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Pathway from Support to Junior Developer, we catch up with Ben Fleming

· 8 min read

Where are you originally from?

I grew up on a dairy farm in rural New Zealand. I went to a country school with 30 kids and only two classrooms. One of the teachers at that primary school used to go to the computer graveyard and pick up old Macs. He'd have us cobble together working computers from the parts. If you got enough gold stars at the end of the two weeks, the person with the most gold stars got to keep the computer. That's where I got into technology.

What attracted you to Comet? You impressed during the hiring process because you applied for more than one role and took a lot of initiative during the hiring process.

I liked working at my student job, 24 hours a week, being the IT guy for a local high school. It was client-facing work which was great experience for working on Comet's Support Team. Mainly, I helped teachers get their laptops and projectors working. But it was part-time, so I needed to move on.

I was scrolling through job applications when a development role at Comet popped up that didn't specify the experience level needed. I thought, "Oh, maybe I'll get lucky". I applied and interviewed for that role. I really liked the team members I interviewed with. The main thing that attracted me to the job was the modern tech stack, which includes Golang and TypeScript. If a company is advertising for that, it means they have a modern product; you're not going to be working on something from 2005. I was really excited about that aspect.

Unfortunately, I wasn't experienced enough to get that role. The same week I didn't get it, I saw another job at Comet pop up, the Support role. I emailed and asked, "Is there a way that I could do support for a year, learn about the product, and upskill to the point where you'd be happy to bring me on as a Junior Dev?" I thought I would be a good fit for the Support role since I was already in support, but I didn't want to do Support in the long run; I wanted to use my degree and go into programming.

The team hired me! A few weeks later, I was working at Comet.

Support to Junior Dev wasn't a role that existed before at the company. You are pioneering this. How have you found the process of being the first to follow this pathway?

At first, I thought, What have I gotten myself into? I'm just going to be doing Support for another year, having already done Support for a year and a half. And then I'll be dumped into a junior developer position. I was worried I wouldn't have the training or the skills to go into that position.

But basically, from Day 1 at Comet, I've been doing development work on the side, along with the support work. It's been really good to be able to take on small things that need doing. So when I did move into a full-time developer position, I would be confident that it would go well.

How does development work end up on your plate?

I get small tasks assigned to me during the monthly dev meeting. The leadership team gets together and figures out the priorities, then the work gets divvied out. I will pick up smaller tasks. There are a lot of opportunities at Comet. You could be working on the Comet client one day, or the account dashboard, or the billing system. You go where you're needed.

Do you like that about working at Comet? At larger companies, people will often be quite specialized in one area of the code.

It keeps me from getting bored and isn't repetitive because you're not getting stuck in one area of the code base. I really like that.

The other way that development work lands on your plate is through working on the Support tickets, correct? For someone who moves into this role after you do they need to be able to take the initiative?

Being in Support, small problems come to you. I either raise them to the Development Team, or sometimes I just go into the code myself and have a look around and see if I can figure out why it's not working properly.

Have you had times when you've been able to do bug fixes by yourself?

Probably not by myself, but I have had quite a few investigations with the support developer of the day. We'll have a look at it together and figure out why it wasn't working, and that's always quite fun.

Why choose Comet over working at a large corporate?

When I was choosing where to work, I looked at some post-graduation programs, like at the big banks. I read one of their 'Day in the Life of a Developer' articles, and it seemed overly structured. Having a schedule is good, but having to be so strict, it seemed like extra, unnecessary stress.

Have you been mentored at Comet?

Yes, I meet with Ersin, the Technical Lead here at Comet, once a week. Any development I'm working on, I can take to him and ask for ideas or help or review, which is really nice.

Have you learned a lot through that process that you don't think you would have learned otherwise?

Yes, definitely. Going from being a student, where most of the projects are individual, to working in a team, where everything is reviewed, was a learning experience. I've learned to work within a team in a way that I haven't needed to before, which is good.

Does Ersin often lead you in a direction that's a new way for you to think about the problem?

It's always different! I'm constantly learning new approaches and gathering new ideas. I will go to Ersin, "I want to implement this. This is how I'm planning to do it, but how would you go about it?" Then after a while, I see why his solution was different than mine, and I see why I'm a junior developer and he's a senior developer. [Laughs]

Do you feel it's contributing to your career growth in the direction you want to be going?

Definitely, the more interactions you have with people who have more knowledge, the more knowledge rubs off on you, the better you become as a developer.

What advice would you have for someone following in your footsteps in this Support to Junior Developer role?

Learn Git!

Have you been given opportunities to grow at Comet?

Shortly after starting, I was asked, "We're looking for team members who want to continue to upskill. Would you like to get certified in AWS?" I had only been doing Support for a month and did not expect to get an opportunity like that so early on in a new role. I worked on it for a few months, did the test, and got the certification along with another developer.

It was great! I really appreciate these sorts of opportunities. I had used AWS before but wondered, Do I really know what I'm doing? It's nice to have that knowledge validated. It's already been useful.

What makes for a great day at Comet?

The hackathon was really cool! Just having a few days to work on whatever you wanted to work on. Having time dedicated to that was really nice. Completing some small features, it was really, really gratifying to look at that and say, "I did those! These little bits of Comet were done by me and they're in the product!" After those few days, having accomplished that felt great.

If you could have any tech superpower, what would it be?

Solve the customer's issue the first time!

What's your best tech tip?

Test your backups! Don't just expect everything to be configured correctly or assume that your end-user hasn't changed any settings.

On support calls, I always try to ensure that the customer is backing up their server. It's a common oversight. People remember to backup devices but forget to back up their backups!

Comet is headquartered in Christchurch; what do you enjoy about living here?

Christchurch is very well placed to get to anywhere else on the South Island. I like the proximity to so many things. There is lots of stuff to do. Over the weekend, I went out to the Akaroa Peninsula and the Lyttelton Farmers Market.

What do you enjoy about Comet's company culture?

The BBQ's are always great. Coming into the office, there's always people to talk to. You can always ping someone on Slack and reach out to them, have a chat -- work related or not. Everyone is friendly and approachable.

This year, one of the developers cultivated a bunch of chili plants and gave seedlings out to some of the team members. I enjoyed it when people posted their chili garden updates on Slack. Even though I didn't get in on growing chili's, I enjoyed everyone sharing their updates.

We'll get you into the chili club next year! Maybe we'll pick something to grow that isn't spicy next time.

Maybe by then, I'll have built up my tolerance. We'll see! [Laughs]