Back to being a student

After a year on placement at Skills Funding Agency, it all came to an end last Friday. The last day was a bit sad, however it was also a reminder of how much I have learnt in the past year. Alongside developing my SQL skills significantly, my soft skills have increased significantly along the way. by working with others in team situations and in projects.

My leaving gifts consisted of a leaving card and a £40 Amazon gift card. There were a lot of nice comments in the card, which made me realise how much my work with the Agency had been appreciated throughout the past year. I will miss the place, but the year in industry will definitely mean that I am better prepared going into a graduate level job and should find the transition back from student to work life much easier next Spring.

Two weeks today, I began my final year as an undergraduate BSc Computing at Coventry University. I’m quietly looking forward to the final year. Yes, it will no doubt be tough at times, but the experience gained in the past year when dealing with problem solving issues should help me in that regard. Dissertation preparation has already started and I have a firm idea of what my research project will surround.

Final year? Bring it on!

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A mid-year update

Halfway through 2014, and it is fair to say that from several different stand-points, it really has been a great year so far.

Starting off with my industrial placement at Skills Funding Agency, that was due to come to end tomorrow. I say ‘due to’, because in fact I will be with the Agency for two and a half months longer, now finishing my placement in September! I’m very happy with this, as I am learning new skills all the time which will help me when I go back to University. Alongside that, I was rewarded as part of the Agency’s recognition scheme by two fellow staff members for my hard work and contribution to two projects. The further the year goes on, the more I am proud of what I have done, but also the more happier I am that I chose to go on a placement. I have learnt a lot on this placement which will prove invaluable later on. Of course, it must be remembered that in a few months time it will be back to University to complete my third and final year. Like I said above, my placement will definitely help me where University is concerned, and I already have a dissertation idea up my sleeve!

Walking around the track at Silverstone during round one of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

Walking around the track at Silverstone during round one of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship.

Elsewhere, my Formula 1 blog has surpassed half a million hits. I still find that truly staggering – two years ago, it had less than 10,000 hits and to see where the blog is now is unbelievable. The next big milestone really is one million hits. I never thought I’d be saying those words… over on Twitter, the blog now has over 4,000 followers which is another nice milestone passed. With Formula 1 and social media a topical subject at the moment, that will definitely be mentioned more I feel in the forthcoming months on the blog!

Outside of the blog circles, and so far this year on the motor sport front, I’ve been to the AUTOSPORT Show and round one of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship from Silverstone, which is more than anything before 2014 combined! It was nice at the latter to experience motor sport in the flesh, perhaps surprisingly the World Endurance Championship event was the first motor race that I have ever been too. In any case, its fair to say that 2014 has been a great year so far, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the year brings!

The power of retweeting

Whilst my placement is continuing to go extremely well, and my SQL improving with every passing day, the same can also be said for my Formula 1 blog.

The blog is growing faster than ever before, and smashed past the 400,000 views barrier last week, which means that half a million views is on the radar and approaching quicker than I could ever imagine. But yesterday, something surprising happened on Twitter, which caught me completely off guard. It is not the first time I have felt the power of Twitter, Jake Humphrey was the first person in the mainstream Formula 1 media to share one of my blog posts back in September 2012. That remains the biggest traffic spike in the blog’s short history, albeit nowadays the viewership is consistently high.

As I usually do, I tweet during Formula 1 shows, being a broadcasting account I tweet about the build-up shows and post-race aftermath. Which my followers on Twitter enjoy. Alongside this, I write about the respective schedules. This brings me nicely onto yesterday. As you may know, March 21st, 2014 would have been the late, great Ayrton Senna’s 54th birthday, whilst May 1st will mark twenty years since his death. During their weekly F1 Show last night, Sky ran a video package on Senna, which ended with them announcing ‘Senna Week’ on screen. When I seen that, my first instinct, as I have done multiple times in the past was to ‘grab’ the screenshot, post it onto Twitter, mainly to inform my followers.

355x my normal reach! Pretty amazing. Source: Twitter Analytics.

355x my normal reach! Pretty amazing. Source: Twitter Analytics.

What I didn’t anticipate was that the Sky Sports F1 Twitter account (with 350k followers) would then retweet it. What turned into a tweet which I thought would get one or two retweets very quickly spiralled over 100 retweets, and this morning hit 200 retweets. I was frankly astounded, and it also shows the power of a retweet can have on a particular account. As it turns out, the tweet did not link back to the website. A missed opportunity? Possibly, but at this point there is no concrete information for a blog article, just the fact that Sky announced ‘Senna Week’. It may be worth noting that Sky did retweet several other people, except mine was the most socially active.

Three retweets. Not unusual. Until you realise how many followers those users' have...

Three retweets. Not unusual. Until you realise how many followers those users’ have…

But the retweeting didn’t end there. Enter McLaren (556k followers). And enter former Formula 1 driver Nick Heidfeld (95k followers). And then multiply 200 retweets by three. As of writing, the tweet has 600 retweets, 400 favourites, and @f1broadcasting has gained over 150 followers as a result. Unless anything major happens in the broadcasting world, with retweets from high profile accounts, I doubt I’ll see anywhere near that much activity in the near future. But, in the world of social media you never know what to expect next!

A good start to 2014

It is strange to think that I am already half way through my placement. The five months since September have gone extremely quick. And so far, the start to 2014 has been rewarding and overall positive at the Agency. The good thing I am finding about doing this placement is that you are learning all the time – every week I am picking up new skills, no matter how small they may be.

As my placement is SQL heavy, this consists of maybe leaning a new function here and there, or adapting the code so that it executes faster than previously. A recent project that I completed led to me being complimented from a member of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) team, which was extremely pleasing to hear, and also gave me a confidence booster.

Whilst I cannot go into too much detail into specific projects that I have completed, all of the things that I am learning now will benefit me considerably in the third year. So far, I have enjoyed the industrial placement year, and I thoroughly recommend anyone in the 50/50 category for a placement to consider applying. Believe me: the benefits far outweigh any negatives that could come from it. The placement also helps you prepare for post-University life, it gives you early preparation of what a full time 9-5 office job feels like. In my case, I didn’t actually get a placement role until June, so there is still plenty of time for current second year students to find the role that they want.

Outside of my placement, my Formula 1 broadcasting blog is continuing to go from strength to strength, with nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter and heading quickly towards 350,000 views. As always, the amount of people that are reading staggers me. Just a little blog set up just under two years ago, and by the end of this year it could hit half a million views. I’m not confused by its success, as I have said repeatedly: there was not a Formula 1 media/broadcasting blog before mine. It made sense to tap into a new market rather than chase or steal the audience away from another site (at the moment, no one else is providing the content that my blog provides, which makes it unique).

On the professional front, it has been a successful start to the year and I hope that continues as the year progresses. Year 3 of University, and my dissertation will be here before I know it!

Has it really been ten weeks?

Apparently so!

That is, ten weeks since I began my industrial placement. When I started, the other industrial placement guys told me that the weeks would go by extremely fast. I did not really believe them back in September, but believe me, now I do! September 16th seems a long time ago now. So, how have the first ten weeks gone?

The first few weeks was the usual induction based activities, in my case revisiting SQL from University, but obviously it goes without saying that every role and every induction is different. It did help me settle into the role though, alongside revisiting SQL, I was attending meetings and getting involved in some group projects.

From then though, my placement went into a completely different direction. I was asked to move onto the Service Desk for a few weeks, which is where I currently am until the beginning of December. For various reasons, the calls on the Desk hit peaks and troughs, and October through December just happens to be the busiest period. Whilst it is not SQL and not in the job description, being moved onto the Service Desk at first brought me out of the comfort zone and allowed me to improve my soft skills. My task is to log calls and to resolve incidents where necessary. So far, so good, and I think my communication skills have improved as a result.

It is a tad frustrating to not be doing SQL at the moment, but, as they say “you can be the best technical man in the world, but if you cannot communicate, then it is worthless”. And I am enjoying the Service Desk role too, but I’m definitely eager to get back with the SQL. It also emphasises to me why a placement is no important, to improve the skills that I currently have and to work in a 9 to 5 environment. Looking back, I am very, very glad I not only applied for a placement, but managed to nail the interview. The verdict for the ten weeks? So far, so good, and I hope that continues into 2014.

Hitting the 250k

Exactly 18 months ago, I launched The F1 Broadcasting Blog. Today, in the last few hours, it has hit the 250,000 views mark. Proof, if it was ever needed, that hard work, time and dedication does pay off. I never expected that to happen. A fantastic achievement, and one that I am immensely proud of. I’ll update the graphs over here in the next few weeks.

Other than the blog, I have now been in my placement role for six weeks. I can’t explain just how glad I am that I got the placement, as it is improving my soft skills as well as my Computing skills on a daily basis. This week, and next week, however I have been doing something… a bit different! I will reveal what exactly soon…

The start of my placement

So the day finally came, Monday 16th September. Nervous? Of course. Excited? Definitely. A new adventure was ahead of me. I didn’t know what to expect, a lot of things went through my head as well as the usual questions. It felt strange, I admit that getting up, tie, shirt and trousers, it felt like I was going back to school again!

Very quickly though, my nerves were put aside. The staff were welcoming, friendly and have been helpful throughout my first week with Skills Funding Agency. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first week with them. A bit tired at the end of the week, but it is definitely worth it. It started with the usual induction tasks along with some essential learning. Three days in and I was already getting stuck into the SQL exercise books that had been set. Some exercises fairly simple, some requiring a bit more thinking.

I was thinking to myself “just why did I get nervous beforehand?.” It seems silly in hindsight, but I guess it is the usual feelings before a new job. But the other staff members themselves have been there, done that, got the t-shirt. My advice for the first week is simply take it as it comes – enjoy the ride. I’m very much looking forward to the whole nine months and what lies ahead and think that I will benefit greatly from the tasks that will no doubt present themselves in the forthcoming weeks.

Real World Project

Facespaces – Final Video from Dave Nelson on Vimeo.

One of the more challenging second year modules from the outset was the Real World Project. The module itself began with myself having to pitch to two members of staff for the project that I wanted to be a part of. Thankfully, the pitch itself went well and I became a member of the Facespaces team. The project, focussed on social media, was to project brief was “to investigate Facebook and produce prototype re-designs of one or more interfaces to increase transparency and usability.”

Our starting point was to choose an area which we as a group wanted to focus on. Following talking to people who use Facebook, we decided to focus on unwanted awareness, which in essence means focussing on things that users are unaware that others can see. The process followed here was similar to that in the Designing for Usability 2 module. Using a parallel approach to prototyping, we went into two pairs of two for the prototypes. It was me in my pair who focussed on paper prototyping, before my co-team member moved that onto digital prototyping.

Overall, the project went superbly and we all worked well together as a cohesive unit. It resulted in us presenting at the end of year New Wizards Computing showcase, something that all members were immensely proud of.

Developing for the Modern Web

A screenshot showing the design of my website, along with a search form in action.

A screenshot showing the design of my website, along with a search form in action.

A screenshot showing some of the JQuery code used to generate the form validation output.

A screenshot showing some of the JQuery code used to generate the form validation output.

One module in the second year which had mixed fortune for me was the Developing for the Modern Web module. The module required me to code and design a website from scratch with a back-end database. This required me to code in HTML, PHP and Javascript.

Instead of choosing one of the pre-determined scenarios, I chose my own scenario. The scenario that I chosen was game statistics based concerning Formula 1. The aim was to allow users to register and upload their own lap times to the website as well as search for other users’ lap times. Unfortunately, the main downfall for me was in assignment 1. The first assignment was simply to make the website look aesthetically pleasing along with basic coding. At the time, I felt that whilst my design was simple it did the job required. In hindsight though, my design was not the best and was a ‘turn off’.

Thankfully, because my scenario was coding heavy, it allowed me to recover some of the lost marks in assignment 2 and 3. Assignment 2 advanced to PHP which turned out to be my major strength in the module. Thanks to the amount of data required, along with the SQL queries that I implemented, the mark that I achieved was significantly better than that in assignment 1. Assignment 3 moved on to JQuery and Javascript. Most of my time was focussed on form validation during that assignment, but also on AJAX which allowed me to connect straight to the database and give an immediate output to the user to tell them if the username that they wanted for example was already taken.

The outcome of the assignment was that I had 58 percent in assignment 1, but 78 percent in assignment 2 and 73 percent in assignment 3, bringing an average of 68.3 percent, just shy of a 2:1.

Designing for Usability 2

My paper prototype for the second assignment in this module.

My paper prototype for the second assignment in this module.

One of my second year modules at University focused on the usability sector, specifically pervasive computing. The module focussed on two written reports. The first half of the module was to design a usability test from scratch. This involved me outlining the conceptual framework and showing what exactly I would be testing, for example satisfaction measures and the amount of errors made. Once completed, I had to say how the results would be analysed ready for the next iteration. I chose to focus the first report on accessing the Control Panel in Windows 8. More details can be found here.

The second assignment advanced on what I had learnt in the first half of the module. Instead of just saying what I would be doing, in the second assignment, I had to create a paper prototype, get users to test it and then create a digital prototype based on the feedback that I was given. Doing this would turn out to be useful for the Real World Project module as this also involved prototyping. The assignment can be found here.

Also, as part of the module, I had to write a series of blog posts week by week showing my progress with both assignments. The blog is located here. Overall, I achieved 70 percent in assignment 1, 75 percent in assignment 2, meaning an average of 72.5 percent.