Wondering where the weeks went: a reminiscent reflection of my FreeAgent internship

It just seems like yesterday when I was settling in at FreeAgent and writing a blog about my first week as a FreeAgent data science intern. Yet here I am, having finished my internship and remembering all of the good times I had. Outside of my internship at FreeAgent, I am a PhD student specialising in veterinary biology, so the last 13 weeks have been a steep learning curve into the domain of an accountancy software company. This blog reflects upon this experience and all of the things that I have learnt whilst being fully embraced as a member of the FreeAgent team.

Finding my feet at FreeAgent

After being generally impressed with the company ethos in my first week, I soon realised that this wasn’t the type of internship where I would be running errands and getting lumbered with time-consuming yet low-skilled tasks. On the contrary, I was treated like every other member of staff and was given clear and achievable goals for my project, personal responsibilities and the tools I needed to succeed.

By the end of my second week, I had already given my first ‘Town Hall’ talk: a company-wide meeting that all departments attend. In fact, despite my nerves, during my internship I got the opportunity to speak in front of the entire company 5 times and many more times within specific departments. Coming from an academic background, I wasn’t used to preparing talks at short notice that were suitable for such a diverse audience but my talks were always met with enthusiasm and questions, which has hugely boosted my confidence at public speaking. As an added bonus, my penchant for gifs and bad puns went down a treat: it is always so much easier to talk to an audience with a sense of humor!

I was impressed with the ease at which meetings with people at different positions within the company were set up: complete strangers were willing to listen and give feedback on what I had to say. Remote workers were never excluded from meetings and felt as easy to contact as any other person physically in the office, which gave me a new perspective about what it means to work from home. Everyone was extremely open and easy to converse with on a professional level, which was complemented by the company’s adoption of cloud-based software, making it easy to share work and notes with colleagues. I also had the opportunity to ‘shadow’ other departments, such as the sales and support teams, which not only allowed me to observe job roles that I had no experience in but also gave me a broader view of the company as a whole and helped me to establish my place in the team.

Aside from feeling like I was accepted in the whole FreeAgent team, I was also made to feel fully supported within my specific team: data science. Every morning, we had ‘stand up’ meetings (a concept of the Agile method for software development) where everyone explained their goals for the current day. Despite the fact I generally prefer ‘lying down’ to ‘standing up’ first thing in the morning, I found these meetings a great way to focus and ask people for help in advance. In addition to stand up, we also had regular planning meetings, held ‘Sailboat retrospectives’ (another Agile concept) where we defined where we wanted to go as a team and documented our longer-term goals on project planning software.

Settling into the social scene

There is always something to do with your fellow employees at FreeAgent, whether it is sporty like Wakeboarding or gym classes or heading to the pub for a few drinks after work. I got to sample a plethora of the local lunchtime food spots when we went for team lunches and one lunchtime I even went skateboarding with a few other employees!

My favourite kind of ‘board’ meeting…

When I wasn’t galavanting around the local eateries, I often went for walks along the scenic canal and around the many local parks. Although the view from the office was great, it was nice to get out into the fresh air (and sunshine!).

Such a ‘boatiful’ view…
I ‘viewed’ it as a privilege to see the countryside from the office…

We also had a beer and wine fridge in the FreeAgent kitchen, with quite a selection! We often had a few drinks after 5pm when we had finished for the day and played pool or table tennis in the office.

We had a ‘ball’ playing pool in the office…

The FreeAgent barbecue was a highlight of my summer; a festival of food, drinks, live music and games held at a large conference centre. I helped to set up the event in the morning and it was thoroughly enjoyable. One of my favourite events that I took part in whilst at FreeAgent was the fundraising scavenger hunt for Shelter. Some of the tasks that my team (fabulously named ‘Simply the Quest’) completed included ‘getting a picture with the largest animal you could find’, ‘acting out one of the lines from Alanis Morissette’s ‘ironic’’ and ‘finding evidence of the presence of an invisible person, ghost or alien’.

We were relieved when we en’cow’ntered this beast!
Isn’t it ironic: ‘A traffic jam when you’re already late’
There were always some good ‘spirits’ about to help us…

Taking advantage of technical training

I developed my technical skills a great deal more than I expected over the short period I worked in the data science team. Different ways of doing things that I hadn’t considered before suddenly became obvious. When I was struggling to learn Ruby (a programming language that I had never encountered before), I had a team of experts around me that were ready and willing to help and give feedback about my code. I also became much more confident using the command line and Github — tools that I had used before but learnt to use much more efficiently! Of course, the great thing about being in a team of experts is that you can usurp some of their expertise without them even really knowing! Technical words that baffled me were brought up in conversation which I could then ask about or Google when I got home, depending on the situation. I also got feedback about my writing and presenting and the way I work professionally. The whole team participated in ‘Strengthsfinder’, an online skills assessment tool, which was an interesting insight into the way businesses try to understand their employees better.

My manager also spent time helping me plan my future professional development and career goals, which was hugely helpful to me. Part of this development included attending local relevant events with the data science team, which gave me the chance to network with people in similar industries and learn about different techniques.

However, without doubt, my favourite couple of days at FreeAgent was ‘hack days’: a company-wide event that allows people in different departments to collaborate on their own ideas to improve any aspect of the company. Ideas varied from fixing the company arcade game (yes, of course FreeAgent have an arcade game), to planning ways to make the office more environmentally friendly, to designing applications to make life easier for employees/customers. At the end of the second day, everyone presented the projects they had worked on and I was blown away by the amount of talent within the team. I personally was involved in a couple of projects; I shadowed the development of an app (I was even able to contribute!) and designed an experimental survey about a wine and cheese tasting to investigate bias (I admit I was slightly biased about the choice of food).

Inciting impact on important issues

The key project that I was involved in during my internship was designing a sales lead-scoring tool that could be used to predict the success of a lead signing a contract with FreeAgent. This involved several steps:

  • Analysing and cleaning historic survey data
  • Designing a predictive mathematical model for success
  • Designing the tool itself
  • Collecting further sales lead data and storing this
  • Implementing the tool in the current sales process

I found the whole process very satisfying and I was really happy to have made a positive impact on the company during the time that I was there. I also worked on a couple of side projects: researching external data sources of commercial interest and using some of these data sources to reveal company characteristics and using Google Trends to provide an insight into company-related internet searches and advising the communications team about more effective ways to report these results. During these projects I always felt fully supported by the data science team, who were always on hand when I needed to ask for help.

Goodbye, but not gone for good

I think the thing that has really hit me the most about my entire time at FreeAgent and the reason why I am most sad to be leaving, is the fact that I met so many genuine people and made some really good friends. Yet even though I have only been sat back at my PhD desk for two days, I have already been invited along to various data science-related events with the team and it is nice to know that even though I am gone from the FreeAgent workplace, I am not ‘gone for good’.

If you want to know even more about the work I did during my internship, I wrote a blog series about my general internship experience, data cleaning and survey design which can be found on FreeAgent’s engineering blog.