Each year 700,000 students, including 135,000 from outside the UK apply to University via the Universities and Colleges Admission Services (UCAS), an independent charity that provides services aimed to support educational progression into university, college or an apprenticeship. With the volumes of lives they touch, you'll be hard pressed to find such a successful and transformative organisation committed to inspiring and empowering people - all enabled by tech.
As a fast-growing organisation, they're looking for more Software Engineers (amongst many other tech roles) to join their team and deliver the best service to their users. So what does it all entail, and more importantly, how can you join them? We sat down with Richard Clarke, a Senior Software Engineer at UCAS, in this in-depth interview. Let's get started and see what working at UCAS is really like!
Hi Richard, tell us more about your journey into tech, and your current role at UCAS
I’ve always been interested in computers and coding, with a small introduction as a child in the 80s via the home computing revolution, the trusty Sinclair Spectrum’s BASIC programming language arriving via my parents one Christmas. Academically I veered off into linguistics and languages, and ended up studying French at university, although I never lost interest in computing. I ended up building my own websites and doing a bit of IT and web technology-related learning during my undergraduate years. This led to immersing myself fully with a conversion master’s degree in Computer Science and walking straight into the heart of the dot com boom in 1999.
My first role was at a website studio, notable clients including The Prodigy (yes, the actual Firestarters themselves), and The Register. I then spent seven years at a smaller, more generalised software house, producing and supporting web and legacy applications, notably Bass (then Coors) Brewers as technical and team lead handling the support contract for their sales staff’s software suite. 13 years at an insurance software house working on underwriting systems in various roles working my way up the ladder finally led to my current position at UCAS. As a senior software engineer and currently also carrying out the role of agile team lead, my responsibilities are ensuring we make good high-level technical decisions when designing a solution, mentoring more junior members of the team, running the Agile ceremonies, and providing a two-way channel between the team and the more senior technical groups, such as lead architecture and development management.
I have always felt the pull to do something that gives back to society, and when a senior engineering role at UCAS was presented, I didn’t hesitate to grab it.
Considering you experienced the Dot Com Boom, how has technology evolved during your career and where do you think it will go next?
Not being an expert by any stretch, I’d say the rate of change is significantly quicker than when I first emerged into the software industry, and the number of players in the software space has grown, with companies like Amazon now competing with the old guard like Microsoft. It’s much more web focused than when I started, legacy windows applications have almost become a thing of the past, as we live in a 24/7 connected world.
The two big technologies that will possibly dominate the next few years are Cloud and Quantum. From a security and encryption perspective, quantum is the next stack that will transition from niche to public consumption, and even development on local machines will shift to cloud-hosted collaborative spaces.
Most people can remember UCAS from their Results Day - do you work on any time-sensitive projects?
Having received less than stellar A-level results, once the hangover relented, I can most certainly remember UCAS from results day. I withdrew from my insurance choice and reapplied through Clearing to study French at Bangor (one of my original choices I’d originally decided to drop during the application process). Although most people only think of UCAS as ‘the Clearing people’ due to the biggest day of national focus on us in the media (at time of writing: this Thursday), we actually do a whole lot more.
There are several dates throughout the academic year that we aim to deliver software enhancements for, although it’s a slightly different way of working when compared to external client project deadlines, as all our dates are fixed by the higher education timetable or determined internally, for example, my team have recently had to implement and deliver before the end of the financial year, a significant suite of enhancements to our APIs in order to achieve the larger organisational goal of removal of a legacy piece of software from the estate.
What do you think UCAS does differently in terms of the technology that you use?
I would say we probably don’t do anything too different compared to the wider software industry, there are only ever a limited number of ways to achieve something with the available technology stack and products, however we have a culture of continual improvement and upgrade but not for the sake of it, so more leading edge than bleeding edge. We have dedicated teams who are responsible for licensing, upgrading, and support models, and technical architecture who drive the direction in terms of which technologies to adopt for any given problem space.
There’s also the collision of data and technology in a product like Clearing Plus, which marries our Data Science department with software to realise the goal of matching candidates with courses they may not initially have considered but are a really suitable fit for. If something like that had existed for me in 1994, it would certainly have helped me navigate the route through Clearing far more efficiently.
What is one thing about UCAS that other engineers (outside UCAS) might not know?
Great question, and as I only joined a year ago, something that’s still fresh in my head, is that the largest demographic of roles at the organisation are tech roles, ranging from Software Engineering Apprentices and Solution Architects to Software Development Team Leads and Technical Architects. I believe the number is about 60% engineering across the organisation, so you could say our primary business is Software.
What made you join UCAS and why have you stayed?
Something I touched on briefly earlier, wanting to work for an organisation that I felt contributed something back to society rather than being focused on profit and shareholder dividends. As a charity, and due to the nature of our work, UCAS has a significantly more ethical mission statement than a lot of businesses. Everyone here genuinely cares about people’s journey into higher education and giving them the best opportunities and support possible. I also had personal knowledge of the organisation via friends who have and continue to work at UCAS. I’ve been here a year now and can honestly say I’ve not had one bad day in that time. The people really make it a wonderful place to be, everyone is friendly, and supportive, and they’re always willing to help when asked. We also have some of the best technical minds I’ve encountered in my 24-year career to date.
What are some of the benefits of working for the UCAS tech team?
I’ve already touched on how helpful, supportive, and great to work with everyone is, and I cannot stress enough how we genuinely do have a team of extremely highly skilled technical staff, all focused on collaboration to achieve a worthwhile common goal. From a larger perspective, UCAS is a fantastic organisation that above all cares about its mission and staff. Work-life balance and staff well-being are prioritised, and myriad other benefits also contribute to this. The hybrid working practice in particular really helps with meeting everyone’s needs, in a vastly different employment landscape post-pandemic, one great example being people not having to worry how they’re going to ensure their recent household canine acquisition is looked after.
And that's it!
Well, if you didn't want to work there before we're sure you certainly do now. If you're interested in a role with UCAS, then head on over to our platform where you can be matched with them in as little as 3 weeks. It takes just 5 minutes to sign up.