From Classics to Developer Advocate
Here’s my story of how I went from reading Classics at university to becoming a Developer Advocate at SAP.
Timo ELLIOTT asked me earlier this week in a Twitter thread about how I went from doing a Classics degree to becoming a Developer Advocate. I thought I’d share the story here and if, like Timo suggested, it might inspire someone, then so much the better.
For those of you who might be wondering, Classics comprises subjects that have been studied for a long time, because the subjects themselves are rather old. I read Classics at University College London (one of a number of colleges that make up the University of London). In my degree, I studied Ancient Greek and Latin for the most part, but also had the opportunity to take philology (the study of the history of language) and Sanskrit.
With some folks, the emphasis lies in the literary aspect within these subjects; for me, the emphasis was more in the language aspect.
To illustrate – people might learn Ancient Greek to be able to read Homer in the original (The Iliad and The Odyssey being the two main works that most people associate with him). That’s definitely a thing. But people like me studied Ancient Greek for the language itself – the syntax, construction, rules and exceptions, how it evolved and so on. In fact, combining a fascination for philology with the Ancient Greek dialects that culminated in the Greek that Homer wrote in leads to a pretty rich seam of wonder and discovery right there.
I was very fortunate to have been able to get exposure to some of these subjects at school – every schoolboy had to study Latin from age 11, and some of us got the opportunity to study Ancient Greek from age 13. I was fascinated by them right from the start.
At the time — this was in the 1970s — while there was no such thing as Computing on any school curriculum, we did have (somewhat randomly but also rather prescient) a PDP-11/34 minicomputer at school for boys to discover and use. If you want to read more about this, there’s an article on the O’Reilly Radar – “Burn In 7: DJ Adams“, and a more recent post on my own blog – “Computer Unit 1979“.
Suffice it to say that while I loved these language subjects that I was studying, I also was immediately entranced by the world of computing.
When I was around 14 I remember someone pointing out a brief article to me that explained that IBM (which in my mind was *the* company to aspire to work for at the time), favoured an intake that had studied Classics, over anything related to Computer Science. At the heart of that was the idea, the truth, that studying what to most folks are “dead languages”, taught many essential skills:
- logical thinking
- analytical processes
- self-driven work motivation
- a keen attention to and retention of detail
- the ability to dig oneself out of holes by looking things up
- an appreciation of the importance of rules, syntax and grammars
- knowledge of how to navigate those rules and grammars
So that was how things started. My ambition then was to continue pursuing the subjects I loved but go on to work in computing.
While I studied, at school, and through university, I also took a deep dive into computing. In the early days, I ventured into the terminal room in one of the school buildings (there are some pictures in “Computer Unit 1979“) and taught myself BASIC PLUS and how to use the PDP-11’s operating system. This autodidactic approach continued into my days at university, where I became an unofficial regular in the computing department there, forming a triangle between the Classics faculty rooms, the computing facilities and the library (we studied a lot on our own).
I managed to fulfil my ambition by landing a summer job at IBM in Manchester, in between my first and second years at University. But after graduating, I joined the computing department at Esso Petroleum in London, and after a 6 week induction course learning COBOL, JCL and other related topics, immediately found home as a member of the Database Support Group, looking after all of Esso’s database systems on IBM mainframes.
The start of my working life
And as fate would have it, one of the systems I worked on first, as a graduate in 1987, was the enormous set of database artifacts for a project that was just starting on the floor above us. Yes, that project was implementing SAP – version R/2 4.1d, running on IMS DB/DC (the hierarchical database & transactional processing system from IBM), in the context of the MVS/XA operating system (which, for those interested, was running in a virtual machine, in a partition managed by the VM operating system – like many ideas in computing today, virtual machines are nothing new).
After about 6 months of indirectly working on the SAP project team, from the lowest layers (looking after the VSAM clusters that made up the databases that supported the project’s SAP systems), I joined the SAP project team and never looked back.
I’ve been working in the SAP world ever since. And while technologies and trends have come and gone, the essential aspects have always remained. Those skills that I listed above have been useful every single day since I started.
Apart from the formal COBOL and JCL courses at the start of my Esso career, I’ve taught myself everything else. That’s not unique – it’s what many, many of us do.
The skill of learning
And that’s the thing. If there’s one skill above all that has provided me with the ability to stay afloat, to keep going, to enjoy my work – it’s the skill of learning. Not any computing degree, or any other degree. Not any super secret ability. Just the capacity to be curious, conscientious and consistent.
What I’m about to end with might appear as some truism that people say at the end of a bunch of ramblings like this. But I want you to know that I mean it. Learning is a skill that has to be, well, learned. But if I can do it, anyone can. I make things up as I go along, projecting what I know onto what I don’t yet know, and then filling in the gaps. That’s part of learning and growing too.
So I guess that’s my story. As I’ve devoured topics over the years, my learning has allowed me to try and help others, and perhaps being a Developer Advocate includes that idea as a key aspect. The yin and yang of learning and sharing, dare I say teaching, combined with a nigh on insatiable curiosity. That’s what’s at the heart of this journey for me.
Further related reading
These other posts from my Monday morning thoughts series may be of interest to you: