Rhys Oliver

My Journey So Far

Thursday 1st October 2020

As my first blog post I thought it might be best to tell the story of my career so far, up until today (October 2020).

Originally when I finished my schooling I was planning on becoming an accountant. Naturally I’ve always been good with numbers, and I chose it as my career path due to a lack of other options or ideas of what I wanted to do. I had put off going to university for a year to see if I could train as an accountant on the job. This seemed the obvious path to me at the time, as I would get paid and get similar qualifications at the end of it, and wouldn’t be 3 or 4 years down the line with a mountain of debt racked up. I had lined up a two week work experience at a local accountants. The work was boring and I was given the more menial tasks that happen at firms, so i became slightly skeptical that it might not be for me.

My first job was working for my fathers business*, as a fitter, during my school breaks and eventually fully part-time after I graduated Sixth Form in 2013. I was responsible for helping with the manufacture of potato bulkers, I would spend my days cutting metal, sanding panels and making cups of tea.

*Just this year I built him a website after many years of him not having one.

While I was working part time over the summer of 2013, I was also applying for jobs and trying to find myself a full-time job to start my career path. Many of the jobs I applied for were at accountancy firms, but one job I applied for from the local paper was from British Sugar. It was for a trainee role, and required a strong interest in IT, Science and Maths (all three of which I studied at Sixth Form). They offered me an interview the week before I was due to go on holiday with my family, in the middle of the break the following week. Luckily, we were going on a local british holiday 2 hours from where we live and my father was prepared to make the trip back for me to attend the interview (a the time I could not drive). After the interview, I didn’t hear anything back from British Sugar all summer.

Eventually, I got myself a full-time job working for a local construction company as an Account Assistant, towards the end of summer. A week before I was due to start, I received a call from British Sugar, asking me to attend a second interview that week. It sounded promising.

At the end of my first working week, British Sugar once again called me up, and offered me the job. I accepted, and then then had to face my new boss to deliver the news that I would be leaving. Being impressed with my work, he wanted to make a counter offer, but couldn’t match the salary British Sugar we’re offering. I completed the following week, and began my new role the following Monday. I was at that job for 2 weeks.

Trainee Technical Applications Manager, was the name of my initial role. I worked under the Technical Applications Manager, who was to retire in 4 years after his 30+ years of service at the company. To translate the role description, I was to look after all key applications used by the science and some by the operations teams to run all 4 sugar factories. A 4 year training plan was handed to me on my first day. 1 year in the factory working shifts, to learn how a sugar factory works. 1 year in the lab, to learn how science is used to support the factory and finally 2 years working directly with the current Technical Applications Manager. 1 Year shadowing him, followed by 1 year of him shadowing me and partially retiring.

The first year in role was a fantastic experience. I was put onto a shift team with a great group of people, given my text books and learning resources and left to my devices.

Each shift was responsible for running part of the factory, and operated 8 hour shifts working mornings, afternoons and nights. 3 months in, it was announced that 12 hour shifts were going to be trialed. I didn’t mind the shift work. it was sometimes tough trying to study and learn in the evenings or middle of the night, especially at the weekends when my friends were out enjoying themselves and partying. My time was split between learning and helping out on the shift with the tasks I was able to do. The physical work was quite good, as it got me out of my chair and moving, which did wonders in keeping me awake and engaged during the late night shifts.

After the first 6 months I had completed the first section of my training, getting all of my modules signed off by the subject experts around the business. I failed my first assessment due to not knowing what to expect or to learn up on, but quickly figured it out, did my re-assessment and moved on.

The follow 6 months I was moved over to another shift team, working in another area of the factory. This team was quite different than my previous one, they were all talented individuals, but were far more focused on running the factory than support me in my training and never spared much time to help me out.

After 3 months on the new team, I was pulled into a meeting with my future manager and told that there was a change of plan. My 4 year training plan was being cut short, everything now needed to be squeezed into 1 year and 3 months, as the current Technical Applications Manager wanted to now retire early. This gave me 6 months to learn everything I needed to know. A pretty daunting task for a 19 year old. I was pulled from shift work and was to spend my days working alongside my mentor learning as much as possible. Luckily, someone had also been recruited a few months after I started, to work under my soon to be role.

The role itself was a mix of administration, coding and the development/maintenance of reports. This was my first introduction to programming, which I would soon learn is what I love to do.

All code was written in Visual Basic, shoved in the back of an Excel file and password protected for security. It was a convenient way of working with data, as you are given a grid to dump data into, and then manipulate. Some full applications were also built in VBA, complete with advanced forms that had full login functionality and backed by a database.

Visual basic is a fantastic starter language to learn, especially if you are working with data or use Excel a lot. Some would argue that Python would be a better choice these days, but I would counter that all you need for VBA is a copy of Excel to get started.

Sub Loop()
Dim i, j

For i = 1 to 10
    For j = 1 to 10
        Cells(i, j) = i * j
    Next j
Next i

End Sub

So I then spent my days learning as much as I possibly could to try my best to be able to fulfill the role by the deadline. I’d like to think I was hugely successful in learning everything I needed to know, or at the very least, learn where and how to find the answer. Part of what I was expected to learn was taught only to my colleague in the supporting role, so I could be taught by her once my mentor had retired.

I ‘Graduated’ to the full role a week after my 20th birthday. I was given a pay rise to match my new found responsibilities, but not to the full amount I had been promised I would get at the end of my 4 year course. The expectation was that I would continue to learn on the job over the next year, and after that I would then be fully qualified to do the full role, and be entitled to the full salary. Not bad to reach the end goal just over 2 years earlier than planned. But as fantastic as the pay rise was, it clearly came with a large level of responsibility. The entire application base became my responsibility overnight, and I still had a very little amount of experience in dealing with all the issues I would be faced with. However, I can confidently say that I never got into a position where between us, we could not solve or fix the problem.

I quickly learned that I had a great passion for learning, and enjoying trying and learning new things. Even after I had completed by official training, I set myself new goals and challenged myself to learn more, and still do to this day.

In the back of my mind I always knew that the way we were coding our reports and applications was not the right way to do it. A fully fledged application built entirely in Excel with a database just did not feel right. I looked at the likes of Google, Amazon, Twitter etc and asked why we can’t build our own web applications. but I didn’t have any mentors or support in the space to explore alternative options.

I had started to research in my free time about web technologies, and completed a lot of Free Code Camp exercises and modules. This was very helpful in getting me some foundational knowledge on HTTP, CSS and Javascript. I had started to see mentions of things such as Node, React, Python, Vue etc and began researching such things.

I soon stumbled upon Code With Mosh, after watching his React Tutorial for Beginners YouTube video. After seeing this, I noticed he had a heavily discounted full course on offer, and decided to go all in and invest in myself.

It was around this time that I had to go into the hospital for surgery. I was told to take 2 weeks off work and recover. The first week I spent in a large amount of pain and couldn’t bear to do anything more difficult than relaxing or watching tv. The second week I dedicated to completing the full course, by doing a few hours a day to keep myself busy. It was a truly eye opening experience in seeing how quick and easy it can be to develop web applications.

During the course, a section was dedicated to integrating with a backend API, and after watching I knew that was the next step in my journey and signed up to his other course, The Complete Node.js Course. After completing both I had the skills and tools to go ahead and build my first API and Web Application at work. I started very simple.

Each day operation managers make a quick write up on the previous 24 hours, that is then emailed to a mail group to keep everyone informed. As you might guess, this did work with a simple Excel file with a form stored at each site. After hitting submit, it was written into a hidden sheet. 10 minutes before the email is sent, another VB Script runs that reads the central file, and uploads all comments to the database, ready to be emailed. It was all massively over-engineered and each site had their own file, in a different location on each sites file server.

I built a simple React Frontend and REST API backend, and deployed to a spare Development server the IT team had laying around. The comment would now get directly written into the database and be ready for the email.

I took this application, along with a full proposal to change how we work, to the senior managers and pitched to them why we should go “Web First”. They were convinced and so started my web development career.

Since that time, I have re-built many of our key applications in the business, and integrated the Production Comments (above) tool into one of them.

Late in 2019, the Supply Chain director came to the senior managers and asked if the company could get a mobile app for one of the systems I am responsible for. At the time of asking, the request was a very ambitious one, and the director was expecting some kind of 3/5 year timeline on how we get there. I was approached and asked to come up with a proposal on how we could make such a thing possible. It required a re-configuration of our current system, a migration to the cloud and a mobile app to be developed. All of these things were new to both myself and the company.

Most development work at British Sugar is outsourced to 3rd parties, or software is bought in. This is the right move in most cases. Why re-invent the wheel building your own HR system, when you can buy it in for less cost and headache. But sometimes internal development is the right thing to do. The systems I look after are bespoke to the company, and we’ve found are a key differentiator against our competitors.

After I sent the plan back, it was quickly approved and given the green light for us to go away and act on it. To be clear, I wasn’t expecting such a quick turn around. I thought it would be sat on for a while before any decision was made. Early 2020 the project was started.

Thankfully due to my initiative and push to go “Web First”, we already had the API built and setup as it was being used by our web application system on our internal servers. This meant only a few new endpoints and some tweaks we’re required to get the API ready and data available. I took a course on React Native and set to work on developing the mobile app.

I also had to learn all about cloud deployments and configuration, and we called in for support from Microsoft and our Shared Service Centre (SSC) to help with planning and network specifics. Cloud was also new to the SSC, so it was new horizons around the whole business.

Over the course of this year I completed the following tasks on this project:

  • Re-configured the applications database
  • Migrated from Oracle to SQL Server
  • Modified the API to match these changes
  • Secured Application (to Pen Test Standards)
  • Developed a mobile App
  • Deployed a mobile App to Android and iOS
  • Deployed full application to Azure (Cloud Service Provider)

At the time of writing, we are a couple weeks away from go-live. We will migrate all users from the current internal system, to our cloud instance and make the Mobile App available. It been an incredibly challenging and rewarding project so far, especially considering the project has been done fully remote during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed this post. Please do get in touch if you have any questions.