The year was 2016. I'd packed up all of my worldly belongings and crammed them into my parents' car, fondly named Dolly after the country and western singer of whom my mother was an unadulterated fan. Two hours later and we'd arrived at the university that I would call home for the next four years.
I'd only been studying programming for a few months at this point, as part of a module within my A-Level Computing, so the Imposter Syndrome was at its all-time worst. After settling into my studies, however, I made a bold choice; it was controversial with some of my lecturers.
I applied for a work-placement year in a non-programming role.
Contrary to my peers, who all took placement positions as software engineers or web developers, I was accepted to be the Junior IT Technician at an independent boarding school. As somebody who had not experienced the world of computing for as long as my peers, I wanted to soak up as much knowledge as I could in a concentrated period of time.
Despite the reservations of both myself and my lecturers, I have learnt masses.
Taking a technical placement that was not just more of the same, more of the coding that I'd already been taught, expanded my horizons; it broadened my knowledge.
So what did I learn?
Aside from some amusing anecdotes, my placement year taught me heaps. From general good-practice when dealing with computers, to habits and mindsets that can be brought to any project. Some of these gems I might not have learnt had I taken a year in a programming role. Perhaps they're completely trivial to the rest of the world, but on the off-chance that they're not, I wanted to share my lessons with others.
Hopefully they'll be of use to somebody other than me.
On a daily basis, I encountered many problems where 'X is broken' or 'X has stopped working'. 9 times out of 10 it was faulty software or out-of-date drivers. However, there are some problems that are caused by simply not taking proper care of one's tech. Something as simple as regularly cleaning your computer can save you hassles that otherwise could be costly or fiddly to fix.
So what can you do?
Firstly, a can of compressed air. They're cheap and easy to use. Just apply the nozzle and blast the dirt away. This applies to the interior of a PC Tower, or even a dirty laptop keyboard.
Secondly, anti-static cleaner, typically foam, goes a long way in giving your PC a spring clean. Depending on how disgusting the device was in the first place, the difference can be monumental - and I've seen some gross gadgets. I've lost sleep over some of them. Just spray the liquid onto a microfibre cloth, not onto the device directly.
You can also pick some other, dedicated tools for cleaning like miniature brushes to get those hard-to-reach crumbs from between the keys of your keyboard. (Although, if I was to make a recommendation, keep food and drink away from your tech. It's a recipe for disaster. I've cleaned so many dirty personal laptops that I could make another meal out of the scraps. Gross!)
Sometimes, when booting up, USB devices tamper with the start-up process. If you have devices like USB keyboards and mice plugged into your problem PC, take them all out and restart it. Once it has booted successfully, you can then plug them all back in one-by-one until you've either sussed out the problem peripheral or had no further issues.
If you have an old Windows laptop that is running slowly, a simple trick for speeding it up is swapping out the Hard Disk Drive for an SSD. You can learn what the difference between the two is here. Simply search on YouTube for a step-by-step tutorial on how to dismantle your laptop. It's easier than you'd think (and this comes from somebody who's now dismantled over 100 laptops, having started at 0).
Be aware that it will be a clean slate entirely - which means no copy of the Windows OS unless you've got one to hand.
Tip: Before you swap out the SSD, create a Windows boot disk. This will let you reinstall the OS to your new SSD. After this, you can transfer the license for your current installation of Windows to your Microsoft account. This will save you buying another costly Windows license!
If you're in a position to do so, you will benefit from a boost to your internet connectivity speeds by using an Ethernet cable as opposed to connecting wirelessly.
The perk of portable computers are that they are just that: portable. Yet for a lot of people, their laptops are their workstation too, as opposed to a bulky desktop computer. As the importance of ergonomics in the workplace grows, however, staring down at a laptop screen on your desk isn't going to be kind for your neck or back.
A laptop dock can change that. When sitting down at your desk, the laptop simply clips into the dock. A separate PC monitor, positioned more comfortably, can be connected to the dock that will take over the laptop's display preferences when it is clipped in. If you need to get up and go again, simply unclip the laptop to take it with you.
Beware of the price-tags that come with these nifty little pieces of kit, however. Their prestige has increased in the last few years.
My line-manager was a stickler for documentation. At first, I thought it was simply his proclivity for meticulousness. However, as time went on, I learnt the benefit of writing things down the hard way. You can never have too much information on one piece of paper. Whether intended for colleagues or as a note to yourself, the more pertinent information that can be written down, the better. You never know what might be helpful to somebody in the future. As somebody who struggles with her own memory, list-making and logging have become an integral part of my daily life.
The Radicati Group estimates that, in 2017, the average office worker sent 40 emails every day. I bet plenty of them were rife with grammatical and spelling errors.
If you are in the position where you need to send an important e-mail or create an important report, a good way to make spotting errors easier is to change up the font in some way. Whether you're increasing the font-size or changing the font-family from Garamond to Arial, a significant change to the font can cause errors to stand out more.
Another trick: read your text aloud. Errors are sometimes hard to spot on the page. Hearing the words aloud will help you differentiate between what your possibly-frazzled brain is reading and what is actually in front of you.
Finally, if you're really concerned about what you're sending out, the best piece of advice will always be to get a second pair of eyes on your work. Ask a colleague of friend to proofread your mistakes, and ask as many people as you can until you're happy that it's as close to perfect as you'll get it.
The age-old cliche reads 'nobody is perfect'; the world of work is merely a proving ground for that. Mistakes will be made. I made more during my placement year than I would care to admit. Some were small; I could brush them off over a cup of tea. Others made me feel so terrible that I had to disappear for an hour to practice breathing. I wouldn't be able to relax until I'd resolved them. There were times when I wished I could shrink down and crawl into a hole somewhere, perhaps spend the rest of my existence as a mole under the soil.
The most important thing I picked up during placement were techniques for managing my stress levels and protecting my mental health.
So following on from that:
No sensible human being can work all day, every day. Yet even in an 8-hour work day, you need to make sure that you can take regular breaks. Give your brain a moment to breathe. Whether it's a walk to the nearest newsagents, or - like in my case - to the staff room for a cup of Earl Grey and a Jammie Dodger.
The difference that a change of scenery can make to your mood for the next few hours is indescribable. I cannot count on one hand the number of problems that I spent 2 hours obsessing over, only to solve in 5 minutes after leaving the room for a little respite. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is all that's required, even if those fresh eyes are your own. Equally, it adds to the ergonomics point I made earlier. The NHS recommend regular breaks from your screen to relieve 'stress on your muscles and joints'.
This sort of practice is especially pertinent given the current climate within the gaming development industry, specifically with regards to 'crunch time'.
For somebody whose only, albeit limited, experience with computing extended solely to programming, the things that I learned on placement will be invaluable in moving forward with my technical career. Whether it is an approach to problem-solving that prevents panic or a sitting position that supports my spine, they are lessons that I will take forward with me into the distant future.
Anything else I remember, I will edit into the post. In the meantime, feel free to share your techie tips in the comments. And let me know if anything I've shared has been of use to you also.