My experience on the Guardian’s Digital Fellowship

for new developers who might be interested in applying

A number of software engineers have reached out to me who are interested in joining the Guardian. I thought it might be helpful to write my answers down so that everyone who is interested can benefit from them.

I spoke at ffconf 2019 about my experience being self-taught. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvgGcXuvLPs

What is the digital fellowship?

The Guardian’s digital fellowship is an annual programme open to people early in their software engineering career from all backgrounds. I don’t have a CS degree and didn’t do a bootcamp, so it’s open to us who are self-taught too! It runs for 1 year and during that time fellows are given the opportunity to rotate to different teams within the engineering department every quarter.

How have you found working at the Guardian?

I’ve really enjoyed working for the Guardian for the last 10 months. The engineering department has a really special culture where generally you meet really kind hearted people.

The people in the department are the highlight for me. Maybe because the Guardian doesn’t necessarily offer the highest salaries in the market, the engineers who are here are choosing to be here for a reason other than money. They might believe in the power of the Guardian’s journalism and hold Guardian values close to their hearts. I wonder if that’s why you tend to meet so many lovely souls here!

Also, I feel I’ve met some stellar engineers here who are incredibly responsible and professional. It feels like a privilege to work alongside them.

One of the downsides is the lack of diversity across the industry, which impacts the department at the Guardian. We have a lot more to do to attract more diverse candidates, however we do have a diversity group which meet weekly and I’ve found some amazing allies through this.

Do you have any tips for the behavioural questions on the online application?

I read over the application that I submitted and noted that I had a lot of examples that showed my passion for software engineering. I wrote about the meetups (Codebar and Code First Girl) that I attended and conferences that I spoke at. I also mentioned the open source project I worked on and juggling self study with a baby. I guess all of these things pointed towards someone who was working really hard to get into the industry. I would advise including examples that show your passion and zeal for engineering.

How did you find the initial interview process?

I really enjoyed the interview process. It started with a short telephone call and then I went into the office to do a technical pairing test and a face to face interview. I also had a chance to meet engineers during the break times on that day.

I was really nervous before the technical pairing test, but actually it was the highlight of my day and I didn’t want to stop! The Guardian has 9 pairing tests, so you can take a look at them before which is helpful.

Which qualities make a strong applicant?

I don’t know what the criteria for judging applications is, but I assume that a passion for learning would definitely be a priority. Whilst you don’t need a Computer Science degree or to have completed a bootcamp, you would have to show a passion and drive for engineering.

There are lots of other skills that make a great software engineer too, not just coding! I had a few months experience as a product manager before interviewing at the Guardian and I think that helped my application.

Do you have any tips for people who are unsure about applying?

Apply, apply, apply!

If you’re feeling uncertain, I would really encourage you to apply. I did not for one moment think that I would get a place on the fellowship and was completely shocked when I was invited to interview, let alone offered the job.

I was dreading the coding test, but it was actually the most enjoyable part for me, so don’t let that put you off if you’re nervous about it.

Even if you don’t get it, it’s a fantastic learning experience and will help you for your next job application.

What are your day to day responsibilities as an associate software engineer?

As a fellow I’m expected to maximise my learning by being enthusiastic and taking on the day to day work of the team. I spent the first 6 months on the fellowship working on the Android app, which was amazing. I’ve never even used an Android phone, let alone developed an app! Nevertheless, I had such a phenomenal time because my colleagues spent so much time pairing with me and I always felt they were there to support me.

I’ve found it really useful to voice any challenges I’m facing with my team members as colleagues are always willing to help and provide support. I feel I’ve been very lucky to get phenomenal support, which I think every new developer requires.

In your role, would you say you spend an equal amount of time on both the backend and frontend?

It really depends on the team. On the Android team, I spent more time working on styling. Having said that I also spent a great deal of time introducing Sign in with Apple to the Android app, which required backend work.

On my current team, Ophan, which collects analytics data for the Guardian, I have done mostly backend, but this quarter will be doing a lot more frontend so it’s a real mix!

In terms of stack, on Android I was writing Kotlin and Java. On Ophan, I’ve been writing Scala and using AWS and Elasticsearch. I’ve also spent the last couple of quarters doing Fridays on our DevX (Developer Experience) team which is akin to DevOps and there I’ve also been working with Scala, AWS and Elasticsearch.

Do you get to choose what kind of engineering you want to do?

Yes, fellows get to indicate which teams they would like to rotate into and ultimately graduate into after the fellowship year. All my preferences were granted. I am particularly interested in server side engineering and infrastructure and was able to do all of those things.

How was the onboarding process?

I had an amazing onboarding process whereby I simply spent 100% of my time pairing with colleagues. I personally find this the best way to learn and get up to speed quickly. On the Android team I asked colleagues at standup every morning if I could pair with them. I scheduled this into my calendar with them so that no one would forget! On Ophan, the team has a strong pairing culture, so this wasn’t required.

What has the learning and development process been like?

There is no set routine or schedule for learning and development. Rather, it’s really autonomous, which suited me as I enjoy self directed study. Whilst on the Android team I put in place weekly meetings which rotated around my colleagues, so that each week one person would pair with me on a topic about Android. On Ophan, I paired with the tech lead most mornings on an online Scala course. Also, I found a mentor outside of the teams I was working on day to day who paired with me for an hour a week on various server side topics and on Scala.

How does the fellowship invest in your growth?

The fellowship does a really good job of growing your software engineering skills, because you’re doing the work of a software engineer day to day, but with little pressure to deliver substantial work. Fellows are not costed to teams, but rather the department as a whole, so it’s completely fine to prioritise learning.

I always felt (and still do, even post fellowship) that I can follow my interests and learn in ways that work for me. The Guardian does offer 20% time to all developers, which means that you can do your own project, contribute to open source or something like that during this time.

How do you work with stakeholders and the wider team?

On the Android team, there was a lot of work with colleagues as the apps team is quite large. It includes a server-side team and the iOS team as well as designers, testers, infrastructure and user experience specialists. Given this we had a number of regular meetings where we could demo our work and plan work to be done.

On Ophan we mainly work with our stakeholders in Editorial, which is fascinating because I’ve had the opportunity to understand more about the world of our journalists which is the heart and soul of the Guardian. There are a lot fewer meetings as the team is much smaller and I feel we are more developer led.

It’s really interesting to see the contrast in team practices and cultures across the department.

What is the top strength and weakness of the fellowship programme?

The top pro is that it’s an amazing entry level software engineering scheme and there are so few of these in the industry. Not only that, but it’s high quality because engineers across the department are so willing to give their time to support fellows through pairing and in other ways.

The con (which could definitely also be seen as a pro) is that you have to rotate teams. This is perfect for people that are unsure about the kind of engineering they want to do, but for those who already know it might feel like a detour. The good thing is that you have a lot of choice about which teams you would like to try during your fellowship year and you could choose to specialise in backend roles for example if that was your interest.

Any other questions?

If there’s anything I haven’t covered here, please do ask me your question on Twitter and I would be happy to add it here or respond to you in private.

If you liked this article, please check out my latest ones here: https://www.aminaadewusi.com

Thank you!

Junior developer