Adam Alton is a software developer with over a decade of experience building web applications for Google, The BBC, governments and more. His specialisms include online privacy, digital security and high-traffic web platforms. An experienced mentor and leader of digital teams, he is now CTO of FidlLeaf, an online wellbeing and personal development platform.
What’s the story of your career so far?
Well, it started like this: I went to music college and got a degree in drumming. One of my bands needed a website and somehow that task fell to muggins here. Then our singer left and signed a record deal by himself.
After that I decided that I was going to change the world by building a website which would allow users to search for cheap UK train tickets by having it scan large time ranges and do cunning tricks such as joining together multiple separate tickets to create the best price (no such website existed at the time). It turns out that the skills needed to build such a website are somewhat more advanced than the skills needed to put some moody photos of a band online. But being largely ignorant of this fact, I went straight in at the deep end. About 4 months later, after a lot of work, a lot of swearing, and a lot of time reading Wikipedia articles to try to understand how the internet works, I had coded myself a prototype.
The prototype was terrible, technically illegal in the way it scraped its data off other websites, and ultimately a failure. But through being so determined to build it, I’d accidentally taught myself coding skills which could do a lot more than build a moody band website.
Fast forward a decade, I’ve now written code for (among others) Google, The BBC, Aardman Animations, a major UK bank and the UK & US governments.
But most excitingly, a year ago I quit my job to start something of my own – an online workplace wellbeing and personal development platform called FidlLeaf.
What do you love most about what you do?
The thing I love most about coding is that it’s creative. I think there’s often a misconception that coding is this really boring, robotic activity in which you move 1s and 0s around. But it’s really not. Having studied music I actually think that coding has a lot of similarities with composing music. They are both based on very simple building blocks – on the piano there are only 12 different notes (before they repeat), and in coding there’s only a limited set of instructions you can give a computer, and yet from these few basic components there are seemingly infinite possible pieces of music we can write, and infinite possible apps, programs and websites still yet to be created.
I also love that with FidlLeaf I’m now applying my coding skills to something that is really helping people. Especially in the current time, working on a platform to help support people’s wellbeing has felt particularly meaningful.
What’s the most important lesson you learned in 2020 amidst all the Covid-19 disruption?
I think that the biggest takeaway for me this year has been seeing that so many things which we thought were unworkable are actually possible if we really want them to be. The pandemic has stretched us in many ways, many of them not good. But lots of these challenges have shown us that we are capable of far greater adaptation than we might have thought, and that some of the changes turned out to be more positive than we expected.
I think we’ve seen during the pandemic that we can redraw the boundaries of what’s possible, that people have reconsidered what’s important, and that people overwhelmingly want to help each other.
If we want the easy version of climate change, then we’re going to need to make changes earlier rather than later. I hope that one of the positives to come out of the pandemic is that we’ve grown our imagination and our confidence to do so.
As far as you can predict, what’s on the cards this year for you and your business?
Wait, I’ve changed my mind! The most important thing I learned in 2020 was to not try to predict what’s going to happen!
But I do know that we’ve got some really exciting companies coming on board with FidlLeaf this year, so I’m really looking forward to getting their staff engaged in the platform, seeing it help people, and getting feedback so that we can make it even better. Part of the platform is a wellbeing self-awareness tool, which is based on an amazing piece of science. It’s primarily for the individual users, but we do allow companies to see the anonymised results, and we also look at an overall global summary of the results. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the trends are in the state of people’s wellbeing as we (hopefully!) transition out of lockdown.
We’re also running free wellbeing workshops every month this year. I’m happy to predict that, because we’ve put them in the calendar! We’ve already seen companies embracing these and encouraging their employees to sign up for them.
If you could go back and do it all over again, would you choose a different career path and why?
If there’s a different career which I would be better suited to than coding, then I don’t know what it is yet. But the question I often ask myself is: could I have discovered it earlier in life?
I don’t regret my music degree, it was an amazing experience. And if we only view education as valuable when it directly links to a career then I think we’re in a sad place. But I’m really pleased to see that coding skills are being taught in school now, and that people are being introduced to it at an age at which I barely knew it existed.
To anyone thinking of trying coding: do it. Some people find that they hate it and would rather get in a tumble dryer with a wasps’ nest. But other people find that they love it, and if you love it, then a whole new world is opened up to you. Those infinite possibilities of apps and websites aren’t going to build themselves. What will you make?
Dates and registration links for the wellbeing workshops can be found at https://www.fidlleaf.com/blog/free-wellbeing-workshop.