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I'm doing a Year in Industry placement as a software engineer on the Home Moves team - helping to make moving house as easy as possible (when I haven't broken it.)



'Help I've broken it again' and other stories from my Year In Industry so far

My intention with this blog post is to take my experiences over the past year and turn them into some actionable advice for applying to and starting a Year in Industry placement anywhere, but particularly at OVO.

Hi there, I'm Tudor đź‘‹. I'm a 3rd-year computer science student at the University of Surrey, and I'm currently doing a Year in Industry placement at Kaluza (part of the OVO group) as a software engineer on the Orion Home Moves team. Officially, I work from the Bristol office but, because of Covid, I'm living at home in sunny West Wales and working remotely. I'm coming up to the halfway-point of my year here, so my intention with this blog post is to tell you about the Year in Industry scheme here at OVO, talk a bit about my experiences, and dish out some advice like an early-career Oprah Winfrey.

My technical experience before joining OVO was mostly in Java, PHP, and Python, and I had no hands-on experience with infrastructure or cloud tech. Home moves is a Node with TypeScript team (with a functional programming library, fp-ts), and there are other bits of tech I've had to learn like Terraform, Kafka, and various AWS services. Basically, I had no direct experience with any of the languages or technologies we use here, so don't worry if you're thinking about doing a placement and you're in the same boat - you'll pick it up in no time.

I spent my second year of university (last year) studying at Brock University in Canada. It was a great experience, and I highly recommend doing something similar if you get the chance. That's not really what this post is about, but it's relevant since it meant I was applying for my placement from Canada  This meant I was an interviewing hipster - I was doing remote interviews before they were cool. You'll probably all be doing them now - they've gone mainstream for some reason. Anyway, I've got some tips for remote interviews further down, so keep reading.

I started applying for placements towards the end of September when my apartment building finally got internet (I had spent a month before that experiencing what life was like in the Middle Ages). I sent a relatively low number of applications, around 10 in total. I think a couple of things contributed to this - first, my approach to applications was slow and more methodical (more on that later, too); and second, I got lucky with OVO. You see, the other companies I applied to either didn't want to do remote interviews (I'm sure that's going well) or gave at least one round of automated video interviews before you ever speak to a real person. Don't get me wrong, I realise that these companies get hundreds, if not thousands, of applications but it dehumanises the process significantly. So when I got a personal email from someone at OVO within days of my application, it stood out to me. "Crikey, a real person!" I exclaimed (not really, but you get the point). The whole process was like this - personal, fair, and even enjoyable. It was so extremely different that by the time I had an offer from OVO, I still hadn't spoken to a real person at nearly every other company I applied to. Covid has delayed things a bit this year, but I'm sure it'll still be a great experience. Heck, you might even get a chance to speak to me you lucky so-and-so.

Now, the fact that OVO was so quick does mean that I've only ever done one real interview in my life, so I'm not exactly the most qualified person to tell you how to do yours. But I must have done something right, so I'm going to try anyway:

Start early

I think it's valuable to look at what's on offer the year before you actually apply to get an idea of some places you might want to work, what the application process normally looks like, and so on.

It's definitely a good idea to get your CV/LinkedIn/Cover Letter/good luck ritual sorted in the summer before application season starts so that you have a longer period of time to really trim it down to what's essential, to make sure it's all top-quality, and to get it reviewed by someone you trust. It also makes it much less stressful since you're not trying to get stuff ready at the same time as applying.

The majority of applications tend to open in the Autumn, with a steady trickle of new ones throughout the Winter and early Spring. You should be aiming to start applying early in the Autumn even if you don’t feel 100% ready. At worst you'll get some experience applying and a better understanding of the whole process, and at best you could end up with an offer before Christmas.

Pick an approach

Spray and pray - I didn't do this
This is where you develop an extremely generic CV/cover letter and apply to as many places as possible. It definitely does work for some people - it's bound to, right? You treat it as a numbers game and someone will like you. My issue with this is that you're less likely to stand out, and you're not maximising your chances at each individual company. When your CV/cover letter is super-generic, you'll look like every other applicant (and trust me, there will be plenty of them). Most companies don't want to hire an army of clones that all think and talk the same. They want a diverse group of people bringing unique ideas to the table, so show them you can do that!

Slow and methodical - I did this
This approach involves spending far longer on each application, painstakingly crafting your CV and cover letter to each company until you consider entering it for the Pulitzer Prize. I spent a few weeks upfront building a CV that covered the facts and a cover letter that showed a bit more of my personality and why I should be hired. I considered this to be my template that could then be tailored to the company I was applying for. This takes time, it's not a simple find + replace "COMPANY NAME" with "OVO Energy". You need to do some research about the company, figure out why you want to work there specifically (preferably not because "I need a job"), and articulate why you fit with what they're looking for. Even something as simple as "my experience doing X showed me that I shouldn't be afraid to ask questions, and that I am able to persevere. I think this makes me a great fit for OVO's values, especially 'Find a Better Way'." shows whoever is reading your CV that you've taken some time to at least read our careers website. I really do think this is important - when there are hundreds of applicants for a handful of positions, you have to stand out.

Don't neglect the human aspect

I think it's pretty obvious that for a technical role, the technical aspect of the interview is important. You need to be able to demonstrate that you have an appropriate level of technical knowledge and experience. There are plenty of guides and articles about this online, and I don't think I was particularly good at this, so I'm not going to focus on it. Personally, I think that being teachable and personable are more important than blazing through every technical question, at least at this point in your career. The interviewer isn't expecting you to be an amazing engineer right now, but they are looking to see if you can be an amazing engineer in the future. To show them that you have this potential, you need to be able to ask questions, take information on, and learn from it.

I think the behavioural aspect of the interview process is extremely important. Being the most technically proficient engineer doesn't matter if it seems like you'd be awful to work with, or if you don't have the right attitude. Read about the company and their values, and have a think about how this aligns with you, your experiences, and your aspirations. Think about why you want to do a Year in Industry, and why you want to work at OVO. Make sure that you can talk about whatever projects, courses, or technologies are on your CV. For example, if you've said that you made a website, make sure you can talk about what it does, how it works, and any lessons you’ve learnt from it. The one caveat with all of this advice is that you shouldn't exaggerate or, even worse, lie. Be honest, and don't try to sweet talk about the company and say how you're only applying to OVO and nowhere else because we're so amazing (we are pretty great though). Definitely don't make things up because you think it makes your application more impressive - it'll be painfully obvious and doesn't paint you in a good light. Seriously, don't do that.

Remote interviews

There's a fair bit that can go wrong with remote interviews, but if you take some time to prepare, these risks can be minimised. You should find somewhere quiet where you won't be distracted - if this happens to be at home then tell everyone that you're doing an interview and ask them to keep quiet for a bit. You should also do a test run ahead of time - we use Google Meet here, so set one up and make sure your webcam/microphone work properly. For the technical interview you might need an IDE or text editor of some sort, so make sure you've got one ready. I would also "arrive" 10 minutes ahead of time just like any other interview so that you can resolve any technical difficulties that do arise.

You might not be in the same room, but body language and eye contact are still very important. In fact, it might be more important over a video call since you have no physical presence. The interviewer wants to know that you're engaged, that you are positive and excited about the position, and that you're a confident person. Obviously, given that you're trying to convey all of this through a webcam, you need to bring some of this energy verbally. I realise that this can be quite difficult - I come across as reserved and my dry sense of humour doesn't help - but you don't need to act as someone else, just own your natural personality.

I personally found it really helpful to take some notes before the interview, almost like I was revising for an exam. You can prepare some basic answers for common questions and while you might not get the exact question you prepared for, if you've thought about a time you did some teamwork, for example, you can adapt that to whatever question you are asked. It's also a good idea to remind yourself about the company by reading their values (and Plan Zero here at OVO) or maybe taking a look at the tech blog - talking about these things during the interview is really good.

Despite the difficulty of onboarding a new employee during a pandemic (much less onboarding someone into their first engineering job during a pandemic), OVO was great. I had regular contact to get everything sorted, and I had equipment posted out to me. I also got an email with info about the team I was joining and their tech stack around a week before I started. This gave me a chance to familiarise myself with the tech I was going to be working with. That same week, I had a quick intro call with my team which helped to ease some of the nerves since they were really friendly! Onboarding remotely certainly has its challenges, but I actually found it very easy. This might be because I don't have any experience with onboarding another way, but I think if you just embrace it you'll get on fine.

My first week was a bit of a whirlwind. I hoped to slot right in with as little disruption as possible, and it went surprisingly well. The team were super helpful and supportive, and my buddy helped me get up to speed quickly. By the end of that first week I had some code in production, and I'd helped out with a senior designer interview! The fact that I had the opportunity to get stuck in right away is a bit different to a few other placement schemes that I'm aware of - a lot of them have you in some sort of "training" phase at the start, like stabilizers for engineers. In my experience, OVO is completely different and you'll be treated like any other engineer. It wasn't long before I was writing code, contributing to architecture decisions, and adding to team discussions. Don't let being the Year in Industry student hold you back from taking on some responsibility - I think you'll surprise yourself. Of course, the flipside of this is that  by actually doing things you're bound to make some mistakes. I'll hold my hands up and admit that I've broken a couple of things, but as long as you're honest about it, take responsibility for it, and work to fix it, you can treat it as a learning experience (they haven't fired me yet so I think this is good advice...) Anyway, you're only here for a year, so you can walk away from the smouldering mess you've created and chalk it up to inexperience (that’s a joke). I've got a few ideas on how to get up to speed quickly and get stuck in, so it'd be rude not to share:

Be confident.

Even if you're not, pretend you are. This goes for any interviews you have and for starting the actual job. Most of the time people won't notice, and I even had someone tell me that it was weird how calm and confident I was. It's entirely normal to be nervous or scared, but you can control how you let it affect you and the energy you give off. Channel it into whatever you're doing - you know what you're capable of and there's nothing more you can do except give it your best shot. If that isn't good enough yet then so be it - accept it, learn from it, and move on.

Randomness & Optionality

This point is going to seem a bit... out of left-field, but bare with me. I'm a fan of Josh Wolfe, a venture investor and entrepreneur who founded Lux Capital (among many other things.) Josh coined this concept of Randomness & Optionality that really resonated with me when I read it a year or two ago. In short, the idea is that everything is an obvious linear chain of events after the fact, but before (and at the time) there's no obvious path, and you have no idea what will come next. You can apply and think about this in lots of different contexts, but my interpretation for careers is that Randomness basically means putting yourself out there to create seemingly random opportunities. Optionality means being open (and brave) enough to take the random opportunities that you create. It's almost like creating your own luck, it feels like you were just in the right place at the right time. I could write an entire blog post about Randomness & Optionality but if there's one piece of advice to take away from this it might be to put yourself in as many "random" places as possible, and then take the opportunities that come from that.

Don't always take the easy route

This is semi-related to the point above, but you learn the most when you're actually doing something (especially when you have no other choice but to learn) and you grow the most as a person when you're outside of your comfort zone. Don't always take the easy route - try to figure things out on your own since it'll lead to a much better understanding of how things work and how they fit together. If you've been at it a while and you're not getting anywhere, or if you're genuinely worried about something, ask your team. They will support you when you need it, and you should never be afraid to ask questions. If your teammates are any good, which they will be at OVO, they'll help you work through it rather than just give you the answer. The same principles apply to taking on responsibility. It'll seem scary saying "yes", but it's a great opportunity and a good sign that your team trusts you. You'll always have support if and when you need it, and it's a great chance to put Randomness & Optionality into practice.

Read. Read everything.

Read technical and non-technical documentation from your team and from other teams, read through and understand bits of code, pay attention in meetings even if they seem irrelevant, read Jira tickets, read random Slack messages. Immerse yourself in the goings-on of your team, and the wider company. This might not work for everyone, but I've found it very useful to quickly gain context to a lot of questions that come up and to have a solid mental model of how things fit together. Think of each piece of information you read or hear as a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. You're trying to complete this puzzle in your head, which will allow you to more quickly understand what’s going on.

Look after your mental health

Starting your first engineering job can be tough, especially if you're starting remotely. Your mental health is incredibly important, and you should do everything you can to look after it. Luckily, OVO cares about it's employees and you will be supported. I haven’t needed to use any of the services available, but I can talk about some of the things I've done to keep my head in the right space.

I try to approach everything with a positive mental attitude. This goes hand-in-hand with being confident even if you have to fake it. Think positive and, more often than not, the outcome will be positive (or at least, you can spin it into a positive). It's totally normal to feel some anxiety or fear, but you can frame this in a positive way and channel it into productivity - I find it helpful to write about the problem that I'm facing and break it down since 99% of the time it's smaller than it seemed in your head. This also opens the door to making a plan. Once you know what the problem actually is, you can determine how best to influence it. If you’re able to influence it then great, go for it. If you can't do anything about it, it's not worth thinking about.

You need to look after your physical health too, especially now that you’re probably at home all day. Despite Descartes saying that "there is a great difference between mind and body" there is a growing pile of modern evidence showing that your body and mind are intimately linked and that making sure that your body is in good condition helps keep your mental health in order. I'm absolutely not qualified to give advice on this stuff, but it’s probably a good idea to find some form of exercise that you enjoy, and try to keep your diet reasonable.

This next point is something that I'm still working on. You need to take breaks, and you need to take time off. It's easy to think that simply working on something for hours on end will solve the problem, but it's usually more productive to work in short spurts of time broken up by short breaks. It also means that you're less likely to burn out on a problem. Taking time off is the same thing - you need to take time to deload your brain. You'll come back feeling refreshed and will likely be more productive.

I'm going to finish this blog post there. My intention with this was to take my experiences over the past year and turn them into some actionable advice for applying to and starting a Year in Industry placement. I genuinely hope that it has helped in some way. To cap it off, I figured I'd sum up why you should do a Year in Industry here at OVO. I'm not being paid any extra to say this, so you know it's the truth.

  1. The interview process is fair and enjoyable. You're not just treated like a number.
  2. You'll be treated like any other engineer, and you have a huge opportunity to learn and grow. And break things.
  3. Everyone is really friendly and happy to help out. It's a bit weird, honestly.
  4. They invest in your development and want you to succeed.
  5. You get to use some cool tech to solve some cool problems, and you'll learn a heck of a lot doing it.
  6. Not only will your technical skills improve, all those intangible "soft" skills are enhanced.
  7. The benefits and pay are pretty good. While you shouldn't base your placement applications entirely on this, it feels great to be recognised for your work.

If any of this interests you, make sure you apply for the Year in Industry position at https://careers.ovo.com/ (when it's available). If you have any questions, feel free to ping me a message on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tudorharries/. Lastly, this post is the first in a series from current Year in Industry students at OVO, so keep your eyes peeled for more!

I'm doing a Year in Industry placement as a software engineer on the Home Moves team - helping to make moving house as easy as possible (when I haven't broken it.)

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