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News > Life After Yarm > Former Pupil Looks To The Future With Career In Artificial Intelligence

Former Pupil Looks To The Future With Career In Artificial Intelligence

Former pupil, Jonathan Walker, is looking to the future as he explores a career in what has been coined the greatest future technology: Artificial Intelligence.

Jonny joined Yarm on a Sixth Form Scholarship in 2012, jointly funded with the Ogden Trust, to study Physics, Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Economics at A Level before continuing his studies at the University of Bath where he read Physics. During his degree he completed a year in industry at Lloyds Bank where he gained experience in credit risk modelling.

Upon graduation, Jonny completed a Masters in Computer Science at the same university before going back to Lloyds on their Data Science Graduate Scheme which he recently completed to become one of the company’s Machine Learning Engineers.

We caught up with Jonny to find out more about his motives to join Yarm School Sixth Form, his interest in science and his career decisions so far…

Q. Why did you apply for Yarm School Sixth Form and how did you find the transition?

I’d always enjoyed studying the sciences – Physics in particular – so when one of my teachers advised that there was a science Scholarship available at a local sixth form with an extremely strong reputation, I didn’t hesitate in applying.

I visited and interviewed for a few different colleges and sixth forms in the North East, but Yarm really stood out to me. The passion and high standards of the staff was obvious from the get-go and of course, the beauty of the grounds was a definite selling point.

Were it not for the Scholarship, I would have never been able to consider Yarm School as an option; I am extremely grateful to have been given that chance.

The transition from St Michael’s, Billingham to Yarm was both challenging and rewarding. Academically, the performance of my peers at Yarm was above what I was used to, but the teachers were tremendously supportive and helped me get up to speed quickly. The mutual respect between teachers and students was refreshing and benefited my learning.

All of the other students were extremely welcoming and helped make the transition as smooth as possible. I found it very easy to meet students with similar interests; the extra-curricular activities that were available really helped with this. I took part in squash, badminton, charity volunteering, mentoring and even represented Yarm at county level in table tennis.

Within a couple of weeks I felt right at home at Yarm, like I belonged, and by the end of the two years I didn’t want to leave!

Q. What is your favourite memory from your time at Yarm?

A particular highlight that sticks out to me was helping at one of Yarm’s Discovery Days – an induction day for the new First Years (Year 7s) where they take part in numerous team building exercises. They were tasked with constructing rafts from scratch and sailing from one side of the River Tees to the other, and back.

The outward journey went pretty smoothly but pieces began to come unstuck on the return leg. Everyone was wearing life jackets so they all made it back in one piece; unfortunately the same couldn’t be said of the rafts! I had great fun watching this unfold whilst standing safely on terra firma.

Q. When did you first consider applying for Physics at university and why?

I remember visiting a planetarium and observatory on a school trip in primary school and at one point, the constellations were projected onto the ceiling and their origins were explained to us. I think that’s what sparked my fascination with Physics and astronomy specifically.

I thoroughly enjoyed studying physics at GCSE and A Level and undertook a placement at Durham University studying speckle phenomena during my time at Yarm. I found A Level Physics particularly engaging and thought provoking and soon realised it was the field in which I most wanted to further my understanding.

Q. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to study Physics at university?

My advice would be not to worry about how employable a Physics degree makes you, or whether it would limit you to a career in academia. I know a lot of people, with varying different backgrounds, in a wide range of careers who would gladly claim that studying physics equipped them with most, if not all, of the skills they needed to achieve their goals.

Studying Physics can help to build up your critical thinking, reasoning, writing, presenting skills and much more. It also offers a greater understanding of the inner workings of the Universe – how can you turn that down?

Finally, if you are ever given the option to study Relativity, definitely take it!

Q. When did you first consider computer science and why?

The course that I enjoyed most at university was called Computational Physics, in which we modelled physical systems using code. During this course, I used the coding skills I’d developed to take up several personal computing projects. For example, I programmed my Hue lightbulbs to flash red whenever Middlesbrough FC scored a goal (they don’t tend to flash very often). I decided that I wanted to pursue coding as a career and spent a brilliant year studying computer science in order to make that a reality.

Q. Why did you choose to apply for a graduate scheme and what do you think the benefits of this are?

My favourite component of my Masters was the Artificial Intelligence (AI) modules, specifically the semester I spent training a wall-following-robot by the name of Lil’ John. As a result, I became interested in a career in data science. I knew that Lloyds were a great employer from my industrial placement and so I applied for their Data Science Graduate Scheme.

Personally, I benefited from being able to move regularly between roles, projects and teams. It provided a great breadth of experiences and kept me well informed when it came to choosing a career path. It also allowed for useful networking opportunities.

Graduate Schemes are more of an investment in an individual by a company than it is a job, therefore the priority is for the graduate to learn as much as possible and develop the skills needed after the scheme. I think this enables quick progression and prioritises both professional and personal growth.

I would advise students interested in graduate schemes to look at it as an extension of your education – except you’re being paid to learn. Take every opportunity to ask questions, shadow more experienced colleagues, and try to build a community with your fellow graduates. Whichever scheme you’re on, the first priority is to prepare you for the career you want, everything else is secondary.

Q. Please explain your current role at Lloyds Bank…

I am currently a Machine Learning Engineer at Lloyds Bank which involves identifying problems that can be solved using data science and developing solutions to these problems.

My last project saw me building a model to identify customers at risk of falling into financial difficulty so we could provide them with the support they needed before their situation deteriorates. This involved investigating how we can determine the sentiment (positive or negative outcome) of a phone call between a customer and a colleague using a process called Natural Language Processing.

Q. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to go into machine learning / AI?

AI, and programming generally, can be intimidating, but with the right teacher and/or course, they can quickly become straightforward and enjoyable.

Plus, remember it’s never too late to start learning. I didn’t write a line of code until I was 19 years old and 6 years on, it’s my day job and one that I thoroughly enjoy.

Q. Have there been any challenges or tough moments in your career so far?

The most challenging aspect of my job also happens to be one of my favourite things about it…

The fields of AI and Big Data are extremely fast moving and the cutting edge modelling techniques and technologies that we rely on change on a regular basis, therefore it’s imperative that I’m learning continually. Whilst the quickly changing landscape can be tough to keep up with, it also means that every day comes with a new challenge which keeps the work interesting.

Q. What are your immediate plans and how do you see your career developing?

Lloyds Bank is beginning to deploy a number of Google Cloud services which brings with it a whole host of new opportunities. One of my current goals is to become certified in Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and to contribute in moving the 250 year old bank into the future.

This September marks the on-boarding of a new cohort of Data Science Graduates. I take great enjoyment in mentoring and teaching others, partially because I was so grateful to have had incredible mentors when I first joined the team. I look forward to helping the new cohort to settle in and learn about what it means to work in the world of ML, and specifically in the context of a financial institution.

I chose to study neural networks for the dissertations of both of my degrees. For my Bachelors I studied central pattern generators (the sorts of networks that control rhythmic movements such as walking and breathing). For my Masters I studied NEAT, which is a way of training neural networks using an evolutionary model. I found both of these extremely interesting, and so in the long term, I would love to complete a PhD on a similar topic.

Q. If you could have your time at Yarm again, would you do anything differently?

When I first joined Yarm I had a minor case of imposter syndrome. I felt like I hadn’t earned my place and I didn’t feel nearly as confident as other students academically or socially. As a result, I began my journey at Yarm a little closed off. In hindsight, I had nothing to worry about; the reality was that I was surrounded by incredibly welcoming and supportive staff and students.

If I were to have my time at Yarm again, I would be sure to jump straight into school life from the get-go and make the most of my time there from day one.

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