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Reflections of a new software engineer in a lockdown whirlwind

  • - Written by Rakuten Blockchain Lab's Ciarán Duncan

    It’s 8.30am on a sunny Thursday morning and I’ve started my day in the same way as I’ve done for the last 16 months – alarm rings at 8am, shower, grab a can of Monster from my fridge (My caffeine comes in energy drink form.) 

    I walk to my desk and take 5 minutes to check my social media accounts. I’ve logged into LinkedIn and noticed a new notification, it’s a comment from one of my co-workers – “Congratulations Ciarán – has it really been a year since you’ve joined?”

    I was shocked at how fast a year had passed by in this new normal. It got me thinking about my experiences in the last year and how it might be useful to share them.

    A bit of background reading

    Starting a new job is a daunting experience in normal circumstances, so starting a new job in the midst of global pandemic added a new layer. When I joined Rakuten Blockchain Lab in June 2020, I expected a few challenges along the way. I’d only started working remotely a few weeks previously and even then I knew my colleagues and the code I was working on!

    From the start I recognised that Covid-19 would impact my new job – It had changed the interview process. The 3 rounds of interviews were undertaken remotely and it was as big of a challenge for my future colleagues as it was for me. I enjoyed the process it seemed strange that Rakuten were hiring someone they hadn’t met in person and I was joining a company without even seeing the office!

    What I didn’t prepare for was how long I was going to be working remotely. If you’d told me that in July 2021 that the office hadn’t opened fully I wouldn’t have believed you! In my eyes this was for another few weeks and then I’d be back to normal.

    You’d think with being an engineer that I’m used to working on my own for long periods of time, but beforehand I spent every day in the office. I liked the social aspect and it made me feel part of a team. If I was working on a problem and needed some deep thinking time I’d ask to work remotely - it was a luxury rather than a necessity.

     This was different, the choice wasn’t mine and so I was presented with some immediate challenges – things I’d never considered:

    • How would I get my laptop?
    • What will onboarding be like?
    • How will I meet and get to know my co-workers?

     What’s it been like?

    Looking back, I can’t believe that I was stressed about not having a laptop. I shouldn’t have worried – a few days before I started a delivery van landed to my parents’ house in the Tyrone countryside where I’d bunkered down for the first lockdown with a shiny new MacBook. An email containing my login details arrived on day one and all my immediate concerns dissipated.

     The first day

    It turns your first day at home is still as nerve-wracking as it would be in the office – Within an hour I was at stand-up and I learnt my first lesson – always turn on your camera on! It’s a good way to get introduced to the team and I was glad to have names beside peoples’ faces. It’s hard trying to remember names!


    Onboarding as a software engineer is pretty standard: Here’s our onboarding documentation, here’s where our code lives, this is how you set up your environment, this is our best practices and here is your first ticket.

    The lab followed the same procedures – I was given a  ‘buddy’ who was tasked with answering questions when they could – I had LOTS. Joining a new company after having only a year’s commercial experience was one thing, but jumping into a new field, programming language and architecture was another. What exactly is a microservice? JavaScript is pretty much the same as Python right?

    To be fair, my buddy was patient and I soon learnt that there are no stupid questions. The remote aspect of onboarding was challenging – having to set up a zoom call to answer something simple was painful, but necessary. It puts more pressure on your buddy, generic questions that you could ask to anyone in the office were all directed at them – simply because I didn’t really know who else to ask!

     The day job

    For the most part I have the typical role of an engineer – I pick up a ticket, work it to completion, get the buzz from solving a problem and then start again. The difference that I have found working here is the variety of projects I work on

    Our tech stack is exciting - services are built in Node.js and Typescript with various relational databases and follow a microservice architecture. We work with various public and private blockchain protocols depending on usage. Services are packaged with Docker and use Kubernetes for deployment, scaling and container management. Speaking from personal experience, development here moves faster than I've encountered before and a change moves to production environments quickly.

    Since I’ve joined work has continued on Rakuten Wallet, a Cryptocurrency Exchange and various new green-field projects have begun. A project for secure occupancy management using blockchain was completed in late 2020, as well as the creation of a donation history management service using blockchain.

    For the last few months I have been working on a service that allows customers to exchange points they have earned through purchases in the Rakuten ecosystem for Socios Fan Tokens in collaboration with the fan engagement platform

    The Culture

    As with most companies we have a daily stand-up at 10am. Remotely these were carried out on zoom and I looked forward to them as it provided human interaction – a luxury for a large part of lockdown. Most meetings are remote, though with restrictions easing some have taken the opportunity to meet in person.

    We have a weekly Friday afternoon call which gives us a chance to have non-work related conversations. Several socially-distanced meetups have been organised, such as a tour of a museum and a trip to an inflatable water park – a great way to get to know your colleagues is to struggle to get back onto an inflatable assault course alongside them! Outside of this, Rakuten have tried to engage with us at home by providing a Christmas Hamper or a takeaway voucher for Blockchain Pizza day – small things but very welcome.

    We have a lot of experienced engineers and accessing that knowledge every day is a huge bonus. The feedback cycle even while working from home is great and I am challenged to learn new things and take on more responsibility quicker than I’d expected. I’ve already given multiple presentations to the team as well as at a local university – I’d not have done that a year ago!

    Importantly, working remotely hasn’t impeded my learning. I have enjoyed the way that members of the team approach questions – rather than just provide an answer, I’ve been asked leading questions which allow me to figure out a problem myself.

    Teams are made up of squads with 3-4 people working on a project and we will have daily catchups with those members. It’s easy to voice my opinion on details of a project with the smaller number and we’ve found this works well remotely.

    A return to the office

    The lab has always made it clear that we are working having the office open for people to work in for as many days as is safe. Initially we’d planned to open in September 2020 with a limit of 25% of the office in at any time, but with a surge in cases this was delayed, similarly the same plan was going to be rolled out in January 2021 but was delayed again. In the meantime the office was refurbished – resulting in a shiny new office waiting our return.

    Eventually we opened in June 2021, with 25% capacity. It was interesting to see how team members reacted – some welcomed the opportunity to get in as much as possible. I had mixed feelings – I’d become accustomed to my home office and to get into the office I had to use public transport for the first time in a year, but I was excited to work from an office again.

    I’ve tended to head into the office once a week and the experience is definitely not what I remembered. Masks are worn when moving about the office and the kitchen is governed by a project completed in lockdown – a blockchain based occupancy sensor. Only one person can be the kitchen at once – and this can be monitored using our immutable ledger!

    As wary as I was about going in it’s been great – even if it means I have to don a pair of jeans – the change of scenery and conversations (socially distanced of course) have been a huge plus.

    The problems

    It hasn’t always been plain sailing and I think it’s important to highlight some of the challenges I’ve had as well

    Learning remotely

    The biggest challenge of starting a new job remotely was picking up the various new pieces of technology. I’d come from a full stack Python role in Cybersecurity into writing JavaScript microservices and using Docker and Kubernetes more than ever. Upskilling took time and effort. Some of the issues that could have been solved quickly in person took longer than it should have.


    We use Slack as a communication tool and messages can appear more blunt than an in person conversation – especially with someone you do not know well. I’ve caught myself overthinking a response and have had to send messages asking for clarification – something that a five minute conversation in the office would solve.

    I’ve become used to using zoom and it has its drawbacks – Silence can be uncomfortable and it doesn’t have the same flow as in-person interactions. I’ve also ran into the usual problems – Am I on mute? Can you see my screen?

    Work life balance

    My desk is in the same room as my games console and it’s tempting to take a look at that problem that was bugging me earlier. Recently I’ve tended to head out on a run straight after work and when I get back I’m more concerned about what’s for dinner than the problem from earlier.

    Getting to know people remotely

    One of the things I struggled with initially was getting to know people and I found myself asking:

    • How tall are people?
    • Is this what people usually look like? Have they resorted to home haircuts? Or was that just me?

     This sort of thing doesn’t really matter – but you would notice in an office. Past colleagues would know that I arrived in the office every day with an energy drink – but my new ones don’t see that. I don’t see who starts work early or those who run at lunchtime. Instead I’ve seen the inside of living rooms and studies

    It does take more to get to know colleagues and vice versa – but it got there. Everyone now knows that I’m a huge Arsenal fan, the details about my house move and my ever improving 5k time – so whilst it is tough there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.


    This part has taken me a while – trying to put such an experience into words is tough but the past year has gone so quickly and I’ve enjoyed the ride.

    Even though it’s been remote, I do feel part of a wonderful team. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rakuten, before I joined I knew little other than they sponsored some huge sports teams, but if the next 12 months continues on from the previous I know I’ll be working on new, exciting projects – which is all that I ask for in a role!

    And if you’re on the lookout for a new role, we’re hiring!

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