Self-learning and changing to a Technology-based career


Not so long ago Siobhan sent me a link to a local group of women who code. They were looking for a speaker who could give a talk on changing your career to a technology based one. I caught wind of this rather late, but I do feel like I have a lot to say on the subject, so that’s kind of what I’m doing now. This is a story of how I got into the tech industry, and a bit of a life story really. Because I never had any specialist training or relevant college background (aside from the ‘Pass’ I got in general IT, but still). However, technology, particularly playing with websites, coding and hosting has always been something I just ‘did’. Websites were a fun hobby for me and it eventually twigged that maybe I could do something work orientated with it. 

It’s a talk I’d love to give at some point, mostly because it’s a very positive ‘Work hard and you’ll get what you want’ story that I think I could potentially motivate some people with. Anyway, this is the talk I would give on the subject of moving to a tech industry, and it’s just a story of how it happened for me:


Windaz 98 and Frontpage

I’m going heavily off memory here, if I recall my first computer was a Windows 95 but I don’t recall it having the internet. I just played around with Floppy Disk games and MS Paint. The first time I ever published a web page was on an old Windows 98 computer. It was the first computer we ever hooked up to the internet – we used one of those terrible AOL discs you got through the post and it took an age to connect. what was worse if mum picked up the phone it cut you off and you had to connect again. the horror! That said all I did for the longest time was use the internet to connect to the Nickelodeon website and some Final Fantasy fan sites. 

Obviously I wanted to make my own website, who wouldn’t? This stuff was rad as hell. I signed up to Geocities, and using state of the art software (Microsoft Front Page) I uploaded a hideous website with a bunch of MSPaint Final Fantasy themed drawings. I have a vague recollection of how Front Page worked – I think it was like a Word document which the program converted into HTML and using its upload options I could publish to Geocities SOMEHOW. 

But yeah, there it was, my first website – and my first look at how you publish to the web. I was pretty chuffed with myself, but not nearly as chuffed as when I got that first comment on my guestbook saying ‘cute site!’. Damn I was the coolest kid in the web world.

Thankfully that hideous site no longer exists, along with so many other videos Geocities sites I made. I didn’t do a whole lot of web-tech stuff after that for a while, and instead learned that I could use the internet to play games.


Neopets

I legit don’t think I’d love playing with websites so much if it weren’t for Neopets. I joined Neo on, oh God I have the exact date: 16/7/2002. It’s lame I have that date down. Wow. Anyway, I signed up to this pretty cool website where you could adopt pets, name them and battle them.

The thing that really made Neopets worth a kid’s time though, was the Pet Pages. These were one-page little websites you were given to write about your pet. They took any kind of HTML, Javascript or CSS. So you could make one hell of a cool website just to tell people about, idk… Your super cool pink dragon named Xar!

The Neopets page editor was so basic as well, it was essentially a notepad where you put all your code in. No colour coded nonsense, and Neopets had some very good basic HTML tutorials which taught me how to lay out fonts, make marquees (cringe), and add images. To add an image I needed external hosting. So Kay also signed up to Freewebs to host all those cool cool drawings of her pets. 



I have a lot of friends through Neopets, and back then it was sort of like a competition. You just had to have the coolest, flashiest pet site on the Neoplanet! I know one girl who used iframes to link to a PHP Forum within her pet page (the first ever rendition of the DCL website in fact). I made my pet page cool in various ways; Xar had a guestbook, an iframed shout box, and to top it off – an animated banner I learned how to make using Flash. 

So during my Neopets addiction I learned how to code HTML and CSS to a point which was pretty impressive back then. As well as learning how to use Flash, and use external hosting to do jobs that weren’t possible in the pet page notepad type editor. None of this was professional work, but I took it as far as to use CSS markup checkers which would identify issues with my code and I took pride in getting that ‘Your CSS is the real deal’ tick box. 

I’ll take a moment now to point out that I was a fully functioning child who went to school every day and I also played out with my friends. I don’t know where I had all this extra time, but I did. The same goes for all the Neopets friends I am still in contact with – every one of us has some basic coding knowledge. Some know a little less than me, some know a little more – one girl in particular got so good at coding that she now develops for Google. For young girls Neopets was just about the best introduction to coding and hosting on the internet. It made it so much fun! Y’know, until they started restricting the types of code you could use and we all moved to self-hosted sites to rave about our pets.


MSN tinkering, personal blogs and that one incident in school

This was all probably around the same time as Neopets. MSN taught me how to do some code! I don’t know who’ll remember but years ago there used to be MSN ‘auto response bots’ which would reply to your messages. I don’t think they served a purpose. But one developer posted the source code for his bot online, and I used it to make my own. It was the only time I really coded in Perl but it gave me some sort of base logic for how programming languages worked. I managed to change a pre-existing code for a dice roll (you typed something like #Dice 6 and it would give you a random number from 1-6) into some sort of fortune telling script where you asked the bot questions and it would respond with things like ‘Yes, no, don’t count on it’ type answers. It wasn’t the most technical thing I did in the end but everyone was totally impressed that I had an online robot they could chat to. 

Along with other things I coded in school was a website, which I won’t go in to, but it had a silly GIF I drew of one of my teachers jumping around like a crazed gorilla. I had to take that down as it caused a stir in the IT class the year below me, and was possibly the only time I ever got in real trouble in school.


Personal blogs, CMS sites and WordPress

Finally, with Neopets becoming increasingly strict about the type of code you were allowed to upload and my interest in the game finally dying out – I still wanted my own website, so I moved on to ‘real’ hosting. 

I say real hosting, it was the only web hosting I could find which would allow PHP and MySQL for free. and I certainly got what I paid for – a huge amount of down time! But it was free, and I was young, so I didn’t care. 

I started playing with CMS packages. I think the first one I tried was PHPNuke, because that was what the DCL used. But it was kinda heavy for a personal site. I swapped that for PHP-Fusion which I used to love. PHP-Fusion was like a light version of PHP-Nuke – so it had built in scripts for pages, a forum and a login panel. The awesome thing about PHP-Fusion was that it had plugins, or ‘Infusions’ they were called. So I could download these plugins and made a pretty cool personal blog which included some horrible flash games, a currency system, which I had no use for but I thought it was cool, and nifty personal profiles for users.

All that, for a personal blog. It had to go. During that time I gained some basic PHP knowledge as I was able to edit the scripts and make plugins which kind of did what I needed, actually do what I needed. 



Eventually, when going down the long list of CMS packages this host had on it’s list I came to ‘WordPress’. I can’t remember what version my first WordPress site was but it was clearly the best package of all the different ones I tried. It had those nifty plugins, it wasn’t filled with bulk from the get-go and it was based around the exact thing I wanted to do – blog. 

Having my own self-hosted WordPress site was where I learned the bulk of my basic hosting knowledge. I broke things a lot. I remember once when my site was having some upload issues, I read on a forum that I should chmod all my files and folders to 777. I did that, and was really happy that I fixed a problem. Until a few days later when the site was full of Russian spam. Thus ending the first of many WordPress sites I made.


This was all totally relevant – honest

By the time I was old enough to be employed I, for some reason, took myself down a retail route, I worked in the cinema for a while. I was starting to actually realise all this tinkering with websites could actually turn itself into a usable skill. The logical route for me seemed to be web design at that point – no idea why. Anyway that didn’t happen because HTML and CSS had changed a lot from when I used to make pretty websites on Neopets. I’m kind of glad though, because web design isn’t all that fun. 😐

I saw a job for a web administrator. That was more like it. It meant I would be managing statistics and handling uploads to an eCommerce CMS. The job went really well too – all my self-taught knowledge meant I easily picked up how to use the CMS, and I could troubleshoot hosting, database and other more technical issues on the go. Sadly that company in question realised their target market wasn’t really using the internet, so sales were never really good. They chose to re-focus the company on real-life sales and that meant a change of employer for me – as I was moved from website work to stock taking, which I really wasn’t keen on.

I caught wind of a web hosting company right here – in Manchester! Holy crap. That sounded perfect. I know all this stuff about web hosting, I could give tech support for that, right? I went for the interview, and was quite honestly crapping myself at the thought of looking like a fool with my brief ‘Web Administrator’ role on my CV as the only really relevant thing that I recall. There was some other bits here and there, but as I said; professionally I’d mostly worked retail until then.

Thankfully interviews are a thing and I could talk about things I’d learned from my own experience – FTP clients and how they work, database issues, .htaccess issues, self hosted email problems. I can look at code and spot issues with it just as well as my colleagues. None of that came from College, University or previous employers. This was all stuff I taught myself.

I know a hell of a lot more now, don’t get me wrong. We have training and my colleagues and I each have our special strengths. The good thing about 34SP.com is that we all share knowledge every day. Hosting is always changing, and thanks to a genuine interest in the subject – I don’t feel like I’m any less capable than anyone else in my team.

So uh, yeah, that’s my big story, I dunno if I strayed from my point too much. But the point is – changing careers is totally do-able. You just have to be genuinely interested and willing to put the time in. 



 

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