On to what the graduates told me about themselves, their experiences in the Academy, and what they’ve been doing since. The first questions I asked all of the interviewees was:
“What did you do before BJSS and why did you decide to join the Academy?”
Tom, Abigail, and Luca had come to BJSS after completing a Computer Science degree, though each with a different journey and flavour. Tom, who is a Taekwondo black belt I learned, chose to focus on core software engineering modules during his degree.
“I really felt they prepared me well for a role in the tech industry more than the other modules did... coming into BJSS I can only now see how important that is.” - Tom
Abigail took Computer Science & AI, and Luca was a Berkley University in California for two years, before deciding to come back to the UK and complete his learning.
Luca explained that while Berkley is a distinguished university for Computer Science, it’s also a very large one. Classes of nearly 2000 people were not uncommon and the more personalised experience of a class of 80 at Exeter University was more enjoyable and a more tailored learning experience.
When I asked how they found out about the BJSS Academy, both Tom and Abigail told me they were suggested it by friends. In Tom’s case, a friend from university had joined the 2019 BJSS Academy and had recommended he do the same. Initially planning on staying in academia, it sounded too good an opportunity to miss. Luca on the other hand, applied off the back of a career fair at his university. Students can apply to join one of our offices across the country, and he was keen to experience London life, as well as get the opportunity to work on a variety of projects with people he felt he could learn a lot from.
Working in the Academy...
Typically run as a residential course, with the graduates descending on Leeds City for four weeks of learning and social events, the 2020 Academy had to be held remotely. Everyone told me they’d been looking forward to meeting their peers for the first time, as well as being together for the length of the course. But it didn’t seem to get in the way of success.
“Being on Zoom all day you get used to, it’s kind of like being in a classroom... you’re only ever talking to people for work, you’re not really having just chats I find, as much as you would in person. But I think that it was really quite well structured, the work that Dan, Frazer and everyone else who was involved did was really good. I think it actually worked quite well.” – Luca
“It was a bit weird knowing we were doing the Academy all online, completely. But it was done really well. The way it was all structured, it was actually quite nice, and the way that we did the evening sessions were quite nice.”- Abigail
Kicked off every morning with a selection of “start the day” music from the collection of Dan Webb, who runs the Academy, not everyone was in agreement with his musical taste.
"He'd put music on in the morning which was quite a nice way of starting it off, but yeah, he didn't have the best music taste I've got to say." - Abigail
This didn’t seem to get in the way of their enjoyment, however. When I asked what their time at the Academy had been like, I was described an intense, fast-paced and exciting learning experience with teaching sessions and hands-on team-based hacks which provided exposure to a wide range of roles, technologies and topics – some of which they’d never heard of before.
“It is quite a different experience than what I’d expect from a normal graduate scheme, but it’s also probably one of the best a graduate could hope for. I think it properly puts you through your paces. You cover lots of different topics really fast, in a really good environment to learn and adapt and gain new knowledge.” - Tom
“It was and wasn't what I was expecting – I think I wasn't expecting such a wide range of topics, which was really nice actually. I expected it to be a lot of teaching us the basics, going through things very slowly, trying to keep people so they are at the same point.” - Abigail
Course modules are run by BJSS colleagues and include fun and tricky technical challenges, consulting skills and presentations, culminating in a final hack and pitch. Both Tom and Abigail told me how they had been introduced to platform engineering during the Academy, one of their favourite parts of the experience which has helped to shape their roles on projects now. As well as front- and back-end development, during the course they had a chance to get hands on in both AWS and Azure, using serverless technologies and container tech, including Docker and Kubernetes.
This broad exposure to technologies has really enabled each of the students to identify what they love as well as what they don’t quite as much. Having learned about Docker, Tom told me that he’s been able to apply the technology to his current project, automating development environment setup and saving days in project on-boarding. In addition, he’s learning about Azure with his project while training himself to take an Azure fundamentals certification too.
Each of the graduates I spoke to has now started project work with a selection of BJSS’ clients. Abigail is working as a Platform Engineer on a data platform project with National Highways, alongside other experienced BJSS colleagues who provide support and continued learning opportunities. When I asked what she’d like to take on next, after National Highways, Abigail said: "I don't know, I think if I was offered to do more platform engineering I'd very happily say yes, I really enjoy it. But also, if someone turned around and said to do something completely different, I'd honestly at this point do anything. It's been great the support that I've had, and the people helping to teach everything, and guide me through the projects. I'd try anything else.”
Luca, on the other hand, is working with a major retail bank of which he spoke highly: “My team is great, and I’m learning a lot, and I was excited because I'm a big Node.js guy, so I was excited that we were doing everything in Node.”
Having experienced working with a big bank, Luca spoke about being keen to experience different types of companies, with different delivery cultures. Perhaps a smaller, startup-like firm where he could experience fast-paced delivery, a big public sector organisation or the NHS. “It would be interesting to be on a startup-like kinda vibe (project) and then be able to be on a greenfield project where everything is made from scratch, that would be interesting. I’d also like to try working for an NHS type big public sector thing to see what that’s like... I feel like working for the NHS is quite morally healthy, you feel like you’re really actually helping people not just helping a company make more money.”
It was clear that the chance to work on different projects presented an excellent learning opportunity. Tom is working at one of those big public sector organisations, the DVSA. When I asked him what it was like, he spoke with a slightly nervous laugh. “It's honestly being thrown as far into the deep end as I can imagine myself being thrown... it's five projects in one project... it’s so big it takes months and months just to touch some of the areas, and I'm still learning about areas that exist now... I've seen myself grow as a Software Engineer faster than I ever anticipated growing."
Of course, it’s not all about work and learning. While they couldn’t be together in person there were still evening social events, both ad-hoc and professionally arranged. I also didn’t miss an opportunity to ask if anyone had any anecdotes. One I enjoyed was of one student who throughout the Academy had hung a sheet up as a background. As days progressed, so did the curiosity. What is behind the sheet? Keeping quiet throughout, he took down the sheet at the end of the final day, to reveal a giant printed picture of himself behind the screen.
Advice from our graduates...
If you are reading this and applying, or you’ve joined BJSS already, I asked each person for some advice they’d like to pass on.
"I'd say keep going, keep working hard on everything and also don't limit yourself to one thing. I think that's the great thing about BJSS, there are so many different roles and different projects, you really can't guess beforehand where you are going to end up. I think there are so many different things. Even if you are on a project learning one thing there's always going to be an opportunity to have a go at something else. I think that's what I really enjoy, the variety that's here. Don't limit yourself to one thing." - Abigail
“The most important thing, and not even just for the Academy, but going into any new company or industry is: don't be afraid to ask questions. Everyone is afraid of sounding stupid so they don’t always ask the questions, but I learn the most when I actually ask questions... And also, in software development and our industry in general, you can't be afraid of trying new things. Most of the time people are not experts in things, they are just learning on the go a bit anyway.” - Luca
“Spend more time than you had set out for the pre-course learning materials, some of the stuff in there is really useful... I would say, buckle up for an intense four weeks, but the four weeks will be some of the best weeks of your life I would say - I'm definitely going to remember mine forever.” - Tom
In short, try lots of things, don’t be afraid to ask questions and use the pre-course learning materials wisely!