Getting into tech the hard way
5 min read
Just when the fuck were you going to stop!
The driver, a portly 50-something, now very red in the face, screamed at me as he ran alongside the locomotive, his oily blue British Rail jacket flapping desperately as he tried to get a grip on the handrails. He finally heaved himself into the cab and with a few more well enunciated f-words, took over the driving of our very heavy, very long freight train that was very slowly trickling out of the goods yard, towards the main line. Pointing out that it was him that had hopped-off to check something and left me alone at the controls, didn't seem to help matters.
This event was among my early days as a Traction Trainee or 'second man' on diesel locos, hauling steel, logs, dodgy chemicals and many other things, along rusty railway lines in the North East of England. Some of my drivers were old enough to have started as 'firemen', shoveling coal in the last days of steam. My much easier route to becoming a Train Driver was just two years long, although, had I made it to the main line that day, I suspect I would be telling a different story.
I fell in to the job on the railway shortly after (prematurely) falling out of an Engineering degree. I remember the interview at Newcastle Central Station, not knowing exactly what a 'Traction Trainee' was and had to stop myself blurting out 'Oh, you mean I'll be driving trains?!'. But after a spirited attempt at explaining the four stroke cycle, I got the job.
So, no plan, no direction, no tech in my life or thoughts, not even much of a latent desire to code. I'd done a little programming as part of my Engineering course but then I didn't really want to be studying at all, to be honest. I just wanted to leave home. The day I was deposited at University felt like freedom (I'm sure my parents felt the same). But it all changed when I discovered the Open University (OU) and remote learning.
I'm good at maths, solving problems, thinking logically. All of which helped me study with the OU but maybe not so much with the people skills I needed on the railway. I had to discover for myself that having letters after your name like 'PhD' didn't really mean that much. I also leant how to stand up for myself, how to listen, how to make tea (a dozen tea bags in a giant metal teapot complete with milk and sugar, whether you wanted them or not). Studying while working is hard, really hard - I did assignments while on standby at 4 in the morning, after a 13 hour shift and on my one day off. Somehow, I qualified as a train driver and (some time later) got the letters 'BSc' to put after my name (not that I do!).
At 29 I made probably the bravest decision of my life and quit what was a well paid, 'job for life', to spend an anxious time trying to find someone willing to give an unemployed ex-train driver their first job in tech before my money ran out. This big decision was sparked by a brief drunken conversation at a wedding reception with someone who made their life as a Direct Mail Programmer sound cool.
After 13 weeks of trying and a truly staggering pay cut, I got my first programming job, my girlfriend sold her classic MG sports car to get me a reliable vehicle for the commute and I was off into the shiny new world of Tech. Pascal, C, C++ and C# were to follow plus a few more obscure languages. I've worked in fields such as 'Inductively Coupled Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS)', taxi booking software, oil distribution and precision scanning instruments. Today, I'm a senior developer with an IT Support Company and drive a Tesla Model S (although I still prefer my electric bike!).
Am I glad to see the back of my railway days? Yes and no. The shifts were brutal at times. I had an agonizing moment when my train was bearing down on a small child running away from some bigger kids, the sound of the brakes screeching, the horn, my heart beating and above all the sight of the kid looking over his shoulder as he ran in panic away from my train but was somehow fixed on a path between the rails. Where this kid is now I don't know but I know he survived that day. I've collected tonnes of waste from a Coal mine and dropped it on to a beach blackened by the many previous train loads, something I feel guilty about to this day although at the time no one else cared. I spent several days walking past a loco that had been in a horrendous accident where the driver had been crushed when colliding with another train (they eventually thought to cover it with a tarpaulin). But I remember the people with fondness, some real characters, with amazing stories and a toughness I admire.
In the next week or so I'm to meet up for a beer with Ray, a Shunter who used to prepare some of my trains. A great guy I much admire, now retired but still has the same dry sense of humor when I first met him just over 20 years ago.
I think what I'm trying to say here is this: although the world of tech is full of logic, patterns and structure it doesn't mean that your route in to it has to be. Life isn't linear. If you're wondering whether you can make it in tech, are you too old, not qualified, not been coding since the age of three etc - it really doesn't matter. If you want to write code then go for it. But (and it's a big but) don't abandon the people from your previous life. What you're doing now may not be want you want but it's partly what's made you who you are. Respect yourself today and be brave, the Tech world is waiting for you!
Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash