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Housing – Why I am leaving Vancouver and going to the US

Vancouver - Falsecreek

My decision to leave was made with the following understandings: that if I stayed here I would be very unlikely to afford a place of my own, and that if I wanted to take my career to the next level I would need to work for a larger company than Vancouver houses. And with the exchange rate between Canada and US, it seems a perfect time to go to the US now.

This is my journey through reasoning why I am leaving Vancouver, BC. Of course I am not alone a Angus Reid Poll estimates that a staggering 150,000 struggling families are seriously thinking about moving away from Metro Vancouver to avoid the region’s housing costs and transportation issues.

Wages in Vancouver do not match the cost of housing

In Vancouver, BC the average wage is $76,805 per year — if you borrow three times your salary you can afford a place to live at $230,415. The average place to live in Vancouver on the other hand is $857,015. Globe & Mail reports that Vancouver is the worst place to live in Canada for difference between wages and Housing. Last year the Financial Post stated that Vancouver was the most expensive place in North America. The Demographia Housing Affordability Survey puts Vancouver, BC has the second most expensive place to buy a house behind Hong Kong.

In Vancouver, the Chinese have helped real estate prices double in the past 10 years.

Here’s how the Chinese send billions abroad to buy homes – Bloomberg Business Nov 2 1015

Controversial foreign ownership study is about money — not race: Vancouver planner
“Money is no longer connected to what you do and where you live”

In contrast, Vancouver median incomes remain among the lowest among Canadian cities, while home prices in the region are the highest in Canada. The way government structures are set up in Canada means that Canadian municipalities are relatively weak and rely on other levels of government to set policy. Business Vancouver Nov 6 2015

Shrinking housing sizes

What these figures do not show is the shrinking of the size of the place you can buy. So you could pay $500,000 for a 500 sq ft apartment. Most of the places built now have stupid small kitchens, which encourages people to eat out. What does all that salt do to your health? Let alone the psychologically impact of living in a box. I have no problem with density and I believe cities need to increase it, along with good transit.  That said, an apartment should to be liveable, it has to give moments of peace away from your work, and personally I want a good kitchen and somewhere I can share food with people.  The current builds are not good for people.

Down Payments on a Mortgage

I have spent most of my life working for the community, non-profits and Government. I have got by, but I do not have the savings for a house down payment, I have no family to inherit from or provide a financial security blanket. This has been my biggest barrier to buying a place.

You can get a mortgage with just 5% ($42,850.75 on the average place) of a down payment but you then need to pay mortgage insurance. Premiums can vary anywhere from 0.5% to 3.5%. A great way of taking more money from poorer people. If you have a deposit of 20% you need no mortgage insurance. So 20% of the average place $171,403 is what you need for a down payment.

The Have and Have nots

Toronto, Vancouver house prices still soaring, stats show
Benchmark detached home is $1.2M in Vancouver, while average detached runs $1.07M in Toronto

CBC Nov 5 2015

Of course one of the problems for access into the Housing market is everybody who owns a place does not want the housing market to dip, because they are making money off it. Collectively that is a lot of political power, money and votes. This from people who do not want it to get easier, if it hurts them.

In Canada it is also getting harder to borrow money even though the Interest rates are low. I have so many friends in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s who have just given up the idea of owning a place in Vancouver. They are also torn by Vancouver being a beautiful place and they want to live here.

The Economic Divide – is it sexist?

It feel like we are about to reach a point where people will never be able to buy a place if they do not do it soon. Whilst this obviously hurts younger people, it also hurts people who work in lower incomes i.e. women and caring professions.

I have already lived (Cornwall, UK) in a place where teachers/nurses/non-profit/carers/government (still a much higher percentage of women), could not afford to live anywhere near where their jobs were based.  There the average house price was £500,000 and average salary was £16,500 pa in 2008.

Transit

Any good city needs Transit.  I have expressed my opinion on this in a previous blog post, when the City asked for more money (via Tax) to invest, Vancouver said no.

Beyond owning a place

The rest is my feeling and experience of the Vancouver job market after 8 years in multiple startups/technology companies.

Career Opportunities

In Vancouver there are fewer software jobs than about two years ago when there was a lot of more opportunities. The companies that are now looking for software engineers tend to be small and medium sized startups with fewer career opportunities for growth than larger corporations. That said, we have a few more global companies (e.g. Amazon) here than before, so it is possible the lack of jobs is due to the a depressed market now. With national figures showing Canada is currently in a recession, despite a recent job news showing an increase but these are mostly in the Public Administration, in Government.

I changed career after 20 years in campaigns/communications/marketing/public office/leadership/training as I felt the Vancouver market was very limited in these areas for someone in a senior position. I knew that to grow my career I would need to leave Vancouver and I was not ready to move, as I love this place.

This and my need to create again (my first degree was Computer Science, 1996) led me down a two year path of re-educating myself  (via BCIT evening courses and small web contracts) in software engineering with modern languages specifically for the web. With three years additional years of web development (in full time work) under my belt, I am in a similar position of wanting to grow my career.

Leadership Quality

In Vancouver, software leadership roles are generally promoted from within (few come with quality training for the internally promoted person to gain leadership skills) or some outside “star” usually from a US company, used to working at a much larger scale. In fact I can only think of one person who received their leadership training outside of the job — and they were my best leader. I have also worked with a lot of non-technical leaders which is a different kind of challenge.

In Vancouver in eight years I have had three leaders who have inspired me out of nine.  In the UK the ratio was higher, I think in part because of 360 degree Appraisals which are more common in UK, leading to a faster/tighter learning loop and higher leadership quality. It is possible my experiences have been unusual, and I simply been unlucky with my leadership in Canada. However, when I ask my friends how many of them had leaders who inspired them, most agree it is rare in Vancouver and that they had better experiences in Toronto/Waterloo/Ottawa. Other skills they shared they felt missing from ‘Leaders’ included giving feedback, risk management, change management, empathy and conflict management.

Training

In the Vancouver job market your learning is often self directed and more often self funded. Sometimes a company will have some money available but not much. One very Global company I worked for made it impossible to claim the so called 50% off Tuition costs. More European/US companies seriously invest in training and their leaders, the UK recognized this problem a couple years back and started investing in it, in every sector.

The irony is the Canadian Federal/BC Government has made available monies for training and whilst the program is not perfect — it does not recognize online training — not a lot of companies apply for it. There is also tax credits for official education institutions and even bootcamps now. Training and Conferences are something I have had to negotiate in my contract to get them in Canada. I would like to see this as more of an active partnership than what I have experienced here.

Pay

In the technology sector the pay is a lot lower compared to US cities.

Lets take http://www.payscale.com or http://www.glassdoor.com as a comparison. In Vancouver the average Senior Software Engineer would be paid CDN $ 89.214, in San Francisco it would be US $130,00, New York US $95,000. The big differences is not so much in base salary, but in the bonus which is often 10%-20% of your base salary and then shares gifted at again 10%-20% vesting over three years. These last two are not common in the Vancouver market. In fact few companies appear to share success in Vancouver. There are even a couple that claim to be startups, but are actually family business with no scheme to buy stocks or share the company’s profits.  Maybe they like the label startup, its good for marketing and recruitment.. and you can ask your people to work harder and longer.

An added bonus for working in the US is the current exchange rate whereby you would get an extra 20% to 30% when converting your US dollars into Canadian money. Taxes are also generally lower in the US.

BC & Company Benefits

A lot of small companies will do the minimal in terms of benefits and BC employment law (thanks to the BC Liberals) is so pathetic in compared to well everywhere, that some employers think they can get away with offering crappy benefits and they do.

And then there is 3 months wait for extended benefits, by some, not all Vancouver companies. Do they not care about the health of their new employees during the most stressful part of a job.  All of the companies I interviewed with in the US start extended on day 1. Still Canada has a better health care system then the US.

Cost of living

Ok lets not be blind here, you need more money to live in a bigger city. Using numbeo/expatisan it rates Vancouver 34% cheaper than San Francisco, or 23% cheaper than Chicago.  This seem greatly affected by exchanges rates, so I am sure they give me some indication but they are not entirely accurate.

Cost of living comparison between Vancouver, Canada and Chicago, Illinois, United States – Expatisan

  • Food 8% less
  • Housing 24% less
  • Clothes 12% less
  • Transportation 23% less
  • Personal Care 20% less
  • Entertainment 37% less
  • TOTAL 23% Vancouver is cheaper than Chicago

Numero comparison

  • Consumer Prices in Chicago, IL are 22.63% higher than in Vancouver
  • Consumer Prices Including Rent in Chicago, IL are 23.63% higher than in Vancouver
  • Rent Prices in Chicago, IL are 25.43% higher than in Vancouver
  • Restaurant Prices in Chicago, IL are 31.30% higher than in Vancouver
  • Groceries Prices in Chicago, IL are 23.89% higher than in Vancouver
  • Local Purchasing Power in Chicago, IL is 8.19% higher than in Vancouver

Healthcare

The United States is ranked No. 1 for most expensive healthcare per capita at $8,233. Conversely, Canada ranks No. 6 worldwide and is over $3,700 cheaper than the United States at $4,445 per capita, according to a 2012 OECD Health Data study using 2010 statistics. Americans pay over 17 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) towards healthcare while Canadians sit at about 11 per cent.

From what I can work out I will have to something like $100 to $180 a month to get a similar service to that in Canada, with the exception that serious stuff is paid for me after a ceiling but I am still paying a percentage. Where as in Canada serious stuff is part of our Health Care system.  If you have a domestic partner you will have to pay for health insurance for at the cost of $3,000 per year. If you are married, your companies health scheme would cover them at much less cost but roughly about an additional $1,600 to $2,000 per year depending on the scheme you chose.

Actual Work Culture

Every company I have worked for in Vancouver has “over sold” how good their culture is and made it sound like the best place on planet earth. They will rarely talk about the weaknesses and problems they are encountering, things they still need to fix. Maybe I am at fault here, I am from the UK and we are direct people, and not scared of conflict.

The companies I interviewed with in the US were a lot more honest about what they were good at and where they needed help. Their leaders were more vulnerable, something that engenders more trust in me.

Culture is formed from all the ways people communicate with each other, the more honesty the better.  And honesty should be matched with kindness.  How you start any human relationship for me says a lot, yes be proud but also be honest. You really get a sense of how good a culture is and how good the leadership is when you or the company fails in some fashion, what level of forgiveness is there? Also on the opposite side how does the company celebrate success? Values and Ethics matter.

Technical Challenge

Working for a company that is actually working at scale i.e. Billions of transactions versus Millions, is hard to find in Vancouver. A lot of the companies here are building a form of Marketing platform and/or B2B platform, often at a much smaller scale. Successful B2C is rarer in Vancouver.

In software you are out of date pretty much every three months, you have to love learning and I do.  I have built a number of “social media platforms” and job sites I want something more complex.

Relocation

I moved from the UK to Vancouver with a lot of stuff in 2008.  It is not cheap, there are many things to be careful of and the insurance can be a killer. Advice given to me specific to a US move is that the initial offers do not match the actual cost.  That technology is hard to move and expensive. And inventory everything.

Oh a really important thing to watch is they will give you an estimate based on what they think gas will charge. Then ding you for the actual amount when you arrive. And in some instances if you live where they can’t get the big moving truck and need to move items to a smaller one, they ding you with that too. Plus you need to be very careful with valuables. I think one friend ended up with an empty box instead of a playstation the last time she moved. And my move back to Chicago was $1000 more than quoted because of gas and miscellaneous charges.

Make them Saran Wrap all your furniture. All my furniture got nicked. Even though they paid for my insurance claim, I wasn’t about to replace my furniture so I just end up with ugly furniture.

Risks

If you go to the US there are a bunch of risks:

  1. There is no employment insurance for you in either countries
  2. Your TN Visa will expire and you will have 30 days to pack up and leave the country
  3. You pay double on Relocation, there and back again
  4. Trips home cost a lot more money
  5. If you have a Spouse or Partner they cannot earn money.. so what do they do? Do not under estimate this
  6. You have no credit score in the US and it will take months to a year to build one. Get a secured credit card ASAP.
  7. Consider how you will maintain your Canadian Credit score

The actual job that got me to move

A couple years ago I once met a guy at a software conference who was a mentor like me and was very passionate about his company. I liked him but he worked for a finance company that have a reputation of not being innovative (FinTech had not really kicked as a trendy thing).  A number of years later the same company started an apprenticeship scheme and posted it online on github so anybody could use it. Wow I thought they are a company to watch, it was smart, courageous and risky.  Another year that guy emailed me and asked if I could recommend any good software development managers. I did (not me).

I got contacted by a US recruiter (NeoHire North) looking to bring people from Canada.  We explored an opportunity together and I started to realize that maybe I could move to the US.  The TN Visa is simple enough you need a company that wants to sponsor you.  You can bring a spouse into the US with you or you could get a B2 Visa for Domestic partner that has to be renewed every year.

So I reached out to the guy and said, hey do you still need any Software Development Managers?  Yes we do.  Two Interviews were done over the phone and seven in person.

The thing that really struck me is I really liked the people, all of them and they were so different.  I asked them all the question “Why do you work here?” they all spoke with passion and vulnerability. In the end I had a number of opportunities both in Canada and the US, on the table. Whilst this company did not offer the best financial package, I wanted to work with these people, learn from them and help them be the best they can be. And the finial package is substantially better then anything I would be offered in Vancouver, and it means one day I will have a box that I can name as our own.

Emotional Journey

It fucking hurts to leave your friends, to leave the mountains, to leave the sea, and it is an exciting time in terms of Canadian Politics (I am hopeful that the Federal Liberals will do a good job and the BC NDP could revitalize BC).  The emotional journey of moving country/city is a hard one and should not be under estimated.

Is it over for me and Vancouver?

Maybe not, I hope given a number of years I will be smarter, wiser and better off. Then I could come back and share what I have learned and find somewhere to live.  That said, I fear if Government (Federal/Provincial and City) keeps ignoring the problem, not finding a way to collect data, to truly understand the problem and find a solution; then I will come back to find the situation much much worse. Then I will find a new home in Canada.

Brian Jackson (retiring City Planner) foresees no change in ever-upward pricing pressures on housing unless Ottawa shifts immigration policy or applies land purchase restrictions on foreigner buyers or the Bank of Canada hikes interest rates.

Retiring Vancouver city planner blasts ‘the haters’

Possible Housing Solutions?

In my time in Vancouver I have spent about $115,200 in rent over 8 years.  My biggest problem was having a downpayment. I will add more ideas to this as I learn more:

  • Make it easier to pull together the downpayment, maybe larger companies could help their employees
  • One idea I considered exploring was buying with a bunch of friends and living together
  • Have better building regulations in making Kitchens actually useful
  • Re-define what Government thinks is affordable

Checklist for moving to US from Canada

Apply for your Social Security Number – It can take 2-3 weeks for your SSN to be processed and this number really is needed for most things. Do it as soon as you have your visa, you can ask for it as part of the visa process, do this.

Open a Bank Account – Once you have a US mailing address and SSN, you should get to a bank and open an account so you have a place to deposit your US paycheques and an account to start paying bills from.

Get a US Credit Card – Apply for a prepaid credit card where you would leave a $1000 deposit for a $1000 limit on a credit card. Use this to slowly build credit over the next 3-6 months and then you can eventually ask for your deposit back. This is essential to build a Credit Score.

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Becoming an Elected Politician

Ten years ago (May 2005) I was elected as a public politician for the county council seat of Newquay North in Cornwall, UK. Whilst being the campaign manager for 17 county candidates and 1 Parliamentary candidate. Together we won 17 seats..

Here is my journey in politics not my whole life and not certainly not all the politics..

Elected Councillors

Messy Upbringing

I reflect often that I coped with a messy upbringing by reading a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy books. They gave me a place to retreat to, but at the same time I was learning what society and what humans could become. They showed me how certain principles could be taken to the extreme and what kind of society we would end up with.

Why was it messy? Well my mother disappeared when I was 6 months old and I ended up in foster care for a number of years, changed schools a bunch of times I think 6 before the age of 14 and yep my father and step mother were both good fighters.

Fantasy books test the different ways people can grow up in a good versus evil environments. I got to explore many societies, many cultures, some human, some alien, and many pathways through life. The best and the worst of what society could become. I recall Spock once saying that with infinite diversity comes infinite possibility, maybe here is where my Liberal and Social leanings come from.. I have always known I want to leave the world in a better state than I arrived in it.

A quote

I once asked a teacher, why they wanted to be a teacher

“There are no innocent bystanders.”

William S. Burroughs

This quote has stuck with me for most of life, because it put words to something I already strongly believed in. This quote has driven me to go down the path I followed, it has made me feel guilty for inaction and has given me part of the reason to be better.

A little bit of confidence (1982)

In my last year at school I got involved in Young Enterprise (school pupils setup a business with help from local business people and try and make a profit), started as the Sales Manager and eventually became the Managing Director. This got me talking/selling in front of other people (on the street and in shops). I also had my first experience with public speaking to an unknown audience when we won one of the regional awards. I remember to this day how much I shook as I spoke.

 “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Samuel Beckett

Learning about Print and Design (1982 -)

One of the services we offered as a Young Enterprise company was Letterhead printing, as I had access to Desktop Publishing System (Quark Express and Apple Macintosh) through my Dad’s company. In fact, through this I taught Pagemaker and Quark Xpress to printing professionals and they taught me the print profession. I started to learn how to communicate effectively and impact fully through print.

Calm under fire? Strategy, Tactics and problem solving (1982 -)

Thinking through strategy, tactics and problem solving grew out of my Wargaming (Advanced Squad Leader, Warhammer 40K, Space Marines Epic). Dungeons & Dragons (tabletop role playing games) also contributed to my confidence and creativity as a teenager as well as the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes. There were many times when I stood as the leader in chaotic circumstances and I developed a rep as “calm under fire” with my friends. Whether it was true or not, it formed a part of who I am now.

My first vote

In 1989 European elections and I voted Green. My view at the time was: no planet, no human race.. The result to me was shocking. Greens got 2,292,705 votes, nationally 14.9% (UK), and got not one MEP (Member of European Parliament). To me, the election system seemed screwed up, so this started my journey in exploring how elections worked.

Standing up for others (1992-)

During my first year at UoH (University of Hertfordshire) I found I enjoyed sharing my understanding of software/computers/networks. I have often found it “easy” to explain very complex things in terms anyone can understand through analogies.  I quickly became one of  the “mentors” and helped many students, and thus became one of the informal course representatives. This course (Software Engineering HND) was really well taught, I enjoyed it and performed very well and got offered the opportunity to move up to the degree course.

I think it was near Christmas when the student halls (Pembroke Halls) I was in were trashed. The University responded by sending a notice of eviction to all students and taking everyone’s deposit. This is a hall with 220 students and the walls were made of “paper”, one of the those temporarily buildings that stays around for a long time. The facts were unclear but cause was likely a mixture of students and locals from Hatfield who sneaked in. I worked with students to get their parents to challenge the University through the court and force them to prove their case. Of course they could not, and a compromise was established. Both the Halls Association and the Students’ Union did nothing.

So in the next election cycle I stood for both. For The Halls Assocation I stood for election as Vice-President and for the Students’ Union (UHSU) I stood as Communications Officer, and was duly elected for both. These elections taught me how uncomfortable it is to “sell” yourself. But these were my first elections as a candidate.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world”

Mahatma Gandhi

Public Speaking

During my second year at University I expanded into unknown territory and became a member of the Drama Society. Standing up in front of people was shit scary. Overtime I learned to pace myself, I learned how to project my voice, I learned timing, I learned to practice and memorise my lines. I learned to take complexity and simplify it. I learned to perform and act a character that was not Eric. Whilst Roleplaying games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) started this journey Drama took this to the next level.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Michalangelo

Student Politics – University of Hertfordshire Students’ Union (UHSU)

My year as Communications officer made me concentrate on student engagement/involvement/motivation, getting students to general meetings, demonstrations and also learning how to do publicity well e.g. putting up posters. During this time I used to go to food places to stand on a chair and tell all the students what was going on. I got used to speaking in front of a couple hundred people who did not care about what you care about, and I learned the best places to put posters.

The Conservative Government was in the process of removing students grants (money for food and accommodation) for University and considering charging for each year of attendance.  I am not sure if I would have gone to University if it was not free.  Free Education became a part of my political beliefs at this time.

I got the attention of the NUS Regional Officer (Nick Berg) who asked me to help out with training the colleges on Regional Training Weekends. NUS taught me how to train and share my knowledge. I trained a lot of FE Officers in East Anglia, UK. I throughly enjoyed teaching and learned from my students.

My third year (at University) I stood for election as the Union Affairs Officer, who managed the elections and the formal rules process of the Union i.e. The constitution, standing orders and policies. I do not remember the reason now, but I had such a strong disagreement about one policy that I resigned. I learned how ineffective resigning is, as now I could not influence anything.

In my final University year I stood for Academic Affairs. It was to be a busy year, as the University decided to change the way it delivered all of it is courses. I worked with Education & Welfare sabbatical (full time post) to communicate with students. In part, the way I handled myself through this change and helped the University to compromise, led to my election as President of the Students Union (UHSU).

President of the Students’ Union

Student Union second term

Suddenly I was the leader of 350 staff, several bars/clubs/shops and the representative of 21,000 students. Its kind of like being a mayor.  Watching, advising and criticizing is a lot easier than being the person at the top. My first year was a lot of cleaning up a business nightmare, we were running at an increasing loss, we employed 350 staff most of them without any employment terms, and most of our permanent staff were commercial facing with very little support for our students services. So we had a complete restructure. This got the University onboard for specific increases for our grant (for the Students’ Union) from them, setting us up for a healthier future. This was not a process without cost. We had to close some services and lets some people go.

And it led me into a tough election, which I won my second term but it was close. I would not have won this election without my colleague Sam Fawcett and my remaining friends.  My second term focus was using my now established relationships to gain more resources for the students’ union, and advocate for students through the University and nationally.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”

Albert G Hubbard

National Union of Students (NUS)

Through my training I had built a strong standing with my region i.e. East Anglia. When I stood for NUS Regional Council, I had a lot of support. Which eventually led me to standing for the NUS national executive (NEC), after my term as president at UHSU had finished. NUS was a battlefield of the left of the Labour party and the right of the Labour party, as most of the people in power were members of the Labour party.

This was one of the strangest years of my working life. I was doing a full-time job but earned part-time money and I could only work on projects I was authorized to. Expenses were signed by whichever political group was onside at the time. I felt that I had got elected with a lot of good people, but the culture of NUS was sick, and we inherited it and we were not always our best. NUS politics was vicious and at times petty compared to real world politics.

All of that said I feel I got some good work done with Mature Students, Peer to Peer Training (STADIA), Environment, Training and helping student unions grow. None of it was done alone there were many people who helped me.

As my term on the NEC drew to a close, I decided to stand for the NUS President.  My standing for election as National President for NUS was really about making a point. I did not expect to get elected, but I wanted to make some points to wake NUS up from the US and THEM sick culture and the acceptance of Labour Leadership, which I was not against if it was more inclusive. I ran the campaign as an independent, took no deals, no money from parties, just from friends and other like minded people. I came really close to winning, I think just 42 votes out of a 2000 electorate. I learned an incredible amount from my time in NUS about campaigning, public policy, voting, block vote tactics, winning and losing. I was happy with the campaign and knew it was now time to move on. And that in politics, you may die many times – it’s the grace you do it with that will define your future and your friends.

There are many people I am thankful for in my time in NUS, who helped me survive and be a stronger advocate including Sam Fawcett, Andy Martin, Tommy Hughes, Kat Price, Colin Ross and many others.

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

Winston Churchill

Diversity

My time in student politics taught me about diversity.  Whether that be sex, gender, race, sexuality or age.  These are part of my core because of the exposure to the real life stories, the debate and the polices.  I am thankful for all the people in UHSU/NUS who educated me and helped me grow.  And I would say now I am a passionate campaigner for equality of opportunity – passionate and sometimes clumsy, as I still have more to learn.

“Return hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Choosing political parties

Before University I would have fitted into a Green or Labour voter. I was left of centre, I believed in social justice, but I did not fully know what that meant. I felt society should be fair, more of a meritocracy. And of course green.

In 1997 I met all the Parliamentary Candidates for Welwyn Hatfield.  Without a doubt the best candidate was Rodney Schwartz, he was very authentic and round beat the other candidate Melanie Johnson, in the student debate. This was my first encounter with a Liberal Democrat and we often talked during the General Election. He lost gracefully to Melanie Johnson.

I found the the NOLS i.e. Labours Students very controlling, and I understood the timing was leading to a place where New Labour would form, and they needed to modernize to take on the Conservatives. Which I wanted them to achieve.  It was their methods that bothered me.

NUS often felt like a battleground between the right and the left of the Labour party with students being left in the middle. I would say that I started out as a Labour supporter but my time in the NUS made me think about this decision. Overtime I got to know a few Liberal Democrats and even went to a LYDS conference, which I have to say put me further off party politics. Some of my closet friends were in the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrats but I felt more comfortable with the SDP (Now merged into Lib Dems).

The one thing I knew was I was not a Conservative. I felt Conservatives was for rich people who cared less for the vulnerable in our society, whose priority was business above all other things. Who were happy with the divide in wealth and classes.

Paddy Ashdown was the Lib Dem leader at the time. I liked the policies that the Lib Dems put forward. The Lib Dems were the only political party at this time stating that higher education should be free. I felt their stance on the environment and education were something I could get behind.

Liberal Democrats Youth & Students (LDYS)

My experience of this was very varied. I had a number of friends who were great supporters during my time at NUS. I stood for election after my time at NUS. I wanted to share some of my seven years of experience. It was my worse experience of an election process, it included character assassination and lies about me. They made Labour Students look nice. I never went back.

Working with a Member of Parliament

Lembit Opik (at this time MP) and I met during my time in NUS. With his policy brief of Northern Ireland (I lived there in the early 90s) and Children/Youth, we had a lot to talk about. Whilst we did not agree on everything, I think we helped each other understand very different perspectives. I learned about Rural policy from him and his then colleague Richard Williams, MP another Welsh MP. We worked with each other for a number of years until 2002.

Real World Campaigns

When Lembit Opik MP, invited me to come and help out in the first Welsh Assembly Elections (1999), I jumped at it. I could use my campaigning skills and learn a wider policy brief i.e. more than education. The Head of the Campaign, Chris Lines, was awesome and I learned an incredible amount from him, particularly about working with Journalists. We supported 40 candidates, whilst supporting a national and federal strategy. As I really started to understand the whole political partys’ policies I felt I had found a home. I still agreed with policies from some other parties, but their implementation was often different i.e. more authoritative rather than involvement of stakeholders.

General Election Manager for Wales & Organizer for the Leaders Office (March 2001)

Whilst at NSPCC I was offered the opportunity to Head up the Welsh Parliamentary Election campaign. I asked for a leave of absence and I was denied, even though others in the organization were being given time off to support their political parties. I handed in my notice and for the next four months lived and worked in Cardiff, Wales.

Who needs one job? Yeah so I also worked as part of the Federal Leaders office (Charles Kennedy MP) organizer of the final week of his tour around the the UK. Reporting into Niall Johnston, another amazing mentor for me.

During my time I was also a paper candidate for Pontypridd, Wales. It was a Labour stronghold, the candidate was a Government Minister and I did well enough to get my deposit returned. People should have a choice..

Becoming an Approved Parliamentary Candidate

This process really helped me flesh out what I really cared about, what were the policies I wanted to work on. What my underlining principles were. How I defined myself compared to other parties.  What language I would use to describe these beliefs.  For example, is the individual more important than society, or vice versus or a balance of both?  Whist in the past I had agreed with policies, this helped me really think about what were the principles behind them and connect it all together.

I got myself through the “accreditation” process and became a valid Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate.

“You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Selection in Totnes, Devon (2002)

Mentor1

When the seat of Tones came up for selection, I decided to take off 2 months.

As a child I always had fond memories of South Devon. I learned to swim in the swimming pool in Totnes, I went to primary school in Stokenham and attended my first comprehensive (High) school in Kingsbridge. It was a really interesting mix of people with its Art college, Hippies, farmers, tourist service providers, beaches, and a strong mix of rich and poor.

I rented a place for 8 weeks and started my campaign, going door to door to all the local (Lib Dem) members, learning what their perspectives were and what the future needed to look like. I got to know a lot of locals, not just voters in this primary/selection process. The vote came and I did well but not good enough. It feels very personal to lose a campaign where you meet all the electorate, but the choice is really about whether people perceive you as a potential winner, and a friend, and sometimes that takes years.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”

Pablo Picasso

Charities

In between my political adventures, I occasionally had to earn money, so I did this by working for charities and non-profits. I learnt an incredible amount in specific areas of policy.

  • National Union of Students’ – Further and Higher Education
  • British Youth Council – Youth, Childrens’ Rights
  • NSPCC – Paid Parental Leave, Childcare, Domestic violence, Smacking, Parenting and Child Development
  • NCDL/Dog Charity – Animal Welfare
  • Action for Blind People – Disability, Economics
  • Consumer Rights – Economics, European political system, Housing, right to return, Advertising.

“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

Plato

Hartlepool By-Election (Sep 2004)

After finally getting rid of my student debts, I got my TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and I went on a around the world trip lasting 11 months. In which I learned Spanish, met my Argentine family for the first time, and became a Dive-master.  I remember diving off a beautiful reef and finding myself thinking about what would a perfect Education policy look like.  I was bored and it was time to get back and do some “good”.

I headed to Hartlepool, UK for a couple months to help the Liberal Democrats in a by-election. Like most people in a by-election I did a little bit of everything. It was the first by-election where ‘The Guardian” plugged for Lib Dems over Labour.

During the campaign I met the then campaign manager for North Cornwall. He was considering leaving as he had been offered a civil servant position, and he talked about new candidate Dan Rogerson who I met many years ago and liked. This combined with the fact I was born in Cornwall: I wanted to rediscover my birth home.

Campaign Manager for North Cornwall Constituency

Dan Rogerson PPC

After an interview with Dan Rogerson & Paul Tyler MP, I headed to North Cornwall to live and work for the Liberal Democrats.

My first task was a by-election for Newquay Town Council.

Then I started preparing the campaign for 17 County Council seats ( for the then Cornwall County Council, which later got merged in with all the Cornwall District Councils to form Cornwall Council) and one parliamentary seat by getting to know each of the candidates and their divisions (election area). My role included producing our newspaper, leaflets, posters, volunteer management, election planning, election database management, message management, speeches, poster creation and placement, canvassing door to door and on the phone.

Becoming a Candidate for Newquay North (Cornwall County Council, UK)

Bus Campaign

We had a candidate for Newquay North, but he had to step down. I asked if I could stand in the seat, initially as a paper candidate (the intention is to give voters a choice but necessarily run a full campaign). Clearly I had other responsibilities i.e. 1 MP candidate (PPC) and 16 other county council candidates and to be clear I did not expect to win. The North Cornwall Liberal Democrat Leadership had a bit of a heated debate on it, but in the end they decided I could stand, and asked that I run a campaign in the area.

Some of my best friends came from all over the country to come and help me get elected. Ashley,
Malinee, Cheryl and others did some phone canvasing for me. Sandy (Samuel Carter) made a real difference, he tireless delivered leaflets for me, and canvassed for me. Without him it would not have happened. George Edwards also told many people that I was the man for the job, even whilst fighting for his own seat. And then there was Dan Rogerson, Steve Rogerson and Pat Rogerson, they were all invaluable in the campaign. We also collectively saved a bus route during the campaign!

During this time I didn’t rest much and worked on 18 campaigns. When I had spare moments I would work on Newquay North. I met a lot of people, I was careful not to promise anything, except that I would work hard. Where I agreed with voter I was clear and when I did not I was also clear. I described my values and principles. When I did not understand all of the issues I was honest and learned from them. I learned a lot.

We did good work together as evidenced by the results.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”

Wayne Getzky

Being a local candidate (2004 – 2005)

It starts pretty tame and then gets seriously intense. First the letter of introduction, who are you and why are you standing and some defining issues.  Going door to door gives you a real mixture of what people are angry at, sometimes they may even tell you what they would like to change and possible solutions.  Sometimes they will use some choice words the moment they open the door and see you.  There are some who will play along and pretend to be interested, to delay you as they are of another party.  Some just want to talk and have human company. I met a lot of people and took copious notes, and found a few pieces of casework to investigate.

Print journalists really vary, some are just interested in who you are and what you believe in, others have a story and they want you to fit into that box. Sometimes they will paint you as something good and sometimes as something weak, either way it is part of the political life, something to get used to. You sacrifice your privacy, and the privacy of all the people close to you. Something else to get used to. People want to feel they understand you, both the good and the bad. It forces you to reflect on who you are as an individual, and in comparison to the other candidates. Learning to take the hits, reflect and move on is important in politics, just like the rest of life. I think quality journalists that check their sources, do not have an overpowering agenda, and seek the truth, are a fundamental part of our democracy, without them it will fail. Of course most papers have to make money, and thus need readers and thus need exciting titles. Then there’s radio, which can be much more combative, as each candidate wants to voice how different they are.

Few candidates get elected without volunteers, whether they be family/friends or party activists. The campaign will have many peaks, troughs and even moments of despair.  Keeping your team in the loop and motivated is essential.  I found sharing stories both good and bad was great for bonding, and also to prepare how to respond to questions.

And let’s not forget the other candidates.  My view is, you never know who you will end up working with in the future, so be respectful.  Anyone who has the courage to be put through an election campaign and lose part of their privacy in the process has a sense of civic responsibility.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Candidates with opposing views is a good thing, it allows “us” to test ideas out, to even make them stronger. Personal attacks will come, and some will also be offensive. Just because others play in mud, you do not have to.

Being elected

cllrericbrookejpg

I asked some friends to observe my count. We knew it would be close. I now had other responsibilities with counts in two locations (North Cornwall District Council and Restormel Borough Councils) and 17 candidates.

  1. 1279 – 37.6% – Eric Brooke – Liberal Democrat
  2. 1231 – 36.2% – Patrick Lambshead – Conservative
  3. 889 – 26.2% – Harry Heywood – Independant

The current politician Harry Heywood could not even shake my hand. Losing is hard, but I had practiced that I lot. Again it all depends on the campaign and how personal it gets. Pat was always respectful and always clear he was not my friend, either way I liked him.

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen from Anthem

My next posting will talk of my experience as an elected politician

Becoming a junior rails developer

So I looked for a tech cofounder and infact found almost three. Then a friend who was a developer said they would be happy to “play” and see what comes of it, if we paired (pair programming) as it would be fun, and if he was going to use his non-work time he wanted it to be fun. I agreed this was a better approach, building alone is hard (Thanks Phil)

A bit of context

My father was a computer engineer i.e. he fixed mainframes for Digital, DEC and than Apple II upwards.  My first computer i.e. my dads was Sinclair ZX81 it had 1k of memory and used a tape cassette for storage. I learnt BASIC.  My second computer (this time mine!) was a BBC Micro 32k of RAM. My first serious application was again written in a different form of BASIC and allowed you to paint and draw. My childhood was very unstable and I went to a number of foster homes and many schools (I was little too curious). Anyways eventually I got to college (16 yrs old) and did a (BTEC) Diploma in Computer Science.  

It felt too easy for me and I was more curious about humans so dropped the course (even though I was one of the top performers) and took a bunch of A Levels in Psychology, Sociology, Communications and Human Biology.  At this point I learnt , I was a really bad at written english (it took several years before I found out I was dyslexic). I dropped the courses and went to Northern Ireland for a year or so.  I came back and tried again in one year intensive courses. Someone close to me died and I screwed up my exams.

I got enough to get into the Higher National Diploma for Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.  In the first year I was in the top 10% of my class and got moved up to a Degree program and graduated in 1996. And than than did not code again until 2013.

Becoming a coder, again..

Phil’ comment set me off in a two year journey to become a developer. I took two evening classes a week (about 20 hours a week) and over two years worked seven days a week. In all I did 13 courses (including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AJAX, XML, SQL, MySQL, PHP, JAVA and System Design).  I started with an intense HTML course and worked my way through the whole stack from front end to back end.

[update] in hindsight these courses gave me confidence, but did not relate to the reality of what it is like to be a developer in a full-time job.

a few of my coding books

a few of my coding books

Rails..

I wanted to learn Ruby and Rails, all along because  I want to build prototypes for my startup (Professional You). Yet there were no local courses. I prefer learning with others, its good to have a peer group. So in Jan 2013, I booked myself on RailsConf 2013 and gave myself a deadline to read and complete Learn Web Development with Rails prior to the conference. I was introduced to a start-up (Thanks Jessie) and started working with them two days a week as a junior rails dev.  I learned a couple things about myself,  I was not good at asking questions from the lead software developer as I was worried about taking them away from their tasks (as they were under a lot of pressure from their boss) and we worked remotely, which is not ideal for a junior. I also found testing before coding was very difficult, in part because thought I needed to know rails better first.  Additional good Rails book that helped in my journey were  Rails 4 in action  Rails Anti patternsPeepcodes Videos on RSpec and rails casts.  railscast are brilliant for an immediate problem to solve but is very out of date, Code School as a selection of rails videos as does GoRails. That said I do not find that anything I learn online or via video sticks, I seem to forget it quickly..

If I was to do it again:

  1. Learn Web Development with Rails there is just no better
  2. Build several Web Apps for yourself e.g. store all your boardgames/books, role up characters for RPG, whatever feeds into your hobbies and use rails casts to add features
  3. Read Rails Anti patterns

Ruby

It becomes clear that Rails does so much and its BIG, but the better your Ruby knowledge, the easier working with Rails, no shit. There are times you have to build your own model without Active Record and connect to APIs.  Everything becomes a little easier, your code gets tighter.

I tried the Well Grounded Rubyist book, whilst I understood all the concepts it was too much without having not built Ruby Apps first. Most of the online Ruby course were interesting such as Code Academy, but they failed to stick in my head, one exception was a course on Lynda called Ruby Essentials, which frankly was brilliant (Teaches the basics and the gets you to apply them in a Ruby App). After that I tried the Ruby Koans. The hard part about coding is trying to remember it all, understanding I think is easy but holding it all in your head is hard.  One senior developer said to me you do not need to remember everything just remember you can, then Google it. The more times you use it the easier it will be to remember. His other tip was to store all of his projects on Google Drive, so he could use it has augmented memory.

Training that actual gets you to build an application, I found to be more useful and gave me extra value, rather then little bits of code. Looking at how other developers tackle the same problem is also incredibly useful.  Peepcode did a bunch of Play by Play videos, which taught me a lot about how they solved the problem and I also learnt how to use different tools.

The other thing you should do is work out how to connect to your local community:

  1. Ruby Rogues podcast is awesome and their discussion site is worth the $10 per year
  2. Find the local Ruby meetup group
  3. Find a peer/mentor who will review your non work code

If I was to start again:

  1. The best beginner book for Ruby was The Book of Ruby: A Hands-On Guide for the Adventurous
  2. Add RubyTapas videocasts
  3. Then follow up with the Well Grounded Rubyist book
  4. Read Metaprogramming Ruby 2

Learning about software engineering/development..

There are a bunch of tools and “behaviours” (ways of working) that you have to learn, some of this comes from you just coding, but some you need to spend a bit of time working on i.e. Git (or other version control)

  • BASH – Re-learning Unix i.e. Terminal on the Mac, SSH
  • Text Editors – Trying out different text editors, BBEDIT, RubyMine, Sublime and finally Atom
  • Version Control – Getting comfortable with version handling i.e Git, how to use GitHub, decided to use command line to embed it in my head
  • Package Management – so home-brew is better than Mac Ports
  • Debugging – Where to find the bugs for debugging, using irb, rails console, understanding the logs and the stack trace
  • Object Orientation learn and understand all the meta language. I have yet to find a good book on this.
  • Data Structures – I am comfortable with, but I have yet to find a good learning option for this
  • Algorithms – The best option I found was Grokking Algorithms
  • Where to find the information that will help i.e. online manual, google, stack overflow, google groups
  • How to tackle the actual problem, when to step away and take a moment
  • Where to ask a senior and not annoy them (still working on this one)

Ready?

You are never ready, its just a matter of choosing the time, finding the courage to be vulnerable and going for it.

Its seems surprising that some of the best times in my life are when its has gone so wrong, you really discover the other people around you in that moment the good and bad.  You could wait to be that perfection and never make a move. I knew that two days a week of coding after working the other five was tiring me out, but I also knew I liked to code, I love problem solving.  That said I had yet to build my GitHub profile, most of my work was private, most of my student work was very specific, so not a complete web application but do this on this page. Whatever, It was time to go full-time. Lets see what happens..

Advertising myself..

The best way to get what you want is to simply ask

Just before christmas 2013, I sent out an email to the Ruby meetup group in Vancouver, BC. The discussion space often has recruiters looking for rails developers, why not flip this and advertise me!  I did not expect much of a response..

—–

Subject: Looking for a Junior Ruby on Rails job

Hello 🙂

I hope you are having a great day and not too bored..

I have computer science degree and most of an MBA. I have played and succeeded in many other careers like communications and being a politician. And I have learnt that I love to create. So I went back to school (BCIT) to refresh my computer skills and learn web applications, after two years I have done a bunch of evening courses with an average grade of 93%. For the last 6 months I have being learning/coding Rails/Ruby on my weekends for a local startup. I have also attended a bunch of Rails/Ruby conferences in the US on my own dime.

Full-time I have being working for Apple as a Genius/IST Support. I know crazy right working 7 days a week for two years.. I am now looking for a full-time software development role with an emphasis on Rails.

You will find all the good stuff in my linkedin profile -> ca.linkedin.com/in/ericbrooke/

Continue having a great day 🙂

Eric
—-

In all I got 80 responses, over a four week period (40 within 48 hours). There were 42 real jobs going, 20 were long term contract, 8 short term contract. 10 were you are the first developer, no not good, go employ a intermediate or senior developer! Leaving me with just 17 companies to talk to, after researching each of the companies, I spoke/emailed to them and then did 14 actual interviews. After which I cut it down to five after second interviews I cut it down to two..

Finding the right team to join..

You are the apprentice and you are looking for master/mentor/teacher/coach/facilitor not a boss, not the brilliant programmer whose ego is big enough for you both.

A couple principles for me:

  1. Those that asked for me to do code test prior to having a first human to human conversation, I did not continue.. I am not your code bitch.. or your slave, talk to the human in me first
  2. How much they truly bothered to explain who they are as a company and their intended culture, mattered to me.
  3. You need patient senior developers who are willing to coach and that their bosses will give them the time/leeway to coach
  4. That you will learn a lot from developers who have different styles and roots, prefer different languages and frameworks
  5. I need to grow and learn fast, how are you going to help me get to intermediate?
  6. Seniors that have being teachers or parents tend to be better at explanation. Just a theory at the moment.

Interview

I want to work with awesome people.

Be they smart, emotional intelligent, creative or just different. The most laughter at work I have had are with teams of such diversity, with so many forms of intelligence, not just the academic kind. I am going to be spend a lot of time together, consider it a road trip, we will get angry, sad and laugh together. The culture, the people that I work with is important to us all. For these people I will have lasting loyalty, forgive and move on, push the boundaries to ensure there is a future and learn every fricking thing I need to learn, take time out of the rest of my life to make my colleagues life easier. So if you send me a coding test before, we know, we like each you can frankly go @@@@ yourself.

A good interview is a collaboration of us exploring each other.

[updated] Questions to ask –

  1. Have you ever had any juniors before?
  2. How do you review code?
  3. What is your test Coverage? What are you not testing?
  4. Do you have Introspectives? What do you do to help developers learn?
  5. Do you use pull requests?How do you use them?
  6. Do you state why the code is wrong in the pull requests?
  7. How will help me growth fast, so I am no longer a junior?
  8. Is there flexibility on which projects/teams I work?

Technical tests

Understanding your capability is hard and is often judged on so many irrelevant things

There are few jobs where you are ask prove you can actually do the job before you actually do it. Some tech interviews felt like you were expected to put out on the first date.

The best I had were conversations and tested practical experience, not theoretical mathematics. The actually best asked we to describe what I know and then sat me down at a computer asked me my favourite coding tool loaded up an example application. They asked where would I find a routes file, explain these routes, where do they take me, asked me to follow the whole path what was load etc. After if I want to add this to the app what would you do? “feel free you access the internet”, explain what you are thinking? The sneaking bastards even had a couple “bad” things in the code to see if I would notice. So I did not mention them until I was about to leave 😉 That was my first job offer

The worst started with theoretic problems to write pseudo code on the board… Funnily enough they started questioning my pseudo code. Some people see an interview as a way to prove their intellect not understand yours.. Have you forget who is interviewing here, you, er no both of us.

For people who did their computer science degree a long time ago or learnt on your own path; I recommend this book Think like a Programmer by V. Anton Spraul.  The most stupid, abstract, non-relevant questions I have every being asked in any interview were all in technical interviews. And folks I was an elected politician.

Testing the “interviewers”

I have learnt more from people, when I have failed or needed help.

So every job interview I find something to fail at and see how the interviewer copes. I will also ask my interviewers how they will cope with my failure and how they cope with theirs.  I will always ask at the end of the interview what do you like and not like about me.  I learn so much from their response.

The type of organization to work for..

If I am going to work on something, I need to care..

Go for an one domain company, startup or for an agency style..

Domain companies tend to give you a position and you have to earn your right to grow, the structure tends to be more rigid, yep be a junior for three years. You get small parts of a big cog. But you would learn about scale to a higher degree. And maybe they may have systems/coaching/mentors/learning plans in place to accelerate growth of juniors. That would make sense would it not?! not one on my list.

Startup, happy to take the risk but you have to love it and I did not love any of the startup offers. Also they tend to lack the numbers of senior developers you can learn from.

I went agency i.e. build prototypes, because I wanted to work on a lot of different products in different domains, I felt I would learn more faster, and so far that is true comparing my growth to my friends. With prototypes you have to do the beginning a lot and then you finish, and then you do it again, there is opportunities to grow in each project.

The job I took

It felt like a conversation between curious people.

It started on the phone, progressed to face 2 face and then there was a take-home coding test. They were good questions that I had to think about. The whole process felt open, unstressful, they trusted me and I trusted them.

I asked my boss what does he look for?

“People with a wide life experience who can clearly show they can learn”

So far it is pretty awesome I get to work with three seniors who have different approaches and the diversity is already teaching me a lot.

Updated

So after two and half months I got laid off.  They removed the Junior developer position (it affected two positions), and I was the least experienced, through out the company).  Two weeks later 11 more people got laid off, then another bunch a couple weeks later.

It was also reminder whilst you can test the people you get to work with.  But their bosses can(may have to) change their mind (and in fairness it may be outside of their control).  So in future I will look at the leadership and their track records.

I would still make the same choices, and worked there.  I learned an incredible amount and worked on 4 projects.

All of that said, I ended up in another startup mybesthelper where my first job was to get our tests over 85% and upgrade their Web App to Rails 4.1, fun 🙂