Mark Allan is a Principal Software Engineer at Gearset with over 30 years industry experience, a Microsoft MVP, and founder of the Northern Ireland Developers conference. Bringing his vast industry expertise to Gearset as a Principal Software Engineer in our growing software hub in Belfast, Mark shares his journey to this role, and what a typical day at Gearset looks like.
What attracted you to Software Engineering?
“When I was in primary school, my dad worked at what’s now Manchester Metropolitan University as a Sociology lecturer with an interest in computers, and in lieu of childcare he would take me in with him and let me play games on the mainframe terminals in the room next to his office. One day I asked if there was a way to make them easier (or “cheat”, if you must) and so he showed me how to edit the BASIC code. Once I realised you could not only make them easier, but actually make them do entirely new things, I was hooked.”
What’s been your journey to a Principal Software Engineer?
“To cut a rather long story short, I hacked away on home computers from when I was a wee lad until I got a job in tech. Then I spent over 10 years in that job working for a computer manufacturer doing everything from BIOS code and operating system patches to building their first website (HTML 1.0!), and after that moved on to freelancing for 20 years, working on all sorts of projects big and small.
Eventually I decided to ditch the stress of freelancing, so I started looking into companies where I could do a “normal” job. After an amount of research, I found that Gearset matched my values best, so I applied, passed a very efficient and stress-free interview process and accepted a position. I’d never had a job title during the freelance years of course, but it turns out that over the years I’d accumulated a broad enough experience to fit the Principal Software Engineer role.”
What do you like most about the tech industry, and what tech intrigues you?
“The best thing about the tech industry (and possibly also the worst) is that it never stops changing, so you’re always learning and you never have the chance to get bored.
Obviously I’m as interested as everyone else to see where AI goes from here, particularly from an ethical point of view, but I’m also intrigued to see if WASI containers can deliver on their promise to bring more agility, flexibility and security to application hosting.”
A day in the life
“Well, if we take yesterday as an example, I spent the morning working on a couple of PRs, one to add some user-facing auditing to the Gearset application, and another tweaking Terraform scripts for our Kubernetes cluster. We also had our daily stand-up meeting (our team prefers daily stand-ups, but each team has their own way of working).
Because I’d chosen to work in the office that day, at lunchtime I went to the café for a free and very tasty lunch — the Cambridge office is very jealous of the Belfast lunches ;)
In the afternoon, I had a meeting with engineers from several other teams to discuss our UI component library, a social “watercooler” call with a couple of other randomly chosen people from across the company, a knowledge-sharing presentation from one of the other engineers, and a call with a customer to discuss a new feature we’ve been building.
In between this stuff, I did some PR reviewing, made some plans based off the component library discussion, and wrote up tickets for the next phase of development for the main feature I’m working on at the moment.”
What makes engineering at Gearset different from other companies you’ve worked with?
“It’s extremely collaborative. Even though the engineering department is split up into several small teams, you’ll find yourself working with people from other teams and other departments very regularly. From reviewing PRs, to diagnosing issues, to working on tech debt, to jumping on calls with customers — as a company we spend a lot of time listening to and talking with our customers!”
What sort of projects have you worked on so far?
“My team is working on what could be loosely described as enterprise features, so I’ve been mostly dealing with security-related areas such as SSO, team permissions, safe sharing of resources and the like. But Gearset being Gearset, I’ve also been mucking in on DevOps, frontend architecture and other such things outside the team’s immediate remit.”
What attracted you to join Gearset?
“The people. I bumped into the Head of Engineering, Luke, socially and we got on very well, and the Belfast office lead, Eamonn, is a well-known good egg, so I was fairly confident it’d be a good place to work. Fortunately it turns out I was right, everyone’s lovely (albeit disconcertingly smart).”
And, finally, the burning question: tabs or spaces?
“Tabs, for accessibility reasons. But if you’re not using an editor that can easily switch between them then you should probably do something about that.”