October 28 is Lighthouse Labs' Five Year Birthday! To honour this exciting milestone, we're taking a look back at some of the past events and goals we've achieved, our favourite initiatives we have been a part of along the way, and what kind of impact they had after the fact.
Back in December, 2015, Lighthouse Labs received a call from Kate Armstrong of Emily Carr who, as a result of seeing the press around the Syrian Refugee Crisis, decided to start a program called Startland where she would help refugees coming to BC get the opportunities they needed to restart here as quickly as possible. In working with ISSofBC (Immigrant Services Society of BC), Startland turned into the TechStart and TechWomen programs; where schools like Lighthouse Labs offered scholarships in conjunction with funding and career support from ISSofBC. Those programs have been running for two years now and we're excited to catch up with one of our graduates: Jamal Alawes. Jamal was in his final year of undergrad at the University of British Columbia, enrolled in Kinesiology program when he first applied to Lighthouse Labs. Here he shares his experience working with the First Nations Technology Council and graduating from Lighthouse Labs Bootcamp.
How did you originally hear about the First Nations Technology Council?
I actually hadn’t heard about it in the typical sense of the phrase. I happened to be up quite late one night, Googling how to solve an issue I was having trouble with while working for a client. At the time, my back-end skills (if you could even call them that) as a developer weren’t especially sophisticated. Multiple pages deep into Google, I haphazardly stumbled upon the First Nations Tech Council website announcing that it was accepting students for an organization that I hadn’t actually heard of at the time: Lighthouse Labs.
What inspired you to pursue a career in tech?
I’ve been infatuated with computers for as long as I can remember. Over the years, I’ve acquired a handful of useful skills that I enjoyed practicing whenever I could, including building small, sometimes banal, web apps that I could use to assist me in whatever I was trying to achieve. I used to make projects which I’d never finish because there was no discernible end-goal to any of the projects.
This led me to do some small work, usually for free, for friends and small companies which allowed me to produce appreciable work that had a distinct realization or goal. While I was doing that, I could practice what I wanted and had someone who would appreciate the work I had done and was able to put it to use. Following that, I began freelancing. Eventually, and even though it was only part-time, freelancing became a pretty stable source of income and I accrued what is now a considerable list of clients for whom I worked and continue to work with.
Can you tell us about your experience as a student at Lighthouse Labs?
During the orientation and the first few days of the course at Lighthouse Labs, the instructors constantly caution students about how tedious and time-consuming the work can be. They tell you this for a reason. When you’re a student at Lighthouse, you fully immerse yourself into the life of a web developer. It’s sink or swim, so to speak.
I like to think that I thrive in those kinds of environments — especially when it’s something that I sincerely enjoy doing. The great thing about Lighthouse Labs is that most, if not all, of the other students are just like that. I found myself making friends very quickly — with the students as well as the instructors. Lighthouse fosters a great environment where everyone can work together and come up with solutions to problems that would almost always otherwise be impossible in such a short period of time.
Let’s talk about your first-year as a developer. When did you find a job and where have you worked?
The funny thing about my experience is that I was not immediately looking for a job. During my time at Lighthouse Labs, however, my personal plans changed dramatically. Near the end of the term, an instructor at Lighthouse, Corey, sat next to me and very casually asked me if I would accompany him for a job overseas. “I’ll think about it,” I said; and I did! I spent a couple days thinking about it, and shortly after I sent Corey a Slack message informing him that I would gladly accept the job.
We spent the next few weeks preparing — getting the necessary documents together, attending medical checkups, etc. Those were a hectic few weeks, but they flew by. The next thing I know, I’m in the Vancouver airport waiting to board a plane with a final destination of Entebbe, Uganda. I remember having a conversation with my mom on the phone that morning in the airport restaurant. I think that was the moment it became real for me.
The company that hired me, Analusis, tasked Corey and I with re-writing the software for another company, Ensibuuko, which specializes in providing banking/micro-finance software to community financial institutions called SACCOs. Aside from that, my work consisted of what was essentially mentoring Ensibuuko’s team of software developers.
What do you do now? What technologies are you currently working with?
Currently, I’m working at a great company called Coconut Software. It’s a start-up company from my hometown of Saskatoon. I’m working with nearly the same technologies that I was working with at Analusis — primarily Laravel and React. There are a handful of other technologies that we use on the engineering side of things, but we’re moving away from those.
Aside from that, I’m still writing software day to day, and still mentoring. However, I’m no longer making banking software; but financial institutions are still a large part of my career. Coconut Software focuses on providing enterprise grade scheduling software, primarily for financial institutions.
How has Lighthouse Labs bootcamp prepared you for your current position?
Earlier I said that being a student at Lighthouse means immersing yourself in the life of a developer. This cannot be understated. Thinking of it that way, then, I’m still more-or-less living the life of a Lighthouse student. I’m still learning every day, practicing what I’ve learned and acquiring new skills as much as I can. The tech industry moves very fast, so it’s in the best interest of any developer to stay on top of his or her game. Lighthouse Labs very much prepares its students to maintain this attitude.
What would you say to someone who wants to start a career as a developer with Lighthouse Labs?
If you really love what you’re doing, then don’t give up. It’s probably going to be difficult. It will certainly require your utmost determination — but it will be worth the effort. I love my job and I’ve been quite lucky to find a company that loves me just as much.
Conversely, if you don’t love what you’re doing, then perhaps you should consider the idea that software development isn’t for you. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like for someone to be in development for any amount of time who doesn’t truly enjoy what they do. There’s something out there for everyone; you just have to find what you enjoy.
What do you love about being a developer and the tech industry where you live?
I think what I love the most about being a developer in my hometown is that I’m kind of at ground zero for the tech industry here. Software hasn’t really been a thing for way too long in Saskatchewan, but over the past few years, it’s been emerging at an amazing rate. To be here, at what is virtually the beginning, is something special that I don’t think a lot of those in the tech industry get to experience.
Are you working on any side projects?
Yes, I still have an especially crowded directory of unfinished apps. I’m still in the habit of learning a new skill, exercising that skill during the construction of whatever idea I have and, once I feel I’ve learned the skill to a sufficient degree, I probably won’t come back to it for a while! That being said, I still freelance and that tends to take up what’s remaining of my free time.
Anything else you want to add about Lighthouse Labs, working with First Nations Tech Council, or working as a developer?
Yes! I want to take the opportunity to thank both Lighthouse Labs and First Nations Tech Council for providing me with the opportunities that they have. It’s unbearably cliche to say that this whole experience has “changed my life,” but in my case, it has. I really don’t want to provide any personal details, but there are a special handful of people at Lighthouse as well as First Nations Tech Council that have been more than instructors or just part of the administration; they hold considerable value in my heart and I just wanted to give those people a special shout out — you’ve all helped me so much more than you know. This has been such a unique, profound experience and I’ll always remember you for what you’ve done for me. Thank you!