Software & Web Development

"Grassroots Programmer" Viewpoint: PhD Student

Fraser McKay is a 25 year-old PhD student, in the final part of his computer science PhD at a UK university. He researches how people - particularly students - express their programs in code.

Have you always felt compelled to do IT work in your free time?

Absolutely. I (briefly) started my university career by studying to be a teacher, before transferring to computing. Even thinking I would have a career in primary teaching, I was still programming little bits and pieces in my spare time. Building little games and apps is one of my hobbies, because I enjoy it.

What has motivated you to continue to pursue IT solutions off your own bat?

What motivates me most is when I see a specific need, like something I want an app for, and I can’t find a solution elsewhere – or at least, not a satisfactory one. I feel much more empowered that, if there isn’t the kind of solution I want, I have the skills to make one.


One example, is a little health management app for people with asthma – I had an idea of what I’d like such an app to be, but couldn’t find one, so I built it primarily for myself, sharing it with others once I was done. Another is a maths app that makes really cool visualisations – a good friend is a maths teacher, and he had this engaging idea. I found the problem intriguing, so ended up spending the weekend working on it. That also works as a friendship thing – it was something we both enjoyed chatting about and building, and it was fun doing it together.

Would you liken an urge to pursue computing outside work to all those clichés about visual artists?

I don’t know what the clichés are about artists, but I’d agree it’s a creative impulse for me. I create code because I want to make something – whether it’s artistic expression as in a game, or engineering a solution to a problem I’ve found. Ultimately, it’s a creative profession – we make things.

In your experience of IT have you met many people who feel compelled to pursue computing as a passion? How commonplace do you think this is?

It’s certainly common among my group of friends. I think most of us have interests like that – whether it’s tinkering with hardware or working on software projects. My guess is that many of us went into the profession because it was already our hobby.

Do you think many individuals out there make a sharp divide between ‘work for love’ and ‘work for money’ and compartmentalise their own projects in this way? Have you done this?

I compartmentalise the individual projects as belonging to either work or my personal time, but there are also things I find interesting from both angles; when going to conferences on work business, I often still find myself really interested in things, and making contacts with people, not directly related to work. I’d say my work allows me to pursue my passions – not just as having money through a job, but in access to conferences, publications, etc. It allows me to keep up to date with my field.

One of the criticisms levelled against IT is there can be a culture of compulsory workaholism because people are supposed to love what they do and work extra hours for nothing – what is your view of this?

That’s true in my experience, but because I’m also based in academia, that might be a cause too. I know there’s often a prevailing culture of expected workaholism in universities anyway – across subjects. If my job involved more ‘boring’ software, I suppose I probably wouldn't find myself thinking about it as much outside normal hours (though I don't know). But because I find it interesting, and because my PhD is really setting me up for the rest of my career, it can be easy for the lines to blur between my work and my personal/professional development – perhaps too much, if it's hard to switch off.


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