In Xander Hurley’s job, two things are certain – his code either works or it doesn’t. And it’s a world in which his deafness is no obstacle, he tells Leo Benedictus
So … I pause, because this is a question I have dreaded asking. Erm … what does a software engineer actually do? Xander Hurley stares quizzically across the table. He is a long-limbed young man, with floppy blond hair and blue shirt. He has already explained how he meets clients, discusses with them what they need, and then goes out and makes it for them.
“Can I borrow your pad?” he asks. I slide it over, with a pen. “For example, if I was to create a calculator to add two numbers together.” He pauses, looking suddenly concerned. “I hope this doesn’t sound patronising?” Not at all, I assure him, and probably impossible. “OK. Bear in mind I’m using C#, which is a language, part of Microsoft .NET.” Consider it borne.
Hurley writes “value1 = 10” on my pad, followed by “value2 = 20”. “This is pseudocode, by the way,” he explains, “not actual code.” I nod fraudulently. “Now I want the code to take these two numbers and add them together.” He writes “int result = value1 + value2”. “Now, ‘int’ stands for integer. It’s a whole number. And that,” he points to the word “result”, “is a placeholder, which is like a bracket for holding numbers. It’s just a name. It could be anything.” He crosses out “result” and replaces it with “Xander”.
“So you add value1 to value2, and that gets assigned into there.” My pen hops about the page in his large hand. “So ‘Xander’, after doing this, will contain 30.” He looks up like a maths teacher who has just made everything clear, and sees, as maths teachers must often do, an expression of poorly simulated comprehension looking back at him. What I am still struggling to decide is whether software engineering is in fact much simpler than I had hitherto imagined. Or far, far more complicated.
Certainly what Hurley does with C# most of the time would be beyond me. He is a member of the data exchange team at RM, a large education software company, in the dowdy bowels of whose Oxfordshire headquarters we are sitting now. Here Hurley spends most of his days building computer programs to help schools manage their information. At the moment he is working on a way of enabling pupils and parents to access their own data themselves.
“A school has a desktop that has all the students’ details in there,” he explains. “Maybe their medical records, maybe their attendance records, the homework they’ve got to do, all that kind of stuff … So assuming the relevant data is there, the students can access their homework from home. Their parents can check on their attendance records from work, if they like. Even their timetable and what classes they’ve got, and so on. All that data has to be moved, and we deal with the data exchange. We’re writing programs to do all this stuff.”
He grins reassuringly, and hands back my pad. Writing computer code was not Hurley’s first career choice, but his success in it has been remarkable when you consider that he was born – and still is – profoundly deaf. “I wanted to be a pilot,” he says, uttering the words with his distinctive pronunciation. “But then somebody pointed out to me that you actually have to use the radio and listen, and I rely heavily on lip-reading. So obviously I had to find a different outlet.”
And while he thought about his options, Hurley played computer games. “I was often playing flying games,” he remembers. “So working with a computer became second nature, and I kind of drifted into computing. I realised it’s actually quite useful for me, because I don’t have to rely on listening so much, apart from instructions on finding out the requirements.”
And it is hard to imagine that even this is very difficult for him now. Despite a cochlear implant, Hurley’s level of hearing remains among the worst in the whole deaf population, and as a child he had no opportunity to acquire language in the normal way, learning instead to articulate each sound without the benefit of hearing what he was saying. Yet, besides his style of pronunciation, which takes a few minutes to get used to, he speaks quite normally, and follows what I say without error. At first, I was astonished at how little difference his deafness was making to our interview – it has been no more inconvenient than talking to someone with a strong accent. But now, perhaps 10 minutes after we sat down, I have forgotten about it altogether.
Even so, Hurley’s career in software is indeed remarkable. Not because his deafness has seriously impeded his work, but because it made it so hard for him to learn the skills he needed in the first place. At 19, just as he was starting a software engineering degree at the University of the West of England, most of what little hearing he had disappeared. And as the course progressed, he found it increasingly difficult to understand what was going on.
“I had to lip-read heavily,” he remembers. “One on one, I had no problem. But in a group context, in a massive hall, when the lecturer is maybe 10 or 20 metres away, walking up and down, turning to write things on the blackboard, answering questions from somebody behind me, doing this with his pen while he’s talking …” He taps mine pensively against his teeth, and looks exasperated. “I wasn’t getting a 10th of the information that everyone else was getting.”
Twice Hurley repeated his second year, with no interpretative or note-taking support, reading as much as he could in an attempt to keep up, but it was hopeless. Twice he had to pull out of exams at the last minute, for fear that his final degree would be ruined by the mark he got. When local authority funding at last became available, Hurley got the help he needed at the third attempt. And finally he went on to complete his degree, six years after beginning it. “It was a communication barrier I had to get over,” he says, with admirable equanimity.
After university, Hurley worked first for an online distribution company, before quickly getting a job at Salisbury Hospital. Then, just over three years ago, he joined RM. The principal pleasure of software engineering, he explains, is that computer code, unlike so many other areas of life, is always either right or wrong. And this sets clear challenges for the programmer to overcome. “I’m one of these people who plays with a Rubik’s cube,” he remarks. “When I’ve done a particularly complex piece of work, but it works, and it’s proven to work, you’ve solved a puzzle. And you get satisfaction from doing that.”
This is Hurley’s very positive way of looking at it, at any rate. It certainly seems hard to believe that he could be so sanguine about every bug that pops up in his code – and bugs, he assures me, pop up endlessly in everyone’s code. “You learn not to get frustrated,” he says. “You learn to think, right, it’s obviously not working this way, let’s do it a different way … That might take another five or 10 minutes, but it will be quicker this time around. And if that works, I think, so what’s different? Then if I compare them, I go ‘Aaahhh!'” He releases a big sigh of relief.
There is one undeniable drawback of being a software engineer, however. And it is clear as soon as I raise it that this is one problem Hurley does struggle to keep calm about. People call him to fix their computer problems all the time. “Even friends,” he says, “but obviously friends try not to take liberties. When it’s your family, they just go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a computer problem, I’ll just wait for him to come round.’ Then one day when I visit them, they’ll go, ‘Here’s a list. Could you take a look at the computer for me?'”
I tut, and arrange myself in a position of sympathy. “There was one time when my mother had a computer problem,” he continues, warming up nicely, “and she couldn’t work on the computer the entire week. She was literally begging me to come over one night to fix it. That was the time when I was living in Bristol and it was a nearly two-and-a-half hour trip for me. So I went home and I found the problem, and I thought, how am I going to present this in a way that makes them think, next time, instead of just picking up the phone and calling me, they should have a look around first?”
How indeed? “I went to my mum,” he says, “and said, ‘Look, I think I know what the problem is.’ I made it sound quite dramatic. ‘I think you forgot to turn the plug on at the wall.'” He is momentarily speechless. “They called me – two and a half hours to come home – to go like that!” He snaps his fingers furiously at an imaginary switch, and immediately his rage subsides into a grin. “Because of that,” he chuckles, “my parents now always check everything before they call me.”
Pay “A fully qualified software engineer could probably expect to start on somewhere from £21,000. Then, going up the pay scale, depending on how much responsibility you’ve been given, you can go up easily to £40,000, maybe £45,000. Someone at my level, not leading a team, could be expected to earn anywhere from £28,000 to £32,000.”
Hours “I’m contracted for 38 hours a week. But as long as I do that, they’re quite happy for me to come in later and work later, or start earlier and leave earlier. And you get extra pay for working overtime.”
Work/life balance “I’m quite happy with it, actually, because I have the stability of the hours I work. If finances are tight I’ve got the option to work some more hours, which is nice. But at the same time if I wanted to have a half-day on Friday, I could work one hour extra on Monday to Thursday.”
Best thing “I enjoy the challenges it gives me, the fact that I’m being pushed a little bit more every time to get something complicated done. It keeps the job exciting.”
Worst thing “Every application I write, every code I write, every single thing that I do, I have to have documentation outlining it in detail. I appreciate the importance of paperwork, but nobody likes doing it.”