John Clarke is a self-taught software developer with nearly 20 years’ experience writing code and building things. After running a successful e-commerce business for a decade, he now finds himself working as Commercial Tech Lead for NewsNow.co.uk, one of the UK’s top ten media websites, where he’s responsible for everything ad-tech. John’s main job is to solve business problems, which, more often than not, involves writing and shipping code.
What’s the story of your career so far?
Having a knack for computers, I taught myself to program as a teenager in secondary school. I used to play around in Microsoft FrontPage, putting a web page together with the WYSIWYG editor and checking out the markup it produced to see how it all worked. Same story with macros & VBA inside an Excel spreadsheet. However, I never realised you could get a job doing it – coding seemed like a fun hobby or, at best, a productivity aid. I went to university to study medical science, thinking that might lead to a “proper job”, but spent the time between lectures setting up an ecommerce website in an effort to drum up some beer money to fund my student lifestyle.
As luck (and a considerable amount of effort) would have it, the website was making enough money by the time I graduated to support me full-time, so I registered it as a proper business and left life in the lab behind. For the next ten years or so, my job was “small business owner”, which included everything from customer service, posting orders, SEO & marketing and, of course, development of the site itself.
I sold the business in 2016 and was left wondering what to do with myself. It was only then that I realised software development might be a feasible – and enjoyable – career.
By this point, I was, and still am, living in a remote corner of the North West Scottish Highlands, so finding a 100% remote role was essential. Luckily, NewsNow was wise enough to see the benefits of a remote-first development team long before the pandemic struck, so I applied for a remote Web Developer role and have been here ever since. I’ve worked my way up through the ranks to Senior Full Stack Developer, and now Commercial Tech Lead, where my main responsibilities involve overseeing everything ad-tech related.
What do you love most about what you do?
I genuinely enjoy writing code; solving business problems with technical solutions is what gets me out of bed in the morning. But the best bits are the satisfaction that comes from successfully rolling out my code to tens of thousands of users online at any given moment and being able to directly measure the impact those changes have through a rigorous split testing methodology.
The cherry on top is the knowledge that NewsNow is aiming to make the world a better place through the democratisation of news media – a real social mission I can get behind.
What’s the most important lesson you learned in 2020 amidst all the Covid-19 disruption?
That working from home – something I’ve so far taken for granted – is a real skill in and of itself. Actually, it’s a collection of skills and requirements: to make it work, you need a strong sense of discipline so as to work well under your own steam, great communication skills to make sure you’re being heard and hearing other people (it’s important to over-communicate when working remotely, to compensate for the lack of casual conversation found in an office environment) and you need a distraction-free and comfortable working environment. You also need to be comfortable with only yourself for company (barring video calls, which are a regular part of my day), and you need to put effort into maintaining a healthy work/life balance and enforcing some separation between the two.
Working from home sounds ideal on paper, but it’s really not for everyone, especially long-term. I’m one of the lucky ones.
As far as you can predict, what’s on the cards this year for you and your business?
NewsNow.co.uk is one of the UK’s top-10 media websites, so we’re facing many challenges you might expect from a large publisher, such as the battle against “fake news”, attracting and encouraging a younger audience to engage more with the news in general, and encouraging users to read more widely – both in terms of developing their interests in new topics and being open to different perspectives around any particular story – a balanced news diet.
In the coming months, we’ll also be launching the biggest product overhaul in the company’s 23-year history, which we’re all very excited about!
If you could go back and do it all over again, would you choose a different career path and why?
Although my career so far has involved a lot of luck and stumbling in the dark, I wouldn’t change a thing. The transferable skills obtained from running my own business have proved immensely valuable in my career as a software developer, helping me hone my senses of pragmatism, communication, and the understanding of what makes a business tick – all of which I consider essential for anyone wanting to be more than just another cog in the machine. There’s a lot more to being a software developer than just writing code, and many of those skills can’t be found easily along a more traditional career path.