What it’s like to do a digital and technology solutions degree apprenticeship

Photo of IT degree apprentice plus code on a screen
Lori taught herself to code while at school before joining IBM. She’s worked on the Watson AI project and designed a chatbot that was shown to thousands of colleagues at the annual conference.

Lori French is a software developer consultant at IBM. Before joining she took A levels in maths, theology and psychology.

Lori says…

Coming from a very academic school, I assumed the only way into a technology career would be through a degree, and so I planned to go to university. It was while looking at IBM’s website, because I was interested in joining as a graduate, that I noticed its degree apprenticeships. The chance to get a head start appealed to me.

Taking a different path from my friends

My friends, family and teachers were initially surprised and a bit sceptical. I had got good grades and all my friends were going to university, so it was very unusual for me not to go. If you’re confident that you are making the right decision about your future, even if others have concerns, go for it! I’m getting a degree anyway as part of the apprenticeship, and people were happy for me once they saw how much I was enjoying it. My friends who went to university have started graduate jobs now, so we’ve reached the same position in the end.

Showing enthusiasm in the recruitment process

Technology is similar to maths in that it’s all about problem solving, so I knew I’d enjoy it. I taught myself to code in my spare time while at school, which demonstrated my enthusiasm when I applied for apprenticeships. Working at Waitrose helped too because it set me up for the workplace: arriving on time, working in a team, meeting targets and being accountable.

Employers want to see that you’re passionate about applying to them specifically, so find something they do that you’re excited about and want to be part of. For me, that was Watson (an artificial intelligence service designed by IBM to free up businesses’ time from repetitive tasks). I spent lots of time watching videos about it to learn more, and this helped me explain why I’d applied for the apprenticeship. Once I joined IBM, I was actually placed on a project that used Watson – so it definitely worked in my favour!

Although I knew from the start that I really wanted to work for IBM, I applied for other apprenticeships as well. I recommend you do this to reduce the risk of going through the recruitment process (which can take months) and not being accepted for anything.

Going places, meeting people

We build software for other companies, depending on what their needs are. This is known as consultancy and can involve travelling to clients’ offices, either for a meeting and or to work there full time until a project is completed. My colleagues and I spend evenings together when we do this; it’s nice to have that guaranteed social interaction.

Because the work we do is project-based, it provides countless opportunities to try new things: different teams, products, people and locations. I’m surrounded by interesting people who there is so much to learn from, so I try to be as inquisitive as possible.

Studying part-time for a degree

My degree is in digital and technology solutions from the University of Exeter. All the teaching is provided by Exeter lecturers and we have exams just like fulltime students. Everyone studies the same content for the first two years and then we specialise: my specialism is software engineering but other options include cyber security and IT consultancy. I work four days a week and spend one day a week studying through distance learning, such as Skyping into lectures.

Always learning

My degree isn’t my only opportunity to learn. When I first joined, I attended training courses on the consultancy side of my role, and I can now pick the training courses I’m most interested in – I’ll soon be doing one in ethical hacking.

It’s important to be eager to learn, especially when working with emerging technology. Regardless of whether you’ve coded before, you will be doing new things every day, which is the perfect way to learn. A chatbot I made was shown to thousands of people at IBM’s annual conference THINK in San Francisco, which is definitely the highlight for me. In the future I just want to continue building something new every day. I can’t see myself ever getting bored of it.

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