We’re back for a very special Christmas edition of our series Team of Techies. Find out more about the people who build and run our technology at Starling, plus what they’re looking forward to this Christmas and in the new year.
Nicole joined Starling in July 2018 as an intern. Within weeks, she’d been offered a permanent role. “I was set to do a developer grad job but, as I spent more time at Starling, I knew I wanted to be here rather than at a tech giant where I’d be a tiny cog in an enormous wheel. I met with the tech company to talk about my role there the day after I had done my first release of the Starling app - the two just didn’t compare.”
She started coding at 16. “I was very much set on just doing maths at uni and going down the investment banking route,” she says. But when she went to see a sixth-form college, one of the maths teachers encouraged her to try coding. “It’s so important to introduce programming to people before they go into sixth form which is when you’re more likely to pursue subjects that you’re really interested in,” she says.
She went on to study Maths and Computer Science at the University of Bath. For her dissertation, she explored Machine Learning and the computer game Tetris. “To sum it up - you basically get a bot to play a huge number of games of Tetris and see if it can do better than a human.”
Since joining Starling, she has helped to introduce more Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning across different areas of the bank. She was among a group of Starling engineers invited by Google to their HQ in Mountain View, California, earlier this year to learn more about AI. “All the Machine Learning I used in my dissertation was written by Google through a tool called TensorFlow. It was crazy to meet the people behind it.”
For those new to coding, her advice is to try to solve a specific problem. “Building a sudoku solver can be a really good starting point. It gives you something to aim for and it’s really rewarding. There’s so much creativity in solving a programming problem.”
This Christmas, she’ll be with her family in Guildford. Her favourite tradition? “Charades - we usually have about 20 people all staying in the same house with lots of young children running around.” In the new year, she is most looking forward to the development of AI. “The possibility of what we can do is limitless.”
Sam started coding when he was just 10-years-old. “The BBC used to make computers,” he says. “The first thing I worked on was a BBC Micro - we had it in the loft for years and I got it down. It had a green and black screen and the UI was about 80 characters wide,” he says. The first programming language he learned was the appropriately named BASIC (or Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).
By 14, he was writing software for an electrical engineering company, encouraged by his dad who develops accounting software. From then on, Sam spent all his school holidays writing software, something he continued throughout his university years.
He went on to study Natural Sciences (specialising in Chemistry) at the University of Cambridge. “At 18, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a computer programmer for the rest of my life so I chose to study a more general subject,” he says. “In the end, I spent a lot of my free time writing software. I digitised the May Ball - I wrote a ticketing and accounting system. It’s still running.”
Sam, 31, joined Starling in October 2016. “We had a restricted banking licence, no Faster Payments and no Bacs. The Android app hadn’t been started and we couldn’t open an account on a mobile phone,” he says.
Over the last two years, he’s seen a lot of Starling firsts. “I was the one that pushed the button for us to go live in the app stores with everyone gathered round my computer,” he says. Since launching personal accounts in May 2017, he’s written code for business and joint accounts, as well as many new features. His latest project was Round Ups. In 2019, he’s looking forward to launching in the Republic of Ireland.
Sam is spending Christmas in Derbyshire, where he grew up. “Every Christmas, we leave the house after breakfast to go for a walk all day,” he says. “It’s usually cold or wet or snowy and Christmas lunch is normally soup in the middle of nowhere in the Peak District. I used to complain as a child but now I love it.”
Harry taught himself to code partly because he was bored. After graduating with a degree in Physics from the University of Warwick, he started a job in the oil industry. “A lot of the time, I didn’t have much to do so I started teaching myself code that would improve some of the workflows,” he says. Part of his role involved running technology for analysing oil reservoirs. It took several days to run and was used across Europe. “After I had written a few scripts, I wondered if I could do the same for this technology. Turned out I could.”
In March 2016, he started working for a software company. “Two years on, I had reached a point where I wasn’t able to learn anything new and wanted a different experience,” says Harry, 27, who joined Starling in April 2018.
“Everyday I learn something new here,” he says. “I like the fact that Starling works with new technology rather than a legacy base - you get to make something new and shape it, you’re not fixing decades of mistakes. You also have an opinion on how things are done, which is listened to. With coding, there are so many different ways of solving the same problem - there’s no real best way so there’s always a chance to learn.”
Harry is currently part of the team working to scale and stabilise Starling’s technology. “It’s all about getting us ready to service a million customers and looking further ahead to what we’ll be doing in six months or a year,” he says. In 2019, Harry is looking forward to reaching the milestone of one million Starling customers.
This Christmas Jumper Day, he has many options to choose from. “I’ve got at least half a dozen. I start wearing them earlier than anyone else,” he says. He’ll be spending Christmas at home in Kent with his family. For the last three years, he’s taken on the Christmas Day cooking single handedly. “I always try and add a new trimming every year, a bit like the way a new sport is added to the Olympics. This year will be oven-baked Brussels sprouts with bacon and a honey glaze.”