It took a few months of learning and gaining understanding of the systems engineering approach before I really got up to speed with the tasks I was undertaking. Past that stage, the work was more enjoyable as I knew what to do. Learning about networking technologies and what makes our system unique was the highlight as I had almost no prior knowledge in the subject. The other major gain from this placement was to discover and apply the engineering processes which drive a project from start to finish.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of tedious paperwork to do, which could be automated more than it currently is. Some of the software tools used were slow and often sprouted technical issues, hindering progress.
The most satisfying aspect of the placement was that despite the obstacles in our way, we still got the job done to a good standard and met our customer's expectations.
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I was surprised at how quickly my responsibility grew, as I was given a lot of freedom, even from the start of my placement. Managers were always asking me if I had interesting work to do and presented me with tasks in areas of the project I was not originally hired to work on, giving me the choice of whether to do them or not. I was treated as an equal by my colleagues, who overall were patient and willing to work with me on tasks I did not have sufficient knowledge to complete myself.
My manager helped me navigate the waters, although he had a hands-off approach; this was due to the nature of his job as the System Technical Authority, meaning he was the most sought-after engineer on the project. He tended to give me a task with little or no guidance, which allowed me to work it out for myself and learn where to look for information and who to ask. In a way this was similar to working on problem sheets at university, where I also have to spend most of the time on a task researching, identifying and understanding the relevant information to allow me to solve a problem.
My supervisor in the systems team had a guided approach, patiently going over many tasks with me and inviting me to meetings so I could observe how they were carried out. He also lectured me on the philosophy of the engineering processes and how to keep the big picture in mind.
During my time in the software deployment team, I was given less structured guidance, which reflected the disorganised attitude of that team. However, once I figured out each team member's area of expertise, my workflow became much smoother.
The combination of the two approaches worked well, and I never felt completely clueless about what to do.
The first month of my placement was not a success, as I did not have access to all the software systems necessary to carry out my work, so I did not have much actual work to do. Once I was finally properly set-up, I could work on a variety of tasks. Whilst there was never any pressure piled onto me, I always had an interesting task or mini-project to work on. The pace of work was relaxed, so I could make sure I worked to the highest standard possible. I was given a lot of freedom in how to organise my time, which was one of the great perks of this placement. A lot of the paperwork and chasing up other people was tedious, but when I found interesting work I could easily get lost in it and days would go by very quickly.
I had more responsibility placed on me in the second half of my placement, after my managers saw that I could handle the tasks they had given me. For my final big task, I was free to investigate various solutions to the problem, present them to experts, and argue for which solution we should undertake. I was also made responsible for chasing up evidence from several subcontractors, meaning I would liaise with them, verify they had sent us all the evidence needed and then present it to the requirements manager. I was also trusted to look after several expensive pieces of equipment after asking to borrow them to aid in my investigations.
This placement did not directly have any relation to my degree in physics in terms of the hard skills used. However, the engineering approach to solving problems will benefit me in my future career: it is less perfectionist and more pragmatic than the scientific way of thinking I was taught at university. Learning this will allow me to adapt quicker to a non-academic career. Unfortunately, I did not receive any formal training during my placement, instead learning only the parts of networking, systems engineering and software deployment relevant to the tasks I was undertaking. Working in an all-British environment was useful too, as the working culture was different to what I had previously experienced in Germany, and helped to understand the way engineers behave differently across countries.
The whole site was a relaxed place. During my placement year, I only witnessed one argument, which shocked everyone else too. The average age at the site was 55 years, so there was a wealth of experienced engineers with career advice to share. However, there was a general lack of dynamism, and you could tell that about a third of the staff were just waiting for retirement, and were very dull. My office wing had interesting characters, which helped to break up some of the tedious requirement work. Thankfully most of the other young people there were willing to not each lunch at their desk, so I could have a nice break at midday. Most importantly, not once was I turned down when I asked for help or information, and I never feared speaking to anyone on the project.
The online testing, telephone interview and assessment centre part of the placement were well organised, the hitch being told only two days in advance of being invited to an assessment centre. When I arrived at work, however, hardly anything was ready for me; I did not have a laptop, no login credentials and no access to any of the software tools. Some of this took up to a month to be resolved. The full security clearance required to fully carry out my work only arrived eight weeks into the placement, which was also a hindrance. I was made to feel more of a permanent employee than a placement student, which I enjoyed very much. My managers quickly became aware of my capacities and what I preferred to work on, and constantly made sure I had work lined up, which meant I never sat around wondering what to work on next.
No formal courses offered, learning was done on the job and by working with more experienced members of staff. An online book-browser was offered, but was antiquated and not very functional. It seems more personal training is offered once you are a full employee of the company, which gives you access to courses in many different areas of engineering.
Doing the placement year has given me access to either go back to site I worked at as a permanent employee, or join the graduate scheme without having to go through assessment centres again, which is a very reassuring position to be in with just one year left of university. It seems difficult to be able to move into another area of the business, which can limit the type of work that it might be possible to do in the future.
We tried to organise one social event per week, and got to know each other more and more as the year progressed.
Dorset is expensive, especially for renting a decent room, budget £500 plus near work, or £400 plus if choosing to live in Bournemouth itself.
Bournemouth is not a nice town at night; I recommend the beach instead.
Lots of activities and clubs in the Bournemouth area, making it a more attractive place to live in than near site.