Mar 24, 2022

Alyson McIlroy: my journey to software engineering

There are many roads to software development, but not all are paved the same way. Alyson McIlroy, one of Vista’s incredible Software Engineers, joined us to explore not only how she came to that role, but the breadth of her unique journey and experiences becoming a software engineer, from university to Vista, transitioning roles internally, and what it is that delights her about her work.

Introducing Alyson

Alyson is a Software Engineer and scrum master at Vista, though her journey with Vista started in a different role several years earlier.
Take us through how that journey began for you.

So before I started working at Vista, I had wanted to work as a software engineer for a long time, but it was a difficult thing to break into. It’s a competitive industry, and getting your foot in the door can sometimes be the hardest part.

Looking back to University, that’s where I learned it was something I wanted to pursue. But I didn’t start my studies with that as the goal. CompSci was something I discovered as part of my other courses, (I was originally studying Medicinal Chemistry and Bioinformatics) and I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I switched.

For a time after Uni, I was trying to break into the software engineering industry, but hunting for jobs in such a competitive field is really difficult, especially when you’re already working full-time. A job might open for submissions in the morning, but by the time I was done working at the end of the day and could submit a proper application, their list would have grown so long they had stopped accepting applications.

Eventually, I had to commit to leaving my previous job in order to really devote myself to getting into that field. It was a difficult choice, but as a result, I managed to find my way to Vista as a Software Tester.

Starting out at Vista

You were a software tester with Vista for a number of years before you moved into software engineering; what was it like for you, both in that work, and to make that transition internally?

I enjoyed the work quite a lot. Testing can be a lot of fun—you’re essentially poking around interesting work, complaining about what’s broken, and someone will address those issues so that you and your team are left with something you’re all very proud of. It also provided a huge amount of learning, being the start of my direct experience in the industry, and I still find the things I learned in testing helping me today.

But the thing that really struck me at Vista—and still stands out to me—was the people. The people you work with can make such a big difference in your life, and being at Vista really feels like a family and being surrounded by friends while you work. At Vista there’s all kinds of clubs and teams and social events for everyone, and everyone’s so friendly. People form sports teams that Vista supports, or go out for drinks together after work, or play board games—all kinds of things. And if someone hears you’re interested in something, there’s probably already a group for it you’ll get invited to!

I think that makes a huge difference. Even during Covid when we can’t meet up in person, we’re still getting together online to play video games!

Transitioning into development; support, collaboration, and personal drive

It’s not just the fun outside work, too. The support and collaboration in our teams is part of what makes the work itself so enjoyable. You learn so much working in tech, and every team I’ve worked with has been incredibly supportive. It’s something a lot of people working in development know well; you’re constantly learning from each other, and even a beginner’s perspective is really valuable, because they’ll ask questions about something that might otherwise have been taken for granted. That’s really valuable for senior people, too, because when something’s not clear to somebody new, they probably need to rewrite it in a way that’s clearer. I’m still finding that in software engineering now, I learn a lot from seeing other peoples’ processes and asking questions.

It actually made it hard to change teams to chase new opportunities, because I didn’t want to move away from working with a team I’d grown so close to. But I had been watching for opportunities to move into software development, because, while testing was great and I was really good at it, that was what I really wanted to be doing.

I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just settling for something I was good at. So I was pushing to become a software developer. I’d known since I started that I could do it, I just needed to be given the chance, and through software testing I worked to get that chance.

It’s funny actually, since there’s such a shortage of testers in the industry generally, and I was really good at it, it took a bit of convincing because they didn’t want to lose me as such a good tester! But with a lot of support from my team lead and our dev manager at the time, I was eventually able to move into the position I’m in now as a Software Engineer.

Life as a Software Engineer

That catches us up with today, but obviously reaching a goal doesn’t end the journey. Now that you’re in the area you set your sights on in Software Engineering, what are some of the highlights about the work, and your favourite projects you’ve worked on?

It’s always hard to pick a favourite, but I really like big projects. One of the big projects I’ve worked on was seat-first ordering. That was a solution for POS, where, historically, when you were ordering tickets, you would pick your ticket types first and then go on to the seat selection. We redesigned our ticketing system and configured it so that there’s now the option of having the seat map display first so that patrons can pick the best seats in the house and not miss out because they were counting ‘okay we need two adult admits, and one’s a student, and then how many kids have we got?’ before they could grab them.

It seems like a simple thing to build on the surface, but it actually took a lot of hard work and we even had to change some of our fundamentals, so it was really satisfying to see the end product. I’m finding a lot of fulfilment in creating and improving things directly as an engineer, and getting to see the results of that work is always a highlight.

The collaboration is great. When people think of developers they probably think of us as sitting alone at a computer all the time, but in reality even when you’re working on something individually, you’re still helping each other every day. We do code reviews and pull requests for each other all the time, and obviously ask each other questions and offer suggestions. When you’ve been in the industry for a while, you know to value the perspectives of newer people, as their fresh eyes see things differently.

For example, we had Joel, one of our recent interns who I was buddies with, who helped us try out some new training elements which we have already used and improved on with our new grad who joined the team since then.

Finding your own journey

Like many fields, software engineering isn’t always a straight line to your dream position, and no two paths are quite the same. But it’s an industry flourishing with growth and opportunities. Whether you’re looking to find your way into a graduate position after university, shifting into a new career path, or are just curious about software engineering, we hope you’ve enjoyed Alyson’s story and a glimpse into the world of a Vista Software Engineer.

If you’re inspired and interested in working at Vista alongside incredible people like Alyson, keep an eye on our Careers page for opportunities.

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