Coffee and catch up: Julia
Tell us about your background and career so far
I walked off my A level course because I got shouted at for playing with computers too much and I was put on a Youth Training Scheme. It was a revelatory experience mixing with a diverse group of people, and I ended up being a roadie for a punk band for a while. In the late 1980s, I found a job doing field servicing, fixing computers with a soldering iron until I was asked by a friend to join his small business fixing computers and learning to write code, which I turned out to be quite good at.
When that business ended I started an ISP with some friends. We had subscribers who wanted to get onto the early internet. We learned as we went along by reading manuals and trying stuff out. This dragged me sideways into running Unix machines and eventually to DevOps and configuration management, which consisted of equal parts Unix and coding and so suited my skills.
What does DevOps involve?
DevOps and continuous delivery make the job of producing software more humane and scalable. Traditionally, you had one team looking after the hardware and one team writing code, but there was little connection between them. It was a broken dynamic. DevOps is a reaction to that. It combines development, security, networking and operations skills. We have this weird notion that there are ideas people and there are practical people but there are a lot of people who are good at both, multi-skilled. That fits with DevOps. You want people to work together for the common notion of making stuff better.
What do you like most about working at Flexys?
I came along for the interview as the job sounded interesting, though I wasn’t familiar with debt management. I wanted to work here because they’ve got an interesting set of questions that I could see answers to.
As I was being interviewed by Brian, Joe and Jon I thought ‘Oh my god, these are my people’. I had a long ramble with Joe about diverse hiring and I was thinking, ‘have I got a surprise for you!’ Here I am, nearly a year later, Julia, having come out as trans at work and I could not have conceived of doing that anywhere else. I have never met a bunch of people quite so friendly and focussed and dickhead-free. I don’t know what alchemy the founders discovered when they were hiring but it is working.
How does the way you produce software at Flexys benefit your customers?
There are legacy systems that are the result of twenty years of, not bad decisions, but the best decisions that could be made with the information available at the time. Financial services systems can have parts of them that still understand shillings or VAT changes from years ago. They become harder to fix and you have to wonder at that stage, what’s this system for if it’s going to become a multi-million dollar albatross? When it gets to the point where you don’t trust your own system, you have to ask, how you got into that state. A real question for a lot of large organisations.
Those were the days when huge quarterly deploys of software were released and took days and everything just stopped if it didn’t work. Too many changes all going in at once, not being tested together, and failing with too few people who knew how to fix things.
With the latest methods, changes may be a screen’s worth of code or a single feature. You can deploy one new form that you just show to 10% of your users at first as a tester. It’s less risk and doesn’t halt the system and that’s better for everybody, making people’s lives and jobs less scary.
We can respond faster to requests for new features, there aren’t the long lead times of the past because automated testing is part of the code. Code doesn’t go into the system unless it has passed its tests. It means the cycle time to get a shiny idea to production can be really short and trustworthy. Investment in hardware and maintenance costs has been replaced by Cloud-based software-as-a-service. We use only top-level security cloud services that Governments use. The UK government runs on Amazon web services, the US Government runs on Google. They have all done due diligence.
Hobbies and interests
I write science fiction. At the moment these are mostly short stories, but I have the bones of a novel. I write thinly-disguised hacker morality tales. The bits of brain that light up when I’m writing code are the same bits that light up when I’m writing fiction. I think the best way to edit is to read it out loud to an audience so I gave a talk at the Electromagnetic Field Camp about coding and depression and coping with those things. That was Julia for the first time in public and it went down amazingly well, I’m very glad I did it.