My software engineering journey from home sweet home to a frozen planet (part 1)

The story of a college student from the Hungarian countryside who ended up in Helsinki as an iOS engineer

I moved out of my parents' house first time at the age of 21, three years ago. Most of my friends made this move at 18, right after graduation, trading high school for the university life in Budapest. I didn't follow to “the” city to be in Hungary. Later, however, I did move abroad via the Erasmus Lifelong Learning program - to the Finnish Lapland, the north of Finland. Or, as many call it, to the middle of nowhere.

This was the first time I moved away from my parents. Basic tasks, such as cooking, shopping and washing my clothes challenged me for the first time in my life. I might or might have not posted shots of these activities were published to Instagram with the #FirstTimeInMyLife hashtag. Little did I know that 2 years later I would be working as an iOS developer, in the beautiful city of Helsinki.

Mom's little boy

Up to when I was 21, I had a simple and comfortable life. I was born and raised in an ordinary family. We lived in the city once the capital of Hungary called Székesfehérvár. My high school grades were typically below average, and thus were often hot topics of discussion among my family and teachers. I would always be compared to my older brother, who always did better with grades. Teachers would ask me to invest more time and effort into my studies, but my response would usually be “I'm not interested in this class”. For the last few years of high school, my motivation somehow did increase and I got decent results in classes like computer science, mathematics, and English language. I didn't know it at the time, but these courses would be the important ones for my professional career.

At the end of high school applying for universities is a big deal. As university studies are mostly state funded, most of my friends applied to some of the top Budapest universities. As for me, I wanted to take an easier path, so applied for a Computer Science program closer to my hometown, at the Óbuda University Alba Regia University Center. Based on my high school results I knew I was neither particularly talented or diligent. So despite choosing a mediocre university, I still had doubts if I could cope with university life and expectations.

Out of the high school class, I was the only one who did not move out from the parental home. The first semester was very stimulating from the aspect of studying: I loved the lessons in general while the level of education and expectations got the most out of me. All of a sudden a complete change has happened in my mentality, I started to take learning much more seriously.

I only started to study programming in the first semester of college. Until the age of 18, I did not write a single line of program code (except for very simple HTML website and SQL queries). First I learned C#, which I liked from the beginning and is still one of my favorite languages. Meanwhile, my friends were enjoying the big city life and living on their own, I was focusing on my studies while still living at my parents' place. Plenty of new friends, hobbies and activities started to be part of my life and so they are, still. It became clear soon that I am capable of achieving way better results than I used to be at high school. I was among the best students of the university class. I managed to pass every course, plus won a small scholarship in both semesters until the end of the first school year, which further boosted my motivation. At this point, I set up two goals for myself:

  1. Graduate from the university on time (this was a goal since the beginning of the first semester),
  2. Move and study abroad through ERASMUS.

Opportunities with the ERASMUS programme

Unsurprisingly, these plans were totally supported by both my parents and teachers. However, my parents had some concerns about me moving abroad. As the smallest child in the family knowing that I am not so good with everyday living stuff, I had some concerns, too. Nevertheless, I knew that this is a big opportunity for both profession and personal improvement in the long run.

The ERASMUS programme is a Europe-wide student exchange programme, making it possible for students in one participating university to study abroad in another partner institute. In my case, the list of partner universities to choose from was not too long. I was hesitating between the UK and Finland at this time. Unfortunately, the scholarship could not be given to every applicant, meaning that only one student could go to each destination. In the end, I have chosen Finland and the Lapland University of Applied Sciences. I did so by accepting the following facts and stereotypes:

  • I will move to Lapland, ergo...
    • it will be cold (I don't like cold),
    • there will be snow (I don't like winter),
    • it will be dark,
    • I can meet with Santa Claus, reindeers as well as hungry, wild bears and Vikings,
  • I'll travel alone, there won't be any other Hungarians around plus I won't know anyone,
  • I don't know how to cook, wash clothes and I never lived alone,
  • my parents are goddamn worried,
  • Finnish culture is said to be introverted and depressive,
  • somehow I will have to manage on my own.

Not too promising. Despite all the above, I was totally sure it will not be bad, as a matter of fact, it sounded pretty fun. After the initial challenges, it indeed turned out to be a lot of joy. I learned a lot about myself, other cultures, English language and everyday things. I was an amazing feeling to prove (to myself and others) that I can stand and live on my own, and therefore should not be afraid attempting similar changes later on in my life.

It is important to note that making this decision in the head was the main point to get started, but the support from my friends & family was just as motivating. By support I mean mostly mental support, over than financial (the only financial support I got at this time, beyond the scholarship, came from my parents in the form of airplane tickets, both ways). Without this support, I wouldn't have reached Tornio and spend the best 4 months of my life there. Every single one of my friends and family members were sure that I will do well and this was the best decision of my life. They turned out to be right, however, the story is far not over yet...

Work after ERASMUS & graduation

I barely got off from the return flight to Hungary, my days on the next week were fully booked with exams. I had to spend the Christmas time of 2013 preparing for the finals at the university. Obviously, everyone was glad that I returned home and we wanted to spend more time together, but school was top priority at this time. The return on the investment came shortly after, when I graduated with excellent marks at the end of January 2014, exactly seven semesters later than I started, just as planned. A local company called AdmiNetwork Hungary Kft. (http://adminetwork.hu/)where I did my practical training offered me a job already before the ERASMUS, which I gladly accepted after the final exams.

Right after graduating I started working in the position of a Junior Software Developer in a familiar and incredibly friendly environment. It was a fairly small company of 4-5 employees mostly involved in configuring and maintaining computer networks. I could not have wished for a better place as a first job. Despite the fact that the main profile of the firm was not software development, they provided a lot of room and possibilities for the growth of the young padawan.

I spent 10 productive months here overall, mostly involved with ERP development (Microsoft Dynamics CRM and NAV). I also developed an internal PHP system (based on Zend Framework). Last but not least I did some customer support as well. Despite the fact I lived once again in my hometown, I gained a lot of professional knowledge. Along the professional growth, I gained some extras in this period such as driver's license while working. The thing I liked most with this small company was the great atmosphere and close relationships between colleagues. Even today I can say that these guys are among my best friends - for a very good reason.

Back to Tornio, Finland

During the last month of my ERASMUS exchange, I realized that my previous studies covered a good percentage of the degree requirements in Finland. This made me come up with the idea to return to Tornio to study full time. It turned out quickly that due to the exchange semester, my previous studies and the flexible Finnish education system I could transfer a lot of credit points to my second degree. Naturally, I was not the only student realizing this: other Hungarian and Romanian exchange students played the same card previously with success. The application criteria was totally doable, especially that it required some paperwork, an English language exam (which I had) and attendance to an entrance examination (which I could do in Budapest).

Similarly to ERASMUS, many of my friends & family supported this decision - including my colleagues at this time. Despite the fact that they considered me as essential part of their team and liked my attitude, skills and moral, they were the most supportive party in this matter, because they all understood the upsides of such decision. When I received the acceptance letter from Tornio we did a goodbye party with my colleagues and I continued working there until the last week before departure. Even today, 2 years later we are in contact and meet for a lunch or “just a beer”, whenever I happen to travel home.

Completing a Bachelor of Business Administration in seven two semesters

In August 2014 I ended up in Tornio one again as a degree student on the Business Information Technology programme at the [Lapland University of Applied Sciences] (http://lapinamk.fi/). According to the earlier promises, it was possible to recognize plenty of credit points: at the end of September my transcript displayed around 130/210 completed credits. In practice, this meant that I had to get 80 more credits to get my BSc degree abroad. This included some basic studies, practical training and a bachelor thesis.

Since the beginning, I was aiming to graduate in two semesters from here. The cost of this was a busy timetable, lessons overlapping with each other, tons of homework and little free time. I had the full support of the teachers because they knew and understood my situation and ambitions and therefore handled my absence flexibly from the lessons. The main lesson learned during this period was how to manage my time and money. I learned a lot about how to cooperate with people from other countries, too. The approach to the education at this university was very practical and work-oriented and therefore we were asked to team up or do self-study ourselves in many cases with small theoretical basis.

I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel soon - it became pretty certain that I would graduate in May 2015. I liked the country and the culture of Finland, I decided to not apply for several jobs while I was there here. In the beginning of March, I registered on LinkedIn and to several other career portals. My registration details and CV portrayed a young, motivated and hard working fresh grad. My original idea was to keep applying until the end of July (or till my money lasts). So I would either stay to work in Finland or move home and continue working at the same company as earlier.

I was just about to finalize and send my thesis for revision when I received a job offer from the university for a project assistant position for the upcoming summer campus. This seemed like a superb opportunity for the summer, even though it was nothing related to my professional qualifications. I looking forward to spending the summer time in Lapland in the company of 15-20 international students whatsoever. The job seemed easy: I had to pick up participants from the airport and organize accommodation for them. On top of this, I had to organize some leisure events for the upcoming 3 months. I could see this as being a good start to prepare me for a working life in Finland. So I sorted all the required paperwork - including getting documents from the police office, the tax office and the bank in the next few days.

180 degree turn in two weeks

Obviously, this job was very far out from my previous studies, experience and expectations. Nevertheless, I was confident that this is the best summer job around as well as it will pay back in the long run. Especially considering that at this time I did not even have my degree from the university at hand.

As mentioned before I applied to other jobs via online job seeker portals. I sent my CV to approximately 50-60 local places including startups, SMEs and multinational companies. Odd enough, up until signing the contract with the university, no firm bothered to call or even text me back. However, 2 weeks after signing the contract my phone rang. An employee from [Reslink Solutions] (http://reslink.fi/) called me letting me know that they would like to talk about the position of PHP / MySQL developer that I applied to earlier.

This phone call turned out to be a turning point in my life and my career. In the second and final part of the story I'll share how I ended up as an iOS engineer in Helsinki, and later how I ended up starting Data Mining and Machine Learning studies on the University of Helsinki.

(As the stories on this blog are mostly told by Hungarian software engineers, all articles are also published in Hungarian. You can read the Hungarian version of this one here: A szülői házból a jég hátára - egy szoftverfejlesztő útja Székesfehérvárról Helsinkiig , első rész)