ALEX BIRCH - Software Development Engineer in Test

alexbirchHi, my name is Alex Birch. I’m a Software Development Engineer in Test interning at Microsoft Mediaroom. This is a division which concerns itself with television-related ventures, and presently our software powers the TV experience on Xbox (in countries which subscribe to this), and also on set-top boxes (such as BT Vision in the UK). This placement is particularly interesting, as it is in a product group — that is, the work involves actually building a Microsoft product.

My hobbies/interests include piano, singing, anime, J-pop, and also playing with hardware interfaces (hooking up controllers to my computer, learning how to use new input devices). Because of this, I was overjoyed to be asked to set up for one of our engineers a fruit piano to demo at the Science Fair (this is pictured in the display picture). Currently I use at work a specialized DataHand keyboard (look it up!) and at home I use speech-to-text and loads of keyboard shortcuts to control my computer. These days I am passionate about ergonomics (our generation will type for hours and hours a day; we’re practically typing athletes, so we need to use hardware that’s made for our bodies – this is one reason I’m happy to work at Microsoft; it’s a leading manufacturer in ergonomic mice & keyboards) and automation (identifying tasks that require a lot of unnecessary, repeated manual effort, and writing programs to do these for me), which has become part of my job in a huge way.

Every intern joining the team this year came from a Computer Science background (myself with a dual honours in Japanese; I studied at Bath). This is the perfect degree to take if you want to be prepared for anything in the software industry; it’s a discipline in which, instead of learning how to make software, you learn how to learn to make software. You cover language families, design patterns, data structures, and all sorts of meta, abstract theory that can be applied to whichever specific implementation is thrown at you. Case in point: I came from a BSD/UNIX background (that is, I’d only ever written or compiled software before on Macs or Linux), and although that earns me the occasional back-end of a joke (!!), I was able to pick up the required Microsoft technologies very easily. I was introduced to the great development tools we have on Windows; Visual Studio is extremely powerful, and it has some really intelligent integration with Team Foundation Server; all the data we produce are stored and queryable by the whole team, which lets us get a lot more use out of the work we do. Powershell in particular has impressed me with its flexibility, and many of the labour-intensive parts of my job have proved to be automatable with this application.

The engineering approach here is more professional than I’d ever anticipated; sure, we joke around a lot, and you’ll never stop our team from eating cake, but at the end of the day our product is solid. Once you’ve written a test, it becomes your baby – you need to watch it in daily test runs, to see that the functionality it tests is still working (or to see if the test itself is still working)! Interns don’t get mollycoddled at Microsoft. We get real responsibilities, and check-in our code alongside all the full-time engineers.

There is a wide, even dizzying scope for role expansion. Even the first tasks that I worked on have been built upon constantly, and have led into adventures in build automation, test automation, reporting paradigms, and even owning sessions in UK-first internal events. I’ve even been able to meet with charities in my interest areas as a result of the work I’ve done here, and had conversations with the policy-setters in America! In addition to career opportunities, we’ve also been flown to Ireland for a Christmas off-site with the Dublin team — you can see the world with Microsoft!

Microsoft is also a great equal-opportunities employer; our engineering team is comprised of many nationalities, and disabilities are supported well. The Health & Safety team here are world-class, and it’s thanks to them that I am able to do my job. In addition, there are award-winning physiotherapists on-campus, a gym with personal trainers, and a great on-site medical centre that runs talks on how to work without damaging your body. There’s a massage chair, also, whose company I value greatly!

All said, there is no place in the world I’d rather be. This placement is great for my degree, my career, and my personal growth.

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