A young woman with blonde cropped hair smiling at the camera wearing a navy blazer in Johnson & Johnson office.
Melanie Cunningham. Image: Johnson & Johnson

The benefits of being a mature student in software development

18 Jun 2019

Melanie Cunningham credits the breadth of her professional experience as being vitally important to her career development.

The typical route into a software development career generally begins fresh out of college. This is likely why many companies are focusing their efforts on graduates when building their talent pipeline.

Melanie Cunningham, a scrum master at the Johnson & Johnson EMEA Development Centre, explains how her career started a little differently, and how the wealth of on-the-job experience she gained prior to studying software development has helped her career.

What first stirred your interest in a career in this area?

I have always been interested in technology and how things work. As a girl, I was happiest playing video games and taking things apart. I started working from an early age and this took over my ‘spare’ time. I followed the route of working to pay for things, as opposed to following a career path. At times, I worked two and sometimes three jobs. I loved to work and be busy, it didn’t really matter what I was doing. I travelled and met lots of people, so my life felt full and exciting.

In my late 20s, I started working for a logistics and warehousing company. They used an SAP system with pick-and-pack for tracking stock. One of the company directors was busy teaching herself how to write database queries to run reports. It brought my early interests in learning how things work flooding back and I was obsessed with figuring it out. I knew from then that I would have to try to do something different in my life. In 2013, I went back to college to study software design and development.

What education and/or other jobs led you to the role you now have?

Everything we do in life helps to build our character and shape what we do. I have always been an introvert, so the years I spent in customer service-based jobs in my teens and early 20s helped me to learn to deal with people in a way that I never would have imagined. It also showed me how much I love being part of a team.

Working for a busy logistics company taught me many skills, such as mapping transport routes, handling customer queries, accounts and payroll, just to mention a few. As a scrum master at Johnson & Johnson, understanding what the development team does is very important.

I love programming and thoroughly enjoyed the third-level education that I put my heart and soul into. However, I feel it was not nearly as important as my life education.

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path, and how did you deal with them?

My biggest challenge was starting on a new career path again as a mature student. My first and only child was just one years old when I decided to completely change my career. It was a struggle financially, mentally and physically, but it was the best thing I ever did.

I had spent years in jobs that were not taxing my brain; things came easy and I really didn’t have to push myself very much. Returning to college after many years away from any kind of mental challenge was difficult, but the sense of achievement gave me great personal satisfaction, making it all worthwhile at the end.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

Everyone I meet has an impact on my development. People fascinate me; I like to observe how they handle different challenges and how they interact with each other. Everyone has their own unique traits and skills, so I try to learn from each of them.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The role of a scrum master at Johnson & Johnson gives you an opportunity to interact with different people at many levels. My job is based at the EMEA Software Development Centre in Limerick, where we have employees from over 25 different countries. Working in multicultural contexts and teams is something I’ve not experienced before. As Johnson & Johnson is a wide-reaching organisation, we get to work with colleagues from all over the world on global projects.

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?

Sheer natural curiosity. I’m always eager to learn more and figure out how things work. I love to learn about people and to hear about what makes them tick. It often can help to understand what the issues are and what is it that people really want. When delivering software and working with teams, good communication is paramount … and a shared understanding is a key factor.

How did your current company support you on your career path, if at all?

The Johnson & Johnson EMEA Software Development Centre offers something that you don’t get everywhere, especially with the benefits of a hugely impactful, global company in an office that feels like a start-up. In such an environment, you get the chance to be at the beginning of everything. The leadership team is willing and actively supports initiatives that we put forward, so we all get the chance to set our workplace culture.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in this area, or just starting out in one?

If you’re considering it, go for it! This world is open to endless opportunities. I started down a path to become a Java developer and I am now a scrum master.

If you’re starting out, don’t keep your head in the computer all day long. There are so many ways to learn, and everything we do is an education. Grab every chance, ask all the questions and talk to everyone.

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