Which World Leader Are You?

A Project in the Life of a Visual Journalism Trainee

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A few months ago, I completed my first big project for the Visual Journalism team at BBC News. I worked alongside another developer to create the ‘Which World Leader are You?’ piece.

I was brought into the project as it looked like one which I could learn a lot from it, buddy up with an experienced developer and, given the scale of the project, it would probably benefit from an extra set of hands.

I joined it at a stage where a designer had fleshed the project out. I was presented with an a3 sheet divided into columns to represent the page flow, filled with professional illustrations, graphs and text. Our first task was to see how feasible each aspect was and estimate how much time it would take to create. This was only my second or third week on the job so I stayed very quiet feeling rather overwhelmed and very inexperienced. At this point though I was glad I had studied project planning at uni (despite hating it at the time) as it gave me an understanding as to what the point of this part of the process was and how I could best help (multiplying all my estimates by 1.5 or 2 to counter my inexperience seemed to be the best course of action).

I was assigned certain parts of the project, initially these were the basic markup for the page and the graphs. Originally, there were to be three different types of graph, this was quickly rethought as we weren’t sure if this was the best use of developer time or way of presenting the data, 2 block charts and a stack chart were decided upon instead.

From the start I was anxious to get stuck in with the graphs. It seemed like a massively daunting task and worried I wouldn’t be able to do it. I spent a day looking into different libraries (such as D3 and charts.js) but none had examples of the type of graph we wanted. I took some time to toss up the pros and cons of D3 vs hand-coding them, but in the end opted for the DIY approach.

Once I got stuck in, I was surprised how quickly I managed to generate a set of blocks which visually represented the data. I encountered a number of issues trying to make them all fit on one row at mobile size though. For help with this I consulted with the designer to see exactly what dimensions he had used for his mock-up. After much fiddling I managed to get it to fit (hooray!). Then came labelling it. I had pretty much ignored this part of making the graphs because I was too busy internally panicking about building the blocky bit. Turns out labels are waaaaay more complicated. Especially with the original design. It is really fiddly to try and get the labels on the axis match up to the exact position they represent.

Originally, there was to be dynamic labels as well. These hovered above a column of blocks and indicated which blocks represented where ‘you’ were and where your country’s leader was on the graph. They were dynamic in that, if you changed the age or country you inputted  the labels would reposition themselves on the graph. The ‘you’ label in the live project still does this if you want to see what I mean. Trying to create both of these involved a lot of complex logic, particularly to deal with occurrences where both fell in the same column. It took many attempts to make it work, followed by discussions with the lead dev on the project, the journalist and the designer before realising that the logic involved in this to make it always work was slightly too complicated. We ended up simplifying the idea and using a key to indicate the leader of the user’s country rather than attempting to dynamically label them. It was good this decision was taken, but it would have saved a lot of time if we had realised the sheer complexity of this issue and decided on this alternative possibility earlier. It was relief that the designers were happy to compromise on their original design though otherwise I’d probably still be tinkering with it!

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During the time I was getting stuck on the graphs I took a bit of a brain break and inserted some content and built the stack chart. These didn’t take as long as expected which had the helpful result of making me on track for my estimations overall despite the fact that the graphs were taking more time than allocated. This included the SVGs used for the maps. I had thought SVG was an image format, didn’t quite realise it was but in the form of code!

By this point we’ve been working on the project for a few weeks, I have some graphy looking things on the screen and I have become much more confident in myself and with talking to the different members of the team and actually answering their questions rather than just referring them to Steve, the other dev.

Somehow I wasn’t far off the estimates we had set so some of the tasks originally delegated to Steve were reassigned to me, including the slow reveal, the factbox and istats. The idea of the slow reveal was very daunting to me. The slow reveal is the minimising of each section until the user has filled out the form related to it (see the image below). It sounded really complicated and I had originally refused to estimate it having little clue about how it would be implemented. I think we had suggested it might take 2 days. One morning, because I was encountering some issues with the trivia factbox I decided to try and attempt it. I figured out where the separate sections would need to be and just gave it a go using ‘display: none’. To my surprise my initial idea worked. And as ridiculous as it seemed I’d managed to complete it in about half an hour – therefore shaving almost 2 days off our schedule and taking a step toward getting us back on track. In all honesty, I was slightly surprised that any of my work came in under the time I had estimated – I was convinced everything was going to take me ages. The graphs definitely took a lot longer than we had originally anticipated, so it was a relief that other things weren’t quite as hard as expected so it all balanced out in the end.

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Istats is a tool we use to track user engagement with a piece. It allows to count how many times a specified button has been pressed, the city a user is in and the device they’re accessing it from. It was my job to insert code to utilise it into specified places and make sure it was being called correctly.

Whilst I’m busy doing this stuff, Steve had the far more complicated jobs of writing the feature file (a list of scenarios that could present and how the application should handle them, used for testing purposes) and all the logic for the comparisons and the form inputs to do these.

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At some point during this process it was starting to take shape and actually look like the mock up we’d been provided by the designer. I’d also started to hate the whole thing, even more once I’d put the slow reveal in because you’d have to type data into it to reveal the section that you wanted to check something in. I got to the point where my own date of birth was boring/irritating me, but it was the date I could type with the least thought so I continued to resentfully type it out hundreds of times a day. (In hindsight, we could have put values into in in the code for testing so we only had to click submit…).

At this point something had to go wrong surely? Of course. Enter, the King of Thailand. I had crafted a beautiful graph which celebrated the fact that he was the longest serving leader by almost 30 years, bu unfortunately he passed away during the project. It just didn’t look nearly as impressive anymore.

The deadline was fast approaching and there were still a few things which needed to be done, but more pressingly we needed to see how much it broke when we translated it into other languages. 20 other languages to be precise. I was particularly scared as to how disastrously the graphs would break. Luckily nothing too horrendous happened in that respect. 

Speaking of which, right to left styling. Never considered that before! There was a few stylistic changes which needed to be made in order for the piece to make sense (and look visually appealing) in languages such as Arabic and Persian. Most of these were covered with the CSS ‘direction’ property (which I’d never heard of before) with ‘rtl’ being applied to the main page and the graph section being specified as ‘ltr’ since the use of latin numerals in the graph across all languages meant that they would read it left to right according to our translators.

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In the final push toward the deadline we encountered some major issues. The most confusing of which was that the entire project was broken in Hausa and Ukrainian, and separately that some odd characters were appearing in place of apostrophes in every language. After much confusion and talking to the other devs we managed to fix both of these just in time. It turned out it was due to a templating issue – in these languages the translations of country names included apostrophes, which as any programmers reading will know often signals the end of a string/input. This meant that some when we fed the data into the templating engine it was ending prematurely and catastrophes were caused. Once we figured out that this was the problem we were able to take steps to fix it (we re-evaluated if we actually needed to use the templating engine for this section at all, and decided we didn’t).  Our next problem was that it managed to break in IE9. This was due to an update in the way our internal tooling handles JSON data, we had updated our code to handle this but had overlooked that our method wouldn’t work in IE9. Steve rewrote it in a way that older versions of Internet Explorer would support and managed to fix it just a few hours before launch. It was a pretty stressful day!

We hadn’t managed to make all the tweaks we had intended which was slightly frustrating but at least it was now working and everyone was happy with it. On that note, I went to the pub with my project manager and failed in a pub quiz. Cut to a few hours later, all the trains had been cancelled so I was stranded in London. Yay! I decided to crash at a hostel and all was good.

The next morning it was live! It was all very exciting. I had posted it on Facebook and Twitter and was receiving lot’s of lovely comments from people.

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Nassos, the journalist I had been working with, then explained Chartbeat to me and showed me how the page was currently doing on the site. Chartbeat is a tool that shows you live data about how many people are on your webpage and the level of interaction with certain parts of it. It was 10am, there were 40,000 people on the page at that moment and it was number 7 most read on the site. Mind blowing. 40,000 people were at that very moment looking at the content I had helped make.

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The next day we were updated with how many people had been looking at it over the course of the first day. Around 750,000 people had been on to the page in the first day. I was also sent some screen grabs from Steve, the other developer, of it reaching number 2 in most read (!!!) and being at the top of the front page in Uzbekistan! It was all very surreal to say the least.

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With that project under my belt, I am eager to see what else I get my hands on whilst I’m here. It was such a fantastic project to work on and a brilliant experience to have had!

100 Women Hack

 

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend a hack event put on in collaboration by the BBC and Facebook. Exciting, right? Even better, was that the purpose of the hack was to create a social media product that would be used to promote the new 100 Women season for the BBC.

100 Women is a series of programmes, features and interviews based around a list of 100 inspirational global women, named by the BBC every year. The new season starts on November 21st but until then you can check out 2015’s season.

The hack was a female only event – the participants were all female coders from various companies such as BBC and Citymapper, and were supported by BBC editors, Facebook developers etc who were also all female. It was great to be in a room filled with such confident and inspiring women.

Anyway, after an interesting introduction from a few of the faces behind the hack and 100 Women as a whole, we got to work. Myself and Agata from Citymapper decided to join forces and create something, we just weren’t sure what… With facilitation from Laura and Fiona we did some ideas generation and eventually decided on something.

Our idea was a data visualisation / meaww quiz style app to plug into Facebook. It allowed users to log in with Facebook, where it would then grab data from their profile and compare it to data about the 100 women for the season. The user would then be shown their closest matches on various categories on a web page. The idea of this was to engage and empower women by showing them how they could easily be one of the 100 Women selected for the campaign. Unfortunately we hosted this locally across two laptops – the front end on mine and the back end on Agata’s. This means I can’t link to it (and stupidly didn’t screenshot it).

The winners were going to be announced in a talk about 100 Women on Monday which I was planning to go to – especially since I had to dash early so missed some of the pitches.

Imagine my shock when I was in a sleepy Monday meeting and suddenly my email starts pinging and my phone ringing from the hack organisers trying to contact me. Turned out, our idea had won (jointly) and they waned me to represent the team in the talk. I’m going to admit, in my overtired state I didn’t really know how to react to any of this, but less than an hour later I found myself being called up on stage in front of about 40 people (including my boss’s boss) and being live streamed trying to articulate my thoughts on the hack and explain our project. Luckily, it seemed to go okay (and there doesn’t seem to be any lingering video evidence that I could find so far!)

So, this week I’ll be starting work with the other winning team to combine our ideas and actually create this product in two weeks. I’m simultaneously excited and terrified but mostly just pretty daunted by the whole thing, but I’m sure it’ll be fine! Watch this space!

 

For more details of 100 Women checkout their Facebook page or keep up with the hashtag #100women on Twitter
To find out more about the hack check out Simi’s blog (she was from the other winning team and has written a much fuller account of the whole thing here.

It Lives!

Almost exactly a month after I started at BBC News my first project has gone live!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2016-37385625

You can see it by following that nice little link above. You can also see it featured in another news article too!

The bit I made was the search box, where you can type in a keyword and it’ll search the data for the definition.

I got a bit excited when I saw this too:

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That’s all – just a short and sweet post from my over excitable self.

A Quick Catch Up & Results

So, I’ve finally found an opportunity to sit at my desk again and breathe. It’s been a pretty manic two months – hence the silence on here.

I had a little look back at my previous posts which were from May 18th, right before the hectic rush of deadlines and exams. So, I guess I’ll have a little back look at that first.

I had a couple of horrendous exams. One looking at the theory of Object Orientated Programming and the other a closed book ‘Web Technologies’ exam in PHP, JQuery and SQL. They were hell. Particularly the web tech one. That was supposed to be the thing I’m good at but in the moment I just forgot the syntax, and there was no way of checking even the simplest thing to get myself on the right track – it was the most soul destroying, self-confidence crushing exam I have ever taken (and I took the UKCAT for med school a couple of years ago!). So, in true British fashion we went to a local pub (The Bevy – check it out) and drowned our sorrows with cheap drinks and excellent Indian food.

As soon as I could after that horrendous week I decided to get out of the country and take a bit of a break – I’ll give full details on that adventure in a separate post! I came back to finding out an ex-colleague and good friend of mine from the hospital had died, resulting in a lot of fundraisers and catch up with the clinic family in his honour. You can see how everything has been going, if you’re curious, here.

And, in a totally different train of thought, I also came back to my results:
3D Modelling and Animation –  76%read my post from the time
Time Based Media - 66%my post about that one
Web Technologies Book Club - 80%a bit I wrote about that project a while ago
Portfolio – 71%  – Looks like I didn’t write about that one, which is a shame – it was a pretty cool project re-doing my portfolio and creating a group showcase based on Where the Wild Things are
Web Development – 80% - I wrote a bit about that near the start of the project

Web Technologies Exam – 47%
Object Orientated Programming Exam – 53%
See I told you the exams went badly…

Overall though it looks like I managed to get 70.5% for the second year (which is a first by 0.5%!)

Skeleton Skills

I talked a bit before about the web development project I am undertaking for my friend Elsie in the ‘My Rules!’ post. I just wanted to give a little update as to how that is going.

I have started to build the first evolution of the website. I did this using Skeleton – a light weight framework a bit like BootStrap but with a lot less to it. It’s mobile responsive already and uses columns to make pretty layouts. It’s real easy to work with if you make sure all the CSS you add is stored in a separate file. So far, I’m liking working with it. It’s brilliant for project which don’t require the full BootStrap power and saves you time and hassle of writing the layout from scratch. Check it out.

 

Perplexed by PHP

And further adventures in Ajax.

For my Web Technologies module this semester I have been tasked with building an online book club.

The personalised interactive book club should include the following functionality:
1. A user login page.
2. 2-3 pages, to display the books.
3. Interactive method to enable users to share book reviews.
a. To be able to submit reviews for the books on display.
b. To be able to read reviews left by other users for the books on display.
The following needs to be implemented using PHP:
1. A method of maintaining state as the user is browsing the different pages.
2. Interfacing with MySQL database to retrieve and submit book reviews.
3. Interfacing with the MySQL database to enable the user login functionality. The following needs to be implemented in Ajax (Javascript, HTML and CSS):
1. The interactive user interface (creativity and use of Javascript is essential).

I’m pretty proud with what I’ve managed to accomplish in quite a short period of time. I really got into this project and I’m nearly finished with it (bit of a shame really!).

I started by designing what database tables I’d need and then creating them and adding the necessary data.

I then created the absolute basic layout for the site. Again, I used Skeleton as the main framework since it makes mobile optimisation so easy (and brownie points for that!).

I used the base of what I created for the email client for the previous semester to create interactive elements. So I used a combination of php, sql and javascript to grab the different books from my table and dyamically insert them into the webpage by interacting with the DOM.

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I then started working on the individual book pages. This takes the ID of the selected book and stores it as a cookie which is used to grab all the relevant data from the books table. Again, this is dynamically displayed. The same is done to grab the reviews relevant to that book.

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To add a review the user goes to a book, clicks submit review and fills out the form. The book ID and user ID fields are automatically filled out with information from the session variables and cookies. When the user submits the review it is added to the database and should now show up on the book page. If they have already submitted a review for that book an alert will display to tell them so.

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I am currently extending the project to include a ‘my account’ page which shows user details as well as all the reviews they have left. I am also considering creating a reviews page which displays all the reviews left, ordered by newest first. Another way I am considering extending it is to give an option to only show books of a specified genre. I’ll update when I’ve finished!

Freelance Projects

Last week I had two meetings with new clients. Yep, 2 new clients – woohoo! And they look like pretty interesting projects too.

The first one is for the lovely David, he is a counsellor in Brighton and Hove and wants to advertise himself independently. The key thing for this site is it has to be non-triggering  as it cannot spark a potential episode in one of the users. What does this mean? Calming images, not lots of movement or animation, no flashing images etc, very easy to read text in small chunks, a natural colour scheme and easy navigation. This all seems pretty doable.
Because of the size of the website (relatively small) I figured Skeleton might be a good approach to this, so I’m currently working on building the layout using skeleton’s lovely grid system. I’m loving the fact it comes with normalize.css too as it immediately looks like a pretty decent website even with no custom CSS added yet! Looking forward to spending a bit more time on this one.

Just in case you were curious, this is how Dave and I know each other - hitting drums. Although not sure he'll appreciate me showing off his bald spot.

Just in case you were curious, this is how Dave and I know each other – hitting drums. He’s the one with the green flowers.

The other website is for Andrew The Artisan Craftsman. Oooh. He started off by telling me that what he wanted was ‘really simple’. An hour or two later he realised he had maybe underestimated the project and what a website would need to include for him to be a successful freelancer.
This site is going to predominantly feature a filterable gallery. This is one where the user can click on aa category and those images will show up in a little menu, with the first one being displayed full size. The user can then click on the thumbnails to see each image properly. Here is a mock up I quickly did of the basic layout:
mockUp of filterable gallery
I’ve started working on the gallery, attempting to code it in javascript from scratch. It’s going pretty well so far, but obviously work still needs to be done. I’m actually quite enjoying this, its a good challenge! I should probably save it for when my coursework is done though… Anyway, I will then need to integrate it into a fully fledged website, which again I may use skeleton for. As Andrew will want to upload new photos when he finishes a project I’m probably going to need to implement some sort of CMS too. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Interview Results…

The wait to hear back from my interviews has been excruciating. Then I heard back from them all in pretty quick succession.

7th Sense got back first, asking me to come in for a second interview. After spending a while thinking about this, I decided to decline – the other jobs were more my thing, and even if I didn’t get those I had decided I would prefer to pursue a web focussed placement.

Then I got a call from the lovely Katie at Shop Direct. “First of all, I just want to thank you for coming up for the interview” We all know what that means, but I was prepared for it. I had been expecting to be rejected after that practical test. “You did really well in every section of the interview process and you probably know what’s coming”

“We’d like to offer you the job”
Nope, that’s definitely not what I was expecting to hear. Stunned. And immediate panic. I still hadn’t heard from the BBC. I told Katie that I was still waiting to hear back from other places and she gave me the weekend to think about it.
I emailed the BBC recruiters who said interviews were still being conducted and they would get back to me in approximately 3 weeks. Cue major dither and panic.
Katie called back – “Actually, can you let us know by the end of Friday”.
Less than 2 days. Shit.
I did some frantic googling in the hopes of trying to find the email address for my interviewer at the BBC to see if I could get some clarity on the situation. I managed to find it on Github and fired off a quick message explaining my position after 5pm on a Wednesday I didn’t expect a reply and tried to get my head sorted out. Wrong again.
‘New mail’ notification. Deep breaths.

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Seriously?!??

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The next morning I received this:

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And that is the story of a manic emotional roller coaster of a day in my life. 2 prestigious job offers in one day. Wow.

I took the BBC one as you can probably guess and am super excited to start in August!

Shop Direct

This one was all the way up in Liverpool, it was a mad train journey up with delayed and cancelled trains and flooding on the tracks in Rugby.

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Train tracks submerged in water – they weren’t joking!

 

Once I finally got there and found the house where I was staying, I wandered round Liverpool for a little bit.

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Landmarks, Liverpool Pie and Formby Ale – oh and a funny toilet seat…

The next morning I managed to get lost on the way to the interview, getting there just in time in the end (lucky I had left an hour early just in case!).
The actual interview went fairly well – there were 3 of them with standard questions to ask me. All seemed to go fine – nothing special particularly but well enough. I was then taken up to the open plan office to sit and do a coding task. That bit went a little wrong. I managed to overcomplicate the task, and waste most of the time trying to accomplish something that wasn’t being asked of me. Ah well. I headed home, accepting that shop direct wasn’t to be and just relieved that the BBC had gone so well.

Interviews!

2 down, 2 to go.

It’s been a pretty and hectic week in the word of Rushlet. I’ve had not one but 2 interviews for my placement year – both at pretty exciting companies!

The first was 7thSense, a company who produce media servers to serve lossless projections for massive projects – think theme park rides.
I had no idea what to expect when I prepared myself for my interview on Tuesday morning. I set off, google maps in hand to try and find their offices in the middle of nowhere via 2 buses, since my original cycling plan had been thwarted by the grim rain.
I found the offices, pretty damp and cold – not neccesarily the best first impression, but not terrible either. They showed me around the building, showing me what they do and then proceeded to have a short interview with 2 of the owners of the company. They were super lovely and it was a very informal interview, mostly just chatting about my previous experience and what the placement role would involve. Less than an hour later I ventured back out into the rain to try and find m way back to the city – easier said than done i turned out and I ended up getting very lost and soaked to the bone in the horrible English weather. Overall, I reckon that interview went pretty well and hopefully I should find out by the end of this week.

The second was the one I have been stressing out about for about a month now. The BBC.

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Wednesday started off a lot better than the day before had – it was Sunny in Brighton, I knew what I was wearing and I had been frantically preparing for weeks for this interview. It was The BBC – who wouldn’t be excitedly nervously terrified?!
I headed down to the station, had time to buy a coffee and then got on the train, sitting opposite a friendly woman at a table so I could carry on with my interview prep. This turned out to be the best decision I could have made. After a while the lady started chatting to me about what I was doing, she was very impressed that I was on my way to an interview at the BBC (which she had seen from the mess of papers I was writing on) and wanted to know more. I took out my headphones and we got chatting. Turns out she was an ex westminster lawyer who now works with the UN. And she was just as incredible as she sounds. She was great, asking questions about the job, helping me prepare for difficult questions and just giving general tips. The journey was a lot quicker thanks to her and I was far less nervous after having such a nice train journey. It was raining in London and I didn’t have a coat, but I was so happy by this point it didn’t matter.

I headed straight to Oxford Circus, surprisingly remembering the way without checking from when I used to head to Broadcasting House for radio shows. Deciding to make sure I knew where the entrance was before having a second coffee to kill the hour I had to wait I headed up to New Broadcasting House. Turns out there’s a coffee shop right outside the entrance. I headed in, thinking this was as good a place as any to chill for a bit and finish my interview prep. The lady in front of me in the queue got chatting with me (the perks of not having headphones in). It transpired that she was the head of Music Television and she took pity on my pre-interview nerves and bought me a coffee! My morning was just getting better and better. We had a nice little chat in the queue and then she had to run to a meeting. To top it off, as I was sitting there psyching myself up Johnny Vegas was just standing outside the window having a smoke – I guess that’s what happens when you work in showbiz….!!

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After meeting a few lovely ladies, each very kind and supportive I was feeling quite confident as I entered the BBC for my interview. I was complimented on my CV and application by the interviewer on the way up to the room which was reassuring, and shown ‘the news pit’ where news and weather are recorded (and was walked through the back of shot just for giggles). We took the glass lift up to the 7th floor (slightly nauseating) and went into a little meeting room where the other interviewer was waiting and we got started.

The interview had been booked for 2 hours though they said it would probably take only 1.5 hours. That still felt like a long time.
There was the talky bit – where they asked predetermined questions and we had a good chat about the role, the departments and teams, and obviously my experience. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting and we just seemed to click. I immediately relaxed.
Then there was the writey bit where they left me alone with a codey test for 20 minutes – only interrupting to bring me a coffee. They came back we talked about the last question in the task they had left me – about multidimensional arrays. Turns out I had managed to do it pretty well and understood it much better thanI had thought.
Next was the typey bit – yes these are the official terms they use for each section. In this bit I had 3 tasks to complete in half an hour in CodePen using HTML, CSS and JS and could refer to google and the interviewers for help. I was warned that I would probably only be able to do the first one or two, which put my mind at ease. I finished the first in less than 10 minutes, the second pretty fast too and even managed to finish the 3rd one. We were all surprised! Apparently I’m the 2nd peron to get to the last task and the first to finish it. Yay! That boosted my ego a bit. It was just a really relaxed time and we were laughing a lot, so I was very relaxed and happy by this point.
I then asked them some questions before we realised that we’d run over by half an hour. The interview had last 2.5 hours but was very enjoyable and went pretty fast – and I never thought I’d be saying that about an interview!
Overall, it sounds like a fantastic department to work in and I enjoyed my time there a lot. I should hear back in the next couple of weeks, so fingers crossed!!

I then met my buddy Cai at Victoria who had also had an interview for his placement at another company and we went for some cocktails to debrief and celebrate. Pretty good day all round. Sorry for the long post, I just wanted to share the small happy things that happened to make the day even better – chatting to strangers might seem insignificant but it can really make your day.

2 down, 2 to go – just EdenSpiekermann second Skype interview and ShopDirect up in Liverpool next week. Feeling fairly good about myself at the moment – which I needed after a rough week – never thought interviews would be the way to boost self confidence!

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More cocktails happened when we got back to Brighton – happy times with Andrew, Amy and Cai