From designer to developer: Recognising a new career path as an intern

by Kristina Hoeppner

Photo of Roisin PearsonRoisin Pearson was an intern in the Mahara team at Catalyst during the summer of 2017/18, and then continued working in the team on a part-time basis during the holidays and her last semester at university. We were able to hire Roisin for a specific project developing a timeline view for the open source portfolio system Mahara thanks to a Callaghan R&D Experience Grant for the summer.

I caught up with Roisin now that her feature is in Mahara 18.10 and available to the entire portfolio community.

Why did you become an intern at Catalyst?

I wanted to have real-world experience. I've spent three years at uni, but have never had a proper job in my areas of study. That's why I wanted to see what it would be like working in an IT organisation.

The job offered at Catalyst was perfect for me because it started off with design and then went into development. I found it quite hard to find jobs that were a combination of both design and tech. There is still a huge gap between design and tech, so it was cool to have the opportunity to do both in the internship.

What did you study at university?

I did Media Design for my bachelor's degree at Victoria University of Wellington, and a Graduate Diploma in Information Systems.

What did you do in your internship?

I developed the timeline feature, which is a sort of version control for portfolio pages allowing users to keep old versions of a portfolio page that can then be viewed on a timeline.

I started out in the design team where I could wrap my head around the concept of the functionality that I was to design. Had I jumped straight into development, I would not have had as good a start. It was good to develop the design myself.

The design team was really good at letting me experience UX design. I conducted lots of user interviews, talked to lots of people, and created journey maps. This is stuff you don't get to do at university. We never did all this research for a project, but just created the project without really thinking about who would be using it. That was one of the most useful things that I learned on how to conduct all these interviews.

And then for the development side of things I learned everything because I had never used the terminal and never used Git before. I had done some front-end and a little bit of PHP, but it was very different from actually working on an existing PHP project and learning all about proper practices. It was interesting to learn how to do the back-end work and see this side of computer science.

What I did wasn't just a task for me to learn something, but it had real-world applicability and thus made sense to me why I was working on this project. And the most exciting part was to push things to Mahara, see that I contributed to the project, and then also view my own design and code in Mahara itself.

The timeline is a cool functionality and it was fun working on it during the internship.

The hardest part for me was working in the Mahara codebase because there are so many files, and wrapping my head around that took a while. However, I found it interesting to see what an actual large-scale project looks like in the real world instead of working on a tiny one at uni.

It was very useful for me to see the transition from design to development. At uni, I haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in a project that combined both and gave me as designer the chance to follow up on how the design could be translated. On the timeline, many things changed over time when I realized that the original design wouldn't work how I had envisaged at first. It was good to have the design knowledge while I was developing in order to make those changes. That made me feel like it's an important thing to know how to do both.

It was great to have Robert and Cecilia as mentors because I learned from them how they do things. It was cool to also go to some of the workshops offered at Catalyst. I wasn’t limited to the work I was doing in my internship and had the opportunity to learn a variety of skills that expanded my general knowledge of technology and coding. Catalyst was very supportive of my learning and guided me through the whole process, understanding that I was relatively new to many developer practices. I always felt very welcome and my abilities were never doubted.

Where are you heading off to now?

I'll start as a developer at Xero, which is definitely something that I wouldn't have gone for without having been at Catalyst. I wouldn't have known that I wanted to go into software development. Having come here and experienced the support from the Mahara developers, I realised that I preferred programming to design. During high school there weren't any computer science classes so I never really had any exposure to programming or even knew what it was.

With this internship I had the chance to get exposure to that and gain experience. I'm so grateful for all that Catalyst has taught me and for helping me enter the world of tech. I may be back in the future so watch out!