I learned to code on a warship in 2003 on the way to Iraq. I’ve been a commando, a bouncer, a refuse collector, a programmer and a tech team builder and leader.

Ben's Picture

My father is an engineer and we spent much of my early childhood in Africa (Malawi and Lesotho) and the Caribbean (Jamaica).

Having grown up in so many different cultures meant that moving back to the UK and fitting into a homogeneous environment was a bit of a challenge and strengthened my naturally introspective nature. Being somewhat isolated during my school years did however strengthen my intense curiosity. It also served to direct that curiosity away from just figuring out physical objects (I loved to pull things apart and put them back together) and towards trying to figure out people. This obsession has lasted ever since.

Like many people of my generation, bullying was a feature of growing up. I’m sure that was a major driver that lead me at about 13 or 14 to decide that I would one day join the Royal Marine Commandos. This to my young eyes epitomised toughness and fitting in to a close-knit social structure that had eluded me at school.

Having decided on the Royal Marines in my teens, I didn’t actually end up joining until I was just shy of my 23rd birthday. This put me towards the older end of the intake (although thankfully not as old as “grandad” the ancient 25 year old).

Commando training was a monumental challenge, as it’s designed to be. I remain incredibly proud of earning my green beret, but it was really the lessons I learned about communicating with people (mainly taught through the medium of doing it incredibly poorly) that I feel were the most important benefit from that extremely intense period of my life.

During my 4 years in the corps I completed operational tours of Sierra Leone shortly after the brutal civil war, the bandit country of South Armagh in the closing years of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and finally Op Telic 1: the second gulf war in 2003.

The Royal Marines is a special kind of unit with its own ethos, but ultimately, like almost all military units, it’s a very rigid and hierarchical. You either fit into that structure or you don’t. I decided that I wasn’t going to make it a career until I had a pension, and I was also sceptical that the way the war against terror was escalating was the right course so in about 2003 I began thinking about what would come next.

In 2003 the unit I was part of, Commando Helicopter Force, was tasked with supporting the invasion of Iraq. We were embarked aboard HMS Ocean, and in early 2003 we set sail from Plymouth, bound for the middle east.

There was a lot of time on board ship and I had a shiny new laptop with me that a friend had convinced me to put Linux on. In the process of installing Red Hat (and bricking the laptop) I had come across the seminal How to Become a Hacker faq by Eric S Raymond, so after we got underway I begged some internet access in the ships communications centre and bought a book on python from amazon. Over the next few weeks in my down time below desks, with no internet access I banged my head against it until I had roughly figured out how to write a computer program.

I left the Royal Marines in 2004 and went into telecoms operations. The difference in technology in a modern 3G network compared to what I was working with in the corps (40 year old analog tech) was stark, and I was also able to work parts of my embryonic programming skills into my roles. A script to ping hosts here, a reporting tool there. Finally I was up to the point of making django web apps by about 2006 which took me to Indonesia and my first foray into entrepreneurship. I also met the love of my life and got married!

In 2008 we moved back to the UK and I moved into a career as a full time programmer. At this point in my life I mostly looked at my time in the Royal Marines as something that was a great challenge and great fun, but as something separate from my new career.

I was so wrong.

Fast forward a few years, having gone through a few programming languages to settle on Haskell and a few jobs in finance and start ups and I started to realise that the experiences I was exposed to in the Royal Marines were absolutely foundational to understanding performance and how people work together. I have always been an avid reader and as my technical skills matured I started to refocus on my fascination with leadership and people. Eventually I read and experienced enough to start making connections between different fields. I began to see commonalities across learning and leadership in the forces and technical projects. I began to see how lessons from my martial arts practice apply to learning a new programming language or operational skill.

There’s a concept from Japanese zen which captures this process perfectly. Ensō symbolises enlightenment and the void, which I think is fitting. Often when you have an intellectual or spiritual breakthrough you realise that you haven’t got somewhere new, but that you have returned to the beginning with a mindset for new understanding