Kickstarting my career as a data engineer

By Robbie O’Neill

I’m currently studying towards a computer science degree at Northumbria University in Newcastle. As part of my degree, I applied to do an industrial placement in my third year, which is how I ended up working at DWP Digital. Since returning to my studies, I’ve been able to continue my work at DWP Digital on a part-time basis.

Choosing an industrial placement as part of my degree was important. At university, we often use the latest technologies in perfect situations. Very rarely do we need to address setbacks or things like legacy code. Placements offer us the opportunity to work on real projects that have real problems, which enable us to develop our skills and develop ‘hands on’ experience in using systems.

Picture of screen and one hand at keyboard and the other holding a mobile phone

Starting the industrial placement

At first, I was a bit daunted by the prospect of working at the UK’s largest government department. I didn’t know what to expect and thought that working in the Civil Service sounded very serious, with everyone wearing suits and ties. But I quickly felt at ease after speaking to my manager, who assured me that wasn’t the case.

Despite joining remotely, my first day was brilliant and my team have been there since to help with anything I need. They’re great to get along with, the work is always interesting and the knowledge that we help some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens makes me enjoy working here even more.

The data engineer role

The first thing I do when I get into the office is grab a coffee, then unpack and prepare myself for the day ahead.

On a typical day, I’ll look at design documents and work out how they can be implemented. We use UML and Database design documentation, and my role is to interpret as well as synthesize SQL to be able to meet these design documents.

I work closely with designers to understand business needs and developers to figure out ways of meeting these needs. We use a range of technologies such as RDBMS, SAS, Informatica, Python, Machine Learning Models and Web Development technologies.

I’m also involved with testing, looking at developing systems to see if they meet specifications or if they need to be changed.

A lot of time is spent working on data, making sure it’s accurate, up to date and tested to be free of error. I also format data for different needs and aggregate data to provide value to datasets.

Picture of hands working at a keyboard and pointing at screen

I also work alongside other departments such as HMRC and ONS. This provides huge value to each department and the end citizen, as we’re getting more value out of customer data and allowing business processes to be streamlined. With things like cloud hosting, machine learning and APIs, the role of data will only become more important in future.

It can be a challenging juggling work and university at the same time. I’m very strict on time management and have set schedules. I try to maximize my work output by focusing on a task at a time. If I stop and start, I find the quality of my work decreases. I typically create a plan at the start of my week and then decide which days I will work longer or less to allow me to complete university work.

After work, I usually get food with friends, go to the pub, or watch a film. It all just depends on what the day brings. I also like to visit the coast with my mates.

From placement to permanent

My industrial placement has enabled me to get hands-on experience, working on real life projects. It’s been invaluable. And by developing the right skills and an understanding of the department, I was able to apply for a part-time position.

I think the skills and fresh thinking that industrial placement students can bring is a huge benefit to any organisation. In return, I have spent time gaining new skills using the latest technology. It’s a win-win situation.

It doesn’t feel like my placement has come to an end after I transitioned in to my part-time role. It just feels like it’s a new learning experience, which is a testament to how much I like working here and how good the placement has been.

DWP Digital is an amazing and rewarding place to work. It’s great knowing that you’re helping to provide services that really make a difference to people’s lives.

I look forward to graduating and working more in the industry, taking advantages of all the opportunities that are available to me, such as formal training and working on new projects. I’m also excited to work across other areas of the department and contribute to other teams and their projects.