Jess joined Softwire as an apprentice software developer in 2018, aged 18, with no experience of writing code or software engineering. She immediately demonstrated an ability to learn fast, apply knowledge, a can-do attitude and a desire to improve products and processes where she saw opportunities.
After the external examiner awarded her a distinction for her apprenticeship – an achievement putting her in the top 7% of apprentices nationwide – Jess is now project-managing the Softwire team delivering train operator LNER’s mobile apps. This project is strategically important to LNER and Softwire, and Jess has continually expanded her responsibilities within it. Having started as scrum master, responsible purely for running the development team, less than nine months later she’s grown into a customer-facing delivery role with responsibility for the complete project lifecycle of new features. She’s overseen delivery of important new app functionality, including enhancements to help keep the travelling public safe during the pandemic. She’s also taken responsibility for end-to-end scoping, design, development and testing of industry-leading app functionality that will form the foundation for some ground-breaking capabilities. In the background, she’s made countless enhancements to streamline and accelerate delivery, while establishing a superb reputation for herself and Softwire within LNER.
Securing a software engineering apprenticeship with zero coding experience
“I’d always been interested in engineering and maths at school, and had planned to do a mechanical engineering apprenticeship,” says Jess Gilbert, 21. “But as the start date got closer, the fit didn’t feel right. I knew I wanted to do some form of engineering, so even though I had no coding experience, I applied for Softwire’s apprenticeship programme in 2018. My first real exposure to coding was in the interview, and I really enjoyed it: being able to complete the tasks gave me the belief I could succeed in this industry.”
Jess was offered the job, and hasn’t looked back.
Gareth Johnson, Softwire’s Head of Training and Apprenticeships, takes up the story: “I’ve interviewed more than 600 entry-level candidates, some who’ve done lots of coding, others with little or no exposure. Jess was firmly in the latter group.
“But two things immediately stood out. The first was the speed at which she picked up and applied new knowledge. The second was her desire to learn, ask questions and challenge things where she saw a better way of doing something.
“It’s common for apprentices who haven’t coded before to retreat into their shells early in the programme: they understandably get intimidated by others’ greater experience. Jess was the opposite: she rolled up her sleeves, got stuck in, and wasn’t afraid to ask questions. This attitude is one of the reasons she’s gone on to achieve so much, so quickly.”
12-week fast-track to customer work
Jess followed the Softwire apprenticeship programme, beginning with a six-week coding bootcamp. After a further six-week internal development project, Jess moved onto customer work.
She started in Softwire’s support division. Within nine months, Jess took on a customer manager role in this division, first for a well-known media business, and later on a larger project in financial services. The
latter saw Jess looking after the client’s website, and delivering strategically important enhancements.
Top 7% of apprentices nationwide
Alongside her customer manager role, Jess completed her apprenticeship qualification, with the external examiner awarding her a distinction, putting her in the top 7% of apprentices nationally.
Scrum master on strategically important project, aged 20
Once Jess completed her apprenticeship, Softwire’s programme managers decided she should become the scrum master on the team delivering the new mobile apps for train operator LNER.
These apps are a strategically significant part of LNER’s vision to improve the experience for people travelling by train, by providing passengers with valuable information and support at every stage of their journeys. For Softwire, the project is one of the company’s most important, both in terms of revenue and profile.
Jess started by managing the delivery team, consisting of developers and testers. During this time, Softwire has helped LNER release a number of important app updates that Jess’s team built, including several to help keep the travelling public safe during the pandemic. And she’s quickly and continually expanded her responsibilities.
Continually expanding responsibilities
Within a few months, Jess took on the end-to-end delivery of one of the app’s most important, innovative and complex new pieces of functionality: context-aware journey information. This has included scoping with the client, understanding the many technical complexities involved, identifying intelligent ways to overcome these, and overseeing delivery and testing. And where her delivery remit initially only included the actual software development, it’s expanded to include working with the user experience designers to guide the creation of the user interfaces. This context-aware journey information functionality is currently undergoing beta testing with selected users. In addition, Jess has been overseeing the implementation of Flexi Season tickets in the app, due for release in August. This is a central part of the UK rail sector’s innovation drive to adapt to people’s new flexible working patterns.
Ed Smith-Müller, senior programme manager at Softwire, says: “What’s impressed us about Jess is the speed at which she’s developed. In under three years, to go from having no technical experience to being able to write code, then manage an experienced delivery team, and then expand into a broader product management and business analysis role, where she’s driving the delivery of some genuinely industry-leading app functionality, is nothing short of remarkable.”
Proactive client engagement and process improvements
Smith-Müller continues: “What’s stood out about Jess is her proactivity, which has shown itself in so many ways. She’s made countless improvements to how the project runs, which together have resulted in a significantly more efficient process. “For example, she identified that a live video call to brief the LNER test team on new functionality would be more valuable than simply providing written release notes. As a result, the number of queries we get back has dropped significantly, thereby reducing the time and effort required to release each app update.”
He adds: “Jess has also really strengthened Softwire’s relationship with the client, thanks to her proactive engagement and communication with the many stakeholders involved. Very independently, she’s worked out who to talk to, and gone out and built up those relationships.
“She’s clearly very popular with the client, and her diplomacy and ability to handle potentially difficult situations is at a level we’d normally only expect from someone with considerably more experience.
“She’s undoubtedly contributed to Softwire recently being awarded a development contract in another part of LNER, by giving the client assurance the app delivery project is in safe hands, and that we can confidently deliver both projects in parallel.”
Always looking for the next big challenge Johnson concludes by echoing Smith-Müller: “In a typical career trajectory, we’d expect someone with Jess’s experience to be working as a junior developer. Jess has already gone well beyond this and is showing no sign of plateauing.
“Around half the people who reach the level she’s at will stay there or thereabouts for most of their careers. We know Jess will go far beyond this, because she’s always proactively looking for the next big challenge.”