Spicule - Data Processing Experts

Meet the Interns who are helping Spicule develop the future

Meet the Interns who are helping Spicule develop the future

We love working with interns at Spicule because we fervently believe that internships are vital to our industry’s future. Not only is it an honour to work alongside them, offer them some essential real-world IT experience and (hopefully!) offer some useful advice along the way, it’s exciting to watch them develop and sometimes even teach us a thing or two!

Ryan McDonagh and Tim Youell have been interning with us over the past few months and have already managed to make a significant impact in a very short space of time. We’ve been delighted by what they’ve accomplished - especially when we set them a small competition that even we weren’t sure how to solve – and their contributions to several of our projects have been invaluable. Now their internship is coming to an end, and although Ryan will be staying with us (insert happy face here), Tim’s heading off to new adventures in the land of Aviva. We’re sorry to see him go and we wish him every success in what we’re sure is going to be a fantastic career.

But, before Ryan and Tom hang up their intern uniforms for the last time (only kidding, we don’t really make them wear uniforms), we’ve asked them to describe their experience of interning with us in their own words. Hopefully, they’ll say something nice or this blog may never see the light of day…

How did your internships begin?

RYAN: We both individually met [Spicule director] Tom Barber at a careers event, which is where it all started. In my case, Tom said he’d like to work with people like me and that there might be some stuff coming up we could work on together, but I thought he was talking about a point in the distant future. It was quite a shock when I found myself working here a few months later. The careers event was back in November, and we started interning here in April.

What attracted you to working with Spicule?

RYAN: Spicule is quite like a jack of all trades in terms of what they do, they undertake all kinds of different projects, so it wasn’t like I could look up articles on websites and find out about them that way. For that reason, I wasn’t a hundred percent clear on what I was going to do when I started. But by this point I’d already re-met with Tom two or three times, and we got on quite well, he seemed to understand where I was coming from, and that was it for me. There was also the fact that Tom’s autistic and I’m autistic as well, which created a good vibe between us. He was also quite considerate and had more belief in my ability than I did!  

To be honest, before the internship started Tim and I came into the Spicule office quite a few times, and neither of us really understood what on earth they were talking about! But Tom and Steve kept on saying that it wasn’t about us developing a product right away, it was about us learning first and doing everything else later. It wasn’t about deadline and targets, it was about personal development. The fact they so obviously wanted us to be here for us made making the decision to intern with them pretty easy.

TIM: It was the same with me. I don’t think we’d be in this situation now if Tom didn’t believe in us. I’d come straight out of a computer science degree, but I had no computer science background, and Tom put a massive amount of time in to teach us and make us feel comfortable. When I first arrived, I didn’t really have a base of what we’d be expected to do. All I knew was that Tom works 60-70 hours a week and does a lot for NASA, so I’d already told my friends back home that it was NASA I’d be working for! As it turned out, we started on some cancer research stuff and then we moved on to charms, which was really fun.

For the first three or four weeks, Tom sat with us and gave us ten hours a week of his own time because we didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what Spicule was, what Juju was, what a charm was or what Slack was… in fact, there was so much computer stuff I didn’t know. For Tom to take the time out to teach us all that stuff was a huge help. He’s progressed us so much personal development-wise with only minimal gain for him, which we both really appreciate - and Steve [Downie] has been amazing too.

RYAN: Getting past that initial point of ‘can I actually even do this?’ was a big thing. When you come into a company like Spicule, you feel there’s a higher level of expectation for you to accomplish. So, the realisation that they didn’t expect that from us and that we weren’t here to accomplish everything from day one was a huge thing. Tom and Steve really hammered that home to us.

It’s incredible to look at where we are now, knowing nine months ago that we hadn’t done any programming, computer science or data science at all.

How has working with Spicule developed your confidence?

TIM: I think it’s the actual experience. What we’d academically learned before we came here was a scope of very different computer science subjects, but this internship has honed our knowledge of software development and data science and given us the experience we need that the classroom couldn’t give us. We’re both highly employable now, and I’m sure that a big reason I was offered my new job in Aviva is because of what I learned during this internship because Spicule has given me so much more confidence and I could give Aviva practical examples of what I’d done here. Without the internship, I wouldn’t have been able to get that job offer.

RYAN: When I was doing my course, I had an air of imposter syndrome so for me to have just waltzed into an office environment and felt like I belonged there would have been very difficult to do. It’s incredible how much you learn on a course and then when you come into a work environment you don’t even know where to start but although Tom has given us some direction he has also, to the best of his ability, let us do what we need to do. For example, we did this dashboard project recently and were literally left to our own devices to accomplish it. That’s been a real eye-opener to start a project from scratch, develop a project plan and come up with a product at the end of it. You don’t get that opportunity in education – at least, not very often.

What structure did your internship take?

RYAN: Tim and I were initially on a twelve-week internship, and then we moved on to a further eight-week extension, but during the second half of the first twelve weeks Tom and Steve set us a challenge. Spicule makes charms – which is basically a piece of software that installs another piece of software on a server autonomously – but they’d noticed that the Juju platform they’re installed on had no means of assessing metrics, so we have no information about how the charms are being used. For example, we could have a charm we think is performing really well but which isn’t actually being used at all or one that we believe isn’t particularly marketable but is actually very successful.

Tom and Steve asked us to make a visualisation dashboard to grab the charm store’s data and find out how many time each charm has been used. But they made it a kind of competition between Tim and me so that we both used different technologies to try and arrive at the same goal. They put limitations on us as well. For example, we could only use open-source software, we had to ensure that anyone could deploy it anywhere…

TIM: …we had to supply documentation about how it would work and what it could be used for and we both had to complete the challenge and hand it in by a specific date…

RYAN: …and then we went away and did it on our own. There was a little bit of dialogue between the two of us, but essentially it was still a competition, so neither of us wanted to give the game away. But we were quite successful in getting it done, and we both used very different technologies to accomplish it. At the end of the day, Tom and Steve wanted to see how we would do with a project where they weren’t experts at it themselves – in fact they have said repeatedly that, when it comes to doing this stuff now, we probably know more about it than they do (but I doubt it!) It was a very cool project to be involved with and take ownership of it for ourselves, and it’s also increased the variety of skill sets in the office.

TIM: It was especially interesting because when we first began the internship, for the first five or six weeks, Ryan and I worked really closely together. Even during the first week or two of the competition we were still working together and discussing it because we were extracting and manipulating the same data. But then when we went in our very different directions, we learned a ridiculous amount. And for Tom and Steve to give us the chance to go off and do that is so, so good.

RYAN: This project has been a shining example of the kind of ethics they’ve had in employing us in the first place. We developed two different products that mostly do the same thing, but it wasn’t for profit, it wasn’t for personal gain for Spicule, it was purely to allow us to do something that would be quite useful to the whole open-source Juju community. Whether it ends up being used or not used it was something we could take ownership of and Tom and Steve were always there to help us. In essence, that’s precisely what this internship has been about. The focus of the internship hasn’t been on deliverables from us, it’s been about what Tom and Steve can give to us and us going with that. As Tom says, “You may make money from a project or you may not, either way, we’re going to do it.”

Ryan – are you excited about staying on with Spicule?

RYAN: To be honest it’s been such a hectic time for us post-grad students that it hasn’t really hit me yet, but the more I think about it, the more I want to get on with it. It is exhilarating, especially with the sheer scale of projects we’ll potentially be working on, and also that I’m going to be a bit of a specialist in the field from the day I start. More than anything, getting the opportunity to continue working with Tom and Steve is really cool. Tom and Steve are such different people with such diverse skillsets – I’ll get a lot of computer science experience from Tom but also a lot of interpersonal skills from Steve. That’s something I’m looking forward to.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone considering a Spicule internship?

RYAN: As someone who has problems with anxiety at the best of times, I initially had second thoughts about it because I was worried about Tom and Steve’s expectations and that I’d come in and not have a clue about what was going on. But if I were to talk to someone now, I’d tell them to put all those doubts aside, dive in head first and go along for the ride.

TIM: I think my advice would be not to be worried. When we started, we were both a bit overwhelmed and I was kind of scared about asking questions, but we quickly found out that Tom and Steve are very open to us asking questions because there is no such thing as a stupid question! For me, the experience has been invaluable and helped to land me my new job, we got paid to be here, and both our CVs now look very flash. This internship has been a triple-win.

Ryan and Tim are just two of the interns we’ve been working with, and we’re hoping to welcome more new interns in the future. If you’d like to find out more about working with Spicule, give us a call on 01603 327762 or email info@spicule.co.uk.


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