At Black Pepper, you have to speak up if something could be improved

As we’ve recently introduced Slack here, at Black Pepper, we’ve been thinking how to make use of its full potential. Granted, it’s both fun and useful for quick chats, but we wanted more.

So we came up with this novel concept of doing Q&A sessions with some of the guys and gals here in the team over Slack, so that we can then give you a glimpse into life at Black Pepper. We settled on one question a day, as most of us do tend to focus on programming, not answering questions asked by the nosy marketer.

The bravest one of us, who was not afraid to pioneer this idea, was one of our graduates, Dan Harris. He’s been in our team for the better part of a year now and he’s taken a bit of an organising role when it comes to social events at Black Pepper. That’s besides being an amazing developer and really making his mark on our projects.

Sound interesting? Read on to find out more.

So Dan, how did your story with Black Pepper begin?

So I initially got in touch with Black Pepper by sending them a speculative application. As a final year maths student, I decided I wanted to become a brogrammer programmer and started sending out applications. Black Pepper responded and I went to the office a couple of times to have an "informal chat" with Mark [red. one of our directors].

The second time I took my laptop along to show him some of the programmes I had written, hoping to wow him with my crazy skillz! He seemed pretty impressed at the time, but I've since found out that he's not a techie and so was just pretending to understand what I was showing him. He had me fooled!

For my third interview I had to tackle a Project Euler problem in advance and I then went through it with Chris - one of the directors. I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself when I arrived and he admitted that he hadn't been able to get the right answer (and I had :D) so I guess they had to hire me on a matter of principle after that (in Chris' defence, my method was also wrong but just happened to get the right answer). This was a fun afternoon and I learnt a surprising amount in a short space of time. Shortly after that they made me an offer and I accepted.

Oh! And I was then told that I was invited to the annual company holiday to Florence a couple weeks after my start date. Can't complain!

Right – not bad for your first job experience. Now let’s have a bit of fun: if you were a programming language, what would you be and why?

Hmmm... I'd probably be a functional language I reckon. They sit well with the way I think having come from a maths background - you have your input, it does stuff and you get your output. Simple. There's also none of this i = i + 1 nonsense that's clearly only true in the limit as i tends to infinity!

I'm also a fan of doing things elegantly where possible and the "code is data" mantra of homoiconic languages is an example of just that, which probably means I'd be a Lisp of some kind.

To narrow it down to a specific language, I think I'll say Clojure. It's young, new to the industry and still needs to prove itself, but there's potential there.

Okay, back to reality for a bit. What was your favourite project you worked on at Black Pepper so far?

One of the projects I worked on was essentially a social network for researchers, a LinkedIn for them if you will.

It was one of the first real-life projects that I worked on having only ever written (what I can now recognise as very hacky) code in my free time and so the learning curve was pretty steep. Although I often felt way out of my depth having to learn the basics of things like Git, TDD, Java, Spring, Maven, etc., whilst also trying to implement whatever new piece of functionality we were working on, pairing with the likes of Mark and Matt [red. some of our other developers] made the whole process a whole lot easier. They'd take the time to try and forget any assumptions that one can make after doing something for many years and take me through each part step-by-step.

So although it was hard work trying to retain all of this new information in my apparently puny brain, it gave me a firm foundation on which to build on in future and of course it's always good to be part of a great team.

Besides the programming, what do you like most about Black Pepper?

I guess the main thing that stands out for me is that everyone is made to feel empowered. This is actually one of Black Pepper's company values and the statement that accompanies it says "Everyone has the authority to do the right thing and to shout out if something isn’t right or isn’t working. We are all able to challenge the norm, to highlight where we should change for the better."

Since joining Black Pepper I've witnessed, on multiple occasions, that this is actually true and not just something to stick on the website for marketing's sake.

It's a great feeling leaving university and joining a company that doesn't get hung up on any bureaucratic rubbish, but rather treats its employees as adults and recognises that ideas for improvement can come from anyone; even a lowly graduate!

Things seem to have gotten a bit serious – how about we lighten up the mood with a series of quick questions?

Hey, you said one question a day!

Yeah, but these are really easy to answer questions.

Alright. Hit me.

Windows or Linux?

Linux

Facebook or Twitter?

Facebook

Andorid or iOS?

Android

Xbox or PS4?

Xbox

Batman or Superman?

Superman

Lord of the Rings or Star Wars?

Star Wars

Game of Thrones or True Detective?

Game of Thrones

Fish and Chips or Sunday Roast?

Sunday Roast

Lager or ale?

Cider!

Black pepper or salt?

Salt… it’s a better spice! (But not a great name for a company)

Right, back to full sentences now. What have you learned in your time with Black Pepper?

Wow, okay. Urmmm... I guess the easiest way to give an idea of the breadth of topics I've learnt about since I joined is just to list what I can at the moment, because it really is quite a lot so going into any detail whatsoever would take ages.

So, there's: Java, Spring, Git, Maven, continuous integration, TDD, ATDD, Linux, HTML5, CSS, Javascript, web development, design patterns and antipatterns, networking, continuous delivery, Vagrant, Ansible, SQL, Android, functional languages, agile and SCRUM, talking to clients, working as a team and presenting to name a few.

There's probably more that I'm missing as well but I hope this reflects what it is that I'm trying to say; I've learnt A LOT since joining Black Pepper. Although I'm by no means an expert in any or all of these things (for most, I hadn't even encountered them previously), I do feel I've come a long way from where I was 9 or so months ago.

And last question - what would a graduate need to make it big at Black Pepper?

I can only speak for a graduate developer but the general answer is the same as it would be for any career: enjoy what you do, don't worry about making mistakes, say when you don't know or don't understand, challenge the norm, don't take your work home, speak up if something could be improved... the list goes on but those are a few biggies that I can think of at the moment.

As for Black Pepper specifically, if you:

  • enjoy programming
  • enjoy working as a team (everything is done as a team)
  • love constantly learning (read: love constantly realising how little you know)
  • want to be surrounded by great people (hopefully I'll get a cake or something for this point)
  • and want to work for a company that values and invests in you

…then you'll fit right in here at Black Pepper and we'll have gained a great new member of the team.

Because we like to be transparent and take pride in how business as usual goes on in our office, we’ll post more of these interviews, trying to offer you a rounded view of how our team see Black Pepper and feel about coming to work every day. Look out for the next one!

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