Starting from Home: Remote Data Science Internship at FreeAgent

Posted by on June 30, 2020

Starting a data science internship at FreeAgent was going to be a completely new experience for me and I was super excited. It’s a lovely warm day in Edinburgh, Monday 1st of June, I’m standing in my kitchen looking out of the window and wondering what the next few months will hold for me. It’s 9.28am and my first meeting is supposed to start in 2 minutes. Am I going to be late on my first day? No – it’s 2020 and lockdown is still in full swing, I’ll be starting the internship working from home!

Getting Started

I’m taking 3 months out of my physics PhD at the University of Edinburgh to get some experience in an industrial setting. FreeAgent really stood out to me when I was looking for internships this summer – it looked like a refreshing and fun place to work and the data science team were working on some really interesting and ambitious projects.

I received all of the necessary IT equipment along with some other goodies on the Friday before I started, specially delivered (adhering to social distancing guidelines) by a member of the FreeAgent IT team. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in person outside of my flat in person for over 2 months and so I was thankful for the quick interaction. I’m fortunate enough to have a desk in my flat where I have set up a good area to be productive from home.

I joined the first Google Meet, there were two of us starting on that Monday. The morning flew by and by 2pm I was set up with my IT equipment and had learned about FreeAgent’s values and history as well as the people that made it tick. Everyone that I encountered on the first day seemed really enthusiastic and lively – which is always reassuring!

I think the smooth remote onboarding process was aided by the fact that many of FreeAgent’s employees already worked remotely and the employees who usually work on-site use laptops and cloud-based services. I found most of the information that I needed was already handily documented on the engineering wiki in Notion, which was really useful with familiarising myself with everything from setting up an account on Amazon Web Services, to learning about the specifics of the project I will be working on.

About the Project

This summer the work I’ll be doing is centred around explaining bank transactions, for example a transaction containing “Hilton Hotels – £279.78” might belong to the category “285 – Accommodation and Meals” in FreeAgent.  Explaining transactions can take up a lot of customer time and we want to know if machine learning can help automate the task. As far as classification tasks go, this one is particularly challenging because of the sheer number of categories a transaction can fall into (over 67) and there are potentially quite serious consequences if a transaction is mislabelled – both from a reporting and tax perspective.

I’ve joined the team at a really exciting time, shortly before new automation features will be made available to FreeAgent’s full customer base. Over my first few weeks I’ve been getting to grips with the technologies used across the data science team by evaluating model performance from the perspective of a typical FreeAgent user, and helping the team develop an alternative model architecture. Later in the summer I’ll be helping to add more nominal codes which the proposed model aims to classify.

Meeting the Team

The Data Science team on a Google Meet
Morning Standup with the Data Science team

In the afternoon of the first day I met with the Data Science team. They have been the people I have spoken to the most since starting here, in particular my “buddy” within the team who is my primary contact should I have any concerns. They have all been incredibly welcoming and patient, and sought to answer all of the questions I’ve had whilst getting up to speed. I have found my buddy very approachable (or message-able?) which is especially important when starting remotely – those quick questions which you might just turn around and ask somebody if you were sitting next to them in the office actually require you to actively message somebody, but this hasn’t been a daunting prospect thanks to their attitude!

Members of the wider Data Science and Analytics Team have been thinking of creative ways to mix up the working day and I was really grateful to be invited into a well-established Pointless league.

Remotely Challenging

There are inevitably parts of starting a project which are made more difficult by working from home. When learning about and experimenting with new technologies, talking through concepts with a good old marker pen and whiteboard is invaluable and hard to replicate on a video call. It can sometimes feel like a problem could have been solved quicker if we could have a face to face interaction. On the whole I think that this has been overcome by having regular catch-ups with other members of the team, something which has really helped me gain momentum and keep it going in these first few weeks.

Another downside of starting remotely is that you lose the passive/organic interactions that naturally occur in an office – the watercooler chat phenomenon. Having said that, there has been an active effort to provide these kinds of interactions and I’m really impressed by the availability of things like “remote coffee break” and a plethora of “off-topic” slack channels. I think I should challenge myself to get more actively involved with one of these channels in the coming months!

There are also weird things that we take for granted like a commute in the morning. Whilst, in the past, it has sometimes felt like a chore that I wished I could skip for extra time in bed, I’ve come to realise that a cycle ride across Edinburgh not only transitions me physically into a place of work but mentally into a state of working – perhaps I should do a fake commute in the morning by cycling round the block?

early 16th century (as an adjective in the sense ‘internal’): from French interne (adjective), interner (verb), from Latin internus ‘inward, internal’. Current senses date from the 19th century.

Before starting this internship I was laughing with a friend that the word intern originates from the latin for internal – which might not be true for me in the physical sense. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how included I have been made to feel in FreeAgent and how smoothly starting this internship has gone remotely! I’m really looking forward to continuing this journey.

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