What I learned in Uni

What I learned in Uni


5 min read

The stack — C#

The Experience — 7 Years

The Job — Uni Student + Freelancer

My first paying job

Let me set the mood, poor uni student, first year physics major, tooo many courses at the same time, not enough sleep; I think you get the idea (and possibly what it feels like). Now I know we would all love to have some money, to go out with, and enjoy our time. We can all find some minimum wage 9-5, but I was looking for something better, and thought I could use my skills as a developer to land some work.

Luckily for me, a family friend was looking for someone to develop something for them. The job was a good mix of my knowledge and skills. This friend owned a factory that builds custom water treatment and purification equipment, and he had a bottleneck in his quoting division. Every quote the sales team needed required an engineer to write up plans, then someone needed to calculate not only the costs of the different parts, but things like length of welds, amount of paint needed, amount of bolts needed, and so forth. Till this point it was done in excels with lookups and required a lot of know-how.

My job (should I choose to accept it) was to create a visual tool, that the sales agent can drag and drop to the parts needed, including piping and such, and the output would be a detailed quote, including everything mentioned above and more.

Working with/for a client as a freelancer

Now for all you developers out there, I'm sure you are thinking, “OK, he got some requirement documents on how/what to build”. That couldn't be farther from the truth (and surprisingly more common than I had expected). I had to basically interview all the people involved in the company, to try and get a feel of what was needed. After that I would sit down and write my own basic requirement documents, that I would then go over with the client.

If there is one thing you take away from this: “Always go over the requirements with the client in writing”

This has saved my @$$ many times. It took some time learning how to deal with clients, and I learned a ton. This first client helped me learn, the development skills aren't the only thing important, it is important to understand the clients needs, pain points, and where to focus my efforts, this has rang true throughout my career.

I was lucky (in a sadistic kind of way) that my first client had no idea on how to write requirements, and how to handle a development cycle. In the years to come, I would receive many “requirements” of the type “put a button there that does that”; and 9/10 times there is a better way to do things that answers the clients problems in a better way. I urge you to look at anything you are developing, and try to understand the business use case behind it, and look at the bigger picture. You will be surprised to find that this will help you tremendously write better code.

Just for an example, I was told to make a button for export of the quote, sounds reasonable enough, but then it would be the sales agent's job to send copies to the client, the management, and the project manager. I wouldn't have known this if I just would have developed the button. Instead I suggested that the system have projects in it, with the project managers info, and have a “send to email” button. This may seem minor, but after talking to the CEO I found out it saved him tons of heartache, because more than once, the wrong quote was sent to the wrong client, just because the agent attached the wrong file.

What you can’t learn in Uni

During my time at uni, I learned a ton of things, in many different subjects, including programming. A few caveats to this is the fact that most of the time, the languages that were taught were out of date, and the professors didn't really know how to program a product, more like write blocks of code. Sadly there is more truth than I had hoped for in the old saying “Those who can't, teach”.

I think I can confidently say I learned more in my first freelance job, then everything uni could teach. There is nothing like getting your hands “dirty” and just doing some work. Here is a small list of the top things I “learned on the job”:

  1. Understand the business - Like I stated before, understand “why” your client needs the feature, not just how they see the feature implemented
  2. 80/20 principle - Try and spend your time wisely covering most of the needs, and leaving “known issues” for the really rare edge cases.
  3. KISS - “Keep it, simple stupid” (or somtimes I think it’s “Keep it simple, stupid”), try to simplify your code, break it into smaller bite sized pieces, that will pay dividends in the long run.
  4. Performance isn't everything (or even important most of the time) - Today's computers are fast (like really really fast) and that fancy Binary search algorithm you learned, doesn't really matter in real life (most of the time), when you filter a list of even a few 10s of thousands, it’s not really going to change the runtime.
  5. Use open source wherever you can - There are so many amazing open source projects out there, and they can cut your programming time by a huge factor. Additionally they can (usually) do it better then if you tried to write it yourself.

Please check out my open source library and maybe even star it. I would appreciate it greatly!