On the 6th February, musicians, filmmakers and software developers gathered at the City Library to kick off the second cohort of the Ladders programme: free, 8-week additional industry insight in each creative/digital sector. The evening was brief, yet foreshadowing the next few weeks and acquainting the students to their industry mentors. For software development, Phil Jeffes was introduced – a professional software developer, previously working in radio, phone apps, social media streaming and gaming, to name a few of his achievements.

Once the team were guided to a workspace at the City Library, Phil swiftly dived into the details of the Software Development course. We discussed the sort of things that participants may expect from the course and to brainstorm their final project which will be showcased at the end of the course. There were faces of excitement, nerves and uncertainty – all of which were perfectly understandable at this stage. Nonetheless, it was lovely to see their willingness to take on a challenge. After a few technical fiddles and giggles from the group, Phil covered the beginning of the course content including basics, HTMLs etc. It was a very relaxing and encouraging way to start the week.

Wednesday followed up with the basics of software development. The session was filled with top tips, including the key software and tools for creating the webpages. The students were encouraged to use Brackets, a tool for creating web pages, to explore some of the possibilities that can be achieved with web design. Phil covered the basics, including how to use hex colour codes. As they began to build their website, questions were flowing: How can we incorporate gifs/moving images? How can we zoom in on an image?

We also looked at how we can make CSS which reacts as a user moves the cursor around the page. This allowed us to gain insights into user experience and user interface design which was an interesting way of putting yourself in the user’s shoes to visualise how they might approach and use a site you were designing. It was clear that people were particularly interested in the little tips and tricks, such as hovering over an image to zoom in, similarly to a shopping website. As the students began to improve, Phil covered how to make a smoother transition to enlarge the image. The students were very patient and continued intelligent discussions, filled with questions and suggestions for future sessions. Phil was delighted to see so much enthusiasm.

The first week has proven to have shown a mixed bag of different characters with various abilities and ambitions – some were covering old ground whilst others were thrown into a new and slightly intimidating digital world. This didn’t stop the constant flow of communication and teamwork amongst the group, thus ending the first week with pride and smiling faces. Phil was thrilled with the enthusiasm shown amongst the group, as he revs up and prepares for week 2 of the Ladders programme.

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Week 2 of Ladders is usually when the hard work truly kicks in and blimey, our industry mentor Phil lived up to it! The week began with an in-depth look at JavaScript and how it fits into modern web development (a key aspect in professional software development roles). The participants found JavaScript considerably more complex than HTML and CSS but really ran with the material and began to grasp the nature of the language by the end of the session. A few students took a step further as they began to experiment and create their own different variations of the coded solution provided.

Monday was just a warm-up as the students were then guided by Phil on an industry tour at Sage in North Park – a global company working with 6.2 million businesses across the world, revolving around finding the right software to suit accounting needs. This was the perfect opportunity for these aspiring software developers to get a taste of what their future could look like in this creative industry but most importantly, gaining perspective and making contacts.

Photos by Emily Robertson

The participants had not seen the inside of such a large office space before (it even surprises Phil to this very day!). The impressive atrium leads to many of the facilities available including a gym and café area which are all available to employees…let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to work there!? As well as hearing about the plans to overhaul the already modern looking building and updating some of the facilities, they were shown the main development area too.

Photos by Emily Robertson

After a fascinating tour, the Ladders team were given a short presentation from Ben Wilson, a designer who works on the development team. Soon after, there was a round table discussion with some of the development and testing team members: Denise Moorhouse, Liam Lagay, Russell Craxford, Melanie Smite and Adam Georgeson. The students were fully immersed, engaged and were pouring with questions about the hard-working lifestyle of these developers. This opportunity particularly gave a lot of perspective in terms of helping them understand what working inside such a large organisation would be like, something which is rarely exposed and discussed in depth.

Thank you to Sage for warmly welcoming us to your community of talented, wonderful developers. Week 2 has certainly given a realistic touch to this course, proving that finding work in software development or in fact any other creative industry isn’t an impossible task. It’ll be exciting to see how what they’ve learned will come to use in the later weeks…

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In weeks 3 & 4 of Software Development, the students were joined by an array of special guests willing to offer top industry insight and advice. So, why not compile this into a guest speaker special!?

Before the students were joined by professionals, Phil focused on Python, a programming language used everywhere from games programming to sophisticated mathematical modelling of complex physical systems. The language itself is very simple but it can easily be used to build complex applications. They first had a look at the basics of the language (introduction to how variables and functions can be written and used) then moved onto the more complex concept of classes. They also had a look at PyGame (a framework for manipulating graphics and animating them – to form games) and did a tutorial, creating an asteroids clone game from an existing codebase, but fixing the bugs deliberately left in the game. All very cool stuff, focusing on game construction which is impossible to not enjoy!

Industry insight kicked off with a company visit at Campus North where they had a look around the co-working space and some of the offices upstairs, firstly meeting GoRaise. They had an insightful chat to Adrian Gordon and Paula Donnelly about what they each do day to day. Paula is in charge of helping charities fundraise through GoRaise platform and Adrian is the CTO (Chief Technical Officer), currently in charge of overseeing a complete programmatic rewrite of the platform. It was interesting to hear about the wide range of roles within in the industry, many of which are unheard of.

Next up, Software Development met with Layers who are a digital branding agency based at Campus North. They help clients to realise their branding and marketing needs through the code they write to support the designs that James Hanson (Director) creates. Even one of the programmers was kind enough to give insight on his process and how he goes about translating the design brief from James into a fully realised piece of software.

Ben Mawhinney from Drone Labs was kind enough to stop by and offer some of his specialist tips and tricks to the team. His business helps connect drone created aerial maps with people who need the data. It’s an excellent platform for sharing the data that has been created from this emerging industry. He himself is not a programmer but has other technical skills and this helps him to communicate with programmers he contracts in to help him maintain the site. This was a rather insightful chat, highlighting how progressive this sector is. There are new roles being churned out every day which is always encouraging to aspiring tech fanatics.

We were then joined by Mark Hemmings from Fit Gurus, an app which provides personalised workouts straight to your phone. They have a huge and growing online community of fitness enthusiasts which of course resulted in a very useful discussion. It was fantastic to have insight on the success of apps – a very demanding aspect of the industry over the past few years.

Soon after they were joined by the wonderful James Rutherford, a well-respected contractor in the Newcastle tech scene. He talked us through some of the ventures he has been through (including some startups) and how he started contracting. Again, a completely different route in the industry which has masses of success and potential tied to it.

They also met Chai Lacombe-Bar from Mooshoo Labs who talked to us about her experience of getting into the Games Industry and how she has gone on to run a successful games company which also fulfils contracts for larger companies as well as creating their own games.

Finally, we spoke with Sarah Cox, a project manager from Texas who moved to Newcastle for the tech scene and has been involved with Agile Pixel – a web agency based in the UK and Texas. She told us about how she was interested in Tech and got started at a co-working space in Texas which helped her get into the industry. After showing a flair for project management she could move into a role where she helps clients trying to get a website to communicate effectively with the developers they need to create the site.

We want to say a huge thank you to our special guests who were kind enough to pass on their expertise to the Ladders team. It was particularly useful to be exposed to the various pathways that are accessible in the industry, which has left everyone feeling incredibly excited about what their future could hold.

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It’s official: we’re half-way through the Ladders course! Time flies when you’re having fun, ey?  I’m not sure how everyone feels about this, but I’m getting a vibe of excitement combined with terror. Mostly because we’re continuously learning and everyone wants to make a fantastic project; something that displays the time and effort us and the mentors have put in.

Thursday kicked off with the Introduction to Project Briefs session led by Jennifer Barrett, the founder and managing director of TICE. This covered the important questions like “what do you want to do for your project and why?”, “what do you want to gain from the rest of the course?” and “how is your project going to be beneficial for your future goals?”. We’re lucky to have such a varied cohort ranging from students, people who want to improve their skills, those wanting to use this as a springboard for business ventures and complete newbies who are curious to learn something different. It’s useful to get different perspectives from the group, especially if you’re stuck on a problem or need motivation, and it was really interesting to see what people have come up with for project ideas. We were given a project template to fill out, which helped us organise our thought process, set out what we want to do for our projects and chat to our mentors about how we might achieve this. Jenny also stressed the importance of project management, how to plan but also how to DO! Project research for the group might involve reading up on what other people have done, gaining inspiration from this and thinking of something unique that might fill the gaps that industry hasn’t yet.

The session finished with enterprise mentor Lee Casey having a chat to us about the enterprise support available through the course. The sessions aren’t just for people who want to set up a business right now; they will be useful for anyone who wants some insight into the business sector. Knowledge is power after all. Personally, the idea of being my own boss is particularly tempting, just so I can sit in a Pikachu onesie spooning jarfuls of Nutella into my gob, in between very important business Skype calls, whilst underlings make me tea. I’ve probably deluded myself as to what running a business entails… So hopefully I can find out the truth at the enterprise sessions in April!

On Saturday Phil ran a guidance session at Campus North to help us kick-start our projects and solve any issues we’ve had with our code. Sometimes code doesn’t do the thing you want it to do, which often leads to you staring blankly at the screen wondering “What am I doing with my life?”, only for you to realise you’ve missed out a character or forgotten to save the folder before refreshing preview page. Some programming languages are very forgiving, such as HTML and CSS, whereas others are so picky with how you write it that every attempt makes you want to bash your head repeatedly on the keyboard. Saturday’s session helped refresh what we’ve already learnt so far and added a few more tricks to our repertoire. I’m definitely looking forward to the following weeks to see how people’s projects are progressing.

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The last few weeks of the course involved plenty of project development sessions facilitated by Phil. It was easy to get caught up on quizzing other people about their projects; their enthusiasm and excitement were infectious!

Rather than choosing a specific element to work on like a website Lauren set herself a project theme, which was “time” so she could create handy widgets based on this. These included a stopwatch, count-down timer and an application that calculates how many days you’ve been alive (which is pretty scary). Lauren was conscious of understanding the code behind the application, rather than Googling for pre-written code or an easy solution. It is amazing how much code is supplied by generous programmers on the Internet, so sometimes the temptation to “cheat” is high. Maybe when we are more experienced shortcuts would be useful, but we’re still learning.

Debbie wanted to make an exploration game using the game engine Unity, which allowed the avatar to be easily customisable to suit the player. Her aim was to connect both gaming and IMVU communities in a dome-like world where you can visit different rooms and complete missions. Unity allowed topography and lighting to be easily altered on the platform, which was useful for Debbie when creating her world. One of the problems she encountered was incorrect shadowing compared to the sunlight in her game, luckily she was able to use the IMVU community to help her iron this out though this took a bit of time.

Nathan, David and I focused on creating websites that would highlight our skills and experience, whilst Alex made a website that would allow physiotherapists to check an appointment timetable and service-user contact information (available ten minutes before appointment times for data protection reasons). David does original artwork and tattoo designs which are awesome, I wish I had that artistic talent. He made a table to position images of his work in with thumbnails (for easy viewing) that expanded when clicked on using JavaScript. He also created neat links to his social media and Redbubble accounts.

Last but not least Anthony’s project was a puzzle game “Line Bound”, this involved a lot of JavaScript code, which I can’t even begin to get my head around right now. Once he established the template for the game he was able to edit this to create whatever designs he wanted. The aim of the game is to cross all the lines with your cursor, without crossing a line twice (which resets the game). Anthony does a better job at describing what he did than I do so here’s a quote from him:

“The process of creating the game was long and complex but became easier the further I was into the project. I began by creating a canvas followed by creating an array. This array continuously stored the location of the mouse cursor when the mouse button was held. Next, I created individual lines for each level. I was then faced with the most difficult problem I had encountered during the project; detecting when the aforementioned array passed through a line in the level. This took a good week to finally get working. I was still learning just as much during the project as I did during the first four weeks of the course. I feel like there’s still so much more to learn as I continue to update the game and proceed to other projects.”

After one of the sessions Lauren, Nathan and I ended up sat hunched over Anthony’s laptop obsessively playing this game because it’s super-addictive…

How far I got in the game before I realised I’m terrible at puzzles.

We are all grateful of the help and guidance Phil has given us during the course, especially when it comes to JavaScript (there are Bible-sized books based solely on JS, I’m not even kidding). It has been a brilliant opportunity.