Today’s speakers are, in order of appearance:
- Ryan – Trainer at Instil. Host and Editor in Chief for the WeekNotes podcast.
- Tara – Founder and CEO of Instil. AKA Tara the Bloke. Free swimmer and Eagle Number 1
- Emma – Graduate Software Engineer at Instil. CSI Graduate puts on shades and forklift driver
- Paula – Database Administrator at ?. Law Graduate puts on lawyer wig and tea drinker
[intro music plays in background] Ryan: Hi everyone. Happy New Year! Welcome to 2021. At last! I thought 2020 would never end. I’m Ryan Adams, and you are listening to WeekNotes by Instil. We had fun with the first series of episodes, so we’re back for our highly anticipated Season 2. Let’s hope we don’t end up cancelled like a niche sci-fi series on Netflix. This week we start 2021 in style with Tara Simpson, founder and CEO of Instil, and Paula McDevitt and Emma Nash, Graduate Software Engineers, on only their second week in the company. The onboarding process here at Instil is low pressure. Let’s get to it. [intro music fades out]
Ryan: It’s just a fun conversation that I happened to be recording. I hope everyone’s OK with that, and I haven’t pressed you. So I know Emma, Paula, you know, this is like your second week? Emma: [laugh] Tara: Yup, yup Ryan: And here you are on the podcast. I’m sorry. Paula: [chuckle] It’s fine
Ryan: I think actually because we’ve got Tara being the longest serving member of Instil, because you started the company, and Emma and Paula being the newest members of Instil - it would be interesting to get perspectives on Instil from both sides, or the tech industry from both sides - potentially. Question I guess that maybe Emma, Paula wanna to know is how did Instil start? And where are we going to? Tara: Instil started my bedroom. It actually started in my bedroom, when I was about 13 or 14. You know I was enjoying playing games and so on, and I had a little Spectrum. I actually bullied my Mum into giving me a Spectrum, and the great thing about the Spectrum was you could play games on it, you could download games from using old cassette tapes, but you can also program games in from magazines. And that’s how I started. I just started copying games in from magazines and they were always buggy. There was always just issues you know, or there was stuff missing from these old printed copies. And if you go into our office, you’ll see one of the magazines I had originally. And actually you’ll see a Spectrum framed as well, so that’s kind of what got me into the programming bug as such. It just kinda fired off my imagination about what I could do, and the worlds I could create, and things I could build in software and it just led me down into a degree, came back after university and joined a software firm in Belfast. And at that time in the early 90s, you could imagine software wasn’t a massive thing. It wasn’t what you see today, and in the economy it was - I was very lucky to get a job in a company did nothing, but just program all the time. And we were writing effectively compilers and I was surrounded by people who were just great! And people that I still know and work with today. They were just fantastic! And I had a brilliant environment in which to learn how to program the program, but program really well. Well, I stayed with that firm on and off for about 12 years, and then I shifted completely into the world of insurance. We went to this firm, where people were spending a lot more time actually working on requirements, dealing with the complexity of working with customers. Tara: You know our skills as engineers, as people who just did nothing but program, it became pretty obvious that we could really lead and bring the company forward on that front. I was lucky, I think in that that first job, it really set me up well for the second environment and I kind of prospered in there, and got to a certain position within the company, and stayed for about three years and then just – 37 years old. Just realized that if I don’t do something now about shifting onto building something myself, it probably wouldn’t happen. So I left. I didn’t really have a plan! I just knew I wanted to write more software, and also help people as well. And that’s why the company was called Instil. You know, instilling knowledge and instilling best practices and that sort of thing. And so it was just me initially. It was just me, myself and I. Back in my bedroom. Yeah, I was lucky to have a customer in the States, and also cause I had a good reputation among the diaspora of people I’ve worked with over the years. You know, I had different people coming to me, and I just got busy. And then after about three years, I took on my first employee. So the company has grown slowly to start with, because I’m an engineer. I’m an engineer, but that’s kind of core to what I am. And suddenly I’m having to run a business! That’s a very different set of skills and practices, and the company’s grown slowly start with, and then over the last few years we’re finding this multiplier effect coming through. You know because we’re doing - hopefully doing good things. People see we’re doing good things, and more people coming to us. We’re now starting to accelerate that growth, but yeah it all started in a bedroom, back when I was 14 with a little, little computer. Just got the bug.
Paula: Do you miss the engineering side of things? Now that you’re kinda you know, you’re more in the running in the business side. Do you miss like being on the ground and doing the programming? Tara: Yes, there’s something very singular about programming. It’s a team sport, but actually you know when you’re solving a problem, it’s just you against the problem and you want to crack this! You want to solve this! You want - and I do miss just that singular focus on that one thing. I’ll often say, sorta jokingly misquote Oscar Wilde: I think programming is wasted wasted on the young. Yeah, I think it’s when you’re doing it, you don’t realize what privilege it is, just to have - without any other distractions, you just there to create something, to build something and that’s wonderful. Whereas running a business, you’re, it’s – there’s a lot to it. There’s a lot. I’m not saying there’s not lots of programming. There is huge amount of knowledge and insight, and it’s a complex thing. But I think running a business brings a whole different set of skills. But I’d say, well, I’ve learnt over the last few years in particular, is that the thing that ties them together is discipline. You know discipline is the core of engineering and having good disciplines, and good tools, and good practices. And I would say running a business is very similar, just making sure you do things in very disciplined, ordered way.
Ryan: Uh huh. Cool, so Emma, Paula, do either of you have a Spectrum hiding in your cupboard? Paula: My brother had a Spectrum for - he got for Christmas back in the 80s. So I do remember that. I remember the games it opened up and the noise that it used to make, and I think it was the game - I think it was the only game he allowed me to play! - was the - it was like alien attack? I think. It was like you used to shot aliens from a space ship. But yeah I do - I had experience of the Spectrum. Yeah, it’s good to see how computing has evolved from then.
Ryan: So if the trigger for Tara getting into programming was getting the spectrum and copying programs off magazines, what was the trigger for you to get into programming? Paula: For me it was, I had studied law before this and the reason why I done that was because I wanted to like help people. Paula: But then with the study in law, I realized that yes, you might be there to help people after things kind of go wrong. And then I had met somebody who actually like work for Facebook, making algorithms to detect human trafficking through that. So that’s when I realized then that actually technology, you can help people, but there’s like a prevention there. You can make things that can prevent these things from happening in the first place. Rather than being there to solve it in the end. So that’s kind of what got my interest in technology. And then I tried to find a way into it, because I didn’t grow up studying it, like I don’t even think we had IT as like a GCSE subject when I was at school. So yeah, that’s what got me into it.
Emma: Mine was more of, a kind of, so I got my degree and went straight into university from school, and didn’t end up using my degree and decided to go traveling and ended up in different. I worked in executive assistant roles so got to go in, and when I was traveling, it give me an opportunity to go into different industries and kind of see things at quite a high level. I always enjoyed problem solving and kind of taking things apart and I always became like the defacto kinda tech-guru, even over probably the actual IT team. But I ended up working in a tech company in Toronto, and would be sitting in these meetings and realize that: One, there’s a lot of acronyms in tech. A lot of acronyms! So would be asking loads of like [laugh] questions: So what does that mean? And how do you do this? And you know, how did you end up getting into this? And you know, I would go home at night and play about on Code Academy. Was just like - just felt like this is what I want to do like. I just, I just love - I just loved it! I’d be playing about with things, so looked into moving back home and doing the conversion course at Queens. And yeah just like, it really just sealed the deal! For it just really made me realize how much I do enjoy it.
Ryan: So like that kind of problem solving thing is like the - a wee addiction? Emma: Yeah [soft laugh] Ryan: It kind of sucks you in, doesn’t it? Tara: Yeah, there’s that. There’s this idea of addiction. It’s almost like gambling or gaming or - games that are really well constructed have lots of little small rewards. Little games within games, and programming’s the same, you know, you’re always just going towards these little small goals and you get a big rush, cause you’ve pulled lots of things together and it becomes a bit of a bug. And you’ve gotta remind yourself to get – to pull yourself away from the computer. Cause you’re just, you know, just one more compile! Just one more run of this to get it working! You know it’s - it is a bug.
Paula: I always thought with programming like it would have been something that you would have had to have done you know, from very young. I didn’t, I never realized that it was something that you can pick up later in life. And as Emma and I both did like the MSc, so that was you know, just over a year course. Like I never thought in a year that you could get those skills. So it has been quite good, and you know there’s a lot of transferable skills. Like you have in the past as Emma said with her problem solving you know. It is, you can take that and use it in a different industry. Emma: I think going back to what Tara said is that coding - I’m really glad that I’ve had that experience, because now I think I can really appreciate coding. I think if I’d done it when I was younger and come straight outta university and went straight into it. I don’t think it have an appreciation for you know, how good it is and how you know just - Tara: I was helping my son last weekend with his English essay. I - this connection that I have between – that I feel is very strong between programming and actually English or any language, I guess. But Joe was working on his critique of Lord of the Flies, and he was struggling a little bit and one of the things he was struggling with was, it was critical thinking. You know, he was having to breakdown the question, and then create - think about what you’re going to say and then break it down into a series of chunks, into a series of paragraphs - decomposition essentially. And then focussing on each of those paragraphs in isolation. Just to solve the problem. Just to say what he needed to say and get his point across. And I just, I think that ability to take a problem and break it down is universal. It’s not just programming, you know. I think a lot of people in programming struggled to de-compose problems and break problems down. But it is one of the core skills that you’ve got. We just happen to call them paragraphs and sentences in English, but we call them functions or methods and classes and you know these are just structural things that we put in place so we can organize our thoughts. But there’s you know, there’s two things: one is being to break problems down into smaller chunks. And then when you get down to the smaller chunks, there’s lots of idiomatic stuff that you can do that you recognize. That you just – these little patterns that you can reuse to help solve those small chunks. And then it’s about – it’s a question of co-ordinating and bringing those things back together. And that’s a skill. That’s not a skill that’s unique to programming. Far from it! That a skill that’s universal across many different disciplines and skills.
Ryan: One thing I’ve anecdotally noticed about programmers, so there’s a sense that programmers tend to have a sense of entitlement. And I’m wondering actually whether it’s because we know that we’ve got that problem solving ability, or that decomposition skills, that we think I can solve that problem cause it’s easy. I can write code, so therefore I can solve world hunger or whatever. Tara: I seen that, but I wouldn’t mistake knowledge for ability. I’ve worked over the years where I’ve seen people with tremendous knowledge, who can really talk, but actually what they produce is awful. You know, but they can talk in the meetings, they can – in fact in many ways, they know more about some of the stuff than you do from a very superficial level. But it’s the detail and what you leave behind, the artifacts that you create through programming are really for me what do you judge people by. You know we don’t create code for ourselves. We create code because it’s for the compiler. It’s for other people to see, and those are the skills that I value the most, not the person who’s got the biggest voice and the most knowledge in the room. But yeah, I don’t see it in our organization [laugh] Ryan: [soft laugh] Tara: But I have seen it in the past, in other organizations certainly.
Tara: Well, I think there’s something - so much debate about the “hero programmer” versus the team player. You know, it’s something that’s been debated a lot within industry these days. And you know even Garth had a blog post recently about 10X Developer around this and there’s, there are lots of myths, and there are some people out there who can produce brilliant code or brilliant content, or brilliant writing whatever at a much better pace than other people. And they bring lots and lots of skills together. There’s no doubt those people exist and they are amazing! And they’re amazing to work with and you can learn off them, but the best people you - they give you their time. They help mentor you, they help bring you along as well and help you get to that place as well. I think that’s, there’s that team side that I think is exceptionally important, and something we clearly focus on very heavily inside the company. Ryan: So that actually brings me onto the question that I have really for Emma and Paula is how’s it been joining a team, when you can’t sit in the same room as your team? How has that worked? Can’t imagine it’s a lot of fun sitting in your kitchen or your bedroom, meeting new people for the first time. Paula: I mean it’s been OK. I mean like with Covid, I think everybody’s just trying their best. So you just, you know you just have to kind of go with it. It’s - I definitely would be somebody that would like to work in the office, cause I am quite social and I do like you know, that human interaction, but it’s been OK and I think that with technology now it like, it is good that you can you know, have conversations like this via Zoom. Like had this happened, you know even 10, 15, 20 years ago. Like I don’t know how the working from home thing would have would have came together. Emma: I think for me and yeah I know that I’m quite an introvert. I like my own company, but this has made me really realize that I do miss being around people. I do get something from being, you know, that kind of way. It definitely whenever you’re first meeting people as well, I think that kind of interaction and cause there’s so much more than just words that you know, that you read from people like their subtle kind of body - that you know, it’s just you get a real feel for someone, and you can kind of build up those kind of relationships, and obviously you can do it remotely as well. But it would just be lovely to actually to have met people in person, and then have gone to this medium rather than the other way around. Although I guess you’re almost kind of getting to meet people again for a second time, right? If you’re kinda but yeah, it’s been fine, like you know. Like Paula said everyone’s just doing their best and just kind of doing what they can to get through this, you know.
Tara: Yes, certainly, just so I just – to answer that I think we talked about this today in the chat as well. I’ve been asking around other companies and seeing how other leaders and developers and engineers are coping with this as well. And umm, this doesn’t help, right? But in a way, it does. Just knowing that everyone else is feeling equally up and down about this. And just know that it - I’m not the only one – Paula: [agreeing hmm] Tara: - that’s suffering from these peaks and troughs, and umm [laugh] in a strange sorta way, it kind of helps knowing everyone else is feeling equally up and down about things.
Emma: I think if that’s one thing that can come out of Covid was - is the fact that people are a lot more open about their mental health and how they’re feeling. I think there’s a real tendency to think everybody else has it all nailed down and knows what they’re doing and completely. And I think people just you know, have been a lot more open about the fact that I’m having a really bad day, or you know I’m struggling with, is anybody else struggling? It just makes you feel like OK, it’s not just me then. It’s like, you know. Ryan: Yeah, yeah, that is good. I think the challenge that we’re going to have is how do we help people through that? Someone: [agreeing hmm]
Ryan: OK. [pondering hmm] Let’s wrap this up one more question. So Emma said if you had to give one piece of advice to someone starting in the industry, what would it be? Tara: I would say - I’m talking to programmers here. Not to you know data scientists or AI people or anything, but I would say as a programmer: really, really focus on your core disciplines. Tara: Focus on those simple things. Something I talk about again quite a lot, but it’s kind of like asking a chef to cook an omelette. You know, if a chef can do the really basic things. Make the basic sauces, cook eggs, do those things. Everything’s built on top of those basic practices, and programming is exactly the same. So learn how to structure your codes. Learn how to communicate through your code. Learn how to test your code. You know learn how to create clean code. Learn how to use your tools really effectively, and I think personally everything is built on top of that. The really simple things. Nail them down. It’ll take time. In fact, it’s something you never stop doing if you’re – it’s your sensibilities around code and around how you structure and build code will always be evolving. Like maybe your writing is always evolving and changing as well, so will your code. But those around you will help you as well, they’ll help you get there through the mentoring and through reviews and so on. But I would say just really nail down on those basics and then everything else will come. So if you need to know about AWS, or need to know about Spring in detail. That’s just knowledge, right? But all the other stuff you’re doing is putting stuff down for real, and I think that’s where those basic building blocks really, really are important.
Ryan: My answer – I’ve thought of one! – is – Tara: [chuckle] Ryan: And actually, it’s potentially almost the opposite. So one of the pieces of advice that I gave developers in the past that actually I think is valuable is: to aim for a broad experience. So you’re right, Tara, that you need to focus on the detail, the foundational principles. But it’ll make you a better programmer, if you have a diverse experience. Where you get to experience what other people do so. If you’ve got an opportunity as a programmer to spend some time as a business analyst, or as a product manager, or as a project manager to kind of observe those people or even to do their jobs. Then you’ve got a better understanding of how the sausage is made in this factory, and so that, I think makes you a better programmer. Because you’ve got the ability to look at other people and kind of understand what their perspective is, and then you could bring that and apply that to your experience
Tara: Yeah, I remember once years ago, let’s just and I think it’s tied to that point. Once, years ago - oh goodness! - in the 90s. We were – our software was actually ermm built on a third- party database. Umm, not an Oracle database. This is actually a database, that had been written by another company. We assumed control of the source code for this. Um, problem was that it didn’t really work. And I sent off to Germany to a logistic centre, where they were essentially distributing the hamburgers, or the burger - the baps for McDonald’s all round Europe. And the software that was used to manage those logistics was actually built on top of our emulation software, which is built on top of this really flaky database. They just couldn’t get to the lorries out. Nothing was moving, cause the software just kept crashing. The whole system just kept crashing from the top down! This is in the days when everything was written in C and C++, and debugging was a real nightmare. Particularly when you had three or four users. You know it not like these VM languages today, which are really helpful around providing information about the stack and where it is in the call flow and everything. That stuff was just really hard to do. Like really hard to do. Particularly on a live system, where we’ve got 30 people all looking at you, as a 20 something year-old, trying to fix the system and going: Why is this not working?! And I remember going back to the hotel room, after 2 days of very little sleep. And I’m fairly resilient and fairly you know, I can keep myself together pretty well. I actually got to the point where I was so tired, so exhausted, there were so many people looking at me. I was hit - I remember for about 5 minutes hitting my head against the wall. Tara: I was so stressed and just so, so out of it. And I swore to myself at that point: I will never let this happen to me again. And I will never write software, or let software that I am responsible for get me to that point, where people are literally screaming at you because they can’t get their lorries out from – and these lorries were stacking up! Now thankfully we got it fixed, but that exposure to the customer - that exposure to what your software can do or not do. It’s not something I wish other people to go through, but it was really, really – it kind of - I think in a way, cemented my own beliefs about the importance of doing things really, really, properly. And yeah, the quality of code really matters. You just - you don’t just throw stuff together, throw it out and hope it’s going to work. Cause it will come back and bite you. So yeah, I think having that exposure to not just writing software, but actually seeing the user, speaking to the customers and getting that feedback. Hopefully not in a logistic centre in the middle of Germany! And you gotta remember this is the 90s, right. So there were no mobile phones, there was just about a dial-up connection. That was it. Made that sort of wizzy sound you used to get the old Spectrum as well. You know and everything was [dial-up tone impression] for. So it was a really, really sort of tricky environment to work in, so I know things have changed, but yeah. It did. It definitely taught me a thing or two.
Ryan: Paula? Emma? Any tips? Paula: [loud exhale] At the moment, no. I’m trying to take out all the tips from people at the moment. Emma: I’m just taking it all in as well. I’m just you know, any advice and any kind of - Tara: We’re flying you out to Germany next week! [laugh] Emma: To deal with the burger buns? [wheezy laugh] Tara: Yes! Paula + Emma + Tara: [chuckle]
Thanks to Amy for producing these.