August 07, 2010

New job!

It's a while since I put anything up on this blog, and for the past two months I've not really had time. Today, however, I can spend some time penning a few words about what's been going on of late.

I suppose the biggest story is the fact that I've just started a new job, which is something that not too many people can lay claim to in the current climate.

In June some time it became apparent that my current status of working self-employed was not going to be enough. Pay was not high at all and I had to expend ridiculous amounts of energy chasing up what little I could bill. All of that in the knowledge that bills might never be paid at all given that several people I worked for in France had me do work and then said "oh, by the way, I've gone out of business and can't pay you" when it was time to settle up.

Towards the end of June I grabbed the bull by the horns and started writing a CV. That weekend I asked my sister, who's very good at this sort of thing, to go through it. She gave me pointers for style etc. and on the Monday 21st I published it on monster.co.uk. Almost immediately I took it down again to add a few details, and it went back up on the 22nd. I also fired off about 6 or 8 applications to various recruitment agencies and firms with openings, with very little confidence, however, given that I have no formal training or qualifications in my field of work, "only" 8½ years experience doing it self-employed.

On the morning of Wednesday 23rd the unexpected happened. I had barely woken up and had my face buried in a bowl of cereal when the phone started ringing. The first one to call was a certain Fiona Campbell from IT Works Recruitment in Preston who wanted to know if I was still looking for work, said that she had a client looking for a web developer and asked if I was potentially interested in the job and would I like her to set up an interview? Well, errm... Yes please.

There followed several more calls from other recruiters of varying degrees of professionalism throughout the day. I think the battery in my phone was flattened in that one day of usage...

Anyway, Fiona got back to me (she was the one and only recruiter to do so, so kudos to her for that!) and confirmed that my answers to the various questions she asked me tied in with her client's expectations, and she set up an interview for me with "I Know UK" in Leyland on the following Monday, 28/06, at 11am.

I went along, nervous as hell, and met up with Michael Helm (manager) and Paul Maden (head of IT), who asked a few questions and set me a task to do on an isolated workstation. I had to use PHP to fish some data out of a MySQL database and then, in a second part, use AJAX to pull that data into a web page and populate a table with it, and then use event handlers to update the data on the page in response to clicks on parts of it.

The first part of the test was ridiculously easy, and yet I failed it because nerves got the better of me and I didn't see an error that was the kind of thing you'd expect someone new to PHP to do. I sincerely thought I'd blown it because of that but carried on anyway after Paul gave me the solution. I succeeded in getting the second part working using JSON despite having never worked with it and having to learn about it there and then. At about 1pm I left feeling a bit shaken up. Fiona called to find out how I felt about it and I told her that I wasn't 100% confident about it all.

A day or two later Fiona called again with the good news that Michael and Paul were interested in bringing me in for a second interview. Apparently, I was the only candidate so far to get the second part of the test working (and still am at the time of writing, I've since seen another candidate fail miserably), and the second part was the more important of the two. An interview was set up for the following Friday at 11am. I was told that it would go on for 40-60 minutes and that I should know that day if there was going to be a job offer. It went on for almost 3 hours and they wanted me back again on the following Monday (05/07). I was far more optimistic at this point in time merely because they did want me back. They weren't going to waste time tying up two members of staff grilling someone they weren't interested in, were they?

Meanwhile they asked me to cast a critical eye on their public sites and to suggest improvements on both the aesthetic and technical sides of things. That weekend I gave myself a crash course in jQuery and jQuery UI and produced a mock-up of what their regional, public sites could look like. Armed with that and with some suggestions from my brother-in-law, I went to the 3rd interview at 2.30pm. The interview went well and I felt I had clinched it. I spoke with Fiona, who said that the preliminary outcome was that there definitely was an offer on the table but that she had heard that from a colleague and wanted to get absolute confirmation from Michael herself before telling me to crack open a bottle of bubbly. I gave her the green light to accept any offer from a certain threshold upwards. By then I had also decided to walk from Centurion House to Chorley bus station (about 5 miles) to clear my mind a bit. About halfway there I received another call from Fiona, who gave me final confirmation that the job offer was there and that she'd accepted it on my behalf.

So, in the space of less than two weeks, I had not exactly found myself a job, rather the job had found me. All I had to do was put my CV up on a recruitment website and headhunters were banging the front door down. That is NOT what I expected. What I did expect to have to do was a part-time job stacking shelves in a supermarket. It seems that formal qualifications are not all they're cracked up to be after all.

It was agreed that I'd start work on Monday July 26th. That left me precisely 3 weeks, so I worked like stink that week until the Sunday, when I travelled down to Southampton to meet up with Chris. We stayed with some friends there and, on the Monday, travelled across to Folkestone to cross over to France via the Eurotunnel. I spent 2 days with him, then a week with my father (photos available here), nearly got stranded because of the French air traffic controllers' strike, but made it back by rail via the Eurostar on the Wednesday 21st.

That left me 4 days to rest and recover, and the following Monday was my first day on the job!

The day is rather long. I have to get up at 5.45am, shove some breakfast down my neck and be out by 6.25. There follows a one-mile walk to the bus stop and my bus leaves at 6.50. The journey takes just over an hour, including a 20-minute wait at Chorley bus station, and I get into work at 8.00 on the dot. I have to do 7½ hours a day and can take 30 minutes for lunch, so I can leave as early as 4.00pm, although my bus back home doesn't leave until 4.51, so in practice I do leave later than 4.00, but I do take a bit longer than 30 minutes for lunch sometimes. The trip back takes just about as long and I get home at 6pm give or take a few minutes. I did start by taking a packed lunch to work but decided that that wasn't enough to sustain me for the day. In fact, I even felt pretty awful on the first Wednesday there. Instead of that I usually eat at the canteen now. The food is made there and then, it's not expensive, it hits the spot and it keeps me going for the day. Remember, I have to wait 6 hours between breakfast and lunch unless I buy a snack at the bus station while waiting for my connection, and another 6 hours between lunch and tea. That's a long time to wait.

Having now worked two full weeks at I Know UK, I can say that things are going very well indeed. I started by going through some training exercises in order to become acquainted with the software that they developed in-house. I need to know it inside out because, ultimately, I'm going to be called upon to maintain it and the underlying database. Those training tasks took me until Monday evening this week. On Tuesday I started doing work on portions of the software that are going to go into production and be used by our staff and our clients.

That day I also received an interesting piece of news. There has been talk of allowing people who have stayed in hotels and other hospitality facilities owned by our clients to leave feedback about their stays. The details of the mechanics will be bashed out in a meeting a couple of weeks from now. It is, however, something that's been on the drawing board for a while now but has had to remain there through lack of personnel to cobble it together. The project has been assigned to yours truly. Barely a week after joining the company I have been assigned a project that could end up being a fairly high-profile feature of a client's listings on our sites...

Thursday morning I also had a bit of a surprise. We were visited by the Manchester Evening News. During their tour of the premises given by our MD, Marcus, they were shown into the software development office and introduced to the dev team, of which I am the latest member. He introduced our manager, Michael, by name and explained his role. Michael also said a few words, then Marcus introduced Paul by name. He also introduced me by name, saying that I had recently joined the team and that I was hired to be Paul's backup eventually. What surprised me was that he didn't introduce the rest of the team, i.e. the six other developers present in the office. Does this mean that I am slated to have a "rank" above the others, that I am to become the "deputy head of IT" in the long run? That's great if it does, far be it for me to complain about it! I'm just not entirely sure that this, errm..., minor detail was made clear when I went for the interviews.

All of this within two weeks of joining the company...

Anyway, all of this is very satisfactory.

The next priority is to save up for a second hand car. I will then be able to cut down travelling times by half and also drop Roy off at his workplace, which is en route to mine. Having driven one for a while with Chris in France, one model that I know quite well and certainly like is the Citroën C5. I'm looking at getting the 2.2 HDi VTR version. I can get one for under £3000. I'm looking regularly at this search on autotrader.co.uk to see what the market in these cars is like, and it seems active enough. People are buying them second hand, which is a good sign. A used car seller I know in Leeds has pointed out that these cars are cheap because they have a reputation for poor build quality, and while I respect his opinion and his knowledge of the business, I don't agree (sorry, Steve!). Having always driven Citroën cars for the past 11 years, including a C5, I have never had any issues with their build quality. On the contrary, I have always been rather impressed. But anyway, while I do like the idea of the C5, I'm certainly not against any other good deals that might crop up. A VW Passat, Vauhxall Vectra, Renault Laguna, Peugeot 406, Honda Accord, Toyota Avensis or even a Škoda Octavia or similar would be good (Škoda cars are no longer the joke they used to be).

The car is, however, a few months down the line. Time now to get my nose down to the grindstone and start saving up!

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