This year has been an unusual assortment of changes for everyone. Our work, social lives and pastimes have changed in ways that we never would have expected at the end of 2019. One of the unusual but pleasant experiences I have had during the times of lockdown is starting as a Software Developer in the Ministry of Justice’s Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service’s (HMPPS) Digital department. In a world where toilet paper was becoming a precious commodity, at the beginning of 2020 I had no idea what to expect, so I wanted to share my experiences with you.
I applied for the role at the beginning of the year and within a month heard I had been selected for an interview. The process was very well communicated and they were open about remote interviews being a new process they were working out - it was March after all. The interview went really well considering the bizarre circumstances. I joined my meetings link and was greeted by a panel of three. First, I had a set of interview questions to discuss my previous experiences, then I broke out into a separate call with one interviewer to do a paired programming task. We had a few technical hiccups but nothing that two developers with access to the internet couldn’t solve. The coding challenge definitely felt more like teamwork than previous tech tests I have done. I was behind the wheel and writing all the code, however, we would talk about the problem and discuss the best ways we could solve it together.
A few days later I was informed I had been successful and accepted the job offer (woohoo). Next came the waiting. Due to the nature of the services that are provided by HMPPS Digital, a background check was required. During this time the in-house recruitment manager was available to answer all of my questions and help me with the process.
I was set to start in May, around 1½ months after my initial interview. At this point, lockdown was in full force, and it was clear we would be working from home for an undefined amount of time. Prior to starting, a laptop was delivered to my home address and my line manager emailed saying we would have a call on that first Monday morning.
On my first day, I was introduced to the team I would be spending my first sprint with. New starters move around a few teams to get an idea of the different services that we provide. I was assigned a coding buddy to help answer any questions I may have about getting started with the codebase which I found really useful. It was nice having one person to go to for any technical support I needed during this time.
On this day the Delivery Manager also jumped on a call to explain the current state of the project and how we work at the HMPPS Digital. The team was currently working on creating an app for probation officers to be able to get information on upcoming court cases. We discussed the old time-consuming tasks this app would replace and how they were preparing to go into beta and everything that entails. If you’re interested you can read more about that here
I soon realised how friendly and welcoming the team was. Everyone was happy to jump on a call to introduce themselves and offer to help out with explaining the technical infrastructure and how various services we used work. Our meetings would frequently start with comical picture quizzes and end with dad jokes. Before starting I was a little nervous wondering what it would be like to try to fit in with a new team during lockdown, but everyone was very approachable and helpful.
I’ve now been working as a software developer for the ministry of justice for two months. It’s still early days but they have left some fabulous first impressions. Below is a list of some of the of my favourite findings:
Interesting problems to solve. The product teams are working with people in the prison and probation services to create apps to make their workloads simpler and streamline their processes. For me, knowing that the products are serving a valuable purpose gives great job satisfaction.
A great ethos of code quality and innovation. The software developers have a keen interest in coding great products. There is a weekly community of practise where we share skills and knowledge in a friendly atmosphere. There is also a range of technologies used in the organisation, with the encouragement to use innovative technologies. This can be seen in the HMPPS tech radar which shows the various types we have trialled and we support.
Open Source. One thing I didn’t realise before starting was that the majority of the code we write is in the public domain. Writing open-source code gives you a great sense of satisfaction… as well as keeping you on your toes. It’s out there for everyone to see. If you fancy having a peek at some of the services we have created you can find them all on GitHub
Keen interest in representation. The technology built by justice digital is designed for the general public, and there is a keen interest in the organisation to include representation from all walks of life in the people who build and design the services. From my experience, this has included dedicated discussions and groups on diversity and inclusion, as well as support for those who may be a minority in their role.
Friendly and welcoming. My experience of working with my colleagues has been very welcoming. I’m a career changer/bootcamp graduate with a few years in the industry. Despite working with many colleagues who have vastly more experience and education, I have never been made to feel like this is an issue as there is a relaxed environment where we can all contribute together. There’s a nice environment for embracing mistakes, so it never feels strange to ask a question twice or speak up if I am vastly inexperienced but have a suggestion.
Legacy… Okay, so not everything in life is shiny green fields. There’s some legacy stuff here, but it feels like we’re always trying to address it rather than leave it hidden away in the cupboard to collect cobwebs. I have recently started working on one of these projects and although some of it is tough to work with, there’s great support and opportunity to get stuck in and make it better.
Despite the weird circumstances of the current world, my experiences starting at Justice Digital have been positive. There are great problems to distract myself with whilst being surrounded by fun and enthusiastic people. I look forward to continuing to solve problems with my teammates and one day getting to meet those I have gotten to know in real life!
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