We’re delighted to welcome Alvin to the Developer Relations team at Contentful! He joins us from Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal, where he was working on editorial tools for the graphics reporters in the newsroom in London. Read on to find out more about Alvin’s career in tech, when he started learning to code, and how he became a public speaker and developer relations advocate.
What were some of your first experiences with web development?
I wrote my first line of HTML when I was 18 or so. It was for a school project. I can’t remember the exact reason, but I think someone else had made a website the year before. The project received high marks, and no one else was doing it in my school year. I was already thinking about studying tech at university, so it was a calculated move. I wasn't someone who coded for fun as a kid.
My very first professional experience was building small Flash games. I got an internship and I loved it. I had a lot of help there and managed to make playable quizzes and arcade games. As a friend put it, “The mini-games that you see on the side of websites.”
None of these games are still around, luckily for me. I guess no developer is happy with code they wrote as interns. Flash was this very interesting place where coding, design, and animation all lived together. I know a lot of people who started their careers in Flash can relate. That’s how I was hooked on programming.
Then I did all sorts of things, but always retained that visual-first approach. I'm always looking for beautiful experiences. That took many forms during my career, like games, charts, 3D graphics, marketing sites, data visualizations, design systems, and maps, which I discovered later and absolutely adore.
What made you want to choose a career in tech?
I guess there were a lot of jobs? I liked coding, I felt like it was a job I could put up with. The most important aspect for me was that tech felt like a field with a lot of possibilities. This is still true today, and one of the biggest selling points of tech. You can do all kinds of work.
Do you want to work in a university lab doing scientific computing? Your best friends are Python (the language) and Numpy, an open source mathematical library. Geographic systems? Your best friend is now QGIS, another free and open source software.
You can make so many things nowadays: mobile games, websites for newspapers and ecommerce brands, interactive displays for museums and exhibitions, Virtual Reality, etc.
How did you start learning how to code?
First, there was the school project mentioned above. It wasn't really coding since it was basic HTML with hardly any CSS. Back in the day you couldn’t do much with that. Nonetheless, it helped me familiarize myself with how the web worked.
Then, at university we had all sorts of group projects involving tech. Mostly making websites and Flash animations. I was always the de-facto programmer in all these projects because either no one wanted to do it or no one thought they understood coding well enough to just go beyond the exams.
It was stressful, but I liked it. I was part of every discussion because ultimately it boiled down to “Can we build it?” We didn’t do Agile back then, so a lot of the programming always happened toward the end of the projects. You know, when you’re close to the deadline and everyone’s getting nervous. Luckily, I always received a lot of support. And collaborating with designers is something I’ve never stopped loving since.
Professionally speaking, there was a lot of on-the-job learning and a lot of reading online, learning different things in my spare time. I was lucky that as a junior, every boss I had made it clear that you were expected to, and had time to, learn during your work hours.
How did you get involved in your local tech community?
In some of them, after the talks finished, most attendees just took a slice of pizza and left. Don’t get me wrong, I love pizza too. This was early in my career and London is an expensive city. Still, it was hard for me to push past the initial awkwardness and talk to the people who stayed. Luckily, I made friends from meetups that I still talk to today.
Why did you become a Developer Advocate?
After attending so many meetups, I didn’t want to just be sitting and listening, I wanted to do talks too! Meetup groups are a great place to get started, so I did. I prepared 20-minute talks for meetup groups, and delivered them. Most of them were terrible. I’m still very nervous and self-conscious as a speaker. I then pitched a few talks to conferences, until miraculously some small conferences said yes.
I’ve never been attached to specific technologies. Before “Developer Advocate,” the title that I felt best described me was “Creative Developer.” It’s all about the visual outcomes, not the underlying tech. As a result, just like the meetups I attended, the talks were about a variety of topics. From very technical talks with live coding (not recommended) to talks that could work at general IT conferences.
I loved the experience. I love doing “DevRel stuff.” Meeting new people, engaging with a community and teaching new concepts is one of my favorite things. The problem was, it’s a lot of work. Speaking and being active online on top of a full-time job was too much, so I stopped for a while.
Earlier this year, as an engineer working on internal editorial tools, I felt removed, far away from the end user. I wanted more human interactions. I feel like we all crave that after the last two years.
Thanks for sharing! Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m excited! This is my first role as a Developer Advocate, and I’m glad that I’m at Contentful. It’s a very international team, there are people from more than 70 nations, and as an expat, it feels great.
All in all, it’s a company that feels similar to me: remote-first, multicultural, energetic, and all about developers building great things.