Perspectives

Last week I finally signed the contract with my present and future employer for a full-time position as a consultant starting some time later this year. In fact that “some time” was, as you may recall, the only thing that for about six weeks had kept me from signing–my uncertainty as to the actual starting date. That date depends on when I will have completed the bachelor thesis, and on how fast after having it printed and handing it in my supervisor can schedule the oral examination (or colloquium, as it’s officially called). My superiors at work wanted me to start on 1 September. I intend to finish the thesis before the end of August, but the colloquium may be up to six weeks later, so 1 October is a better guess. In any case, I now got an understanding saying I’ll start on 1 December “or earlier”, subject to spontaneous mutual agreement I suppose.

Meanwhile, there are some interesting developments at work. A couple of weeks ago my team manager (who is leaving the company in June) had me update (or rather, he updated and asked me to review) my internal qualification profile, emphasizing my data engineering competence (yet shaky) and my Scala expertise (intermediate, at best). Yes, I’ve been working mainly with Scala for a few months, and have done a lot of reading and exercises for about half a year before that, but to call me experienced in Scala would be a decided overstatement in the light of the few real problems I have yet solved in that language. But never mind.

The background is that our company is bidding for a large contract with a major Hamburg-based international retail enterprise and that contract specifically includes data engineering/data science expertise. And apparently I’m one of only a few in the firm (among nearly 200 employees, mind you, though that includes administration and sales and so on) with that kind of background, however weak it may be. So I dutifully updated my profile, though with a slightly odd feeling, considering that without my team manager’s prodding I wouldn’t have dared call myself a data engineer! The job did sound interesting, however, and besides, the prospective customer’s headquarters is close to where we live, so in case we get the contract my daily commute would become dramatically shorter.

I didn’t hear from it again until a couple of days ago when a different team leader approached me to sound out the actual extent of my Scala expertise. I told him the truth as outlined above. He said, never mind, my about four months of hands-on experience with Scala were the best the company could do. The only other consultant in the entire firm who confessed to having any Scala knowledge had done a certificate years ago and never actually used the language. He (the team leader) showed me the requirements for the presentation with the customer, and they specifically want to meet people with three different profiles, including someone who can write Scala. And since apparently it’s rather hard to find Scala developers, for any company, he thinks it’s quite possible my Scala expertise might become our unique selling point and give us an edge on our competition.

It was then that I was reminded of my job interview at my present employer almost exactly one year ago. Back then my boss’ boss had told me if wanted to develop my data science experience on the job, say learn an appropriate language like R, that was quite welcome. Not R, I had said, but Scala. Oh really?, had been his somewhat irritated reply, isn’t functional programming already on the way out? Since it was a job interview I wisely shut up. But I might be tempted to remind him of his skepticism should my having learned Scala nevertheless really help us to get the contract!

(As an aside, Scala isn’t exclusively a functional language, but simply a rather elegant hybrid, i.e. multiparadigm language that is as fast as Java, but a lot more modern and with a lot less boilerplate. But really, I also wonder what the big problem is. True, you don’t find people with Scala experience on every other corner. But then, how hard is it for an experienced programmer to learn yet another language? Particularly one as accessible and modern as Scala? Take anyone who has some decent Java and Python/Ruby experience, have her or him combine the two and shake a little, and off you go. A new Scala developer in a couple of weeks.)

The other interesting development is a major reorganization about to take place in our company. Right now our team is one of four in the Java development business unit, and there is another business unit that does Microsoft (and one each for SAP and for business consulting, but these are largely unaffected by the change). In the future these two units will be replaced by two others called respectively “IT Solutions” and “IT Platforms.” I was rather surprised to learn, at a recent major event, that our team will come under the latter unit. I never thought of myself as a technology-oriented person. And let’s face it, the terms “platforms” and “solutions”, in this specific pairing, sound much like the former provides the technologies, as the foundations, and the latter builds the edifice–the business logic–on top of that.

Over the course of the evening I talked with both my (still) team manager and my present and apparently future business unit leader. They both argued that (a) the boundary between the two units will in practice be much less strict than it now sounds–both units will do application development, if with a slightly different emphasis–and (b) with the machine learning in the cloud expertise I am just developing I will be more logically placed in the more technology-facing unit.

Now it’s true, I’ve been using quite a number of technologies recently that might conceivably be prominent in an “IT Platforms” unit, e.g. Docker, Kubernetes, several kinds of databases, machine learning libraries, and so on. And in fact machine learning will be an explicit focus (one among five or six if I recall the presentation at the event correctly) of the future business unit. But still. I do think of myself as a regular, garden variety application developer. I use technologies as tools. I am not fascinated by them. Though I do know people who are, my business unit leader included. And it does seem likely to me that under his leadership the “IT Platforms” unit will acquire a rather technological center of gravity. In fact, in the first drafts for the reorganisation the unit was still called “DevOps.”

Well, we will see. I talked with the prospective leader of the “IT Solutions” business unit as well, and he said not to worry too much. He confirmed that in his opinion too application development will be done by both units, just with a frontend emphasis in the one and a backend emphasis in the other. And since I am decidedly not a frontend guy, I am most likely in the right place.

That conversation took a rather curious turn when we talked about his promotion to the new business unit leader position (he used to be–or rather, still is–a team leader in the Java unit). With this move, and one more vacancy created by other restructurings, there will be two open team manager positions in his unit, plus the one that my own team manager vacates in our unit come July. I asked whether he was confident to fill those positions with candidates from within the company (which is obviously, at this level, the preferred solution). He laughed because–as I realized belatedly–he considered this a loaded question. It wasn’t. Honest. It’s perfectly clear to me that in spite of my advanced years (I’m a year older than him) I am several years of relevant technical expertise and company experience away from being even remotely qualified for a leadership position, and besides, even if I were eligible I would have thought it the height of impertinence to ask for being considered.

When he became serious again, however, he explained to my surprise that (a) it was amazingly difficult to find people for leadership positions–most developers, or even consultants for that matter, are simply not interested–and (b) he had for a while thought of myself as having leadership potential. I was a bit flattered, but mainly quite embarrassed, particularly since he evidently suspected I had intended that turn of the conversation. In fact, it was an innocent question inspired by my own curiosity as to the chances of getting a colleague, rather than an outsider, as our new team manager.

Oh well. Some interesting perspectives there in any case. Looks like life after university might still be exciting at times. If I ever get there. Right now it looks like finishing the bachelor thesis will take a long time–in fact it still feels like I’ve hardly begun! And the sixth term is considerably more than half done–in fact there may be only 5 to 6 weeks left before the exams, which means four weeks or so hence I’ll be doing nothing but studying for those for a while. But enough for the moment. I’ll talk about our courses and practica in a little while. If I find the time!

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