‘After graduating from Scotland’s first coding academy, I’m now a free agent’

Intrigued by logic and puzzles, for Katrina Coutts a piece in the career jigsaw has fallen into place

What were you doing before CodeClan?

After gaining a degree in psychology, I decided on work experience in journalism; a field I was drawn to as it seemed like a career path that could provide a lot of variety and opportunity. I got on to a postgraduate journalism course and moved to Aberdeen, working as a general news reporter before moving into health reporting. After a few years, I took a role in public relations and for nine years I worked in media relations and communications roles with the civil service in London and in the charity sector.

While I enjoyed what I did and had some great opportunities, I also felt like the path I’d taken wasn’t perhaps the best for me. The crunch really came after I had my second child a couple of years ago. Up until then some of my career choices had been heavily influenced by family, the kind of compromise all mums make. But after having my daughter I felt we’d completed our family, we’d settled in Edinburgh and everything was in place for me to really consider what I wanted to do with my life.

My strengths at school had always been in sciences and I love logic and puzzles. Digital communication had exploded during my time in PR and marketing and, having worked closely with web teams and developers, I realised it was the work they did that most intrigued me.

What was the entry process like?

I found out about CodeClan from a friend working in the industry who I’d been speaking to about a career change. I went along to an open evening to find out more, filled in an application and went along to the interview. The focus was on whether you had the aptitude to learn programming and involved logic tests, talking about my previous work experience and discussing why I wanted to join.

CodeClan is an intensive few months. You need to have the drive to get through it. I was quite apprehensive at first as I wasn’t sure what level and experience everyone else would be at but there is three weeks of pre-course work to help get you started. My cohort was a diverse group of 19, from a midwife and teacher to some guys from the oil and gas industry, which made for an interesting 16-weeks. Readjusting to life in the classroom was tough but I got into the swing of it and although I had all this work to do and a young family, I felt energised and excited.

Describe your time on the course.

At 9am each day we had ‘stand-up’, where we talked about what we’d done the day before and what challenged us. We had lessons throughout the day, interspersed with labs and paired programming. The course is project-led and after each section of the syllabus we did either an individual or a course project. The main languages we focused on were Ruby, Java and Javascript. Aside from those we learned about databases, version control and a variety of tools and frameworks to give us a broad introduction to life in software development.

Throughout the course the instructors are always there to help, but you’re also encouraged to try and find things out yourself. At first I found this quite daunting as there is a lot to wrap your head around. But I was very surprised by how much of an online community there is among developers. You tend to find that whatever you’re trying to do or having an issue with, someone will have encountered it before and posted it on StackOverflow or created a tutorial about it.

As the course carried on I found myself growing in confidence to the point where, for part of my final week’s work, I decided to explore a new framework we’d not covered – React Native. I know that throughout my career there will always be other languages and tools I’ll have to pick up but having the confidence to approach the challenge of learning new things is something CodeClan helped me prepare for.

What about finding a job when you graduated?

In the last few weeks of the course, jobs became a big focus and there’s a speed-networking event where you meet local employers. I knew that I wanted a position where my previous career and skills would be of value. Most importantly, I wanted to work for a company that had a good attitude towards junior developers and training.

Although FreeAgent has just turned 10, it’s still got a bit of a start-up feel to it. From those I spoke to in the industry, it also had a good reputation in terms of technologies it uses and the opportunities it provides for staff to learn and keep up to date in a sector that’s constantly changing. It also seemed like a fun environment and somewhere without a very structured hierarchy, where staff of any level get a chance to put their ideas forward and take on responsibility.

And how’s the job going so far?

I completed CodeClan in November and started in my role as a junior software engineer at FreeAgent – working on its website – a few weeks later. It’s early days but I love it. I’m part of a new team that the company is forming, so being part of this process is exciting. Getting to put the skills I’ve learnt into action is really fulfilling and because I’m working closely with colleagues in the communications team, it’s a great fit for me because I can tap into previous skills and experience.

Being immersed in this environment and surrounded by a fantastic team of engineers is an amazing opportunity. I’m still at an early stage so I’m focusing on growing my skills and finding areas that I most want to develop in. There’s a lot of support at FreeAgent to guide me and support me in this, which I think is fantastic.

Katrina Coutts is a junior software engineer at FreeAgent, the online accounting software firm.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women’s Day.