Life

Graduate experiences of a computer science student

By 28th May 2014 5 Comments

I haven’t made a blog post on anything personal for some time so I suppose one now and then seems right. Yesterday marked the day that I finished university study. While I still have a couple of demonstrations left to do, I don’t have any physical work that I can do or submit to change the outcome of this four-year journey. I was challenged to write a 15,000 word dissertation blog post but I failed miserably. Instead, enjoy this just over 5000 word essay blog post instead.

I don’t expect more than one person to read this but I’m going to do it anyway. If you don’t want to read it all, just skip to the end. I will do a tl;dr for you. I’m going to be very, very personal in this post so you’re warned.

Destined for university

My parents have always been supportive of what I wanted to do with my education ever since I was at primary school. Even from that young age, I knew I wanted to go to the best secondary school I possibly could and ended up passing my 11+ in the top percentage for the county and was one of the few from my primary school to get into the Skegness Grammar School.

Unlike most school kids, I was choosing what I wanted to do for my A-levels before I had even reached GCSE. I was always for my education and what I wanted to do with my life. Children need that drive and I suppose I got it from my parents being so supportive.

In fact, I even knew what I wanted to do as a career before I had started GCSE. For those interested, I wanted to teach ICT at schools. Our school didn’t teach computing like some schools do, so I was never exposed to programming nor did I have any interest in it before coming to university.

When I started applying for university, I knew I still wanted to do ICT teaching and looked for computer related university subjects which is why I ended up on a Computer Science course. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I like a challenge.

School 6th Form Photo

Second in from the right… yeah that’s me. The one with the long hair. – Skegness Grammar School UVI Form

So, I left school with A-levels in ICT, 3D Product Design, Physics, Maths and English Language to come and do Computer Science and I chose Hull for my place of study. Yes, The University of Hull was my first choice university for those who keep saying that no-one picks to come here.

The first year – I regret nothing

I was an odd first year student. I think apart from fresher’s week, I only “went out” four or five times throughout the entire year. I was always one for saving money and would rather fund my gadget addiction than waste it on alcohol. A lot happened in my first year that shaped the person I am now.

First Windows Phone Game

My first Windows Phone 7 XNA TD game using random generated levels and an A* path finding algorithm

Rob Miles was such an inspiration to me in my first year. As I stated before, I came to university in hopes of becoming an ICT teacher but that all changed when Rob introduced me to Windows Phone 7 back in 2010. He was always encouraging students to do more and I took that up as my hobby. I started Windows Phone development using the preview release SDK advancing my C# knowledge beyond what Rob was teaching in first year modules before purchasing my first Windows Phone 7 device on release which was, as many people know, the Samsung Omnia 7. Since then I have been devoted to Windows Phone development and evangelising the platform. I don’t think that I would have been as interested in Windows Phone if it hadn’t been for Rob. Not only did Rob get me into Windows Phone development, but he was encouraging us all to start blogging which only a few of us took to then. That’s right folks, this blog you’re on now is over 4 years old. Although I deleted a few “old” posts because I wasn’t a very good writer at the time.

Two and a Half Life - Three Thing Game 2011

Two and a Half Life – Three Thing Game 2011

On top of all that, Rob also encouraged first years to take part in a competition he puts on every year called Three Thing Game, a development contest that has you making a game in a team for 24 hours based on three words. The format has changed slightly since my first year, but the general gist is that you get three random words and make a game based on those. Together with Codie, Grant and Tim, we got the words “Underwater”, “Sea badger” and “of doom”. We did in fact make a game though and we made it for Windows Phone 7. It didn’t ever see the Windows Phone Store but I’m sure the awful first year code is floating around somewhere. Could pick that back up…

It wasn’t all about education in my first year though. I made two of the most amazing friends and ended up living together for the next 3 years. I don’t know how Codie and Clair managed to put up with me for that long but we all seemed close in our first year as we all lived at Needler Hall on the same floor. I would have to say that they were truly awesome friends and house mates so I hope I can manage to keep in touch with them, which is more than I can say for “keeping in touch” with friends from school. If anyone is still reading this, trust me, you might say you’ll keep in touch with friends back home but I know you won’t. You go to different universities studying different things and end up not talking. You’ll bump into them when you go home for the holidays with a casual hello but that’s about it.

Then there is love. Warning, this section will be filled with soppy emotional feelings so if you don’t care for this please move along to my second year. When I came to university, I was in an odd relationship with a girl from school who was in a lower year group than I was. Like friendships, coming to university puts a massive strain on all types of contact with everyone you know from back home. Friends in my first year could see I was unhappy and even told me that I wasn’t in a proper relationship, just that we were close friends. At the time I tried to fool myself that it would be okay, but as the months went on we moved apart and I finally realise that I wasn’t happy and had to break things off.

At Leeds Fest with Hannah

At Leeds Fest with Hannah!

At the time though, Clair, who was also telling me that I wasn’t happy, had introduced me to one of her friends, Hannah, who was studying the same subject as her, English. It was a casual pub quiz down at the Fair Maid in Cottingham when we met, I think it was in December 2010 but don’t quote me on that one. Up until that point, I was apparently known as Codie’s friend. Like most folks who wanted to get to know people better, I added Hannah on Facebook and we got chatting as friends. The months rolled by and Clair would keep annoying me by going “you fancy Hannah don’t you” and nudging me with her elbow. I’d say no but the more she did it, I realise that I did have feelings for her. Hannah was one of the most amazing people who I had ever met while being at university and was a very open, kind person. At the time, I just assumed she was nice to everyone but the more we talked and the more I got to know her, I knew that I wanted to be with Hannah. I just didn’t know how to tell her how I felt. As the legend goes, I got drunk one night and actually worked up the courage to tell Hannah how I felt. After then we saw a lot more of each other, as friends, but that soon changed during the summer holidays. I travelled on a lot of trains that summer back to Hull to see Hannah and met her parents. I think her mum thought very highly of me at the time. Hannah and I started dating in June of 2011, the 23rd to be exact if anyone is interested. Since then, we’ve nearly spent every day together (apart from when I had to go home) and we’ve grown closer and closer over the years we’ve been together. Never argued, never fallen out. We just love each other. There really isn’t any point in arguing with anyone, I don’t really think I’m the type of person who could shout at someone. We’ve been to so many places together, even forking out £1000 for a car so that we could spend £200 (I think) on tickets to go to Leeds Festival that summer. We’ve always just been so happy together and I love her so much. I know that will never change too. I’m so excited to be living together starting next week. More on that later though.

To round up first year for others reading this, it was an amazing experience and I suppose everyone’s first year is. If I could tell students a few things to do, I suppose I would say start blogging no matter what subject you’re in, do what you want to do because how you act in your first year will stay with you for the rest of your university career and have fun. You’ll have fun in the other years you’re at university but first year seems to be a time to meet new people and have a good time. I did that in my own little way but if it means you wanting to go out drinking every night then do it. Just drink responsibly…

Second year – time to buckle down

I came out of my first year with a low first average which I was quite impressed with. We all know its not about your first year grades though as they don’t count towards your degree. From here on, it was time to buckle down and get on. So that’s what I did. I didn’t give up my extra curricula activities like Windows Phone development or blogging. In fact, I think I started doing them a lot more.

Eric, the .NET Micro Framework Robot

Eric, the .NET Micro Framework Robot

Again, like my first year, Rob Miles introduced me to more gadgets that I needed in my life. Learning .NET Micro Framework was one of the most challenging but incredible experiences that I had ever had. I’m one for going above and beyond with my work. In second year, I took a module called Electronics and Interfacing, I highly recommend you firsts years check that one out, and we built a .NET Micro Framework robot. When Rob gives us the coursework specification, my partner seemed to have disappeared so I had to do the project by myself. It didn’t stop me from going above and beyond what was expected from the spec though. We were told to make robot that could move forward, back, left and right with a physical kill switch on board the robot and a serial port connected controller with a touch interface to control it. Well I like a challenge so I did all of that far in advance of the deadline. Being me, I decided to implement a variable resistor to my robot so I could change the speed. That wasn’t enough for me though, I decided I wanted to develop a web server on the controller so I could control the robot using a web browser. That was fun too. Still I had plenty of time left, so I decided to implement an IR controller. Unfortunately, the IR module didn’t have any driver or component in Visual Studio, so I had to look up how to implement it and do it myself. Which I did and my robot could be controlled using a TV remote. I was so proud of what I had done that ever since then, I have been quite interested in the development of .NET Micro Framework applications and Windows Phone together. We will take a better look at that in my third year though.

As my second year was coming to a close, I knew I had one year left at university. I didn’t feel ready to leave university as I didn’t feel confident that I would have the experience I needed to get into the job I wanted. So, I put off studying for a year to take up a position at Seed Software, a company internal to the university that develops software for the Fire and Rescue services in the UK. Let’s look at that.

A year at Seed Software

Coming out of university to work was one of the best decisions that I had ever made. Although you know that you’re going to be working with several other interns that are in your year group, you don’t know who those people are unless you know them. I knew some of the interns by name but had never really spoken to any of them so coming into Seed was odd at the start but it gives you the best experience for what going into work is going to be like. You will have no idea who you are working with. You learn people’s names and work alongside each other. You will also find that in doing this, your communication skills will vastly improve if you lacked confidence talking to people before. This was noticeable by Hannah’s parents as I seemed to become “more chatty”.

Seed Away Day

Archery and Paintball at our Seed Away Day

Chris Preece, the manager of Seed, was incredible for pushing the interns to do more. While I was working at Seed, I got a sort of promotion that gave me the freedom to start a new project for Seed which had the potential to be very successful within the company. Being promoted to Development Team Leader not only gave me this freedom but I think psychologically, it made me feel more confident as an individual. Not for having “power” but because I was being trusted to manage and organise an entire project on my own. I picked the members of my team for the project based on who I thought would most benefit from working on it. While this was slightly discouraged by some, I chose members from a range of development experience with the technologies we would be using, some of which had never touched some of the technologies before, but by being involved in the project, the members were as passionate for it as I was and they learnt the technologies. It was an incredible journey as their Development Team Leader and one that I will never forget. Managing and leading the development of a project is an experience that students need. It has focussed my career path and I know that I want to, at some point, manage projects. I know that it will take a lot of training and tailoring of my current skills, but I definitely see myself managing projects in the future.

I can’t express how important experience is. Some students don’t need it and I think that I possibly didn’t at the time of choosing to do an internship, but I’m glad that I had chosen to take that year out for work. It was one of the best experiences so far from learning new technologies to actually working along a team of developers working on real projects that were being used. It’s incredible and I would encourage any student going into their second year to think about this throughout your next year as its life changing. No matter where you decide to go if you do decide to do an internship, you’ll gain so much more understanding to the real world.

Imagine Cup 2013

While I was working at Seed Software, I was technically still a student of the University of Hull. I always wanted to enter the Imagine Cup competition, again another thing that Rob kept encouraging students to do. Unfortunately, when I asked my friends if they would take part, they never seemed bothered. It didn’t put a downer on my plans to compete though. I decided to compete solo which looking back, it wasn’t a good idea because nearly everyone that ends up getting to the finals is part of a team.

PhysiHealth for Windows Phone

PhysiHealth for Windows Phone

In 2013 however, I decided that it was now or never for taking part. I knew I wouldn’t be heading to the finals with my idea but I wanted the experience of being part of the competition. Remember when I talked about .NET Micro Framework and Windows Phone before. Well this was my first attempt at making communication between the devices through Bluetooth. In fact, I tell a little porky. I was actually using .NET Gadgeteer modules but it technically is still .NETMF. Although it sounds awful, the idea for my project came from Rob Miles having a problem with his heart in late 2012. As a result, Rob had to undergo physiotherapy which he did at home and recorded his heart rate and other information on a piece of paper. I decided to automate the process using a Windows Phone 8 app that would use speech synthesis to talk the patient through the steps of their exercises which would be assigned to them by their physiotherapist. It took advantage of Azure for storing gathered data and keeping a record of the exercises that patients had to do. Using a .NET Gadgeteer pulse oximeter connected via Bluetooth to the phone, when the wearer performed the exercises, the phone would record received the pulse and blood oxygen levels and send them to be stored in Azure. It was a very basic application but worked for the purpose I set out to achieve with it.

I didn’t win any competition that year but I learnt a lot from attempting the competition on my own and gave me a better understand to why teams are important. I just wish I could have found others who were as interested as I was. One up side to this project though is that it became the outline for my final year project. That doesn’t mean that I copied the code for my final year project. In fact, the entire project changed so no code could be reused. I will talk about that in the next section.

Losing my granddad

I haven’t ever spoken about this because it affected me quite badly. I lost my granddad at the end of the first semester of my year in industry. It was very hard to come to terms with it and I spent a lot of time back home visiting him in the hospital before he passed away. I was such a work-a-holic at the time and it was all that I was focussed on. My granddad’s funeral was the first that I had remembered going to and it was hard. I suppose that’s normal for most people but my granddad was the most loving, caring and funny person you would have known. I remember so many memories growing up with my grand parents. Like my mum and dad, they were always so proud of me and it hit me hard because I wanted to see my nan and granddad see me graduate. My girlfriend Hannah also never got the chance to meet my granddad but I know he would have loved to have met her and would definitely have approved. I made sure that Hannah got to meet my nan though. Due to university studies, we hardly get the chance to go back to my home so we make sure that any chance we get, we go and see my parents and my nan. Hannah said that my nan reminds her of her nan. I’m always going to miss my granddad like everyone in the family will.

The final year

I ended up finishing my Seed year coming out of it with my first overall percentage above 90%. I’ve had coursework that has been over 90% before, but never an entire module. That really encouraged me to do well this year. One downside to doing an internship is that you’ll re-enter your third year knowing that you just want to work now and can’t wait to finish university. I felt that way but I didn’t let it affect my work ethic. I knew I wanted to work but I knew I needed a good degree to actually do that. I think I worked the hardest I had ever worked this year so that I could do what I wanted to do.

Black Marble

Black Marble

I applied for quite a few jobs throughout the year but attempting to get a professional level job was hard. Most places need immediate start employees and I didn’t want to go on a graduate scheme. I wanted a job that I was going to enjoy. I applied at Nokia to work on Windows Phone development but was only turned down because I hadn’t graduated yet. They told me they would have taken me on if the job didn’t need an immediate start. That didn’t put me off applying for more jobs though. I applied at Imagination Technologies as a software engineer but when I was told in the interview what I would be doing, I knew that I could do it but I wouldn’t be happy in a job like that. I knew I wanted to be focussed on .NET development and if possible, in Windows Phone. I had my eye on a company called Black Marble for over a year prior to my final year. Robert and Steve from the company had come to university to give a presentation. At the time I was impressed and that never left my thoughts when I was thinking about jobs. Unfortunately, I was applying elsewhere because there weren’t any advertisements on Black Marble’s site for jobs. I knew that I wanted to work there though so instead of waiting to see if any jobs came up, I phoned the company up and they said they weren’t advertising right now but I could send in my CV and they would have a look when a job came up. Next thing I know, a week later I receive an email inviting me to the company for an interview. It was an odd interview for me as I went in already knowing Robert Hogg, the managing director. I didn’t want me already knowing him affecting my chance of getting a job with the company. Well, after doing a test and sitting down with Robert and Steve for a chat about the projects and experience I outlined on my CV, I was offered a job there and then, another odd experience because I know that you usually get a phone call up in a weeks time saying if you’ve got a job or not. While not trying to come across as too excited to be offered the position, I didn’t hesitate to tell them there and then that I would accept it. I knew that this is what I wanted to be doing and took this offer over the others that I had already received. The atmosphere and staff when you step into the Black Marble office is incredible and you couldn’t ask for more than what this company have to offer. I can’t wait to start my professional life in a couple of weeks at the company.

Microsoft Student Partner Programme

I’d known about the MSP and Microsoft Ambassador programmes for some time but only decided to apply to join the MSPs at the end of my internship at Seed. After chatting with Phil who runs the UK MSP programme, I was successfully enrolled for my final year at university. Although I felt bad at the time knowing that I would only be doing it for one year, I knew that I wanted to put everything I had into proving that I was worthy to be a part of the UK MSP group. Since joining, I’ve jumped at any chance I could get which has seen me do some fantastic things including evangelising the Windows Phone and Windows 8 platforms, meeting and working alongside Microsoft professionals, working with the other amazing MSPs and so much more.

Microsoft Student Partners

Microsoft Students at Campus Party 2013

The first experience that I got on board with was the Campus Party 2013 event in London. I had previously been pondering on whether to go as an attendee as I was interested in a lot of the talks that were going to be happening down there. When Phil and Rebecca told us that they had a place at the event and needed MSPs to help out demoing development for Windows Phone and Windows 8, how could I say no to that? So I spent about £70 on train tickets so that I could go to London for nearly a week, camping inside and helping out at the event. I think I did a pretty good job as part of the team there and so did the other MSPs.

Since then I have worked on evangelising through my blog and through talking with students on campus for Windows Phone and Windows 8 development as well as other Microsoft technologies. This included promoting Microsoft DreamSpark to encourage students to take advantage of access to free development tools over the course of their university degree. I’ve regularly promoted the Imagine Cup competition and even organised and held my own small hackathon that saw about 15 people come along to develop apps and games in 24 hours for a range of hardware using various technologies.

Mad March Hack 2014

Mad March Hack 2014

While most students would have focused on their final year projects and studies, I spent this year attempting to influence other students in younger years from not only my university to start developing. I even offered my services out to people around the world through email having around 10 requests per month from other students who were wanting to start Windows Phone development or needed to understand how to implement a feature for their university assignments. The feeling of helping others is absolutely incredible and I hope that what I have done as a student and Microsoft Student Partner has helped the development of others. I already know that I have encouraged, through my blog, a friend and neighbour of my nan to start an open university course in programming. I know that anybody could code if they really wanted to and if someone comes to me saying that they want to learn, I would do anything I could to give them the information that they needed to get them started.

Imagine Cup 2014

Imagine Cup 2014

I’m now getting the opportunity to represent the UK’s MSPs in Seattle, Washington at the Global MSP Summit which also falls during the Imagine Cup 2014 finals. I’m still shocked at being chosen but I will give a great impression to the global leader of the MSP programme of what the UK is doing to improve the programme itself. I’m definitely going to be keeping in touch with the UK MSPs and Phil after I have graduated in July, hopefully encouraging more students to join the programme or just encouraging more students to start developing software and apps. It is a shame that I am going to not be attending the Imagine Cup finals as a competitor though but at least I might see a friend and fellow student from Hull, Danny Brown, and the team he is working with do well at the finals. It’s going to be an experience that I will never forget and wish to keep thanking Microsoft for giving me the opportunity to go.

Final Year Project

It wasn’t all about getting a job though, I still had to finish my degree and my final year project. One of this biggest tasks of your university career is this project which spans across both semesters. Before I go on to talking about it, students in your second year be warned. You may feel like its a year that you have to get it done, but remember you have other modules, other coursework, exams and this leaves for very little time to get work on your project done. Don’t waste your time in your first semester. Make sure you have a working prototype or even the start of the project done by the end of the semester like I did, as I have seen others struggle because they left it too late. Also factor in for personal related issues that could occur. You’ll forget that there are so many things that could go wrong throughout the course of your project and it will hit you at the end when it is too late to make the changes. Do it before so you don’t have these problems.

For the project itself, I based it on my Imagine Cup entry in 2013. The title for my dissertation project was “A physiotherapy home exercise data capture mobile application using cloud technologies”. The title seems quite generic and simple, but the contents are not. The development of the project saw me studying hard doing more research than development. I had to research into the implementation of algorithms that would convert accelerometer data into displacement and had to factor in the removal of noise. This included with a 3D rendering of that displacement data to compare with a perfect 3D representation of the exercise was no easy feat. Along with that algorithm, I had to research the implementation of a data mining algorithm that would compare the recorded and perfect data by checking the motion using a k-means clustering implementation. It was definitely a difficult task to do this project as I had no idea how to do any of this during the initial stages. These were changes to my initial specification which was to expand on my Imagine Cup project. My project supervisor wanted to challenge me and I accepted the challenge going into it not knowing what I had let myself in for. I technically had three projects to develop in one with only a few months to do it.

It is all over now

Finishing my final exam yesterday finished off a four year journey that has seen me make some amazing friends, fall in love, acquire a job and grow up. Leaving to come to university is the first step in growing up but leaving university, going to work and getting a house is where the real growing up starts. I’m so excited for what is to come. Moving in with Hannah is going to be so amazing and I can’t wait to actually start our life together. I just hope she can manage to put up with actually living with me. I am so proud of what Hannah has accomplished too especially graduating her undergraduate degree and taking on another year for her Masters. We are both moving to West Yorkshire next week before Hannah starts her professional career for the University of Essex’s online distance services in Leeds. I then start the week after on the 16th as a software developer for Black Marble. It’s going to be the next chapter in our life together that I can’t wait to start. Here’s to the future. Graduation next.

Don’t expect me to be going anywhere any time soon though, this blog is here to stay and I will be blogging for many years to come. Although I think I will start doing more YouTube videos to help students to learn to develop for Windows Phone and Windows 8.

tl;dr

For those who don’t want to read this nearly 5000 word essay, I’ve had an amazing four years at university, met some awesome people, had some great experiences, fell in love, got a job and can’t wait to start!

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