How I got here: Abigail Knowles, software engineer

I’ve read a lot of the other posts in this ‘How I got here’ series and based on those I’d say my route so far has been the more linear and academic way in. I’m actually still a student – I’m studying software engineering at Liverpool John Moores – and I’m spending my third year at Footasylum Tech before I graduate (fingers crossed😬) at the end of my fourth year.

Following my instincts

As far as I know, it’s very rare for someone of school age to know what they want to do when they’re a ‘grown up’, so I found the best thing to do was to go with my instinct. When it came to college enrollment day, I was about to sign up for graphic design, English and psychology A Levels but none of those things felt quite right.

I changed my mind on the day and enrolled on a BTech in IT. I chose based on what I’d enjoyed studying up to that point.

At college, I did work experience with a company that created virtual reality games and loved it. From there I decided I’d like to go to university and at that point I knew software engineering would be a good fit for me.

All my worries 😔

The reason I made some of the ‘life path’ decisions I did was because those routes felt safer. For example, I chose a BTech partly because I just did not want to go through A Level revision and exams. I hated that anxiety-inducing pressure during my GCSEs. In fact, I very nearly didn’t bother with a placement year. Everyone always says how good learning on the job is, but the thought of applying, interviewing, coding tests and then being rejected was sort of crippling.

But I made myself go to a careers fair. There were tonnes of stalls but I didn’t speak much to anyone, just wandered around. When I came to the Footasylum stand, I met Sarah Weeks and David Nottage and we chatted. I tried to figure out why chatting to them seemed easier than the people at other stalls and put it down to the fact they weren’t loads older than me. And, they weren’t in suits. They said they were there looking to speak to people who’d already graduated but they asked for my CV anyway.

A surprise ‘chat’ and my cautious approach

I was mid interviews/coding exams for a few other places and they were going about as well as I’d expected when Andy Norton, the Software engineering manager, asked if I’d like to meet for a ‘chat’. “Come in trainers if you want – this isn’t a formal thing,” he said. So I went to head office to meet him and the team with no pressure on myself and that age-old thing your parents say ringing in my head: “think of this as really good interview practice.”

For the first time in my experience of interviews, I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to trip me up. Instead, Andy asked about what I’m working on in uni and what I’m interested in. It didn’t feel like he expected me to know loads about a) the workplace and team culture and b) coding, seeing as I’d barely started studying it! He was looking for my potential, not my current knowledge.

When I left, my attitude had flipped: this wasn’t just ‘really good interview practice’ – I really wanted this placement.

At 5pm on a Friday in October 2019, I got the call saying 🎉I’d secured the placement for May 2020.🎊 When the pressure was off to find a placement, I settled into my course and the rest of my second year flew by.

Work stuff I’m proud of 💪

I started on the UNLCKD team (during lockdown). From my first day, I felt like one of the team – nobody treated me as less experienced. I was welcomed with (virtual) open arms. Principal developer Ian Parr is my go-to person if I need help – he’s there as much or as little as I need. He doesn’t rush me with tasks, instead he gives me space to learn.

My first task was to “become an expert on the third-party software we use to manage loyalty.” Being new and eager to impress I think I took this to the extreme – I know about everything from every attribute the software stores, to how we set up the full loyalty program.

I also created a ‘test harness’ as in, a test site. I’ve started to learn C# which makes a change from java that I was using at uni. I’m feeling so much better with API work now too. I’ve recently realised I really enjoy front end development and testing. I’ve learnt the importance of test driven development, loads about Microsoft Azure, I’ve created my own datalake events and I’ve even managed to do some of these things without asking for help.

But there's other stuff I’m proud of too

There have been many times where the worry has returned – including in the weeks leading up to the placement. Since starting, I’ve had times when I’ve got really upset with myself for not understanding something immediately (hi there, APIs, I’m looking at you). My team know how much pressure I sometimes put on myself and it turns out that imposter syndrome is not an uncommon thing.

💗 My confidence has grown a mega amount and that’s largely down to my team encouraging me and amplifying even small achievements. I’ve spoken at our weekly huddles in front of the whole Tech team, and I’ve talked stakeholders through a prototype. (My nerves made me prepare so ridiculously thoroughly!)

I’ve learnt that in the majority of cases, people see that you’re doing your best and they’re kind. I went on the brilliant Upfront course about public speaking and how to present yourself and it highlighted that nobody is born confident, you have to learn.

Watch this space 👀

I’ve thought loads about where I might be in the longer term and I think I’ll always make that decision based on what I enjoy and what I’m interested in. That could be something creative like virtual reality games, but I’m also really interested in how we use tech for social good.

Anything after uni still feels like a long way off but I’ll be going into my final year with solid foundations both in terms of coding skills, what good team culture looks like as well as a quiet confidence. I’ve got this opportunity at Footasylum Tech to thank for that.

Abbie Knowles Software engineer