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What’s it like being a Graduate Data Engineer during COVID-19?

What’s it like starting a new career in lockdown? How well did university prepare you for a job in technology? How do you explain data engineering to friends and family? We sat down with two of Optima Connect’s graduate data engineers to find out.

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By Caz Stanton and Anna Skelly, Optima Connect

Q1. How did you end up as a Graduate Data Engineer at Optima Connect?

AS: I came here straight out of uni. So this is my first proper job.

CS: Before Optima, I was working as an HR data analyst for about six months, however I always wanted a more technical role.

Q2. What was it about Data Engineering that appealed to you?

AS: When I finished uni, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Lots of maths graduates head into the finance sector but the big corporate world didn’t appeal to me – I’d heard a few horror stories! To be honest, ‘data engineering’ wasn’t something I’d really gone looking for, but after reading the job advert, I was keen to know more. Once I got to the interview, I was sold. There was a big emphasis on problem-solving which I was interested in. I also liked the graduate ladder that Optima has – knowing that there would be lots of people in the business who knew what it’d be like to be in my position, know the issues and how to help – that felt very comforting. The great company culture was also a big selling point!

CS: I was much the same. I didn’t know the specifics of data engineering, but what stood out was how they talked about problem-solving as a daily occurrence. That’s what I liked about studying maths too – the mix of thinking logically and creatively.

Q3. How do you see the Data Science / Data Engineering crossover, and were you tempted by a career in Data Science instead?

AS: I never fully understood the crossover before joining Optima. Working here you see how much data engineering and data science complement each other. I always associated data analytics with statistics, and statistics modules were never my favourite at uni. I didn’t like that data could be interpreted in different ways – often to show a more favourable result.  I’d say this probably put me off a career in data science as I’m more of a black and white person, I don’t like the middle ground. Data engineering is every bit as valid as data science, it is the foundations for good data science!

CS: I hated stats at uni as well. I focused almost exclusively on pure maths. As Anna says, the two definitely complement each other, but are very different fields. Having worked here for a year now, I’d say data engineering is cooler!

Q4. With remote working as the norm for the majority of your first year, how has that affected your sense of the culture at Optima Connect and your ability to contribute to it?

CS: I think there’s probably places where you miss out from not having started in the office. It took a while for me to get used to calling people to check in or ask for help. I guess that’s natural when you’re working with people you’ve never met (and are trying to make a good impression!). At the same time, if you’d told me a year ago I’d be working from home for my whole first year, I’d have thought it would be worse. And things like the tech meetings are great for hearing what people are working on.

AS: A lot of things you can make up for with Zoom or Teams, but you can’t replace overhearing or being aware of a conversation in the office. Often that’s what helps you pick things up and gain understanding of the bigger picture. There’s also a social and a fun element to Optima that at the start of lockdown was harder to see. I think for a grad joining a company you maybe don’t realise how much you can influence the culture yourself. I think I had a bit of an expectation that events and activities were always kind of top-down things, but the longer I’ve been here the more I realise it’s in everyone’s interest to suggest ideas and organise things, and that company culture comes down to the people.

Q5. What are the best and worst things about being a Graduate Data Engineer?

AS: Problem solving is definitely the best part of the job – whether that’s helping to answer a question from a client or being given a complicated task to work through. The digging, the research, finding a probable solution and everything in between. Plus, there’s a great sense of satisfaction when you solve the problem! Timesheets are definitely the worst thing – my advice to any future grads is to buy a diary!

CS: The worst thing for me is timesheets. I was not sympathetic enough in my last job about timesheets! And I know what you mean about the tools letting you down. I was showing someone an SQL query in [a leading SaaS platform] this week and it came up with an error. We ran it again and the second time it worked, the exact same query. The best thing for me is when you have the chance to play around with something and try different things out. Recently I got a client brief to see if I could get a particular data set out of a system. That hadn’t been done before, and the process of exploring it from a few different angles was great.

Q6. How well did your university degrees prepare you for a job in technology?

CS: Pretty well, I think, although I didn’t do much with actual technology at uni. We had a compulsory computing module in first year. After that I went for everything that was as abstract as possible, and mostly focused on logic. Particularly for data engineering, it could probably have been more directly or more explicitly linked. It seems like there are much more obvious routes from maths into data science. That said, for a company like Optima, it’s more a way of thinking – that mix of creativity and logic. I think a lot of maths does prepare you well for a job in technology.

AS: I agree. I’m not sat in my day-to-day role now doing integration or differentiation. But in a lot of ways the thinking process is the same. You start here and this is the end goal, now figure out the steps in between. That’s pretty much what we do every day at Optima. I think having a few projects that involved programming/coding were a good taste of what my job had in store. It certainly got me excited to know more.

Q7. How did you find the interview process with Optima Connect?

AS: I loved the test. I think you’ll hear that from all the grads here! The interview itself felt very relaxed. More of a conversation rather than having questions fired at you. For someone that didn’t quite know what the role entailed that approach really helped me understand what my potential job was going to be.

CS: It’s funny you mention the test, because I was actually reviewing different graduate tests in my old job at the time, and they were starting to feel a bit monotonous. Even after that, I still enjoyed the Optima one! And yeah, I really liked the interview as well. It was much more relaxed and much less of an interrogation than others I’ve been in.

Q8. Finally, how do you explain what you do to friends & family?

CS: I actually asked my housemates what they think I do and they said ‘big data?’. So not a bad start! They know I do stuff with data, rather than interpreting what the data says. When I have to explain to someone new, I tend to frame it in terms of ‘building databases’… so something like: imagine you’re building a digital library and you want it organised. You want all of the data to come in in a sensible way, to be stored and interconnected in a sensible way, and extractable in a sensible way. And for every company you deal with, they’re going to have different information. What we do is build a digital solution to this. I also tend to mention that my line manager has the job title of Technical Architect, which I think helps as it has a more obvious meaning.

AS: Not sure I’ve got as good an answer as that one! It used to really bug me when I told people that I was doing a maths degree, they would say, “so are you going to be a maths teacher or an accountant now?” Neither! There’s not a great understanding of the job we do, but normally I just say I work for a data management and marketing company and that I work on the tech team. Then if I need to expand any further, I just say we do the background work. My family are good at repeating this if anybody asks them!

Optima Connect is hiring! If you’re a recent graduate looking for a new challenge and you like the sound of data engineering, have a look at Optima’s open vacancy for graduate data engineers by clicking here.

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