Liverpool City Region based Shop Direct are the UK’s largest integrated pureplay digital retailer and financial services provider.
The ambition is to be a world class digital retailer. In 2015 they fully embraced digital, calling time on printed catalogues and becoming the successful, pureplay digital retailer they are today. The transformation has been a dramatic one!
In 2017/18 Shop Direct reported annual sales of £1.96 billion. Their websites receive over 1.4 million visits every day and 74% of online sales now come from mobile devices. Through their digital stores and five star rated apps, they sell over 1,800 famous brands and deliver 49 million products to four million customers every year!
City Region based InnovateHer, who are on a mission to increase diversity within the digital sector, spoke to degree apprentices Charlotte and Jack who are based in the Speke headquarters about their apprenticeship experience so far…
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Charlotte: My dad once told me that I need to live life the way I want to live it and stop trying to please other people. It doesn’t mean I’m not a helpful person but it really encouraged me to live my own life.
Jack: Be ambitious but stay grounded. There are lots of opportunities out there for those who are willing to take them, so you do need to take every opportunity you get. Never say no to an opportunity, but always remember where you came from. That will send you a long way if you stay true to your roots.
Just tell us a bit about you and your role as a degree apprentice at Shop Direct?
Charlotte: I’m doing the Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship. I’m currently working in a team called the Foundation Squad. We look into new technologies that haven’t been used in the business before, which is really important and exciting for the business. Then once a week, we do a very intense day at university, where we have lectures and units to cover. There are specific pathways for the different types of degrees but we have the generic units that we all have to do as well, these focus more on the business side of the degree.
Jack: I’m a Software Engineering Degree Apprentice too. I’m on a similar team to Charlotte. I was previously working in the Transaction team where I was primarily building software for the checkout on our websites, whilst focusing on improving the customer experience. In an organisation of this scale, you’re impacting up to four million customers with the software you’re writing which is really exciting to be a part of. The team that I’m on now focuses on building the capability for the future to allow us to deliver that value at a quicker pace.
Why did you choose the degree apprenticeship route and why do you think it is the best route for you?
Charlotte: I’ve already done two apprenticeships before this. I did my first in laboratory technician work when I completed it I realised that it wasn’t the path for me. I did my second in development and it still didn’t feel right. I always wanted to do a degree and I wanted to do something I enjoyed too. So it made sense to apply for the degree apprenticeship in software engineering at Shop Direct.
Jack: I went to a traditional university first and stayed there for a year. But the course just wasn’t for me, I found the teaching too impersonal. It was a big departure from what I was used to at sixth form. It was a big jump. I found that the content of the course was outdated. I’ve been building websites freelance since the age of 15. I always knew it was something I wanted to do. I came from a family who had a very traditional view of the education system and believed university was the way to go. So when I saw the advert for the degree apprenticeship at Shop Direct it was a big leap of faith for me, but I have absolutely got no regrets about making that jump. Now I’m working and getting the degree I was originally meant to be getting. It’s all paid for, we’re not paying for the degree and we’re getting paid a really good salary for our work. It’s a win-win. I would absolutely recommend it to those people who are undecided, go and speak to people and interview at these places. I really got a feel for Shop Direct as soon as I walked through the door.
What’s your favourite thing about being an apprentice at Shop Direct?
Charlotte: It feels like there’s no limit. In development specifically, a fail-fast attitude is a good attitude to have, being able to make mistakes, move on and learn from them is important. As an apprentice at Shop Direct, we feel safe to take risks and question things as well. But at the same time, we’re being treated as normal full-time employees.
Jack: You are treated as one of the team. In the past, you would hear horror stories about apprentices not being given the right role and being taken advantage of in certain companies. But here, you’re embedded into the team from day one. You are given a huge amount of trust, in the old team I was making live changes on the website. When you’re on the apprenticeship at Shop Direct you get so many opportunities that even people who have been here for many years might not have received themselves. We’ve had meetings with the CEO and we interact with Directors in our areas. I was given the opportunity to go into an executive meeting with the Directors and present some information about apprenticeships and my story.
Do you have any role models in the tech industry?
Charlotte: Amanda Foliett, is a role model of mine. If you’ve not met her you need to meet her. She does a lot in the local tech industry. She has such a positive attitude and she does so much, I don’t know how she does it. But there are lots of people like Amanda who inspire me in my everyday life. The team at InnovateHer and the work that they do inspires me because it’s about encouraging people to pursue their passions. The Liverpool tech sector is just full to the brim with role models.
Jack: Jony Ive the Chief Designer at Apple is an inspiration of mine. The products he designs are used by millions, if not billions of people across the globe. Sometimes people in tech forget about the customer. His focus on building things for real people to change how they interact with, in Apple’s case the devices and the software, really inspires me. The same customer focus is evident at Shop Direct. Whilst we’ve been at Shop Direct we’ve moved into more cross-functional teams. When I was in the checkout team, for example, we had people from design and user research work with us too. All these different disciplines of solving a customer problem coming together and focusing on the issue and customer are really effective.
Have you always wanted to work in tech?
Charlotte: I’ve always been interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school. When I was younger I used to play around with CSS and models for games. I really enjoyed it. During IT lessons at school, we were never really exposed to programming and it wasn’t considered cool back then. I always found myself putting myself down about my interest in these subjects. If I had more self-confidence in myself I may have been more accepting of this earlier on. If you love something you shouldn’t listen to what other people say. I’ve always been drawn to software engineering and computers.
Jack: I’ve known since my dad bought the first family computer when I was about four or five. I was part of the first generation to grow up with computers in the home, moving onto smartphones and tablets now. Throughout my life technology has had a huge impact on society. In terms of software development specifically, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve found my niche in that area and understood that’s what I wanted to do. When I was 11, I made my first website in Microsoft Front-Page. It was my primary school headteacher who used to maintain the school website, he noticed that I was asking questions about it so he bought me my domain name and gave me the software to play around with. So he’s the one who got me into building websites, it then became a blog and people started telling me to go freelance. I built up a client-base in Liverpool and built websites for small businesses.
What are your top tips for someone who wants to go into tech but they’re not sure what route they want to take?
Charlotte: If you are passionate or interested in something don’t let anyone tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. If you’re not sure which route is right for you, apply for both. You can always say no to university or an apprenticeship as long as you apply for both. Never rule either out. You need to do what feels right to you. At the end of the day, you’ve only got one life and it’s so important that you do something that makes you happy. Seek out things like InnovateHer, related to your interests. There are so many opportunities out there in tech.
Jack: Never rule out an option, because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that university is the only option. University is not the right style of learning for everybody and there are so many opportunities out there. Especially in technical roles too, because organisations like Shop Direct have the opportunity to mould you into the type of person who they think is going to be a great fit for them and the industry. If you have an idea of what you want to do make sure you look at all the options available, you may find that an apprenticeship is better suited.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about apprenticeships/being an apprentice?
Charlotte: There’s a big misconception that all apprenticeships are poorly paid. There are some lower level apprenticeships that aren’t paid well but at companies like Shop Direct we are paid well for what we do. Another misconception is that apprentices are used to sweep the floor. People are scared to do an apprenticeship because they don’t know what it’s going to be or whether they’re going to get thrown into it. But it’s so safe and you’re so well looked after.
Jack: There can be negative press out there of apprenticeships taking advantage of apprentices and that’s really not the case, especially in an organisation like this and many others. You only need to look at the list of employers now signing up to these schemes. There’s hundred of big scale companies doing degree apprenticeships now. That’s given apprenticeships more credibility in recent years. I do feel like in the next year or two when we start to see the first wave of degree apprentices graduating then hopefully we will see more positive outlooks about what’s going on in the industry.
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