“THERE ARE ALWAYS NEW TOOLS AND NEW TECHNIQUES TO LEARN!”
Mike Bergenstjerna (right) is a website developer at Red Ant, the company that builds sites for Topshop, MAC, Universal and MTV – and also created plotr! Mike has A-levels in maths, physics, astronomy and electronics, and did the NVQ III Computer Programming and Business Applications qualification.
Tell us about your job...
“I am a developer – which is different to being a programmer. A programmer writes code to tightly defined specifications, whereas a developer crafts entire solutions and considers wider challenges. Developers make things like Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds and even operating systems like Windows or OS X.
“In a typical day I'll be asked to make a website ‘do something’ – that could be as simple as adding a button to share a page on Facebook, or as complex as creating a site for an international photography competition! I spend about 90% of my time working on websites and the other 10% working on system maintenance – building and fixing servers, fixing other people's machines, and generally trying to keep everything running smoothly! But no matter what I’m doing, I'm thinking: “What's the problem and what’s going to be the best possible solution in the time I have?”
“Outside work l also write games. I've had five games published on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games platform. I worked from home for three years building the games, making my own decisions about what to work on and setting my own targets. When I'm working on a game I'm usually working alone, so I have to do everything – design, artwork, music and sound effects. For me that's immensely satisfying!”
What are the best bits?
“There are always new tools to learn, new techniques and new ideas about how to get things done – so I guess what I love most about development work is getting better at it!
“Also, no matter how basic or minor a problem is, I love to think about the patterns and the behaviour going on ‘underneath’ it. A really good example of that is handling images on a website. A client asked us if we could make something which would let them search a whole load of photos and find, for example, all the pictures of elephants. That's pretty extreme, and really we couldn't do it in the amount of time and for money they had available – but it got my mind going in all sorts of directions! Development gives you a window on to all manner of amazing and surprising things – I can’t think of another job that’s quite like that.
“I’m very lucky in that I get to do pretty much what I love all day! To me it honestly feels like this is what I am, or at least the job that is the closest fit to what I am – so I think it’s natural that I’ve ended up doing what I do. It’s not just what I do, it’s what I am!”
Did you always want to do this as your job?
“Sort of, yes. I was about 10-years-old when I got my first computer! I was lucky because I grew up during the start of the home computer scene in England, which was a really exciting time. There used to be magazines you could buy which would have entire programs – games, audio synthesisers, word processors, all kinds of different things – printed in them and we used to spend hours typing that stuff in. After a while, I started saying to myself: “Hey, I can write my own games, I don’t need to be typing someone else’s stuff in!” and I found out that was much more fun. So that’s how I got started.
“When I left school I went to a local college to do a programming course, but by the time I left there weren’t many jobs around for people starting out – so I just had to bide my time. Eventually I got a job with a big engineering company, writing software that helped them keep track of how much they were spending on machines and people. Then I went into support work, fixing other people’s PCs and servers and installing new equipment. I then went back to university and studied astrophysics!
“After my degree I heard that Microsoft were starting a program that allowed anyone to publish and sell games for the Xbox, so I thought I would have a go. I wrote games for three years – a space invaders clone, two 3D racing games, a sport simulation and an open universe space trading and combat game!
“I was working about 18 hours a day doing design, code, music, marketing, networking with other developers and doing interviews. Eventually I just ran out of energy so I figured it would be a good idea to get a regular, nine to five job – and that’s when I joined Red Ant.
What subjects did you love at school?
“It used to be called computer studies, which was a catch-all term for programming and database work. We didn’t have Word and the internet didn’t exist in any meaningful way back then, not even for email.
“It was one hour a week where I could be one step ahead of the teachers and pretty much do whatever I wanted, because I always aced the homework. We were always told that if you wanted to be good ‘in’ computers, you had to be good at maths. I wasn’t good at maths then. I do it well enough now, because I learned that the secret is to not be scared or anxious – they’re just numbers!
“Science was always a favourite at school, but later in life I realised that you only get a taster, and that the real science (and fun) doesn’t start until university. I wasn’t brilliant at school at all. I did much better at university because you’re much more in charge of your own learning.”
What training or courses did you do to become a developer?
“I did an NVQ at a local technical college. The course was two years long, five days a week and for the most part we were writing code, discussing different ways of attacking problems and comparing results to see what was the best possible solution. The best thing was that we were all there by choice and we all wanted to be ‘in’ computers so there wasn’t really much messing around. It was a pretty mixed group too, lots of different personalities and backgrounds – none of us were anything like the typical geek stereotype!”
How easy was it to get a job after your course ended?
“It wasn’t easy at all, but everyone was in the same boat. In some ways it was similar to today, when jobs can be hard to come by. It was down to luck that I got my first job as a developer, but when it came along I made the most of it. From that point on, I’ve had an interesting time, changing roles and becoming self-employed, going to uni, going solo again writing games, and then to where I am today.
“All I can say is the best bet is to be aware of what you know and what you don’t know, and never try to pretend you know more than you do because you’ll get found out – especially in development. There is so much to learn and nobody knows it all, which for me is part of the fun. So don’t go to an interview thinking you can do everything, because you’ll be tested in pretty short order. That’s something we see quite a lot with applicants and they can end up feeling pretty crushed when they’re exposed.
Did you overcome any difficulties to get where you are?
“My own attitude held me back for a long time. There’s a very fine line between self-belief and arrogance and for a long time I was on the wrong side of that line – and it can be very destructive in the workplace. Some great advice I was given was something Oliver Cromwell is supposed to have said: ‘I beseech you, think it possible you may be wrong!’”
What advice would you give someone who wants to do your job?
“Never think that you’ve made it! There’s always another challenge, another project, another bug to fix, or a better way to be found. Secondly, ‘good enough’ very rarely is – and deep down you’ll know it at the time. Thirdly, you are allowed to fail. You are allowed to make mistakes and get things wrong, just so long as you’re trying and you put it right. That is such an important thing. If you get everything right the first time you’re not really going to have any fun or learn anything.
“Finally, and this is absolutely the finest thing I have ever been told: Never ignore a problem. Doing that is like wetting the bed – it might be a relief at first, but sooner or later you’ve got to get up and do something about it!”