggesting that you read all these books right now, but that if a particular chapter has piqued your interest, these signposts are good places to keep going, if you haven’t already read them. I hope you’ll find these signposts handy for navigating the mountains of advice. Not all who wander are lost. 🗺️🧭

1.12.2 Your future is guided

This guidebook to your future accompanies a course that has been co-designed by students for students, with input from academics and employers. It unites several disparate themes into one coherent story, from fundamental questions about identity and wellbeing through to more applied and practical advice on job hunting, career progression and life after University. Resources that do this are typically scattered around in many different places. There is usually no narrative to tie them all together to help students navigate the mountains of advice as embark on the first stages of their careers.

Although this is a course guidebook used in the second year undergraduate teaching, you don’t need to be enrolled on the course to benefit from reading it, watching the videos and doing the exercises and coding challenges.

1.12.3 Your future is constantly updated

You are reading the alpha version, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) of this guidebook, last updated on 19 October, 2021. That’s software engineer talk for saying it isn’t finished yet. Subsequent versions, will be continuously and iteratively released on a daily and weekly basis. They will include:

  • More quizzes for better interactivity
  • More videos on the Coding your Future YouTube channel
  • Audio interviews with Students in the Coding your Future podcast in chapter 17
  • More illustrations throughout the book
  • Improved content, finish incomplete chapters
  • Fix bugs and typos
  • Your suggestions for improvements and corrections, via github etc see section 0.7

I’m taking a release early, release often (Raymond 1999) approach to publishing this guidebook, you could call it agile book development, see figure 1.10 (Schuh 2004)

Agile software developers make it up as they go along, whereas waterfalling software developers make it all up at the beginning and then live with the consequences. It’s the same with natural language engineering (books). I’m making it up as I go along, using agile book development methods. Women who code image by Justice Okai Allotey via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xnk adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 1.10: Agile software developers make it up as they go along, whereas waterfalling software developers make it all up at the beginning and then live with the consequences. It’s the same with natural language engineering (books). I’m making it up as I go along, using agile book development methods. Women who code image by Justice Okai Allotey via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xnk adapted using the Wikipedia app

1.12.4 Your future is personal

A lot of scientific and technical writing is written in the third person or passive voice, which is fine for academic writing, but can alienate readers. I have opted to use first person narrative where possible as it is shorter, and hopefully more engaging for you to read. (Poundstone 2013) Where relevant, I’ve told personal stories to illustrate key points.

1.12.5 Your future has no paywall

You don’t need to pay anything to read this book online because its not hiding behind a paywall, see section 0.10.1. Publishing this guidebook online makes it findable and accessible, something that isn’t true of knowledge locked up inside other books.

Because this guidebook is online, it is searchable, browsable and linkable. You can link to whatever level you like, top level, chapter level and to every section and subsection level. Everything important has a Uniform Resource Locator (URL).

1.12.6 Your future has no login

You don’t need to login to anything to use this guidebook either. Hurrah! One less password to remember.

1.12.7 Your future has audio & video

This book is not just words and pictures, but includes audio and video as well, especially:

  1. videos produced by third parties that are worth watching
  2. audio produced by third parties that are worth listening to, either individual episodes or whole series
  3. short videos produced by me, which augment the written content of this book, see the Coding your Future YouTube channel
  4. the coding your future podcast which interviews undergraduate students

1.13 Engaging with your future

I’ve tried to make the content of this book as engaging as possible by including pictures and conversations. Your future is deliberately playful and light-hearted. If you think this guidebook can be improved, let me know via the mechanisms described in section 0.7. I always welcome constructive feedback, especially when it comes via a pull request. Engage, see figure 1.11.

This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Engage! Fair use image of actor Patrick Stewart performing in Star Trek adapted using the Wikipedia app. Make it so.

Figure 1.11: This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Engage! Fair use image of actor Patrick Stewart performing in Star Trek adapted using the Wikipedia app. Make it so.

1.14 Signposting your future

Each chapter in this book has a signposts section, highlighting key reading, watching or listening you could do next. This chapter has addressed the question of why should you bother coding your future? The answer is that your future is your responsibility and no-one elses. There are lots of people can help shape your future, but none more than yourself. Software engineer Robert C. Martin argues this point in his book The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers. (Martin 2011)

What’s good about The Clean Coder is that it is short (only 200 pages), well written and to the point. The main part of the book covers professional issues in software engineering, some of which I discuss further in chapter 11, surviving your future.

1.15 Summarising your future

If all that was too long, didn’t read (TL;DR) for you, then you’ll be relieved to hear that each chapter has a TL;DR (executive) summary.

There’s always more stuff you should be reading. If this guidebook is a bit Too Long, Didn’t Read (TL;DR) then each chapter has a brief summary at the end. Public domain picture of ancient greek muse reading a scroll that’s probably too long via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xoh adapted using the Wikipedia app 🇬🇷

Figure 1.12: There’s always more stuff you should be reading. If this guidebook is a bit Too Long, Didn’t Read (TL;DR) then each chapter has a brief summary at the end. Public domain picture of ancient greek muse reading a scroll that’s probably too long via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Xoh adapted using the Wikipedia app 🇬🇷

The TL;DR for this chapter is, you should read this guidebook because it is different to all the other guidebooks. It will help you take responsibility for maximising your future. No-one else is going to do this for you. Your degree will help open up future options, but it is not enough by itself so you’ll need to maximise the return on your investment. Don’t procrastinate because it’s too late when you graduate and YES this will be on the exam (set by future employers). This guidebook has signposts to help you navigate, design, build, test, debug and code your future in computing.

It looks like the reboot has finished, so we’re ready to go. In the next chapter, you will reflect on who you are. What’s your story, coding glory?