From writing code to building IT infrastructure – two people on how their tech jobs help improve lives | Digital careers with purpose

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Chloe Williams didn’t plan to have a career in IT. After graduation, she spent a few successful years working in marketing, before taking time out to teach English in South Korea and travel in south-east Asia. On her return, prompted partly by the experience of meeting tech industry professionals on her travels, she took a three-month coding bootcamp in Leeds and joined an agency as a junior software developer.

After a year, she was offered a job as a software engineer at DWP Digital, which employs about 4,000 people to deliver digital services for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Since joining in January 2021, she hasn’t looked back.

Williams loves the job because she can see the difference she’s making to people’s lives. Based in Leeds, she is one of a team of four building and launching Restart, the government’s scheme to support people who have been out of work for nine months or more and which aims to give them the skills and support they need to find work. The team also maintains existing systems used by the DWP’s work coaches – the people who help individuals find a job and access financial support while they’re looking. It means there is plenty of variety, day-to-day. “Some days you’ll be working with cutting-edge technology, and then the next day you’ll be working on something that was built a decade ago, so there is a lot of context-switching.”

Part of the software engineer role involves “getting your head down to write the code that turns into a feature for users”, Williams says. But there’s much more to it than that. Williams and her colleagues have to collaborate with designers, business analysts and user researchers. “You need to have good communication skills,” she says, including being able to translate technical terms into non-technical language.

The software engineering role involves collaboration with designers, business analysts and user researchers

She and her colleagues find it helpful to sit in on sessions with work coaches, so they are able to hear how the software they have designed has benefited the coaches. Even just a few lines of code, she says, “might save a work coach a minute of time. And because there are so many work coaches in DWP, that adds up and ultimately frees them up to support more people.”

Roy Holder’s journey into a role as a senior infrastructure engineer at DWP Digital was a little different. After several years working in IT, he joined BPDTS, a company created to provide digital technology services to DWP. When BPDTS was merged into DWP Digital, Holder took on the job of removing legacy contracts and building a new internal IT infrastructure. He was surprised to find a government department with such an innovative and up-to-date approach to technology. DWP Digital is, he says, “a really great place to work – modern and forward-thinking”.

Holder is part of the specialist devices team, responsible for managing the department’s vast network of MacBooks, which are connected to cloud platforms rather than in-house servers. He and his colleagues need to make sure that the MacBooks, which include those used in jobcentres by the public, are compliant and secure. The department uses a lot of distributed systems (in which different components are spread across multiple computers), and these are monitored on a day-to-day basis to make sure they keep functioning. The team’s work is underpinned by site reliability engineering principles, which involve working at a rapid pace to create systems that are scalable, reliable, have minimum wastage and meet service level targets.

Roy Holder (right) with a colleague
Roy Holder (right) is part of the team that manages the DWP’s MacBooks

Holder’s most recent project has involved migrating a legacy IT platform to a more modern one. Because it had to be completed before the old contract ran out at the end of the year, it has been particularly fast-paced. “It was only a small window, and there was very little downtime. We had to collaborate with a lot of our front-of-house staff at all the jobcentres just to get the new platform in and working, and make sure that it would do the job as well as the old platform did.”

The biggest challenge was arranging shipment of more than 8,000 devices to more than 700 sites, including jobcentres. The successful migration has saved the department more than £250,000 a year.

The qualities needed to do the infrastructure engineer role, Holder says, include “a love of IT, the desire to learn new things, and being up-to-date with the latest trends”. Like Williams, he enjoys seeing the positive impact his work has on others: “One of the best things for me particularly in this role is seeing the outcome – the things that the department is delivering. We try to provide services that are forward-thinking, modern and simple to use for citizens.”

Both Holder and Williams find their roles challenging, but endlessly rewarding. As Williams says: “There are not many places where you can say that the things you are building as a software engineer are being used by such a huge scale of people. Millions of people use DWP’s services, and billions of pounds worth of benefits are paid out, so it’s both daunting and very exciting to be able to work on that.”

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