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Ben Copley

University of York

MPhys (Hons) Theoretical Physics
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Big Picture

Ben completed a ‘high performance computing’ industrial placement based in Exeter with the Met Office. “I’ve always had an acute interest in weather and climate. It was one of those ‘meant to be’ sort of moments!”

“My project was helping to develop a new profiling tool, so, for example, code developers insert this tool into their code and it tells them how long different sections are taking, then they can go in and fix the areas that are flagged as being slow.” 

“Right across the world, every single day, people make decisions based on the weather. We provide weather and climate forecasts to help with those decisions so people can be safe, well and prosperous… We collect and make sense of massive amounts of data every day, using cutting-edge technology for the benefit of mankind – and our planet.” The Met Office

“The Met Office are in the process of improving their main weather and climate model and the infrastructure around it and I imagine they’ll be using the profiling tool I’ve been working on in loads of different models and systems.” Because they perform so many calculations and handle so much data any small improvement to their code can make a massive difference “especially on supercomputers, there’s monetary costs and environmental impact to consider as well.”

Day to Day

The Met Office is quite flexible and offers hybrid working, “I tended to work from home on Wednesdays and most Mondays, and then the other 3 days of the week I’d go into the office. The nice thing about being in the office is I was right next to someone if I was stuck.”

“On my first day I was like dead smartly dressed. There are a lot of people who are the same, and then there’s other people in, like, t-shirts and shorts. It’s just a really laid back sort of atmosphere but also very professional. It’s a really friendly environment, everyone’s really easy to talk to and everyone was also just getting on with the work, and that sort of motivates you to do the same.”

Throughout the year the specific task that Ben was focused on changed quite a lot. “So like one month, I could be working on writing tests, another month I could be working on documentation, or I could be doing some more core sort of code development.”

“We’d have meetings scattered throughout the week, where each member of the team said what they’d been doing and stuff like that. That was a good chance to keep the other people up to date and maybe ask for help as well. Sometimes we’d have design discussions if there’s a core piece of development coming up, we’d discuss how we wanted it to look and how to design it, how to code it.”

“It’s quite a good mix of working in the team, we all decided what to do together, but then I would usually go away and work independently on the specific task I was given.”

The Physics Connection

“I guess mine’s probably a little bit different from a lot of placements in that there wasn’t a lot of what people typically associate as physics, but high performance computing is very ‘sciencey’ and is taught in physics as well. I learnt the foundations of parallel programming, which helps scientists do as much science as possible in as little time as possible.”

“It was mainly my computational labs that helped me out. During the placement I was mainly doing C++, which is an entirely different language that I had to learn from scratch but having the experience of Fortran in labs meant I had transferable skills. Picking up a new language is way way easier when you’re already comfortable with programming.”

Skills Learnt

During the placement Ben learnt a lot of software engineering skills “I learned about unit testing, system testing and there’s a thing called continuous integration where these unit and system tests are sort of embedded into an automatic system to make sure that changes you’re making to the codebase don’t break anything. I also learnt about build-systems, specifically CMake.”

Ben also got the opportunity to develop different types of communication skills. “There needs to be comments within the code to explain what it is doing, so like if my colleague, after I’ve left, goes and looks at some code I wrote they should be able to tell what’s going on there. And also there’s some more sort of formal documentation which is in the form of a webpage.  With it being a profiling tool other people would eventually use it, you can’t assume any prior knowledge when you are writing instructions.”

“Every day I was problem solving. And team working, you have to be a good active listener to try and follow the technical conversations and also not being afraid to ask for help. I think I got better at that as the year went on.”  

Ben’s Impact

“There was like a bare bones sort of project when I started and I feel like I really helped to flesh it out a bit. So the documentation thing, that was brand new. A lot of the testing stuff I added is brand new. And now those can be used by loads of other people down the line.  And I did some like more core development with the I/O system, and again I wrote that in a way that’s easy for people to add on to it in the future.  So we went from the beginnings of a project and we got very close to an initial release within the Met Office.”

The Application Process

Ben had to submit a CV and cover letter initially, “and then I got the news that I had gotten through to like an interview. At that point they asked me to prepare a presentation covering what attracted me to this placement, and what I hoped to gain from it. And then there was some technical questions related to coding and Fortran, I think. And then there was some professional skills sort of questions, and more sort of standard interview questions after that.”

What about Nerves?

Going into industry for the first time can be daunting “I think for me it’s a fear of not being good enough, I guess, like there’s a little bit of imposter syndrome kicking in like before I even started. What if they’ve made a mistake choosing me, that sort of thing. But I tried my best, I guess, because they can’t really ask much more! And I think I very quickly realised actually that it was fun and I was worrying for no reason.”

A Year in Industry is also a great way to try out a career before you’ve even left uni. “ I knew this is very high up on my list of potential careers. So like, if I don’t enjoy this, then I might have to really rethink my career goals. But I mean that worry was overcome fairly quickly, because I realised I did enjoy it!”

The Final Word

“I think if anything my work ethic might have improved after doing a year in industry. Also like it gives some context behind the studying that I’m doing, so I know what the end goal is, so there’s a bit of motivation there as well.” 

Would Ben recommend doing a year in industry? “Yes definitely, and I have recommended it to other people already! I would have paid to do this year and I got paid to do it! Honestly the skills and the confidence, and they’ve even offered me help after I finish in terms of jobs within the civil service. So it’s opened more doors already.” 

“Some people have concerns about getting rusty at Physics after doing a year out, which is a valid concern, but I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to miss out on such a potentially great opportunity. I did have to do a bit of revision before my final year started, but not copious amounts.”

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