Six skills any potential Ocado Engineer needs

Ocado’s success is built on delivering fantastic customer service. In order to achieve this, the company has hired brilliant people who through pure effort, determination and a desire to learn and improve have created a positive culture that still remains to this day and is represented by our core values. Over the last 15 years, we have grown quickly and are now the world’s biggest online-only grocery retailer.

The idea of a purely online grocery retailer presented a lot of challenges and a new way of looking at problems. We therefore had to develop a very unique culture. Ocado has a reputation for being as exciting and open to new ideas as a startup, while providing the stability and resources of a world-class business. To ensure our positive culture persists, and that we continue to produce cutting edge in-house solutions, we have to be very attentive when it comes to our hiring.

I spoke to Martyn Bates, Senior Technical Lead from the Product Development team, to find out more about the qualities he looks for in an aspiring engineer. Ocado Engineering’s Product Development team has grown from an employee count of one at its inception in 2013, to forty-four today. This is primarily because of the shift within Engineering from buying and installing third party solutions, towards today’s process of building the capabilities that enable us to develop our own products and systems. This drive to expand means we’re always hiring, so we’ve had to think hard about what it is we’re looking for in prospective Ocado engineers.

Whether you’re a new graduate looking for your first job, a school leaver searching for an apprenticeship, an experienced engineer who has decided on a career change, or a highly skilled manager – if you believe you have these skills, you could be exactly what we’re looking for.

1. The balance between practical and theoretical

It isn’t always easy to find candidates with an in-depth theoretical knowledge of the field, who are also able to stay grounded in the realm of what is practical – given constraints defined by the business, time frame and, in some cases, what is physically possibly. This mix is one of the defining factors of a good engineer. At the end of the day, engineers need to create and refine a finished product. This entails being far more in touch with the logistical side of development and discerning about the business value a product can create. Having said this, within a team you can sometimes benefit from having someone with a strong theoretical background, who maybe lacks an appreciation for the practicalities, as long as they are working alongside those who have established a balance between the two ways of thinking.

“This can sometimes be a very beneficial arrangement, as someone who is free to come up with ideas without considering the constraints, is sometimes in a better position to think big and design game changing solutions,” Martyn said.

On the whole, however, you will want more individuals with the desired balance of practical and theoretical mindsets. Engineering is fundamentally a practical discipline – Our success is defined by solving business needs and converting ideas into the physical solutions that can be implemented in our warehouses. Although having a healthy balance within a team can be all you need; that is, as long as your team works well together.

2. Teamwork and Communication

We work on large-scale projects that involve multiple systems, components and, most importantly, multiple teams. Managing so many interfaces is complex and for this to run smoothly, it’s crucial to have good communication, both within and between teams. You also need to put a heavy emphasis on combining your skills within your team. Understand your weaknesses and put forward your strengths so that as a unit, your team can put its best foot forward.

“The aim is to make your team stronger than its constituent parts, and working in a way that enables that doesn’t always come naturally,” Martyn said.

This is possibly the most important skill for any engineer. The scale of the projects we undertake means that someone who is happier working entirely alone cannot contribute in the same way to the process. We always endeavour to promote a culture of collaboration and team development to this end, but we do look out for these skills in our new applicants.


3. Problem solving

Problem solving is a fairly obvious skill we look for in engineers because it is a large part of what we do. Whether it’s implementing a new idea, or maintaining a system already in use; problem solving is an engineer’s bread and butter. Not only should you be good at it, but more importantly, you should enjoy it. If you’re someone who gets great satisfaction from finding solutions, then maybe engineering is the path for you.

“In Product Development we place enormous value on solving problems using a systems engineering approach where the most fundamental aspect of problem solving is to accurately define a problem and the success criteria of its resolution. Our engineers understand problems before they try to solve them and we know that trying to shoehorn an idea into a production environment without truly understanding problems it’s meant to solve is a guaranteed way to create more problems,” said Martyn.

4. Motivation and initiative

We find that our best engineers don’t only find motivation in their monthly pay-cheque, but also from their enjoyment of their work and a desire to progress the products and systems they are working on to be the best that they can be. Enjoyment is key to both motivation and initiative; an engineer who is interested in their work, will have the initiative to take up tasks without being expressly asked, because they know that it will benefit the project. This ‘get up and go’ attitude is a quality we find very attractive in our engineering applicants.

5. Good judgement

Being able to qualify your opinion of a piece of work is invaluable. Engineers are often working to a deadline and, as a result, cannot be shy about offering their thoughts on a project during the design phase. Being able to judge others’ work on its merits and faults is one thing, but being able to take a step back from your own work and look at it objectively is another. Whether you sway towards thinking of your own work as less valuable than others’ (maybe you, like many, suffer from imposter syndrome – if so take a look at Ocado Technology’s blog post), or you lean more towards always viewing your own work in a favourable light, objectivity is a skill we all have to develop in order to produce valuable work together.

6. An appetite to learn

Ocado keeps a keen focus on development and education. We aren’t particularly specific about our applicants’ backgrounds – we believe in learning skills on the job. We support and encourage our engineers through higher and further education qualifications, chartered certifications and, more broadly, developing skills in the workplace; a win-win situation for everyone involved. Martyn is a perfect example of our education initiatives, as he has recently completed his Masters qualification.

“For the first eight years of my career at Ocado my managers fully supported my further learning needs and encouraged my development as a project manager. Over the last two years, Ocado Engineering has started in-house development and my personal development plan has changed accordingly now that my role is now focused on the technical aspects of products. If we identify a gap in our capabilities as an engineering company one of the ways we will approach bridging it is to create a development plan to become subject matter experts.”

Essentially these core qualities are often more valuable than niche skills, which can be learned over time. We do however, always encourage personal development.

Do you think you have what it takes to be an Ocado Engineer?

george smith