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Karl Stanley - Software Engineer
Karl Stanley - Software Engineer
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#TechTeamTour - Teen Vs.Tech
#TechTeamTour - Teen Vs.Tech
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Part One - Meet the People Who Make the Technology You Use
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Interviews

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

After his Leaving Cert, Karl went to Trinity College Dublin to do a degree in Mathematics. He then went on to compete a M.Sc in Computer Science and currently works as a Software engineer with ticket-text.com.

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first question!

What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I have been interested in computers since I was a child. When I was 13, I got a job delivering leaflets so I could buy a Sinclair Spectrum (which is an ancient home computer that loads programs from tape). I learned some of the basics of programming on that computer and have been playing with computers ever since.

For my Leaving Cert. my favourite subjects were maths, applied maths, music, physics and chemistry. I went to Trinity College Dublin to study maths+philosophy but switched to pure maths after first year. At the time, the maths dept. in TCD was a good place to be if you had an interest in computers, as there were lots of courses in mathematical computing and it was possible to take some courses from the Computer Science department.

The school of maths in TCD also hosted the very first web site in Ireland, so there was lots to learn if you were interested. As part of a course in machine vision+computer graphics, we were taken on a site visit to Machine Vision Technology (MVT) in Dublin.

I thought it seemed like a really interesting place to work, so when I finished my degree I went to work there for the summer before taking up a place to do a Ph.D. in high performance computing.

At the end of the summer, MVT decided they wanted me to stay and I decided I preferred industry to academia, so I turned down my Ph.D. position and took a job as a Vision Engineer in MVT.

As part of the deal they agreed to fund me in a part-time M.Sc. researching colour vision algorithms. After 3 years in MVT, an opportunity arose to join a new startup called Xsil, so I did. As the team at Xsil grew, I became a team leader heading up the vision team.

Eventually, after another 3 years or so, I decided to try something completely different and went back to college to study jazz guitar at Newpark Music Centre. While I was studying, I supported myself by teaching guitar and doing the occasional software contract.

During this time I learned more about the web and started getting freelance work building web sites. After I got married I decided to quit teaching music and go back to software engineering full time. I spent 18 months working for a web startup called ammado and then moved to ticket-text where I am happily hacking away.

Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

My parents had very little influence in my choice of career - I think they were quite happy for me to trust my own judgement! I went to Mount Temple School in Clontarf where my best friend was a fellow computer nerd.

We spent a fair bit of time trying to program computer games and were allowed use the school computers (such as they were at the time) outside of class time. At the time I never thought I would end up programming computers for a living (though with hindsight it seems inevitable!).

He was a year ahead of me and studied Theoretical Physics in TCD. This is what gave me the idea to go to Trinity to study something in that general area.

Some of my schoolteachers also had a strong influence on my college choices and subsequent career development. In particular, my Applied Maths teacher had studied maths + philosophy in college. I looked up to him and thought that we were in some way similar in our outlook, so that's one of the reasons I put it on my CAO form. As it turns out, I didn't particularly enjoy studying philosophy at 3rd level, but I'm glad I found that out through direct experience.

The CTO (Chief technical officer) of MVT was my first professional mentor. I think it was very important for me to have someone with decades of experience guiding me in the first few years of my career. It took a long time to get it into my head, but his advice to "keep it simple" has proven to be the right course time and again.

How did you go about getting your current job?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I got my current job through my personal network. The CTO (Chief technical officer) of ticket-text is in a relationship with a friend of my wife. We had some conversations about technology and building web applications.

A few months later a vacancy came up and he asked me to apply, which I did. The interview process was quite informal as I was reasonably familiar with what they were doing and they had a fairly good idea of my skills and where I would fit in the organisation.

I had an interview with the CTO (which was mostly a brainstorming session about where we could go with the technology) and then I had a meeting with the CEO to discuss my goals and how they fit with the goals of the ticket-text in general.

A few hours after the meeting with the CEO he sent me a text letting me know the position was mine if I wanted it.

Describe a typical day?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

A typical day in work starts around 9:30. I check my email and try to get my correspondence out of the way in the first hour or so. My job mostly entails writing python and javascript.

I will typically spend some of the morning writing automated tests for the code I am about to write. I then spend the rest of the day trying to get the code I'm working on to pass the tests I have written.

I make sure I spend up to an hour every day reading articles on technology (usually blogs and mailing lists) to keep up with new developments. This is important as software is a constantly changing field and web development in particular changes all the time.

Every few weeks the software team presents its work-to-date to the rest of the company in a "show and tell" session. This takes a couple of hours and involves demonstrating new features to the rest of the business and then having a discussion to see what can be improved.

This makes sure the work we are doing is well aligned with the needs of our business. The working day usually finishes for me around 6:30pm.

What are the main tasks and responsibilities?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

My main task is to write software that makes running the business simpler and more efficient. The purpose of technology is to automate the things that people are bad at, so they can spend more time doing things they are good at.

People are not so good at repetitive tasks involving attention to detail. Computers are great at this sort of work. For instance, in our business the operations team need to enter the details for lots of live performances, set up ticket pricing structures, upload media to the web site etc.

This is quite error prone and tedious to do by hand, so the technology team helps by writing tools that take care of the details automatically. This allows the operations team to devote more of their time to developing relationships with promoters and venue owners, which adds value to the business.

What are the main challenges?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

The main challenge is keeping up with the pace of change in business priorities. In any business there are multiple, often conflicting, goals.

Depending on various factors, the priorities at a given point in time can shift rapidly. It is important to respond to change without getting into a situation where you are constantly reacting to things (or 'fire-fighting') instead of being pro-active.

Being pro-active is easier said than done and has as much to do with soft skills (communication, persuasion, listening) as it does with technical ability.

What's cool?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I don't have to wear a suit, which is nice. We have an informal but focused culture - in many ways it feels more like being on a sports team than in a business in that everyone has different but equally important roles to play.

We are also quite democratic - everyone from the CEO to the receptionist gets a say in how things should be run (although of course the CEO gets the final word!).

As a music fan I really enjoy working in this industry. The way things are going, the recorded music industry is on the wane and the live music experience is becoming more prominent, so it's great to be part of that. I can also get tickets to shows that might otherwise be sold out :)

What's not so cool?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

The complete lack of physical activity in work is something I'm not crazy about. The job is sedentary, which means I have to make more of an effort to get exercise outside work.

The hours can feel a bit long at times. I always work at least 40-45 hours a week and usually take lunch at my desk, which can become a bit draining at times.

Other than that I'm very happy in my current job!

What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I have been a software engineer for over a decade now and have worked in several industries, so I have quite wide experience. This is useful in a new company where there is a "blank slate", as I can make recommendations as to which technologies are the best fit for a given problem.

I have technical skills in programming, web technologies, database schema design and a bit of unix systems administration. Over the years I've programmed in C, C++, C#, perl, php, python and javascript. Just through putting in the hours I have a solid feel for how software problems should be approached.

On a personal level I think I am quite easy to work with: I can take direction or lead others if necessary. I have a can-do attitude which I think is critical in this industry: if you expect to only have to do the things it says on your job description you're in the wrong game!

What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

For my Leaving Cert. I took Maths - higher, Applied Maths - higher,  Physics - higher, Chemistry - higher, Music - higher, English - higher, German - higher, Irish - ordinary As you can see my abilities and interests were more in the maths+science sphere than anything else.

I was very lucky that at the time Mt. Temple had very capable maths+science teachers, which certainly made things easier for me. To be honest, in school I didn't really think about 3rd level or careers or anything until I was in 6th year (by which stage I'd already picked my subjects). I just picked the subjects I enjoyed and felt I had a natural knack for.

For the career I'm in now I don't think I could have picked better school subjects. It might have helped me to know a bit more about business-related subjects, but I had no interest in accountancy or commerce at the time.

I am considering taking an evening course in the legal+financial aspects to running a business to make up for this. However, as a teenager I think I was better off studying subjects that I had a genuine interest in, otherwise I would have found it very hard to motivate myself to study.

What is your education to date?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Mount Temple Comprehensive School - Inter/Leaving Cert.
Trinity College Dublin - B.A. (mod), Mathematics
Trinity College Dublin - M.Sc. Computer Science
Newpark Music Centre - Professional Musician Training Course (1 year) Guildhall School of Music London - Diploma in Jazz Performance

What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I haven't taken any courses that are 'directly' relevant to my current job. However, as part of my maths degree I took courses in numerical analysis (i.e. computer programming as a tool for solving mathematical problems), operating systems design, computer graphics and machine vision. All these courses involved lots of practical programming assignments which gave me some real-world software engineering experience.

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

One of the most satisfying events happened very early in my career. I wrote some mathematical software to enable the MVT (Machine Vision Technology) inspection machines to process a circuit board approximately 10% faster than before, which was a big win for the company. That code still runs on over 1000 machines worldwide a decade later. That gives me a little glow of pride.

I worked in Xsil for 3 years, in which time it went from 12 to 120 employees. When the firm started, we hadn't yet designed or built the laser processing equipment that we went on to sell. It was very exciting to be part of a small team building a product that competed on an international level and won.

What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I am quite good at strategic thinking, i.e. asking "is this what we should be doing now?" and coming up with ways of working to try to get the best results in the long term. I don't know if this is something I was taught or just the way I think.

I know I'm unlikely to accept things at face value and am inclined to think things through before committing to a course of action. I am told I am pretty easy to get on with, which is important during times of stress.

In a small company it's a bit like being on a submarine in that you're with the same people in a constrained environment all the time, so it helps if you can all get along.

What is your dream job?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

In terms of engineering careers, my current job is pretty close to being my dream job. I get some input into the overall technological direction of the company and I have interesting programming puzzles to solve every day. What more could I want?

Outside of engineering, I used to think my dream job would be a professional guitarist. Then I worked doing it for a while and got to see the good and bad sides of it. It's very satisfying when it's going well, but a lot of the time it is difficult, with long stretches where you're not making any money, unsociable hours and huge amounts of just hanging around waiting to play (why does it take 3 hours to set up a drum kit?).

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

From a lifestyle perspective, being a software engineer suits me. The hours can be long sometimes, but mostly it's quite predictable which is important if you have a young family. It also pays reasonably well, which means I can afford to live close to where I work.

This is a very important quality of life issue for me: I cycle for 15-20 minutes to get to work which means I have more leisure time. Ticket-text trust me to make my own hours (within reason). Because I have a small baby, it suits me to go into work a little late and work slightly later.

I can also work from home now and then. We have an office in London so I get to travel over there occasionally which is good, especially if there is a gig on that I can't catch in Dublin!

As software careers go, mine has been slightly left-field. I deliberately avoided working for banks/insurance firms/consultancy houses and have always chosen to work for small startups (some of which have grown substantially).

While this doesn't offer all the security or financial reward of working for larger companies, it is made up for in having a more relaxed corporate culture and the chance to make a big contribution to a project. It's also really exciting to be part of a growing team that is taking on the world and winning!

What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Intellectual curiosity - wanting to know how things work is a big plus. A certain kind of laziness - good software is all about finding things that are tedious and getting the computer to do them for you. Patience - you're going to be asked to do the impossible. Or you're going to be asked to do something that's hugely important, only to be told it's no longer a priority once you're finished. Don't let it get to you!

What is your favourite music?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I love lots of types of music: Bach, Mozart, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Elliot Smith, Steely Dan, Sufjan Stevens, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk. I also play the banjo rather ineptly!

What is your favourite film?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Amadeus, Happy Gilmore, Spinal Tap.

What is your pet hate at work?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Having to listen to someone talking loudly on the phone while I'm trying to concentrate drives me mad - please use a meeting room!

What is your star sign?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

Gemini

Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

I did an. M.Sc. in machine vision while I had my first job with MVT. At the moment I'm not planning on doing any more formal training, but I think it's likely I will take a business-related course (perhaps an MBA) at some point in the future. I might wait until my kids are in school first!

What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?

Karl Stanley, Software Engineer

If you can get an internship with a software house, that is great work experience. The best way to learn to write software is to write software!

I spent the summer between 2nd and 3rd year in college as an intern in broadcom, who at the time wrote research-level networking software. It was a great introduction to what my job would ultimately be like and it gave me some real experience I could talk about during interviews.

Some of the things that are different between programming in college and doing it for a living are the collaborative aspects, being part of a team, asking and answering questions.

An internship is a good way to get exposure to these things. When it came to getting my first job, having that practical experience (and a good reference!) definitely gave me an edge over the other candidates.

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Karl Stanley - Software Engineer
Karl Stanley - Software Engineer
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