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They say that teaching something is the best way to truly, deeply understand it. From my experience designing and facilitating 99design’s Junior Engineer Program (the JEP) I would say that is more true than I had ever imagined. The existence of this program is a testament to 99designs’ commitment to supporting and uplifting one another, and in its running I was reminded of how my colleagues all live one of 99’s core values: we believe in helping people to create their own success.

What is a Junior Engineer Program?

Across the tech industry, many organizations support employees with structured internships and bootcamps to help engineers at the start of their careers hone their skills in the fast-paced tech industry.

Unlike these programs which are aimed at entry-level juniors, the JEP at 99designs is not a software 101. Instead, this program is designed to help junior engineers take the next step. In collaborating with other engineers and experts, we encourage them to apply their knowledge to real problems in a way that supports their continued development and well-being.

Design by Zarina Gafarova

Why did we do it?

At 99designs by Vista we recognize the value of hiring junior engineers; they bring a diversity of skills and experiences to the team and a fresh perspective to our product. As we faced a period of rapid growth in 2020, the engineering team wanted to make sure we could continue to hire juniors while still guaranteeing that they would be adequately supported and nurtured.

To maintain our companywide commitment to learning and development (L&D), we needed an empowering and engaging experience that would support our new starters and ring true to some of our core company values: we believe in people helping people create their own success and the journey should be fun. Enter the Junior Engineer Program!

Setting up the JEP

As soon as our Director of Engineering put out a call for someone to tackle this challenge, I knew immediately that this would be a unique opportunity to contribute to the L&D space at 99 and be part of shaping our next generation of engineers . During my five years as an engineer at 99, I have witnessed and benefitted from our culture of “putting people first” on many occasions, so I was itching to do my part. I enthusiastically volunteered, and over the course of a few weeks, the course started to take shape.

Leaning on the expertise of my colleagues in engineering and across all disciplines at 99 including UX, research, product, and analytics, I set out to create a course that captures the essence of what it means to be an engineer at 99. At 99 we move fast, innovate and create—and we are able to do that because all our teams rally around these values:

  • We are multidisciplinary; engineers must have insight into the inner workings of product, UX and analytics.
  • We are technical; participants need to have a grounding in all the layers of our tech stack and devops from docker and deploying services in the cloud, to testing best practices and SDKs.
  • We put people first; we talk frankly about impostor syndrome, encourage participants to set career goals, and give them guidance about communicating successfully with different audiences.

How does the JEP run?

The first iteration of the JEP kicked off with six new starters in early February 2020. . Each of the new junior engineers was assigned to a team where a large part of their learning and development happened organically through product work as it usually does. All new starters at 99 take part in an onboarding program to help you get on your feet, but in addition to that the junior engineers also participated in:

  1. Fortnightly themed sprints
  2. Workshops and activities
  3. Mentorships

1. Fortnightly, themed sprints

The JEP was structured as a sequence of ten themed modules, a holistic collection of topics each chosen to contribute to the diverse skills an engineer needs to be successful. We referred to these modules as sprints, as a nod to the agile workflow we use. Broadly, the themes fell into the categories of engineering, collaboration and personal.

Some examples include design and UX, communication and collaboration, pillars of the web, ops and infrastructure, and personal goals. Rounding off each sprint was a catchup, facilitated by a mentor, to unpack the content in a safe and supportive environment.

illustration of group collaborating in office
Illustration by Fe Melo

2. Workshops and activities

For each sprint, workshops, talks, exercises, and recommended reading were scheduled. We all have different learning styles, so the JEP was designed to accommodate engineers as individuals by varying how we deliver content.

At times we provided hands-on guided learning experiences; at other times the exercises were self-driven. The activities were created and delivered by experts from across the organization; for instance, one task saw our head of UX research organize an interactive workshop on human-centric design, while another included participants collaborating on a system design exercise created by a senior engineering manager.  One of our analysts created a data treasure hunt for the engineers while our learning leader guided the engineers through time management and goal-setting exercises.

3. Mentorship

Another core component of the program was formal mentorship. Each new starter was assigned a dedicated mentor within their own team. Our mentors are experienced 99designs engineers who demonstrate care, compassion and interest in uplifting others. The aim was to have our mentors be knowledgeable consultants, patient counsellors and passionate cheerleaders for their mentees. Mentors were expected to champion their junior’s needs, advocate for them, and celebrate their victories as well as generally keeping an eye out and being a friendly face.

How did the JEP go?

The program received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the participants, their teams, and all the people involved in content creation or delivery. Without a doubt, the program could not have been such a success without the generous contributions from staff across the whole 99d organization. It is a true testament to our staff’s commitment to uplifting one another and selflessly working to protect a safe and supportive work environment.

The Junior Engineer Program is an inspiring, guided learning experience for a small group of entry-level software engineers, during which we not only level up your technical skills in the context of the 99 tech stack but also cover non-technical aspects of being an effective engineer at 99designs.

At the end of the program, we ran a retro with the participants to hear their perspectives on what works and what could be improved. Some stand-out favorites include:

  • pairing with one another
  • getting exposure to areas they might not have had a chance to work on so early in their career
  • preparing presentations on topics relevant to their work.

Testimonials

One participant, Anhar Athoi, enjoyed the JEP’s structure and that it was accompanied by regular product work. He also said, “The sync-async mix of workshops was really helpful to learn all about how we work and what tools we use on a day-to-day basis. The most amazing thing was that I got to share my newbieness with 5 other people. There was this shared vulnerability that empowered me to present more, facilitate retros, take on bigger challenges, and share the learning with my team because we were constantly encouraged to share at the JEP sessions.”

Meanwhile, participant Fouad Chamma, described the JEP as, “not only a great way to get exposed to various technologies and how they’re used at 99designs, but also a great way to collaborate with other engineers and improve soft skills such as communication, time management, presenting and problem-solving. It was an appreciable way to start my journey at 99!”

illustration of someone studying at the computer
Illustration by Illia Kolesnyk

Program facilitator on the most recent JEP, Anwesha Chatterjee, said of its success, “I enjoyed connecting with the Juniors over the 6 month period, whether it was via the JEP activities, the group showcases, retros, or in our 1:1s. I enjoyed watching them get more comfortable in their roles, and it was so heartwarming to see such a supportive and switched on group—they really know how to help each other out via knowledge sharing and asking the right questions in an open forum. I’m very excited to see them flourish in their careers and see how they continue to add to the 99designs culture!”

Stephanie Mason, who was another participant on the latest JEP, described her time on the program fondly. “I had such an amazing time during the JEP. As a career changer, it was so helpful to have not only people coming along on the journey with me but also to have the fantastic JEP support system. I met so many fabulous people and learnt so much. It has really helped me feel connected and at home in the company and the industry even though I have only been within it for a short time.”

And lastly, Christine Schorn, a JEP participant praised the program for how much she learned. “Going through the program with other juniors helped me learn and see that I’m not alone in my struggles feeling overwhelmed at times and getting lost in a world of new tech jargon, libraries, frameworks, languages and ways of working which really helped me push through and have fun along the journey. I obviously learned so much about 99d tech stack, the way we code and collaborate here, and that my “failures” are often the biggest moments of growth.”

Living our love of learning

Learning and development remain a huge focus for 99. We recently kicked off a Learning and Development Working group for engineering, and among other things, we are looking for opportunities to re-use content created for the JEP for all our engineers. The reality is, we all come to engineering with different backgrounds and levels of experience with the many many (many many many!) different facets of developing software.

illustration of person studying during their junior engineering project
Illustration by Magicnolia

Maybe you’re aiming to move to leadership, so you might benefit from the communication and collaboration module 99’s Learning Leader created for the program? Maybe you have a background as a talented SRE, but you’d like to get a better understanding of product thinking or human-centered design. These learning opportunities, as well as mentorships, will soon be available to our whole organization.

The third iteration of the JEP is now in full swing and each time the course is run its content is chopped and changed, tweaked and sometimes dropped altogether. We want to ensure that there is always value for our engineers by incorporating feedback from participants and making sure the course reflects the ever-evolving standards and best practices of our company, as well as the wider industry. If you’re ever in doubt about investing your time in uplifting others through L&D, this experience has taught me it will always be worth your while.

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