Work experience is one of the best ways to see whether you’d like a job in the world of tech, engineering or digital creativity.
We spoke to gap year student Josephine Cowley about her seven-month internship at micro:bit – and how it’s never too late to change your mind about what you want to do.
Josephine, tell us a bit about your life so far
I’ve lived in Cornwall since I was seven, and I went to Richard Lander School in Truro up to Year 11. I then went to a specialist music school in Manchester where I took A-levels in Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Music.
I’m now on a gap year, which I’ve partly spent travelling, and partly doing an internship at micro:bit. I’ve moved around quite a bit as my internship started off in Cambridge and I'm now finishing it at home due to the lockdown.
You went to a specialist music school – is music your dream career?
I've always really enjoyed music, but as a hobby. Since GCSEs I’ve focused on maths and physics. I actually had a place at Imperial College to study physics. But after applying there I did an engineering summer school, and I realised that I wanted to do something a bit more applied.
Until then I hadn't explored the options of doing engineering or computer science, so I decided to have a gap year and reapply when I’d thought it through more. That's why I decided to apply for this internship and go travelling. I’m happy to say I now have a place at Cambridge next year to study engineering.
Was the summer school your first introduction to engineering?
Well, I first became aware of it when we had an engineering assembly at Richard Lander. Up to that point I’d thought it was about being a mechanic. So the seed was planted then, but it's taken a few more years to realise it fits into my interests, and that applying physics to solve problems really appeals to me.
For example, for Physics A-level we studied a module about applying physics to medical devices – for things like MRI scans and X-rays. I found it really interesting because it applied the theoretical things I’d been learning to things that are life-saving. I thought that was really cool.
How did the internship at micro:bit come about?
I was thinking about taking a gap year, and I saw the job advertised online. Micro:bit’s aims really appealed to me – it’s a charity organisation that helps kids foster their curiosity in coding and engineering.
I think that’s really important and it would have helped me a lot when I was that age. I didn’t take coding at Richard Lander and there was no option to do it at music school.
I also liked the fact you didn’t need a really good level of programming knowledge to get the internship. I did have some, because I’d taught myself a bit of C++ at school, as I had a friend who was interested in it and I wanted to learn too.
What does your job involve?
Officially my job title is junior software engineer. But it's an awesome company and they’ve given me a really varied job where I get to contribute to lots of different parallel threads.
At first I was working on the user interface of our Python editor and our Make code editor. That involved a lot of bug fixing and some updating and adding to the design features. I've also done quite a lot of testing of hardware and software, which I've learned is really important.
More recently I've been doing support, which is about helping customers with any issues they have. That's been quite fulfilling as it’s opened up a whole new side of what micro:bit does.
Have you learned anything you think will be useful in your future career?
It’s been really useful just to learn about work and how different it is from education. At school you’re given opportunities and you get taught everything you need to learn. But at work, you have to independently learn everything.
So something I've learned is that when you're stuck, definitely reach out for help. I found the first month really tough because I hadn't really got my head around that. But then I realised that people were really supportive and they understand that everyone starts somewhere. I’ve been really lucky to work in a nice, small tech team who are really happy to help.
"Something I've learned is that when you're stuck, reach out for help. I’ve been really lucky to work in a nice, small tech team who are really happy to help."
Do you know yet what you might do after university?
I don't have any specific ideas. One of the appealing things about the Cambridge engineering degree is that it's really broad at first and then gradually through the years you specialise.
At the moment, though, I think I might like to work somewhere that’s using technological innovation to benefit society – for example in green energy.
What advice would you give to girls who might like to study TEC subjects?
Definitely don't be afraid. If you’re curious about something, nurture that curiosity. Follow your interests and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Do you have any advice for parents and carers of those girls?
A great start is to get a micro:bit! If you don’t know much about coding and engineering, it’s the perfect starting point for beginners. A great way of helping kids learn is to learn with them, and help them answer the questions they have. I think that can be a really nice experience for parents too.
Find out more about micro:bit
Josephine recommends micro:bit as a great starting point for girls interested in coding and electronics. Here are some resources you may find useful:
Micro:bit projects to do at home
Win a micro:bit Inventor's Kit with TECgirls Sandbox Magazine