Life at the BBC
For those of you not in the know, I used to work for the BBC. It was actually my second major programming job back in 2002, I remember turning up for the interview suited and booted but still had my goatee and my septum piercing. Even then I was convinced that I didn’t need to remove these to get into a good company. I was certainly nervous for the interview and I walked into Bush House which has an interesting history and was mostly used for the BBC’s world service radio programs.
I can’t remember the name of the person who interviewed me but I remember that he was a Doctor of something and scared me a bit. I had been a professional Perl developer for a little over 15 months and had learned everything so far from a few O’Reilly books, the Perl website, the IRC channel and the very odd place that is Perl Monks. You have to also remember that this is before StackOverflow existed and in my first major programming job I was actually making most of it up as I went along so joining what I thought would be an organised development house like the BBC for me was a massive step up.
The BBC were recruiting for developers for digital television, they sought out C++ programmers to be able to program the software on the set top box and were using Perl as a delivery system to send news and program information to the boxes so that when the analog switch off eventually happened users of the BBC service would still be able to get all the information they could, at the time they were (and I believe still are) outputting data on three different services, satellite (mostly run by Sky), cable and Freeview.
In my interview, I was quizzed a little about Perl and how to do certain things in it but the main focus was questions about television delivery. Now I was still a naive newbie and had really no idea how any of that works. I was 26 years old and entering an entirely new realm of information. To be honest with you I walked away from the interview thinking that I had well and truly messed it up. To my utter surprise later on in the afternoon, the phone call arrived offering me a position on their digital satellite team and of course I jumped at the chance.
Over the course of the next few months, I honed my Perl skills by talking to my superiors and doing as much home study as I could. My first major task once they let me loose on the main project was to convert the live “What’s Next” feed known internally as SiD. This was no easy thing to code, the application had to have multiple threads so that it could receive new information from a feed and add them to a processing list. A second thread was then needed to process the files made by the first thread and put them into a format that could then be transmitted to the set top boxes. I can remember being very stressed about this feed because it was one of those apps that needed to just work and if it broke just pick up where it left off seamlessly no matter what state it got itself into. Apps like this when you are still learning a language are not easy to write but I did it and within 3-4 months with the help of some of my colleagues I had a system up and running that went live. At the time the penetration of digital TV was minimal, around 20,000 people in the UK had a Freesat set-top box in their home and was using the service which by today’s standard is tiny but for me, there was a massive sense of achievement that these people had reliable information sent to their TV sets.
Over the course of the next two years, I transferred more services to be supplied to digital, got swept up in the world of Scrum methodology, enabled set-top boxes to use page numbers in a similar way that the analogue service known as Ceefax worked. You can read a little bit of history on Wikipedia about Ceefax which includes information about it’s switched off and transfer over to Digital. There is a bit of pride about knowing that I was there at the beginning of the digital switch off and was hopefully a very useful cog in the massive wheel that is the BBC.
I stayed at the BBC for about three years, the friends that I made I am still in touch with today. Some of them moved up to Manchester when the BBC closed the operations of both Bush House and Television Centre. I have some very fond memories working for the BBC, there were annoying moments when the red tape would get in the way and make our job hard but I do believe that the digital team I was working with was trying to carve large holes in this red tape in order to move the BBC into the next generation. Working for the BBC also taught me a lot more abut working with a team of people in order to provide the best service that we could. I may have turned out to be a very different programmer today if it was not for this job. The moral that I would like other developers to take away from this is that you don’t necessarily have to have the confidence or even knowledge to make your career move forward. Also remember that although you may not be able to work for people like Facebook or Google there are some good companies out there that have challenging and useful work so go out there and challenge yourself.
Have you worked for anyone that you feel has significantly changed your life? Do you have any aspirations to work for a company that may change lives because of one of your geek loves? Tell us about them via the comments section or over on Facebook.