How and Why We Run the REA Graduate Programme

O(n) Week Day 1, 2015 – Somewhere in the Yarra Valley, Victoria: A group of fresh young faces gather in small groups around a house-cum-conference-centre nestled amongst the trees. A communal dinner has been shared and there are beers and soft drinks in-hand: some play pool, some cluster around a newly learnt eurogame, some just chat. Our 2015 graduates are starting to relax and unwind at the end of their first day of (O)n Week.

This is no ordinary induction. Nine brand new graduates, plus the fabulous four from REA Group’s inaugural 2014 IT Graduate Programme and an all-star supporting cast of REA’s best IT leaders, BAs, QAs, developers, designers, product managers and Ops people – all together in one beautiful setting for an intense learning programme including Agile 101, Ruby programming, AWS basics and end-to-end agile software delivery.

At the end of the week, the entire cross-functional team will support the new grads in delivering a new feature to ‘production’, guiding them all the way through the product inception, UI design, architecture, coding, provisioning and deployment until the feature is delivered ‘to the glass’. Along the way there will be a lot of fun, games, bbq and the odd beer – it’s graduate induction the REA way:)

O(n) Week 2015: New grad, old grads and leaders together for an amazing few days

O(n) Week 2015: New grad, old grads and leaders together for an amazing few days

Some of the graduates have already been lucky enough to have an early taste of REA’s unique culture by joining the company’s 18th HackDay in February. After (O)n Week, all of them will join a more formal induction to the REA business and spend some time ‘double-jacking’ the phone lines with REA’s Customer Experience (CXP) team, before joining their new delivery team on the first ‘rotation’ of their 18 month Graduate Programme.

The HackDay and (O)n Week experiences both set a deliberate expectation – these new recruits will be coding and delivering value to REA Group’s customers and consumers from their very first day.

June 2013 – A transformed but ageing team

Midway through 2013, REA Group’s IT team was an extremely high-performing outfit of ~250 great people, leading the way on agile software delivery – certainly in Australia, if not the world. Over four tough years it had scaled and transformed itself from the old waterfall, tech-siloed days of 2009 and earlier. This was a tech shop getting close to the top of its game – delivering solutions faster and faster to market on class-leading cloud based platforms.

But there were some challenges. Continued rapid growth and a constant hunger for new products meant that REA’s IT Leaders were going the safe route when hiring – looking for similarly world-class, experienced people to join the team. People of this calibre brought instant experience and comfort to teams groaning at the seams with work, but they also presented some subtle challenges:

  1. Bringing highly experienced engineers into middle and senior level roles often blocked the career progression and path of good people already at REA. Indeed this was a common sore point with IT people at REA as time and time again they saw people being hired in to play a role they were ready and willing to step up to.
  2. The salaries commanded by the experienced, new hires were often significantly higher than those of their new peers. IT leaders were constantly struggling to maintain transparency around salary parity (passing the “red face” test) – something critical to the culture in REA IT teams.
  3. The teams themselves were becoming more and more top heavy, with very little young talent coming to offer their unique blend of precocious, exuberant energy and ideas. Where was the buzz to come from?
  4. Highly experienced, female engineers were proving ever harder to find, thus widening the gender split across IT. REA wanted more women in IT.

As REA Group and it’s IT team grew rapidly through 250 people and beyond, it was clear that the current short-sighted hiring approach needed to change. IT Leaders knew that it was time to resist cravings for the sugar hit of experienced hires and take a longer, more sustainable view.

Many at REA remembered fondly their first real IT job out of University, particularly those who had started their careers with strong, inspirational mentors. There was a strong desire to give something back to the IT community too.

At an IT Leadership Offsite in June 2013 we decided that starting an IT Graduate Programme at REA was both a no brainer and an immediate priorty – it was time to bring some beautiful young minds into the REA family!

How We Established and Run the REA IT Graduate Programme

We divided the creation and implementation of the programme into tasks as follows:

  1. Attracting applicants from soon-to-be graduates
  2. Shortlisting and assessment of candidates
  3. Selection of the lucky few:)
  4. The programme itself: O(n) week induction and 18 months of team rotations.

Attracting Applications

Gathering applications for the inaugural intake in 2014 was quite a challenge. Having made a firm commitment to create a Graduate Programme in June meant that REA had already missed most of the graduate fairs for the year and risked missing the whole lot –  REA IT’s Head of People, Roxane Carr swung into action, armed only with massive stores of personal energy and a link to the brand new graduate programme website.

Rox met personally with the Dean at Swinburne to let him know that REA was bootstrapping a new graduate programme. He was very supportive, promoting the embryonic programme to his faculty and personally nudging some of his students who were still searching for a home in 2015. Rox also took REA to the remaining grad fairs at Melbourne and Monash Universities which gained some traction for the REA Brand with the student communities there.

It was late but effective. We were happy to receive 283 applications from hopeful graduates-to-be when applications closed in late August.

Attracting applications for the 2015 programme and beyond is becoming a little easier. Our four inaugural graduates are quite effusive about their amazing introduction to REA and spread the word to classmates and peers still at Uni. Joh and Alyssa took this one step further, contributing to a thread on Whirlpool and telling prospective applicants about the programme and also how much they were enjoying it. This had a great impact and really got things rolling for the 2015 programme. We hope our class-of-2015 helps in the same way!

The Graduate recruitment team now gets a full year's recruitment cycle in. They happily do the rounds of Graduate fairs in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne; showcasing the amazing energy and delivery culture that REA enjoys and thrives on.

The Graduate recruitment team now gets a full year’s recruitment cycle in. They happily do the rounds of Graduate fairs in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne; showcasing the amazing energy and delivery culture that REA enjoys and thrives on. That’s Marvin on the left – just one of the amazing things built by our people at REA HackDay.

Vetting, Phone Screening and Shortlisting Applications

A very small team of dedicated people from HR and IT squeeze in many many hours of CV vetting and then phone screens. CV’s make it through to phone screening if:

  1. The student’s degree is appropriate and relevant; not necessarily an IT degree, but appropriate.
  2. The student shows signs of interest and passion either in their chosen field or outside of their study with things like sports, clubs, leadership etc.

Phone screening is a chance to dig further into the interests and personality of the applicants. Again, we’re looking for that spark of passion but also digging a little to see how much they’ve bothered to learn about REA Group and the property domain in general.

After the phone screens, the selection team locks themselves in a room until they’ve thrashed out a shortlist of lucky candidates to be invited in for assessment.

Assessment Days

Right from the start, we wanted an assessment day or days which addressed the following requirements:

  1. Give the candidates a taste of REA colour and culture while helping them feel relaxed enough to present their best side to us.
  2. See as many candidates as possible at the same time to ease comparison.
  3. Assess the candidates on culture and culture fit.
  4. Assess the candidates on technical ability – without requiring any previous experience in specific languages.

Culture is very important at REA. That’s an easy thing to say, but at REA, culture *really* is critical. From the outset we wanted to make sure that we selected our graduates on soft-skills and EQ as well as the raw technical ability that we so admire in our people. We love super-smart people at REA, and we love people who are a little bit “different”, but we know that we all have to be able to work together happily in a team.

Breaking the ice with the agile Ball Point game, and a "fireside chat" with Captain Agile, Nigel Dalton

Breaking the ice with the agile Ball Point game, and a “fireside chat” with Captain Agile, Nigel Dalton

We run a series of identical assessment days, with 10 candidates coming to each. The format of each day is:

  1. A “fireside” chat with our very own Captain Agile, CIO Nigel Dalton.
  2. A Ball Point game to break the ice and give the candidates a practical taste of agile methodologies and thinking.
  3. Morning interview slot (5 culture interviews, 5 technical interviews).
  4. Communal lunch in the office so that the candidates could meet and chat with some of our people and ask questions about REA life.
  5. Afternoon interview slot (5 technical interviews, 5 culture interviews).
  6. Retro – an opportunity to get feedback from the candidates on their day while also giving them a further taste of our agile “rituals”.

Logistically, the interviews are the hardest to get organised. 20 interviews in one day (two for each candidate) is a big stretch for our HR and IT teams. We assemble 5 “culture” teams comprised of Iteration Managers and “people people”; and 5 “technical” teams comprised of tech leads and the odd reluctant architect. Each of the ten teams also have a HR partner to help guide the interview along.

The technical interview teams have spent a lot of time designing a technical problem which allows the candidates to demonstrate their technical and problem solving ability without prior experience of a specific coding language or technology.

The culture interview teams use a superset of questions from which they select a few off-the-cuff in each interview to drive out a reasonably normal, flowing conversation with the candidates. Again the objective is to glean interests and passions and answer the question, “would I have this person in *my* team?”

Once the assessment days are complete, all the interviewers lock themselves in a room and enjoy a series of long, robust (!) discussions until we have selected the successful candidates to send offers to. Consistency and comparison is the key here – it’s really important that we can look at the various candidates and see how they performed against each other.

Roles

Each of the new Graduates is then paired with a Mentor and a Buddy for the course of their 18 month programme. The Mentor is a guide and leader to the Grad, as well as their HR line manager; they are responsible for the personal and professional development of the Grad over the course of the programme, using regular 1-on-1 meetings to assist and advise along the way.

The Buddy is … a friend. Helping their Grad meet the right people around the building, introducing them to social groups, special interest groups and guilds which are relevant and appropriate to the Grad’s interests and passions.

The Grad is also appointed a Rotation Lead from their host team each quarter. The Rotation Lead liases regularly with the Grad’s Mentor and is responsible for the care, learning and development of the Grad during their time in the team.

The REA Graduate Programme

The REA Graduate Programme is roughly 18 months in length and is divided into three stages:

  1. Onboarding, O(n) Week Retreat and Induction
  2. Team Rotations
  3. Elective Rotations

We try to precede the onboarding of our grads with an invitation to join one of our HackDays. This has proven enormously successful and very popular with our new Grads in 2014 and 2015. It’s a great way for them to come into the office over two days and immediately immerse themselves in a team where they’ll be writing and committing code in their very first hours in the building. The hugely creative and vibrant atmosphere of our HackDay makes an incredible first impression on these talented young minds.

O(n) week itself is a fully immersive, offsite induction retreat. It’s amazing! On their first official day with us at REA, we put our new Grads and a small team of leaders, buddies and mentors on a bus and send them off for 3-5 days of fun and learning. 2014 saw us in a large house on the Mornington Peninsular, while this year’s induction moved to a slightly larger conference centre in the Yarra Valley.

O(n) Week: An immersive week of learning, training, fun and games

O(n) Week 2014: An immersive week of learning, training, fun and games

O(n) week sees the new Grads pick up a solid, introductory grounding in the REA Business and its history, Agile principles and agile product development including inception, story mapping, design and implementation, Ruby programming, DevOps philosophy and AWS.

In between all the formal learning sessions there is plenty of fun to be had with everyone sharing meals and drinks together, playing a eurogame here or a game of pool there; or simply chilling out with a quiet chat on a deck somewhere.

We bring this altogether with the keystone of O(n) week: an intense mini-product delivery which sees REA’s best Software Delivery and Product leaders working alongside our new Grads to deliver a working mini-feature to our AWS production Environment. A Product Owner kicks off with a product pitch, followed by inception, story mapping and collaborative UX design. Then the teams hit “Delivery mode” with several incredibly intense 1 hour iterations to implement, provision, deploy and deliver the feature to production. We play out all the XP rituals and practices with all the required XP roles – Iteration Manager, Product Owner, Tech Lead, Business Analyst, Ops, QA and of course the devs.

The keystone of O(n) Week is the inception, implentation and delivery of a mini product.

The keystone of O(n) Week is the inception, implentation and delivery of a mini product.

The energy during this final phase of O(n) week simply has to be experienced to be believed! It is incredibly inspiring for our new Grads as well as the leaders who work so hard to make it happen. This is the perfect way to demonstrate how quality, working products can be delivered quickly using XP agile and lean delivery methodologies and with total focus on face-to-face collaboration and teamwork.

Rotations

The new Grads then undertake a series of three month rotations with teams in different parts of the REA business. This gives them a chance to get practical, on-the-job training while growing them in the craft of software engineering and learning about all facets of the REA business and the different roles played in any good XP team.

REA Delivery teams apply each quarter for a Grad to join their team. Delivery teams work with Coordinators to ensure that they will nurture and train the Grad on an appropriate project team over the course of their three month rotation.

It’s not just about “meat on seats”! We recognise that it is both a privilege and an honour to help with the professional and personal development of these wonderful people at the very start of their careers.

The graduates then elect their final two rotations themselves to close out the 18 month programme. This allows them to start to progress their career in the direction they’re interested in; or just to clarify their thinking on what that interest may be.

Towards the end of the elective rotations, the graduates work with an advisor from REA’s HR recruitment team to consider all the open roles available. The advisor helps the graduate choose roles that are aligned with their interests and chosen direction and assists with directing the graduates to have conversations with the right teams to apply for an appropriate role. The aim is for the graduate to drive the process, but be gently guided and assisted by the recruitment advisor as well as their Mentor.

May 2015: Our 2015 Graduate Programme grads are settling in well on their first rotations; while the 2014 grads are in the midst of their elective rotations and considering roles throughout the business. It’s very difficult to try and imagine what REA would be like without these wonderful young people amongst us now – they have had a huge impact in such a short time and are so valuable to us as young, energetic people and as engineers!

Does your company have a graduate programme? Are you thinking about starting one? Let us know your thoughts and questions.

Are you graduating this year and thinking about your options? We are now accepting applications for our 2016 Graduate Programme – we’d love to hear from you!. Get more information, enquire and/or apply at http://careers.realestate.com.au/graduate-programme/

This entry was posted in Culture, Engineering, General, Our Processes, REA Innovation by Mike Breeze. Bookmark the permalink.

About Mike Breeze

Mike has been at realestate.com.au for a while now. He started as a dev before finding a passion for Iteration Management and then moving onto his current role as Delivery Centre Lead, living in Xi'an, China. Mike is very passionate about and has been heavily involved in REA's HackDay and REA's Graduate Programme. He also likes cycling and drinking beer.