How I changed careers

January 9th, 2021
Approx reading time: 0 mins

Upon leaving school, like many people, I didn't have much of a clue what I wanted to do. It was 1993 and the internet was just starting to become a 'thing', but not something I would set eyes upon for another six years. As the deadline for making a major life decision began to loom, I had narrowed it down to two options:

  1. Computers

  2. Leisure

Outside of playing games on my Sega Mega Drive and Spectrum 128k, I didn't even know enough to narrow the term computers down into specific professions but it sounded pretty cool. And, at the same time lot's of people were telling me that the leisure industry, which I was more familiar with, was about to boom, it was a really hard choice. However, my mother gave me some very good advice and said that I should pursue further education in 'computers' and on hearing such advice, and in the true style of a teenage lad, I chose leisure!

I found a course at Northumberland College, an Advanced GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism no less. I mean the fact that it had the word advanced in the title sold it to me instantly, in truth though it ticked all of the boxes for me to get amongst the soon to be booming leisure industry.

Following two years of creating some very happy memories, I landed my first job, a lifeguard and gym instructor in the newly opened hotel resort local to where I lived, Slaley Hall. I could write so much about my time there, I met so many people and made a lot of friends for life and I gained an awful lot of experience from being there.

To summarise my work at Slaley Hall, I started in the leisure club where I worked my way up to assistant manager and in 2002 I moved over to work in what was then called De Vere Resort Ownership where I remained until 2013. That said, I did take a short timeout in 2007 to work for a finance company, but I returned to DVRO in 2008. Throughout this time my work was predominantly in sales and marketing and I was loving work and life, but it never felt like a long term career for me.

I'm sure you can roughly work out that by 2013 I was in my 30's and my career was sitting a country mile away from being a web developer, so let me explain how that happened.

The hobby era

Throughout all of the years described above, I always got drawn to using computers in some capacity, I loved creating posters and flyers and I was always that person that people would ask when not sure how to do something. In the late 90's I would use the only office PC whenever I got the chance but in 1999 I struck gold, my dad got the internet. I was fascinated by it, waiting in anticipation listening to that horrible squawky noise as it connected and then not knowing where to look when it had. I seem to remember watching frogs and gerbils in blenders a lot (not real ones for those wondering if I'm of an unstable mind, check out Joe Cartoon - it still exists!!!).

In the year 2000, following the global survival of the millennium bug, I started doing some research and I finally decided to buy myself a PC and get into web development, or at least give it a try. I managed to get my hands on a 'free' version of Macromedia Dreamweaver and Fireworks, and I tried so bloody hard to learn how to use them. Bearing in mind that not only did I have no internet unless I travelled 15 miles to my dad's house, back then YouTube was merely a Scottish insult.

Eventually, I reached a milestone, I managed to create my first website and get it on to the World Wide Web. Finally, something I had created was on the internet for all to see. As much as I'd be happy to embarrass myself and share a link, due to it being hosted on the free space of an ISP that ceased to exist many years ago, it is no more.

Following this mini success, I still felt a million miles away from being a web developer and my interest began to wane a little. Regrettably, I would go on to park the whole notion of a career change, although I'd continue to dabble now and then.

In the mid-noughties, I met up with an old friend of mine, Mike. As well as going to school together we were also two members of a close group of friends who spent most of our teenage years hanging out. In 1993 Mike chose the other item on the list, 'computers', and a little over 10 years later, after some really good jobs in the industry, he was starting his own company.

Hearing about this got my mind ticking once more, but, I concluded that it was too late for me, I had a decent job and at this point, I was married with a mortgage so any sort of risk to my income didn't seem like the right thing to do. I didn't have the time to go and study and therefore pretty much wrote the idea off once more, I'd focus on my sales career and Mike would go off and build his new business...Orange Bus.

The freelance era

By 2010, YouTube was no longer just a Scottish insult and had become a good place to learn new things, and being at the tail end of a recession my interest in web development had been rejuvenated. I got my hands on a more up to date version of Dreamweaver and followed several tutorials before realising Dreamweaver was doing all of the work for me and limiting my learning.

On discovering Notepad++ I was able to start getting much more hands-on with coding, I mean nothing elaborate, just focussing on HTML and CSS. PHP and JavaScript were not even on my radar at this point. I'm not sure what else to compare it to but the feeling of creating something from writing raw code is amazing, it still is, but at the beginning, it is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and excitement.

Things that previously didn't make a lot of sense started to click, it was like a snowball effect and I became hooked. I was finally starting to get past all of the barriers that had deterred me in the past, things were starting to fall into place.

With my newly gained confidence and knowledge, I started advertising myself as a freelance web designer/developer taking on small pieces of work for small local businesses, charging very little knowing the experience was the biggest reward. I would often encounter things I couldn't do and overcoming those challenges would continue to improve my knowledge. I was completely engrossed by it all and would often sit at my computer until the early hours.

Becoming a full-time web developer

Freelancing was great fun and I'd been doing it for a couple of years or so by this point, but alongside a full-time job and a young family it was becoming really hard work, it was time to start looking at making that long-awaited career transition. The first thing I needed to do was speak to an expert in the field, Mike.

Having explained my ambitions Mike kindly invited me into his office. Orange Bus consisted of its two founders when Mike and I met up a few years prior, now, however, it had grown to be a sizeable digital agency that had 20 or so members of staff and a particularly cool office. There was a really good vibe to the place, choosing computers was certainly paying off for him!

Mike talked me through the typical sorts of work they do and the processes around it, introduced me to a couple of people and gave me an insight into the world of a digital agency. There was no question that I needed to be part of this industry and with some advice, I began to prepare myself to be able to apply for jobs.

Over the next couple of months, Mike set me some learning topics and some tasks that he would assess. He also assessed some of my ongoing freelance work, giving me pointers on where I was going wrong and the re-assurance when I was heading in the right direction, even my design skills got some praise!!

The trouble is, there is no way of knowing if you're ready, you've kind of just got to judge your confidence and the feedback you're getting from people that know what they're talking about and just go for it. Which is exactly what I did one miserable afternoon in my current job, a bad day pushed me over the should I or shouldn't I line and two hours later I got a phone call from the recruiter.

In the sheer panic of failing miserably, I began to explain to her that I wasn't ready or right for the job. You'd think that would be enough for her to say fair enough and end the call there and then but she convinced me otherwise, as recruiters do, and booked me in for an interview.

The interview was for Leighton, most of their work was for British Airways and walking into an office full of smartly dressed developers was a little bit daunting. However, the interview went well and they set me a coding challenge to do at home. Now, this was fairly nerve-racking, but it wasn't too difficult, and I did enough to get invited back for a second interview.

After the second interview I knew in myself I hadn't come across as well as I could have done, I felt like I'd messed up at the final hurdle. Honestly, I drove off really angry and when the recruiter rang me on my journey home I outright told her I'd screwed up, emotions were high put it that way. She told me to relax and would contact them and ring me back.

Five minutes later, whilst driving up the A1, my phone rang, I was so nervous to answer it. I needn't have been, I was offered the job of front end web developer and not only that, with a higher salary than I was expecting. I couldn't believe it, all those years of trying and failing finally paid off, I don't think I've felt as proud of myself as I do right now writing this and going back over everything again.

So normally in these situations you ring your wife or your parents to let them know the good news, the first person I told was Mike. If you ever read this, thanks again for helping me, you've no idea how much it meant.

A happy ending

So that's the story of how I became a web developer and, more importantly, how I went about switching careers 18 years down the line. Having worked at Leighton for around 15 months I learned absolutely loads, it was an amazing place to work with some equally amazing people, and if it's still anything like it was then, I highly recommend it as a place to work.

Inevitably, I moved to Orange Bus after Leighton, which felt a bit weird having talked about it being set up in the pub all those years ago when being a developer seemed like a missed opportunity. I'm still there now, although the Orange Bus brand was lost last year following a takeover which was a shame.

I can't honestly express enough how good it feels doing a job you love, I hope you're lucky enough to have that too, but if not, it's never too late to change. I remember at Leighton I'd sit there with my headphones on writing code and listening to Spotify thinking about how someone is paying me to do this, unreal.

I've spoken a lot about switching careers but in reality, the experience I gained in the 18 years before that was never wasted and without it, I know for a fact I wouldn't have progressed as much as I have in such a short space of time. I see it as one career made up of two parts and continue to use the skills and experience I gained before 2013.

I'd love to go back and say to my 16-year-old unsure self, "don't worry fella, you're going to do 'computers' and 'leisure' and you're going to do them in the correct order!"


This post could have been entirely made up of tips but hopefully, buried in my personal story, you've already found some. But for those that like a bullet list here you go:

  • Keep trying, learning something new is hard, web development is hard, but if you keep at it I guarantee you'll overcome those barriers that sometimes seem impossible.

  • Keep learning. There's not a single developer who reaches a point where there's nothing more to learn. There are always new ways of doing things, new tech, new platforms etc. YouTube has so many great learning channels these days, I use it all the time.

  • Don't let software do all the work for you. The best way to learn is to do it yourself, once you know how to do it then take advantage of low code platforms, if that's what you want to do.

  • Talk to an industry expert. I know not everyone has a Mike, but I bet if you contacted a local agency they would gladly help you. Failing that, give me a shout on LinkedIn!

  • Don't wait as long as I did. Easier said than done but I did prolong things too much.

  • Join Code Wars - gamification is a great way to learn

  • If you're learning something new alongside your current job, be prepared to put in the hours, it's worth it.

  • No experience is wasted, there are many aspects of different jobs and professions that overlap, soft skills go a long way in every job.

  • If you think you might be nearly ready to take the plunge, you probably already are!

I appreciate that this post is heavily weighted towards becoming a developer, or similar, but I guess the same principles could be applied to any type of career change. The moral of the story is don't give up, we spend so much time working, it makes a world of difference spending that time doing what we really want to do.