Joining a Tech Startup at 17 Years Old
 
10 minute read ⏰
 
Typically, after graduating from secondary school, you are faced with two options: further your education in college or… don’t. I took the road less travelled and ended up working in a startup in the heart of London. Here’s what I learned along the way.
 
I would say that the majority of my life I’ve known that I’ve wanted to work with technology. Since the early days of my childhood, I’ve always been fascinated by the topic, from fiddling with the television as a toddler, to messing around with my parents’ laptop and trying to make my own games at 12. I picked up Python along the way and since then I’ve been using it on small personal projects here and there.
 
Fast forward to a couple of months ago and I was in my first year at Farnborough Sixth Form College studying Computer Science, Philosophy and Graphics Design. I quite liked college: the people and teachers were all friendly, the facilities on site were outstanding, and it felt as a modern and progressive school. I left my secondary school to seek out a better education, and I was more than delighted to go to Farnborough. However, that meant leaving all of my friends behind. To also put into context, Farnborough was an hour and a half away from my home. It was a long journey. An exhausting journey. I took a bus, then a train, another train, and then rode my bike from the station to the college — it was madness. I was completely aware of the journey I would have to make, but I decided it would be worth it.
 
As the terms progressed, I found myself at a bit of a roadblock. I started a side project which grew to a state where it was taking over a lot of my time. I would come home from college, tired and wet from the winter rains, and sit down for another 4 hours of programming. Instead of doing assignments in the library I would work on my project; I would even secretly code during some classes. I also wasn’t happy with the content of my Computer Science course — I wanted to jump straight into the world of programming and gain some hands on experience — instead my lessons mostly focused on learning the theory without getting much practical experience.
 
It all came to a point where I couldn’t handle both sides. I felt myself getting pulled from every direction. On top of it the pressure of mock exams was looming round the corner too. I sat at home wondering how I could escape this feeling of entrapment and stress; I had to change something and it was simple — leave college.
 
I started digging, browsing through the web in hope of finding something else, an escape, a different path. I stumbled across apprenticeships. I didn’t really know much about them but had some general knowledge. I thought it was mostly for manual labor jobs such as plumbers, or becoming an electrician. I had the same stigma as everyone else had in the UK. That all changed when I found WhiteHat — tech startup working with companies such as Google and Facebook, providing an “outstanding alternative to university”, i.e.: an apprenticeship provider.
 
I treaded lightly as it looked a little too good to be true. I checked the current open roles and it was right there — software engineering. I clicked and started reading. There were two job roles that stood out to me, one with Investec (a banking and asset management group) and one with WhiteHat themselves. WhiteHat were searching for an internal software engineer apprentice, and Investec were looking for someone to join their online banking tech team. Both were offering a fantastic opportunity to begin a career in tech. I was getting excited.
 
There was however, one problem. The entry requirements for every job role stated: “Level 3 qualification (BTEC, NVQ or equivalent)” — meaning I had to finish college first before applying.
 
I applied anyway.
 
I went through the process of creating a profile, filling in my past experiences and the jobs I wanted to apply for. This was all on the WhiteHat platform. I got a telephone call a week later. It was WhiteHat. They understood my situation and were intrigued to find out more. I was asked some technical questions to prove that my knowledge was up to scratch. It consisted of mostly showing my understanding of what programming is, some programming procedures and frontend/backend related questions. I was successful and at the end they offered me to come in for one of their “kick-off” days.
 
By this point in time I had to provide some convincing excuses to my teachers as to why I was falling behind. Several assignments in my Computer Science course were in red with a big bold “MISSING” stamped on them. I swiftly used this new apprenticeship opportunity to buy some more time — luckily it bought all the time I needed.
 
I do have to give an honorable mention to Chris — my Graphics Design teacher. He always supported me along the way. When the pressure got too high, I sat down with him one lunch time and released everything. We talked for about an hour discussing my problems and this new apprenticeship opportunity. He explained to me how this opportunity could be a lot better in terms of where I was in my life — even if it meant leaving college. And so, a thank you to Chris who really understood the situation and gave me the hope I needed.
 
Convincing my family wasn’t easy. Like myself, they had no previous knowledge on apprenticeships. Persuading them to be comfortable with the concept of dropping out of college, abandoning my A-Levels and jumping straight into the workforce was quite the challenge. I addressed the benefits that an apprenticeship provided but also had to look at the risks involved. What if I find that I am not enjoying it after a couple of months? Can I return to college? What happens to my certification if the company goes under? These were all things we discussed thoroughly. We all agreed I should continue forward, but with caution.
 
I took a week off school to help me focus. I was now in the interview stages with the companies I applied for, Investec and WhiteHat. The interviews for Investec were quite tough. There were around 15 candidates and it was a full day of group activities and solo work. We did the typical code challenges, talked to HR, understood the business values, and got a peek at what we would be working on. The WhiteHat interview process was not as intense. It was an afternoon in their office, getting interviewed by the tech team, other teams that would work closely with them, and finally an interview with one of the founders.
 
I left both interviews feeling confident and in a couple of days I received offers from both companies. I now had to pick between two companies that would take me on and develop my skills in programming and software development. Investec is an established, long-standing company while WhiteHat is a small, young company that’s rapidly growing. Making this decision was actually a lot harder than I thought. It came down to what I would actually be working on for a year and a half.
 
I chose WhiteHat.
 
Even though Investec offered a fancy high rise office, desks with huge monitors and a higher salary, I had to choose what would suit me best. WhiteHat’s mission is to build a new and exciting path for the future of apprenticeships in the UK which resonated with me. The environment I saw throughout my interviews featured an enthusiastic team that all shared a common goal. I felt that I would gain the most knowledge and experience in this type of environment.
 
I left college and said my farewells. It was a tough decision. A dramatic change. But I am positive it was worth it. I still miss some aspects of college, like the debating and thought-provoking questions explored in my Philosophy course; my teacher Simon who was amazing and I will truly miss. The friends I had started to make also began to vanish — it was great while it lasted. I had a lot of fun but this change needed to be done.
 
The UK education system wasn’t the system I fitted in. I learn by doing, I learn by trial and error and I learn by being practical. College unfortunately didn’t provide that sense of learning for me. I disliked exams, I dreaded revising, and I wasn’t keen on learning seemingly unnecessary information when I could get stuck in straight away and use my time more productively.
 
Since I joined WhiteHat, my world has completely changed. Everyday is something new and I’ve met many wonderful people. Opportunities are popping up everywhere, from attending CogX, to taking part in ThinkIns. I am proud to say that at age 17 I am writing code that is being used in production! My knowledge has exploded with new and interesting skills, I’ve been learning new programming languages, databases, pipelines, understanding business needs… I could go on forever. My coach is indispensable and I am learning a tonne from the senior developers that are by my side. My confidence and personal development have also grown, and to top it all off, getting paid is a nice bonus!
 
Life as an apprentice is quite different from school, but it’s very exciting. I’ve gotten a lot more involved with the community as well, hosting events for other apprentices, making new friends and building those important connections. Overall, this journey so far as been an incredible experience.
 
I am very lucky to have turned my hobby into a career — especially at this age.
 
After my apprenticeship, I will have completed my Level 4 qualification — making me a certified Junior Software Engineer. With that, the doors are quite open for me. I am very excited to continue through this path and see where life takes me. I plan to continue writing blogs on my journey. I am in a very positive position right now and I can’t thank enough the people around me — they were the real game changers.
 
Thank you for reading :)
 
Published on August 27th 2019
 

Written by Alexandar Gyurov

London, GB