STEM Ambassadors In the Field

(Or a fun way to introduce local kids to programming)

A previous employer encouraged me to join the STEM Ambassador program at the end of 2017 (https://www.stem.org.uk/stem-ambassadors) and I willingly joined, wanting to give something back to society. The focus of the program is to send ambassadors into schools and local communities, to act as role models and to demonstrate to young people the benefits and rewards that studying STEM subjects can bring. I approached my local primary school (at the time my daughter was a pupil there) about the possibility of setting up an after-school computing club, and they jumped at the chance.

I started the club unsure what to expect, but with a lot of hope and some amount of trepidation. I took on groups of 10 or so KS2 pupils, teaching them the basics of loops, events, variables and functions, largely using Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/) and an eclectic mix of programmable robots that I’d acquired over the years (I have a few from Wonder Workshop https://www.makewonder.com/robots/ and also a pair of Lego Boost robots https://www.lego.com/en-gb/product/boost-creative-toolbox-17101). Running the club was extremely rewarding. Some of the kids were brilliant, and will no doubt have a great future ahead of them. Others mainly wanted only to drive the robots around – but I figured that as long as they were having fun then their and my time was well spent.

Then, in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Kids were sent home for months, and all clubs were cancelled, with no knowing when they might start up again. The pandemic has obviously been tough for everyone, but one of the hidden effects has been the impact on the education of our children. It will take years, probably, to know exactly what effect two years of lockdown has had on the attainment opportunities and mental heath of young people. Many of them missed out not only on in-person schooling, but also on all the additional extra-curricular opportunities like school visits, and also things like the STEM Ambassador program.

So now, two years and a change of jobs later, I thought it was about time I got myself back in the field, and start up my STEM activities again.

My first opportunity has been to run a “retro games arcade” stall at the school’s summer fair. This involved commandeering a tiny wooden cabin plonked the wrong-way-round on the edge of the school field, next to one of the temporary classrooms. To turn this into a games arcade I needed to black out the windows to make it dark enough inside to see a computer screen, then to run an extension lead out of the window of the classroom, and to quietly steal a few chairs and tables upon which to set up my “arcade consoles”. Blacking out the windows was achieved by covering them up with garden underlay and sticking drawing pins around the edges (much to the detriment of my poor thumbs).

The field and cabin in which I did my STEM Ambassadoring, with the (mostly willing) assistance of my daughter

For the arcade machines, I wrote two games in Scratch based around the classic arcade games “Defender” and “Frogger”. I set up two laptops to run these games, covering over all but the arrow keys, trackpad and spacebar with shiny card. My aim was to write games that the students could replicate themselves, if they wished. I wanted games simple enough that a small child could play, but would also be fun for an older child or a parent to play as well. The gameplay should ideally last for 1-4 minutes, and the player should be able to accumulate a high score. As the afternoon progressed I kept track of the highest two scores in each game so that the players with these scores could win a prize at the end of the afternoon.

If you’re interested in seeing these games then you can have a look here:

Defender: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/711066827/

Frogger: https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/317968991/

Of course the afternoon in question was one of the hottest days of the year. I spent 3 hours diving into and out of the tiny sweltering cabin, caught between managing the queue, taking the 50p fee, handing out Pokémon cards to the players (I got a stack of them and gave one out to every player), explaining to the kids how to play the games, and keeping track of the ever-changing high scores. I did have willing help from my daughter (who especially liked taking the money) and my husband (who seemed adept at managing the queue). At some point I managed to eat a burger and grab a drink, but it was a pretty frenetic afternoon.

67 Bricks agreed to give me £50 to pay for prizes. I bought Sonic and Mario soft toys, a Lego Minecraft set, and a large pack of assorted Pokémon cards. I also washed up a Kirby soft toy that I found in my daughter’s “charity shop” pile and added that to the prize pool. Throughout the afternoon I kept track of the top two highest scores in both games, using the incredibly high-tech method of a white-board and dry-wipe marker. The hardest part was figuring out how to spell everyone’s name, and in moving the first-place score to second place every time a high-score was beaten. Oh, and making sure the overly-enthusiastic children didn’t wander off with poor Mario before the official prize giving ceremony.

As the afternoon progressed I encountered some kids who aced the games, and actively competed with each other to keep their place at the top of the leader board. Other children struggled to control the game and I had to give them a helping hand (quite literally – I said I would control the cursor keys while they controlled the space bar). And then there was the dad who was determined to win a prize for his child, and kept returning to make sure of his position on the leader board. But eventually the last burger was eaten, the arcade was closed, and the prizes announced. Four children went home happily clutching their prizes and the rest their collection of assorted Pokémon cards.

For the next step in my STEM Ambassador journey, I have agreed to start up the computing club again in September. I’m hoping to teach the children the skills to write their own arcade games in Scratch. Watch this space.

My Journey to Getting AWS Certified

When I joined 67 Bricks in January 2021 I knew close to zero about AWS, and not-a-lot about cloud services in general. I had dabbled a bit in Azure in my previous job, and I understood the fundamentals of what “the cloud” was, but I was very aware that I’d have to get up to speed if I wanted to be useful at developing applications on AWS. I joined our team on the EIU project, and on day one I was exposed to discussions about S3 buckets, lambda functions, glue jobs and SNS topics – all things I knew nothing about.

I asked one of the EIU enablement team to give me an overview, and I was introduced to the AWS console and shown some of the key services. Over the next few months I gradually started to get to grips with the basics – I learned how to upload to and download objects from S3, write to and query a DynamoDB table, and search for things in CloudWatch. I was very proud when I wrote my first lambda function, but I still felt like I was winging it.

I was encouraged by our development manager to look into obtaining some AWS certifications. The obvious starting point was Cloud Practitioner (https://aws.amazon.com/certification/certified-cloud-practitioner/?ch=sec&sec=rmg&d=1) which covers the basics of what “the cloud” is, and the applications of core AWS services. The best course I found to prepare for this was one from Amazon themselves https://explore.skillbuilder.aws/learn/course/134/aws-cloud-practitioner-essentials (you might need to sign in to the skill builder to access it, but the course is free). It uses the analogy of a coffee shop to explain the concepts of instances, scaling, load balancing, messaging and queueing, storage, networking etc, in an easy to understand manner. After a lot of procrastinating, and wondering if I was ready, I eventually took the exam in October 2021 and passed it with a respectable score.

The cloud practitioner course covers AWS services in an abstract manner – you learn about the core services without ever having to use them. In fact you could probably pass the course without ever logging into the AWS console. To demonstrate real experience and knowledge of AWS services, I decided that the certification to go for next was Developer Associate (https://aws.amazon.com/certification/certified-developer-associate/?ch=sec&sec=rmg&d=1). AWS doesn’t offer their own course to study for this certification – instead they provide links to numerous white papers, which make for fairly dry reading, and it is not clear exactly what knowledge is and is not required.

After doing a bit of research I decided that this course on Udemy https://www.udemy.com/course/aws-certified-developer-associate-dva-c01/ by Stephane Maarek was the most highly rated. With 32 hours of videos to absorb, this was not a trivial undertaking, but after slotting in a few hours of study either before work or in the evenings, I made it through with two books stuffed with notes.

The Developer Associate certification requires you to understand at a fairly deep level how the AWS compute, data, storage, messaging, monitoring and deployment services work, and also to understand architectural best practices, the AWS shared responsibility model, and application lifecycle management. A typical exam question for Developer Associate might ask you to calculate how many read-capacity-units or write-capacity-units a DynamoDB table consumes under various circumstances. Another one might test your understanding of how many EC2 instances a particular auto-scaling policy would add or remove. Another question might require you to understand what lambda concurrency limits are for.

After working my way through a number of practice exams (the best ones seem to be by Jon Bonzo, again on Udemy https://www.udemy.com/course/aws-certified-developer-associate-practice-exams-amazon/) I took the plunge and sat the exam in January 2022, again passing with a respectable score.

But what next? The knowledge I’d gained up until this point had given me real practical skills, and a deeper knowledge of how the various AWS services connect together. For example, it was no longer a mystery how lambda functions could be triggered by SNS topics or messages from an SQS queue, and could then call another API perhaps hosted on EC2 to initiate some other process. And I could understand how to utilise infrastructure-as-code (e.g. CloudFormation or CDK) along with services like CodePipeline and CodeDeploy, to automate build processes. But I wanted a greater understanding of the “bigger picture”, and so next I chose to go for the Solutions Architect Associate certification (https://aws.amazon.com/certification/certified-solutions-architect-associate/?ch=sec&sec=rmg&d=1).

The Solutions Architect Associate exam typically presents a scenario and then asks you to choose which option provides the best solution. One option is usually wrong, but there could be more than one solution which would work – but you have to scrutinise the question to see which one best meets the requirements of the scenario. Are they asking for the cheapest solution? Or the fastest? Or the most fault tolerant? (Look for clues like “must be highly available” – and so the correct answer will probably involve multi-AZ deployments). Is any down-time acceptable? Is data required in real time, or is a delay acceptable? (E.g. do we choose Kinesis or SQS?) If a customer is migrating to the cloud are there time constraints, and how much data is there to migrate? (E.g. it can take a month or two to set up a Direct Connect connection, but you could have a Snowmobile in a week. A VPN might work but there are limits to the data transfer rates).

Again, I chose Stephane Maarek’s course on Udemy (https://www.udemy.com/course/aws-certified-solutions-architect-associate-saa-c02/) – his study materials are clear and he also notes which sections are duplicates of those in the developer associate course. I again used Jon Bonzo’s practice exams (https://www.udemy.com/course/aws-certified-solutions-architect-associate-amazon-practice-exams-saa-c03/). There is a fairly hard-core section on VPC, which is something I struggled with. Stephane presents a spaghetti-like diagram showing the relationship between VPCs, public and private subnets, internet gateways, NAT gateways, security groups, route tables, on-premise set-ups, VPC endpoints, transit gateways, direct connections, VPC peering connections etc – and says “by the end of this section you’ll know what all of this means”. He was right, but as someone with limited networking experience and knowledge, I found it pretty tough.

I sat the exam in April 2022, a day before I figured out that the cough and fatigue I’d developed was actually Covid. I passed the exam respectably again, and then collapsed into bed for a few days to recover.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning how the exam process works. If you like, you can book an exam in an approved test centre. However, I chose to go with the “online proctored” exams hosted by Pearson Vue. You book an exam slot – generally plenty are available at all times of the day and night, and you can usually find a slot within the next day or two that suits. For the exam you need to be sitting at a clear table with nothing within arms reach. Not even a tissue or a glass of water. You need to run some Pearson software on your laptop that checks no other processes are running (so turn off slack, email, shut down your docker containers etc etc), and then launches their exam platform. You will be asked to present photo ID, and then show the proctor your testing environment. They will want to see your chair and table from all angles, and will want to see your arms to make sure you’re not wearing a watch or have anything hiding up your sleeves. You need your mobile phone in the room, but out of reach, in case they need to call you. And you also need to make sure you are undisturbed in the room for the duration of the exam (which is typically 2-3 hours).

This last point was challenging for me. My home-office is not suitable – being far to crammed with potential cheat material, and I also share it with my husband. The only suitable place is my dining table, in the very open-plan ground floor of my house. Finding a time when I can have the ground-floor to myself for 2-3 hours means scheduling the exam for around 7AM in the morning on a day when the kids are not at school. I ended up putting “do not disturb” signs on the door and issuing dire warnings to everyone that they mustn’t come downstairs until I’d given them the all-clear. Anyone wandering sleepily through the room on a quest for coffee could result in the exam proctor dropping my connection and disqualifying me from the exam. Fortunately, all was well and all the exams I’ve sat so far were carried out without incident.

After obtaining the Solutions Architect Associate certification I thought about taking a break. But then I took a look at the requirements for SysOps Administrator Associate (https://aws.amazon.com/certification/certified-sysops-admin-associate/?ch=sec&sec=rmg&d=1) and realised that I’d already covered about two-thirds of the required material. Now SysOps is not something I have a love for. I have a deep respect for people who understand deployments and pipelines and infrastructure. The Enablement team at the EIU, who I work closely with, are miracle workers who regularly perform magic to get things up and running. The idea that I could learn some of that wizardry seemed far-fetched. But I thought I might as well give it a go.

The SysOps certificate focusses a lot on configuration and monitoring. You learn a lot about load balancers, autoscaling policies, CloudFormation and CloudWatch. And yes, all that indepth knowledge about VPCs and hybrid-cloud set-ups is applicable here too. A typical exam question will present a scenario where something has gone wrong, and you have to pick the best option to fix it. For example, someone can’t SSH into an EC2 instance because something is wrong with the security group. Or someone in a child account of a parent organisation can’t access something in another child account. Yet again I went to Stephane Maarek’s course, which was again excellent (https://www.udemy.com/course/ultimate-aws-certified-sysops-administrator-associate/). And Jon Bonzo again provided the practice exams (https://www.udemy.com/course/aws-certified-sysops-administrator-associate-practice-exams-soa-c01/).

I sat the SysOps exam in June 2022. One thing that caused a little trepidation was that this exam includes “exam labs” – these are practical exercises carried out in the AWS console. It was hard to prepare for these because I could not find any practice labs on-line, and so I was going in cold. However, it turned out that the labs were well defined with clear steps on what was required. Even the ones where I had never really looked at the service before, I was able to find it in the console and figure out what I needed to do. I was asked to:

  • Create a backup plan for an EFS system with two types of retention policy
  • Update a CloudFormation stack to fiddle with some EC2 settings, roles, route tables etc
  • Create an S3 static website and configure some Route 53 failover policies

The second of these caused me the most difficulty – I hadn’t anticipated actually having to write a CloudFormation template – they provided one which I needed to edit and it took me a while to figure out how to actually do this. Turns out that you need to save a new version of the template locally and then re-upload it.

I passed the SysOps exam with a more modest mark than for the other certifications, and I definitely breathed a sigh of relief. I am now definitely taking a breather – perhaps in a few months I might take a look at some of the specialist certifications (maybe Data Analytics?) but for the moment I’m going to get back to some of my other neglected hobbies (I like to draw, and play the piano, and one day I’ll maybe finish my epic fantasy trilogy).

The key take-aways from my experience are:

  • The associate level certifications require you to acquire knowledge that is directly applicable in the day-to-day life of a developer or systems administrator.
  • I was initially concerned that the courses would be part of a propaganda machine from AWS, encouraging us to spend ever larger amounts on AWS services. I found this to not be the case at all. Quite a large part of the material teaches us how to save costs, and how to incorporate our existing on-premises infrastructure with AWS, rather than replacing it entirely.
  • Sitting an exam in your own home is definitely preferable than travelling to a test centre – you get far more flexibility over when you can take the exam. However, not everyone will have a suitable place at home to take the exam, particularly if you share your home with other people, or you do not have a suitable table to work at.
  • Studying for these certifications will require a significant time commitment. The online courses run for 20-30 hours or more, assuming you never pause the videos to take notes, or repeat a section. And that is before you take time to revise or do practice exams.
  • Definitely the most valuable tool for preparing for the exams is by completing as many practice exams as you can find. The best ones include detailed explanations about why a particular answer is correct and the others are wrong.
  • Also note that these certifications have an expiry date – typically 3 years – and also the courses are refreshed periodically. For example, the Solutions Architect Associate is being refreshed at the end of August and Solutions Architect Professional is being refreshed in November.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Working Parent

I’ve worked in the science and technology sector for my whole career, starting off by completing a PhD in Physics, then migrating into computer modelling, and then into software development.  I had my son during the final year of my PhD (oh how naïve I was about how easy that would be) and then immediately hit the dilemma of “how are we going to pay for this?”

Students are not entitled to any kind of maternity leave or pay – when I made enquiries about this I was advised to quit my studies, which would have made me eligible for various benefits.  My department was much more accommodating and gave me four months paid maternity leave – something they were under no obligation to do.  I also managed to claim Maternity Allowance  (https://www.gov.uk/maternity-allowance/how-to-claim), because I had done some part-time maths lecturing which made me eligible.

When I made my first forays into real paid employment, I had to tackle the thorny issue of childcare.  Childminder or nursery?  Enlisting the grand-parents wasn’t an option, and neither was either myself or my husband becoming a stay-at-home parent.  We initially picked a nursery at my husband’s work-place, and then found one closer to home.  The fees were astronomical – larger than the mortgage – but we scraped by.  I had some comments (addressed to me, never to my husband) along the lines of “why bother having kids if you’re never going to see them?” which I shrugged off.

We timed having our second child so that we would not have two children in nursery at the same time for long – if nursery fees for one child were astronomical then double nursery fees were on a whole other level.  My employer at the time (not 67 Bricks, I should add) only offered the barest minimum maternity package, and so I could only afford to take four months’ maternity leave (my take-home pay went down to around £120 a week after the first 6-weeks of leave).  This was before the change in the law that would have allowed my husband to take some extended leave himself – when he requested to do so his employer said something along the lines of “you can do that when men start giving birth to babies”.

Despite the deficiencies in that company’s maternity policy, my immediate line manager was wonderfully accommodating.  He allowed me to have an arrangement where I worked in the office for about 5 hours a day and then completed the rest of my hours at home.  This enabled me to reduce the nursery hours from 9-4 rather than 8-6, and save money while spending more time with the kids.  He also gave me considerable flexibility around school holidays, and working from home on days when I had various child-related errands such as school plays, parent appointments etc.

Speaking of school, nobody ever tells you that having a school-age child is actually harder to fit a job around than having a nursery age child.  The school day ends at 3pm – and who is ready to finish work at 3pm???  Also, there are 13 weeks a year of school holidays to somehow cover.  At the time, the school did not have an after-school club (they started one up in later years) and so I had to find a child-minder who could do after-school pickups.  There was a holiday club at a school in the next village which I used – it was heavily sports-related, which my son in particular did not like, but I told him there was no choice and he had to go.

Over the next decade I went through various child-care arrangements, including nursery, childminders, after-school clubs, holiday clubs, and various forms of flexible working arrangement for both myself and my husband.  Our days were organised with military precision.  Drop the kids at school at 8:40.  Drive like a maniac to work, never being able to arrive earlier than 9:30.  And then having to leave at 5pm on the dot so that I could once more drive like a maniac to pick the kids up by 6pm or risk being fined (typically an immediate fine of £15 and then £10 for every extra 15 minutes you were late).  And the stress of sitting in a traffic jam on the motorway, watching the clock tick, wondering exactly how late I would be.  I changed jobs and my new line manager was equally wonderful – I was never quite able to complete my full hours during office-time, but he was perfectly fine with me making up time in the evenings.  And he never once quibbled when I said that I could not get in any earlier than 9:30, or stay any later than 5pm.

My kids are now in secondary school and make their own way to and from school, and are old enough to be left alone during school holidays.  Therefore I finally no longer have to worry about pick-ups, or astronomical childcare fees, and I don’t have to rush around like a loon trying to pick them up by a specific time.

The key takeaways from all this are:

  • Parents need flexibility.  We have schedules to meet, parents evenings and school plays to attend, and sometimes sick children to tend to.  Having an understanding manager who doesn’t watch the clock, and allows you to complete your working hours according to whatever pattern works, makes our lives so much easier.
  • Child-rearing is expensive.  Attractive maternity packages will improve your staff retention and employee satisfaction no end. The 67 Bricks maternity policy is better than many (Employees who have been here 2 years get 12 weeks on full pay and 12 weeks on half pay).
  • Dads need flexibility too.  For every dad who you allow to leave early to do a school run, there is probably a grateful mum who is able to get on with her own job without worry.  The number of dads standing at the school gate is getting bigger year-on-year.  When I was a child my dad was the only one at the gate, but these days it is much higher and that is only a good thing.  I have seen male colleagues experience discrimination in previous jobs, for example expressions of incredulity when they state an intention to take paternity leave.