Meet the Team: Sean Williams

Alex Luketa

In this post we interview Sean Williams, who joined us at Xerini during the pandemic as a software engineer. Sean is now an integral member of the team, someone who enjoys flexing his problem-solving skills alongside his real muscles during a good downtime callisthenics workout.

You did a degree in physics, why did you then choose a career in IT?

I got a taste of software engineering during my degree. It was a very basic introduction; it could really have been summed up in a short tutorial video. But I found it really interesting, particularly the idea of the open possibilities of software engineering. Problem-solving skills transfer really well and I know that there is a nice mix of practical and technical theory behind it, along with creativity.

I follow a lot of video game developments and news so, combined with that small experience of software engineering, it was a natural step for me towards computing when I went into the working world.

Was there anything else that you learned during your physics degree that was relevant to a career in IT?

The mathematics that I learnt came in handy, especially when it comes to understanding things like neural networks or the maths that goes on behind machine learning. This knowledge definitely helps when understanding some of the theory behind certain computer science topics. The problem-solving skills and the habits of discovery and research helped as well. Like physics, software engineering is a very collaborative form of work. It requires a lot of the same abilities, for example, looking for the correct answer or asking the correct questions to get the answer as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Did you start your career in IT directly after graduating?

No, not immediately. Whilst I was looking for software engineering roles, I spent about a year working for my local council. I then landed a graduate role in Newbury, where I spent two years. I then went on to a different role in Newbury before moving to Xerini. So, it’s coming up to five years now since I started my software engineering career.

You’ve learned a number of software languages, what would you say was your favourite?

I’ve never been married to a particular language. I appreciate the different capabilities of each. If I had to choose, my favourite is either C# (C Sharp) or JavaScript, as the unity engine scripting runs on those two languages, so I’ve had the most exposure to them.

Do you think learning those languages has helped you learn other new programming languages?

Absolutely. Whilst some languages can be quite specific to a particular task or type of task, there’s a snowball effect with learning these languages. JavaScript and C# have their similarities as they both incorporate object-orientated programming to an extent, but they are different languages and have their own purposes. However, learning one definitely does help with learning the other, even if it’s just conceptually.

You’re into video games, do you like developing video games or just playing them?

Definitely playing them, probably more than developing, although I have touched on some very small video game development projects of my own. A big dream of mine is to publish a game of my own. I enjoy the mix of creativity and technology and I’ve always appreciated video games as an art form. My favourite games are in the action, adventure and exploration genre. I’m very into indie games, either games made by a single developer or smaller development groups. As it is a passion project for them, they tend to take a lot more risks, either with the art style or with the game mechanics. With this in mind, one of my favourite series has been The Legend of Zelda for the exploration and puzzle-solving elements.

You started your role at Xerini during the pandemic, how was that experience for you?

It was pretty good. The majority of my previous role was carried out at home and I have definitely developed a preference for home-working. Everyone at Xerini was very supportive. In our line of technical work, and thanks to platforms like Git and Teams, there isn’t a huge necessity for a common location. The Directors – Alex, Jon and Simon – were very approachable and reachable. This was key when you’re not able to tap someone on the shoulder in an office setting. I found it surprisingly smooth given that it was hard during the pandemic, and I worked entirely from home.

You wrote a blog post for the Xerini website “In AI we trust … or do we?” Is this an area you are particularly interested in?

I think that, like many other technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have been much hyped. Like automation, it is quite a sort-after end point to a lot of workflows. There’s a lot of interest and it has been slowly more incorporated into consumer products. For example, the Smart House (a home where every household device is connected to the internet and can be controlled remotely).

It’s interesting to see what comes of giving that much trust to an automated process. Not necessarily for Hollywood-style dangers, more the fact that there is a human or team of humans behind all of these automated processes. I feel that there’s always going to be an unconscious bias element that goes into creating these models or these neural networks. It’s interesting to look at how these biases will be compensated for, and if not, what effects this might have. A good example of this is facial recognition. A particular facial recognition test that was around a couple of years ago was created with the hypothesis that you could tell someone’s sexual orientation from their facial features. This went viral because, of course, the sort of moral implications of identifying that were a concern. If it turned out to be true, what use would that be? How would that technology be used in locations where certain sexual orientations aren’t permitted? It’s interesting to look at both the human element that goes into these supposedly unbiased technologies and also how they are used. Experiments that involved AI don’t seem to currently be under the same sort of scrutiny as other software-based experiments just yet. Until that side is developed, it does feel a little Wild West.

Concentrating on software problem-solving every day can be quite intense, how do you wind down after work?

I have started to get into callisthenics recently. It is a type of exercise or workout that focuses on body weight exercises. For example, handstands and push-ups. Some of the more advanced skills are things like the “planche”. This is basically where you lie down and mimic a “plank” hold. So, you hold yourself horizontally, but instead of holding your body with your hands and feet (like with the plank) you are holding your body with just your hands. The idea is to be able to hold up your entire body and balance it just on your hands. There are some very cool skills that I’ve seen on videos that I am trying to recreate myself. There is the natural muscle building that comes into the moves, but there is also a lot of technical practice that is required which takes a lot of self-discipline.

Is there anything else that you do to relax in your spare time?

I’m currently teaching myself the drums. Drums are the backbone of all music, something that when it’s done well you don’t really notice but when it’s done poorly that’s the only thing you can notice. I’d like to move on to other instruments when I’ve perfected the drumming, but that’s far into the future.

As a final question – where are you looking forward to visiting abroad now that the world is opening up again post-pandemic?

My partner and I are due to visit Calgary, Canada this year which is very exciting. I’ve heard it is a beautiful country and I’m looking forward to seeing the nature side of things rather than the big cities. I’d really like to see a moose in real life!