Sophie Koonin, John Lewis Graduate Scheme

By Sophie Koonin, John Lewis

I’ve been using computers since I was tiny – from playing games and causing trouble on my parents’ PCs as a child, to building websites as a teenager and being unofficial tech support at my part-time job in the Students’ Union at university. But if you’d asked me ten years ago I never would have thought I’d be working in tech!

IT lessons at school were never particularly inspiring – one term we were making websites in HTML, and I was the nerdy kid who already had one! These days the IT curriculum is much more like computer science so I’m a bit more optimistic for the next generation – anyone who went to school in the 00s knows there’s only so many times you can learn how to use Excel.

At 15 I wanted to be a doctor. At 17 I was going to be a journalist. At 19 I was sure I was going to work in media. At 22 I considered being a makeup artist! It wasn’t until 24 that I really found my feet. I had studied Linguistics at university, and loved it – but although it gave me lots of transferable skills, there wasn’t a clear-cut career path mapped out in front of me. After graduating in 2013 I found myself completely lost with no idea where I could possibly go. Eventually, I decided to enrol on an English teaching certification (CELTA), with the intention of teaching abroad until I found a more permanent career.

In the period between sending off the application and the start of the course, I stumbled upon a course called CS50X, an Introduction to Computer Science university course taught at Harvard. Through the magic of the Internet the course is available free to the public, so I watched the lectures and did the assignments. The course gave me my first taste of programming – in C – and I completely fell in love!

I had always assumed that Computer Science and a career in IT would never be possible for me, as I didn’t do Maths at A-Level. But my new found enthusiasm for programming led me to do a bit more research, and I found an MSc Computer Science course at Birkbeck College (University of London) which was designed for people without a background in the subject.

Soon enough I started on the MSc, and was immediately struck by the fact that I was the only woman on the course. Even though I knew technology has long been a male-dominated industry, I thought by 2015 it would be a bit better! Despite that, I had a good time and learnt to program in Java, work with SQL databases and studied all sorts about how computers work (turns out it’s not arcane magic after all). I still love the joy that comes from coding, when you run something and it does what you want it to do. It makes all the time spent fixing bugs worth it!

Shortly after the start of my course I was doing some research on graduate schemes and came across the John Lewis Partnership Technology scheme. With John Lewis being a company whose reputation precedes it, I knew I’d love it. I think I spent three hours in the computer lab that evening filling out the application.

The application was sent off, and in time was followed by a video interview, then finally an assessment centre. It was exhausting – we had to do an Apprentice-like team challenge, a presentation and even a written report! However, the next day I got the phone call which changed my life. I’d got the job!

So here I am, ten months later, working for John Lewis. I’ve got involved in initiatives teaching girls about IT and promoting computer science to women, as it’s a cause that’s really important to me. I’m about to go into my first assignment as a Business Analyst and I’m hoping I’ll get to do a stint in Development as well. We’ve been given an introduction to how IT works at John Lewis, the numerous systems involved in running a retail business and how they work together. It’s clear that IT has never been more important, so it’s fantastic to be part of it. The world of retail technology is really exciting – there’s so much innovation going on and so many challenges to face. I think I’m going to be here a while!

Find out how to start your tech journey