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Developer Week Profiles: John Lees-Miller #DEVWEEK17

13th February 2017
 | Katy Alexander

John Hammersley (Left ) John Lees-Miller (Right)

DeveloperWeek 2017 is the world’s largest developer expo and conference series with over 50 week-long events and dozens of city-wide partner events. The theme this year is, ‘The Industrial Revolution of Code’. Companies across all genres of business are re-positioning themselves as software-centric. Service and manufacturing industries are employees software specialists to build up their digital portfolios, and this pattern of business development is occurring all over the world with the integration of the cloud with consumer goods, transportation and hardware. One thing is for sure – code is revolutionizing the way we conduct business and ourselves.

To celebrate DeveloperWeek 2017, we’ve interviewed key developers working at Digital Science portfolio companies. They are key members of our businesses and their story can help those who are considering following in their footsteps.

Up first, we interviewed John Lees-Miller, cofounder of Overleaf alongside John Hammersley. Overleaf is a collaborative writing and publishing system that makes the whole process of producing academic papers much quicker for both authors and publishers. As a computer scientist and mathematician, the world of code seemed a natural route for John. Below are his answers to the questions we asked:

Do you remember the first time when you started experimenting with code and building digital tools?

The first code I wrote was in Quick Basic on a Tandy 1000 in the corner of my classroom in elementary school. I learned together with a small group of friends, and we mostly wrote little text-based games. I also found ways to write code in my school work, for example, to do my math homework. I’m very grateful that my teachers let me do that.

The first (useful) digital tool I built was when I got a part-time job at a local software company. It helped people translate user interfaces into multiple (human) languages. One of my teachers introduced me to the company, so again, I was very lucky to have great teachers.

A lot of people find the technical aspects of technology intimidating, how did you overcome the difficulties of learning a new language?

I think it helped to be part of a community of friends with similar interests. I would not have got very far on my own.

Does the language of code continue to evolve?

Yes. The theory of punctuated equilibrium is a pretty good analogy for how computer science evolves. We see a major shift every few years – PCs, Internet, iPhones… I think we may be starting another shift now as Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) improve and enable new computational techniques with exciting applications, such as deep learning.

As a professional developer, you most likely spend many hours in front of a computer, do you have an other endeavors or hobbies that help balance your work week?

All of my hobbies are computational at the moment. Doing too much of one thing is bad, but there are a lot of things you can do in front of a computer! I’m currently taking an online course from Udacity about self-driving cars, and I’m trying to calculate a mathematically optimal strategy for a computer game called 2048. When I do need a break from computing, I play guitar and sing old folk songs, mostly about trains!

What advice would you give young people looking to break into the competitive world of software development?

Learn to code, but specialize in something else. For a biologist or historian or entrepreneur, being able to code is like having a superpower – you’ll be able to solve problems in your discipline that others can’t even see. Conversely, if you do specialize in computer science, learn as many other things as you can (and especially mathematics). Code is always a means to an end, and the most important thing is to understand the end. Be well-rounded.

If you would like to learn more about DeveloperWeek, watch the video below.