Benjamin Roberts

Bachelor of Software Engineering

At 19, I’d entered my second year having worked with real industry clients, helped in establishing a new business, conducting my own research and working on real problems

I think the reason I chose to become a software engineer was because I wanted to build, create and improve things that people actually used. That’s not to say that I don’t find hacking out code good fun in its own right, as numerous 2am code commits on my GitHub show, but really it’s always been about getting out there and writing something practical that others will find useful. Little did I know, only 12 months into my degree, I would end up spending my summer working two exciting jobs doing just that; starting a company improving government services for the local community, and researching improvements in a major Facebook component that might lead to benefits for millions of users.

Just as second semester exams were wrapping up, two later year students and myself spent an evening discussing a local government competition that was about to start. The idea of the competition was to get local start-ups and businesses to pitch ideas solving particular local government problems, in this instance: improving the complicated process of booking public events. We quickly realised that it was a small jump from solving this problem to writing an application that could improve all different kinds of boring, bureaucratic forms and applications. The three of us fleshed out our ideas, put together a presentation and registered to pitch to the judges.

Around the same time I received an email from one of my lecturers. He asked if some other first year students and I, would be interested in working on an eight week research project during the summer break. The project was to dig into Facebook’s new PHP engine, HipHopVM, profile the cost of its memory management subsystems and investigate how we might improve its efficiency. This seems like a bit of a far-cry from being practical and user facing, but memory-management can be a costly business if implemented poorly, and any performance improvements would filter up to the responsiveness and overall experience of millions of users. I had no idea if I’d be able to actually contribute to this effort, HHVM is millions of lines of code in a language I was not familiar with, but this kind of opportunity to improve my skills and work alongside industry was too good to miss.

Back to the competition, and our pitch to the judging panel went surprisingly well. So well in fact that, despite being pitched to by established local businesses, they awarded the chance to compete for $12,000 implementing a prototype government system to two 4th year students and a 1st year! We established our own company, DigiACTive Pty Ltd, so that we could enter into contract with the local department we would work for, begin scoping out project requirements and milestones, meeting with stakeholders in government and the community and designing our prototype; for someone who’d only left college 12 months ago this was a bit of a crash-course in industry experience.

The next two months went something like this. I would spend my day with the other summer research students hacking through HHVM’s memory management code, slowly working out exactly how it worked and how we might improve it. We’d meet with Facebook’s development team weekly over Skype to discuss out progress and what we’d found; they were as interested as we were in the results. I’d walk into the city to represent out team at stakeholder meetings or project board meetings, as for a couple of weeks my colleagues decided to strand me in Canberra alone while they married or celebrated Christmas with their families. And finally, in the evenings and weekends, I’d hack on our prototype and chat about new features with the team.

Looking back today as I approach the completion of my degree, the fact these opportunities around the university were available to me so early in my studies is kind of astonishing. At 19, I’d entered my second year of studies having worked with real industry clients, helped in establishing a new business, conducting my own research and working on real problems as part of a team, and all these opportunities helped me not only in my studies and academic projects, but in securing further internships, my current jobs in industry and the university and I’d like to hope my ideal graduate position. Our research ended up contributing to the work of two future honours thesis’ and our government project netted us a win over the local business we competed against (with actual employees, experience and all) and an oversized novelty cheque, and I attribute this to studying in the sort of environment that ANU provides where these opportunities are open to you, if you’re ready to take them.

 

 

Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing