Unlocking the door

Having decided I wanted to study Computer Science at Uni and having discovered that I needed to study An Access to IT course to get on the degree, I started looking at two local colleges.

South Trafford college was further away from home and the hours were split over the whole working week which would have made it difficult to balance with working part time and the alternative was City College Manchester (CCM) so I opted for them.

I remember having an interview with CCM. It was more of an opportunity to ask questions than a true interview. The two programme leaders were very enthusiastic about the course and explained exactly how it worked. There was a two week long taster course so you could try it out then the rest of the course could either be completed over one or two years.

The course consisted on different modules covering Mathematics, Communication skills (otherwise known as English), ICT (word processing, spreadsheets etc) and Computing (databases, programming etc). The course was mostly course work based with a list of credits available to study in each module. Some modules were equivalent of GCSE standard (Level 2) and some were A-level standard (Level 3). There was no grading, you either achieved the credit or you didn’t and the number of credits you needed to obtain depended on the course you wanted to apply for so people could learn at their own rate and pick and choose extra modules on top of the ones that were classroom lead.

I opted to complete the course in a single year, it was only 12 hours tuition a week but it was classed as full time and it was taught in condensed blocks Monday to Wednesday which meant I could continue to work nearly 30 hours a week by using the evenings after college and weekends.

It wasn’t easy to balance things and my poor wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) barely got to see me. If I wasn’t at college I was at work and if I wasn’t at work I was looking after my mum or working on assignments.

Going to college entitled me to a £600 grant and I spent this on building a PC for the first time. It nearly went wrong as I didn’t secure the heatsink properly over the processor but luckily I didn’t damage the board and eventually got it working. The machine I built was quite high end for its time and I chose a case with a transparent side and blue neon lights on the fan so I could admire my handy work.

I loved everything about college. I loved writing essays and doing presentations for the Communication modules, I loved the new world that was being opened up to me in the computing modules and became very proficient with spreadsheets. I was also making new friends and learning to drive.

It wasn’t until November that I started learning to programme. It was Visual Basic, a language I thought was the bees knees at the time but now only makes me roll my eyes up to the sky. I took to it like a duck to water. I felt a sense of accomplishment in creating little windows form apps. I made a very simple game I called Santa Chase that involved 9 squares that changed colour and you had to click on the red ones (Santa) to score points or the white ones (snow balls) for less points but avoid the black (coal) squares that wiped all your points out. As the timer counted down the squares would change faster and faster. It was like whac-a-mole, very simple but also very addictive and I built in a leaderboard and the ability to change the colours of the squares too. I was quite impressed with myself considering I’d only learnt what programming was a mere couple of weeks earlier.

I also made a fairground style game where you picked one of five horses then watched them race to the finish line with a random winner and different odds for each horse earning different virtual winnings. Another game was similar to this but it was two swimmers in a swimming pool – you against the computer and you had to double click your mouse to move your swimmer forward.

Then there was the Christmas card that played one of five random Christmas carols and had a Christmas tree complete with flashing lights on the front and a random greeting with personalised message on the inside. I was completely hooked.

When I discovered that I could actually create Visual Basic Applications in Excel I put my new skills to good at work. At the end of every call we had to record a note on the system about the call so if a caller rang back we’d have a history of their contact. There were two separate computer systems, one for PAYE and one for Self Assessment and the format of these notes were very specific but different for each system. It was a repetitive, laborious job and it was time consuming.

On a Sunday I did a 10 hour shift and Sundays were very quiet so in between calls I built a VBA in Excel that enabled you to tick a couple of boxes and the note would be generated for you, all you had to do was paste it into the relevant system and add any specific additional information required. It probably saved about 20 seconds a call, which soon adds up.

At the time I had a very good manager who wasn’t threatened by new ideas and he adopted it for the whole team. Another way I used my newly acquired Excel skills at work was related to leave entitlements.

In the call centre, our leave entitlements were calculated in hours rather than days and for part time staff if was pro-ratad based on the number of hours you did per week. This got particularly complicated for students like me and those with families that worked full-time part of the year and part-time at other times. There was no system for calculating this leave, it was all done by hand by the HR team.

I wanted to be able to work out my leave for myself so I setup a spreadsheet that enabled you to calculate leave entitlement and it could handle up to five different numbers of hours worked a year. I also built in another tab that calculated your remaining leave balance as and when you took it as this too was done manually.

When I showed what I’d done to HR, they asked for a copy so they could use it, several members of my team were already using it. They even asked me to become the treasurer of the social club, which I duly obliged even though I was never a member of the social club.

In order to get onto my chosen course at the University of Salford, I needed to get 27 credits, including a programming credit. In the end I achieved 30 credits but it very nearly went horribly wrong.

Our work was kept in lever arch folders within a locked cupboard in our main class room. We were only allowed access whilst we were in class supervised and then they were locked away. A few weeks before the end of my course, my lever arch folder suddenly went missing. I was devastated, without that evidence, I wouldn’t have got my certificate proving the what I had achieved.

Every student was questioned but nothing came of it then one day a student who had missing large chunks of the course handed in some work that didn’t look like his own. To this day I’m perplexed by the stupidity of some people, for one of the assignments he handed in as his was a programming assignment with print outs of the source code.

Programming is a bit like writing in general in that students tend to have there own style and my code would have stuck out like a sore thumb thanks to the humorous way I’d name things. Even more stupid was handing in a piece of work that was written in my own handwriting under exam conditions and still had my name on it. I’m guessing he didn’t look under the cover sheet but UCAS were notified, he was thrown out and I could breathe a sigh of relief, I was going to Uni.