Is learning better by doing?

Tim LeRoy
by
on 29 September 2016

Dootrix University One Year In. What Our First Ever Apprentices Really Think.

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A year ago we started the Dootrix University Apprenticeship scheme. It’s a two year programme combining learning and real-world experience within the Dootrix team. Our aim was to address the skills gap we’ve seen between graduates leaving university and the world of work. And also to give a little back to our community. To invest some of our resources in the developers of tomorrow.

It was our first time doing anything like this. It’s been a year of learning for us too. But from our point of view, it’s been a success.

Still, we thought that one year in it would be valuable to get detailed feedback from our apprentices on how they feel it’s gone so far.

It was important to us that they had the freedom to say what they really thought. So last week we took Mary and Ben out of the office for an hour and paired them up with a journalist from outside the Dootrix clan.

Here’s how it went:

So guys — in October it’ll be a year since you started your Dootrix University apprenticeship. How have you found it?

Mary — It’s been very different to what I expected — much better! When I interviewed I thought they were just looking for an apprentice, so I didn’t expect to be studying alongside as well. I’ve learned so much more than I thought I would.

Ben — Yes, absolutely. We both applied through different apprenticeship schemes, so I expected we’d be doing our learning back at college and the job here. But (Dootrix founders)Rob and Kev and (Technical Lead) Craig have been teaching us alongside our work. We’ve learned a lot more here than in college!

How has this been structured? What does an average week look like?

Mary — For the most part it’s been a 50/50 split between learning and then helping the teams test the projects that they have running.

Ben — It doesn’t always work exactly like that because obviously there are times when there are a lot of projects. So some weeks we spend three or four days just testing software, and then we might spend two weeks learning. We have to be flexible and respond to what’s going on at the time.

What has the learning involved exactly and how have you found it?

Ben — We’ve been following courses from a platform called Udacity and supplementing these with activities set by Rob and Kev. The courses that we’ve been doing were part of Google’s nanodegree programme.

Mary — I think the idea is that next year we can do a complete nanodegree, if we want to. But at this stage I’m not sure if it’s something I want to do. After having worked in this environment my feeling is that if you really want something down on paper then that’s great, but I feel like I can learn so much more from just working alongside developers.

You may have just answered my next question! I was going to ask that if the learning has been the thing you’ve really enjoyed, then why didn’t you go and do a Computer Science degree?

Ben — Well, I didn’t want to go to university for a few reasons. Money was one of them, and I don’t do well with lectures. But I also felt three years was a long time to dedicate to something I wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to do.
I’d also add that while I have enjoyed the learning side of this apprenticeship, the experience working on the real world projects has been much more valuable than the courses themselves.

Mary — For me, before I started here I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did art in college and always quite liked the idea of something related to design. Then this apprenticeship came up and I thought I might be interested so I applied. And I’m so glad I did, because I’ve loved it!

So this year at Dootrix has helped you clarify what it is you want to do?

Mary — It definitely has. Mostly because I’ve been introduced to so many things I didn’t really know were an option. For example when I met Chris (Dootrix lead designer) and saw the kind of thing he was doing I was immediately drawn to that. It really shapes you when you see all the different routes you can go down.

Ben — I’ve always known that I’m definitely not a designer! I’ve always been more interested in maths and physics — I was going to do an engineering degree — but yeah, this year has helped clarify that I want to do this more technical work.

And have Kev and Rob responded to this by giving you projects tasks more in line with your preferred fields?

Ben — Not so much yet. So far we’ve been doing a little bit of everything because I think they want to make sure we understand it all and have a solid base.

Mary — I think the idea is that next year we might specialise a little bit more.

Do you think that now you have a clearer idea of what you want to do you might go and follow a degree course? 

Ben — Almost definitely not, because I think there’s a massive difference between the theory that you learn on a course and how things are done in the real world. Not everyone does everything by the book. So you might spend three years being told by a lecturer that this is the right way to do something, then when you get into a company you’re told they do it a different way. I think that perhaps after a degree you might be a bit restricted in the way you think things are supposed to work, whereas in real life you have to be a bit more flexible.

Mary — No for me too, because I don’t think there would be the same opportunity to apply what you learn straight away to the real world. So for example we’re working on our own separate project at the moment, making a To-Do list for everything we’ve learned over the course of the year and using Git to merge between the two of us. And it’s great because Craig (Dootrix technical lead) is getting involved reviewing our code, which is the process they would use on any other project. By making something that’s actually going live we’re getting a really good insight into the way things really work and I don’t think you’d get that with a uni course.

This seems to tie in with what a lot of companies are saying — that graduates are coming to them totally unprepared for the real world. 

Ben — From what I’ve been told a lot of uni is about passing exams, and doing things in an exact certain way to pass that exam. But working here we’ve quickly seen that that’s not realistic.

Mary — The other thing is that there is so much variety in the real world that I don’t think you’d know about with a degree. There are so many different routes you can go down — front end, development, databases, system admin — I don’t think you’d necessarily know about all these if you were just doing a computer science degree because lots of these just seem to focus on something like C#.

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You’ve both mentioned that working alongside developers on real-world projects has been the most valuable part of this for you. Can you elaborate a bit more on that? 

Mary — Everything I know I know from here. And most of that has been from working alongside the developers. Doing the code reviews is just great, because every time we’re looking through it and seeing new stuff, then going away and looking it up on Google. It’s learning by doing I guess, and it just makes you learn so much quicker.

Ben — Can’t say it better than that!

Was it daunting at first, working on real projects?

Ben — It was definitely a little bit daunting at first. I think we had our first sprint planning meeting within the first two months, and I remember feeling that I really didn’t have anything to say. But we’re in all of them now, and really feel like our contributions are valued.

Mary — At first I really felt like I didn’t have the knowledge to contribute to the sprint meetings. But going through this process has hugely boosted my confidence. I feel happy to speak up now, and I’m happy to be challenged because I’ve seen it happen within the team. That’s just how it happens — If I say something wrong I’m not shut down, it’s just explained.

It must be great when you feel like your contributions are making a difference to a live project?

Mary — It’s my favourite part of the job. Working with the team, feeling like our input is being respected. So if we say the look or feel of something isn’t right, what we say is listened to. It’s a real confidence boost.

Ben — Yeah, when we pick up on bugs or make some suggestions on UI it’s always really satisfying to see these carried through. Also, it’s been really satisfying to notice the improvement in the quality of suggestions we’re able to make. So whereas before we would just say ‘it’s broken’ now we can say ‘it’s broken and I think it might be because of this or this’.

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Do you think that beyond the learning and the structured programme, you’ve picked up a lot from just being around the team?

Mary — Apart from the processes we’ve learned, we’ve been exposed to so many different resources. We’re part of the Dootrix Recommended Reading group on Slack and we’re always picking up things from that. And they run these brilliant Final Fridays talks, where a member of the team talks about something they’re working on and the new technologies they have used to create it. You just pick up so much being around it all.

(At this point Ben tangents into some ‘in-joke’ banter about fire-extinguishers. Which shows that his answer is a definite ‘yes’ as well.)

What’s been your favourite project that you’ve worked on?

Mary — It’s hard to say, but probably the Evermix platform. (Evermix is a platform where DJs can upload their own mixes). It was great to help create such a nice user experience. It was a very intense, involved process — it happened really quickly — but it went really well.

Ben — I don’t think I can pick one thing. It’s all been brilliant.

That seems like a great place to wrap things up. So just finally — is there anything you would change about the programme?

Mary — No. It’s been great.

Ben — Same for me. It’s been the perfect balance of learning and doing.

We’re currently recruiting new apprentices so to find out more click here.

Thanks to Ben from Word Butler for conducting the interview.

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