The Unconventional Developer: How to Travel the World Coding Mobile Apps
Last year, Vadim Drobinin graduated from the bachelor programme ‘Software Engineering’. Now, he works in London for an ambitious startup which promises to revolutionise the common internet search. Not the stereotype of the introverted programmer who writes code all night long, Vadim travels frequently, writes a recipe blog, teaches, and gives presentations at conferences all around the world.
The advantages of small companies and a developer’s career path
When I was looking for a job after graduation, I had interviews at Uber in Amsterdam, but decided to turn down their eventual offer. Uber is a huge company and thus not very flexible. Working in such an environment is way harder than in a small company. At Uber, I can’t go to the CEO and say to him or her, “This won’t work. Let’s do it a different way”. Right now, I work for a small British startup. We want to rethink the Internet search, given that more and more people are using voice technology. So far, we are doing quite well and have received investments from people who used to invest in Google and Airbnb, back when they were small companies being run from the garden shed. Here, I feel that I can really contribute to the decisions the management make, and this is a feeling that I do not want to lose.
Development is about creating new universes. I make something with my own hands which will be used by millions of people all over the world. I can bring it to life with a flick of my finger. I always loved developing websites - you write a few lines of code and instantly see the result. If you write a server, you won’t see anything until someone implements a frontend to interact with. I have a developer’s view of the world. We understand the science behind the magic that happens when someone clicks a link in a browser. This is the same feeling I had at university and this is probably why I liked studying at HSE, as my peers tended to have the same attitude towards learning.
What HSE teaches you and how to succeed
Mikhail Ulyanov's course on Resource-Efficient Combined Algorithms taught me how to apply a very core-level approach to computer science and I still use it in my daily work. We were also lucky enough to have a very good English lessons, and I’d say I now use English much more than any programming language. All our courses related to teamwork were very helpful, especially the psychology courses and project management lessons. There was a great extra-curricular course by Pavel Manakhov and Sergei Pronin on designing mobile interfaces. It consisted of two parts: user interfaces and development in Swift. Pavel Manakhov explained how a developer who had never thought about interfaces could create something from scratch by simply writing code according to the designs. This is very important. At my company, I don’t just write code- I also help to connect the various aspects of product development, server architecture and design. Thanks to this course, I am able to communicate with the designers in a language they understand.
Even if robots take over the world tomorrow and need both a new programming language and humans to code for them, I’d still be able to cope
One of the main advantages of HSE is that it never obstructs one’s progress. All our projects and initiatives, from hackathons to a trip to a conference in California three days prior to exams, have always been supported. I would advise students not to be afraid to communicate with the administration and to seek opportunities outside the university. This is still important, even though HSE is, in my opinion, the best Russian university for Software Engineering.
Work anywhere and increase your customer base
Participation in overseas projects gives you scalability. A Russian-language based app, which has not been translated into twenty languages, has an audience of twenty million, at best. When you develop something in English, the audience is automatically greater than a hundred million. This is simply because it is in English, and there are more opportunities to reach out to foreign customers.
Another advantage is that everything is more accessible. In our team, there are people who were born in Germany, studied in the USA, and now work in England. They have friends everywhere. This allows you to quickly find contacts. There is a joke that our so-called “IT bubble”, the circle of people in the world of IT, has no borders. Interviews for mobile developer positions are almost identical, and usually the working language is English. You pack your suitcase and that’s it- all of a sudden, you’re working at a new place in a different country. I'm very lucky- thanks to hackathons, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot. And when I used to work remotely with foreign companies, I learned to adapt and to work in an international team. As a programmer, I'm not tied to a particular country or programming language. Even if robots take over the world tomorrow and need both a new programming language and humans to code for them, I’d still be able to cope.
Working on foreign projects and how to get started
My first big foreign project was at Upwork. It's a platform where people who need developers post their requests. At some point, customers started to ask me if I could make apps for them. In 2015, my classmate, Alexander Ziminin, and I won the Apple WWDC Scholarship competition and got tickets to the largest conference for mobile developers: the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in California. I frequently give talks and even occasionally organise meetings and conferences. Since 2015, I have been involved in CocoaHeads Russia, Mobius in St. Petersburg, and AppsConf at Skolkovo.
My first major hackathon was the HackTrain in 2015 in London. Participants travelled for three days across England and wrote code. This experience was the beginning of the WaveRoll project, which was discontinued after two and a half years. We had experienced the industry’s pain ourselves, and so we created a B2B system which was built into the mobile application. For example, with its help, companies were able to collect traffic usage data on each of the trains travelling around the country.
Interviews for mobile developer positions are almost identical, and usually the working language is English. You pack your suitcase and that’s it- all of a sudden, you’re working at a new place in a different country
Until recently, there was no centralized train monitoring system in the UK. If a train was stuck or delayed, the driver had to call ahead to let officials know at subsequent stations. Train travel is the most popular form of transport in England, and so it was very complicated and difficult to scale it. To automate the process, the Darwin system was invented. We built our own program, using the Darwin system as a base, which increased user comfort. For example, it showed which carriage a passenger should pick in order to find an empty seat. Companies who used our solution were able to receive detailed information on late trains, connectivity issues and passenger traffic in each carriage. To make this information available, we used iBeacons and data from TV tuners to generate a heat map. The project was supported by the British Department of Transport. To continue working on it, we registered a company in Estonia and received Estonian e-citizenship. This doesn’t really help you to get Schengen visas faster, but it enables you to create a bank account in the country or open an office there in a few clicks.
How it all started
There is a stereotype that programmers are anti-social people who write code all night. I always wanted to do something more social, such as managing teams and developing projects. I used to do lots of linguistics, so I was trying to decide between doing Computational Linguistics and Software Engineering. However, when I won the Moscow Olympiad in Informatics, I decided to apply to HSE. After the first module, I asked about switching to the Fundamental and Computational Linguistics program, but decided that having to study Ancient Greek wasn’t worth it.
My programming career began with web development in high school, back when we used PHP and CMSs such as WordPress. Then I started using Python and now I mostly use Swift. If a person knows one or two programming languages already, the third one can be learned relatively easily. Swift is very similar to Python in terms of syntax. They are not cumbersome Java constructs or unreadable C++ structures. There is an elegance in the code. I studied it mostly through online courses. The best one was a course by Paul Hegarty from Stanford University. It is updated every year, and I still check the new versions as they are released.
After the first module, I asked about switching to the Fundamental and Computational Linguistics program, but decided that having to study Ancient Greek wasn’t worth it
Every summer, I used to go to the Summer Informatics School near Kostroma, where children from all over the country would spend three weeks programming and developing their own projects. After I finished school, I continued to go there as a teacher for four years in a row. I taught industrial programming, where we focused on the quality standards of real companies.
Hobbies and plans for the future
In the ninth grade, I realized I would one day have to leave my parents, move to a dormitory and cook for myself. It was not an appealing thought. I could only boil an egg, or maybe make a fruit salad without cutting myself. I decided that, every week, I would cook two dishes, take photos and publish them in a blog to motivate myself and get feedback. By the time I finished school, I had published more than 150 recipes. It was interesting to write about food and take pictures, and to experiment with recipes. At the same time, I traveled around Europe, stayed with locals on Couchsurfing, hitchhiked a bit and recorded my impressions in the blog. At some point, I began to publish on foodncities.com and turned the whole thing into proper travel notes. These notes were eventually published in a book entitled "A Blog Without a Name and Address" (Ru: Блог без имени и адреса), which can be purchased in Russia.
I love surfing, but it's hard to find a spot near London, so all I can do is create mobile apps for fun, or travel. When a person gets better at what they do, what used to take eight hours takes three, so the remaining time can be spent on something more interesting. Recently, I have been setting up automated testing for apps that will be released in the App Store. It won’t require any human interaction, and a system of bots will imitate buttons being pressed, interact with each other and check that everything is correct. Full-scaled end-to-end testing is an incredibly interesting topic. One of my future projects at this company involves non-trivial cases of interaction with Siri, which are not discussed in programming textbooks. I hope that I will have the opportunity to choose projects from various areas and to increase the range of topics I work on.
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