Sitting Down with the Students
October 23, 2019

Every year at Etain we take on several placements students who spend a year with us to get a taste of working in the tech sector. They then go back to university to finish their degrees with real working experience under their belts. Our placement students do real, valuable work and are cycled through different teams to give them the broadest exposure possible to the different roles available.
In the first of what will become a series of interviews with my Etain teammates, I sat down with the students to get the low-down on the good, bad and ugly of doing their placement here. Lots of companies take on placement students, so I was very keen to know what made Etain different!

We currently have three placements students who are taking a year out of university to get experience as a requirement for their degrees. Sarah, Aaron and Peter are currently placed within Support, Infrastructure and Development teams respectively. They are rapidly approaching their first cycle, during which Aaron will move to Support, Peter will move to Infrastructure and Sarah will move into the UX and Design team.
As well as our three year-long placement students, James works at Etain as part of an ‘Earn as You Learn’ program, through which he works at Etain 4 days a week and goes to university 1 day a week. This means he will eventually receive his degree as well have having five years experience (and not a penny of student debt!) In his first few months he was a tester and played a role in getting our automated testing efforts off the ground and is now also in Support along with Sarah.

Question Time!

I started by asking them how they had heard about Etain and why they had chosen to apply.
Surprisingly, everyone had heard about us from different places.
“My I.T. teacher recommended Etain” James says. Having started university and work at Etain at the same time he came straight from school unlike most people working in tech.
“Many of the other companies offering ‘Earn as You Learn’ placements are very big and take on large numbers of people. As Etain was only offering two places I thought I would be less likely to get lost among the crowd.”
Sarah goes to Ulster University and found us on their internal recruitment and placement site. She applied because of the range of experience available on our placements. “I didn’t want to do flat out coding. Although I might want to be a software developer, I want to try other things too and I’m really interested in UX” she said,
“I am going to be moving to the design team soon to get involved in that and have already got to go to a client site in Dublin to assist in running a UX workshop aimed to help us understand their requirements.”
Peter and Aaron go to Queens University Belfast and were told by their advisors to apply for every placement going! Wanting to stay in Belfast, they knew placements are competitive and knew to accept their placements at Etain when it was offered.
Aaron first heard about Etain because we have a huge banner at the QUB hockey pitches. He’s a keen hockey player and saw that we sponsor the Queen's University Ladies Hockey Club. Peter was aware of Etain because he has friends and family at the company who could sing our praises!

The Experience So Far

I then asked the students about their time at Etain so far and how it matched their expectations and what they had been up to in their respective roles.
Aaron who has been in infrastructure said, “at the start I wasn’t sure how I was going to find it. It wasn’t very challenging just carrying out checks on people’s machines but now I get to do a lot more and I easily fill my day. I always expected to do development work but now I’m settled in I’m much more open to infrastructure work.” Now that the first three months are up Aaron will be cycling to the Support team, who are always on hand to help our clients.
Sarah spent her first three months in Support. She said, “working in support was a good starting point for my placement. It gives you an overview of all the clients and systems Etain looks after. Although we couldn’t do bug fixes, we will have a better grasp of the products we’ll be working on once we do our stint in development.”
James agreed. Coming to Etain he didn’t know what role in technology he wanted to do and was open to anything. Having spent nearly a year in support he said, “I loved working in Support because there’s a great team dynamic and good craic. I would quite like to come back to the support team after my time in development so then I could help in all of Support’s responsibilities like fixing bugs.”

I finished up by asking them on what they thought was good about Etain and what they would improve, and I pushed them into making a comparison between Etain and other companies they might have ended up at. The things they liked mostly emphasized Etain’s workplace culture.

“It’s easy to talk to everybody at Etain and everybody knows everybody else,” said Sarah. “There’s no separation between the people at the top and us, everyone chats around the office and has time for one another,” Peter added.
Everyone was reluctant to criticize or say anything negative which is understandable when you’re a placement student!
Some agreed that the flip side of having a less formal environment was the fact that it’s also hard to impress. Little things like showing up at a quarter to nine every day, always being back on time from lunch and working right up to close of business are all commendable but can go unnoticed in a workplace culture where employees are trusted to manage their own time.
They also would have liked a bit more structure to get them into their roles more quickly. When in a new position they felt that they needed a bit more to do but were hampered by not knowing what. whereas a larger organization might have highly structured onboarding schemes because they can take on many new starts all at once.
This was also considered a double-edged sword though. Just like how a less formal atmosphere has good and bad aspects, having a less formal structure for new starts meant they all felt they got a bit more responsibility once they settled in. “You get the opportunity of handling client requests and representing the company,” said James.
Peter was in development and got to be on the team who delivered a new mobile app (now live for client customers to download from App stores!) He said, “it was great being part of a team which delivered a real product which I can see being downloaded and used by people in real life.”

Everyone was in agreement (included me!) that the company could do a bit more to be seen around town. Whether it be lanyards, t-shirts or swag, they thought it was a missed opportunity to get the company name seen more often. “If people are commuting to work every day, it’s a missed opportunity not to give them stuff with company branding on it” said one student!

Just Like Part of the Furniture!

I loved getting the opportunity to sit down and chat with people at the start of their careers in tech, careers I hope will include long stints at Etain.

It’s funny how after only three months the student placements feel like full-time staff already. I know if I have a query about credentials or my laptop Aaron will know the answer and be willing to help. Just this morning I suggested Peter help with some development work on one of the projects I’m working on because I knew he could. I haven’t got to work with Sarah yet because she’s in a client facing role but can see how keen she is to do a good job and get stuck in to UX work. James was in the test team with me when he started and as mentioned played a big role in getting us on track to automating our tests.

I started my interviews with the placement students because they’re the newest to our company and new in their roles but they’re every bit as much part of the Etain team as any of my colleagues who I will be interviewing in the future.

Look forward to more articles with anyone willing to spend an hour with me soon!

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