Michelle Barnett, graduate software engineer, Thales

Graduate software engineer Michelle Barnett talks about her first year working as an engineer. She tells her job hunting story, shares her experiences of settling in during the first few weeks and the ups and downs of the job including overcoming programming problems, working on fun team projects and getting approval of her work from senior management.

Michelle Barnett I am currently a graduate software engineer at Thales, a large international defence and security company. I work in an area that makes systems for securing online transactions and internet banking. My job mostly entails programming: either coding to a design, or bug fixing. I am also occasionally involved in the design process and in testing.

Getting a job

This job was the second I interviewed for and the first to offer me the position. I found the initial parts of the application process quite difficult because I hate coming up with answers to all of the "give an example of a time when…" questions. Weirdly, I found I quite enjoyed the assessment centre part of the process. The various tests and challenges were quite interesting! The presentation and interview were more daunting, but I was quite prepared for them so they weren't as bad as it could be.

When I first started

There was a very steep learning curve in the first few weeks at Thales. I had to learn about the company I was working for, what my department did, the project I would be working on and the various processes and practices. Aside from all of that, I was also coding in a language I had never used before, although it was very similar to one that I had.

There was no budget to give me any formal training, so I learnt by "pair programming" with a more experienced engineer. It took me a few weeks to settle in and get to know people as well, but everyone was welcoming and friendly so it wasn't too overwhelming. One of the hardest things was learning what all the technical terms and three letter acronyms that were thrown around meant.

Was it what I expected?

I honestly don't know what I expected when I started work. I think I didn't expect to spend so much time stuck on problems that weren't directly related to my coding. For example, I spend just as much time trying to get third party tools to work or wrestling with out build system as I do fixing problems in code I have written.

I also didn't expect to meet people I got on with so well; people with incredibly similar personalities to my friends at university - it hadn't occurred to me that the kind of people who work in computing are exactly the kind of people who studied computing!

Now I understand how my work fits into the wider project, and just generally have a better grounding in what we do. My technical skills have vastly improved; I honestly think I have learnt more in this past year than I ever did in university, although had I not had that grounding already it would have been much harder. I have also settled in, and feel like I am "one of the gang", getting to know people in other departments and being on friendly terms with most people.

I also like that the office I work in is relaxed and friendly - the general coding and design work is interspersed with people sharing blogs and articles of interest, much of the time related to the security field, but also things of general interest.

The highs and the lows

Day to day, my job can sometimes be quite frustrating, mostly when I am stuck on the same problem for a couple of days. But the satisfaction when I finally solve it makes the frustration worth it.

Sometimes when I've been stuck on a problem for a day or two I've then realised it was my own stupidity causing it. Other times there's been something that stumps everyone. Whilst this does make me feel a bit better, knowing that I haven't overlooked something obvious, it's quite frustrating to feel "anti-productive" - not only haven't you been productive, but you've made other people less productive because they've been helping you!

But there have also been several high points during my time working at Thales. For a start I had a team-building course with other graduates in the Lake District and I got to canoe across Lake Windemere, which was an amazing experience.

Getting sign-off from senior management on a user interface that I had helped design and implement was also a high, it was really great getting approval for my work.

Another high was having a group project to design a set of company-themed Top Trumps deck and presenting our findings to a group of quite important people, such as the company secretary, the head of Graduate Development and the technical director of one of our business units.

What next?

From here I want to be a Chartered Engineer (CEng), and the current graduate scheme I'm on will help me achieve that. I would also like to become a technical expert in the area of C# programming, so my next step is continuing to pick up as much knowledge and experience in that area as I can.

I'm not sure that I see myself staying with Thales, as I much prefer the atmosphere of our smaller office where it is possible to know everyone rather than our bigger offices, and I don't think I will be able to achieve my ambitions if I stay in this one office, but time will tell….