A woman and a man stand side by side beside a train track in the snow.
Niall O’Brien (right) with his sister Deborah. Image: Deloitte

How this cloud engineer is improving his work-life balance

9 Mar 2022

For Deloitte’s Niall O’Brien, closing the computer lid has been a major challenge. Here, he shares how he has been working on that, along with some top productivity tips.

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If we’ve learned anything from the sci-tech workers we’ve heard from on SiliconRepublic.com, it’s that there is no such thing as a typical day in their roles. For Deloitte’s Niall O’Brien, that is no different.

Having studied computer science at TU Dublin, O’Brien is now a cloud support engineer for the professional services firm. He is part of a large team that deals with more than 60 clients that can make a wide range of requests, which keeps him on his toes.

However, there is structure in his role in that he starts every morning by reviewing his plan for the day ahead, works on requests for a while before his team’s daily stand-up and then returns to working on requests – whatever they may be.

O’Brien said he also tries to squeeze in an hour of study in the afternoon. “Cloud is huge and constantly changing so it’s important to stay up to date and always be learning.”

‘My to-do list is always full, so knowing which tasks to work on and when is crucial’

What types of engineering projects do you work on?

Much of my role at Deloitte is performing upgrades, dealing with incidents, fulfilling client requests for new infrastructure and responding to client problems, so you could say I work a lot on maintenance.

Development is something that I am interested in moving towards – specifically system and software architecture – so it is beneficial to work with as many different systems, architectures and clients as I can.

I have worked on testing a new stock visualisation system in the past, mainly just checking database data consistency – a lot of SQL.

I’m currently heading the automation of my team’s billing process. We have the general process working, but there are a lot of moving parts, so I’m working on cleaning it all up so we can cut down the amount of time it takes and improve the system’s reliability and our ability to maintain it in the future.

It is cloud-based, so it is giving me good experience with multiple AWS services such as Lambda and SNS.

After this is complete, I’m planning to investigate how we can further use APIs and Python to free up time for our level-one engineers, so they can dedicate more of their time to directly serving clients and upskilling.

What engineering skills do you use on a daily basis?

All of them! Experience with networking, Linux, Windows Server and Git are essential, but it also really helps to have SQL and coding experience.

My college course gave me a generally strong overview of most of the skills required, so I came into the role with that advantage. I didn’t expect a role in support to be so widespread though. Which hat do I wear? The answer is yes.

What are the hardest parts of engineering?

From my experience and what I hear, engineering tends to be challenging all around. I had the expectation in college that a role in engineering would be code, code, design and code.

No one really prepares you for the number of soft skills that you end up using. For example, in my role, time management and priority setting are fundamental skills. My to-do list is always full, so knowing which tasks to work on and when is crucial.

The same is true for work-life balance. It is very easy to just keep working through your break, an extra 30 minutes after work turns into an hour, turns into two hours, etc, because I’m a goal-orientated person.

At the start of the role, I found it difficult to close the computer lid sometimes. I’ve been getting better at this since Christmas – my role is not life-or-death, so many tasks can wait until the morning.

Also, stepping away from a problem is often the best path to a solution. Many times, I’ve solved issues in my head while I’m on a walk or even in the shower! I have always tended to be okay with communication, but when I get down to work, I do like to be left alone.

Working from home suits me very, very well. I am certain my productivity is halved whenever I work from the office – I’m very chatty – so I appreciate that Deloitte gives us the freedom to choose the way we want to work.

Plus, the extra two hours of free time per day without the commute is appreciated. In terms of the technology and tools, practise – and YouTube courses/tutorials – makes perfect !

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

When I joined Deloitte, I was asked to take a personality quiz. The quiz aimed to figure out which type of person I am and how I work within a team dynamic. I received the result of ‘guardian’: very organised, likes to plan, doesn’t like waffle, likes goals and status updates, likes figures, etc.

It hit the nail on the head. I find solace in planning and setting goals. I like to know (in general) what I’ll be doing for the day, what I’ll be studying, etc. If you are in any way like me, goal setting is essential.

Another tip I have is to communicate. I am privileged that I have a fantastic manager and team beside me, so I can communicate constantly about my roadblocks, what’s bugging me, what’s making me feel good, etc. My manager has many times changed things around to suit me and allow me to push on towards my potential. Communication is key.

I also like to take short bursts of being away from the screen. Once every hour or two, I’ll leave my desk for five minutes and stare out the window, fill my water, put clothes on the line, etc.

This allows my eyes to readjust to a non-square shape and it gives me time to reflect on my current tasks. The overall best advice I can give is to find the routine that suits you.

What do you enjoy most about working as an engineer?

Skills-wise, being an engineer has allowed me to pick up fantastic knowledge and skills that I am so thankful for. I am able to use these to not only make an impact that matters with our clients, but also the people and community around me.

I volunteer to teach elderly people basic computing, an experience I am very grateful for. People-wise, engineering has introduced me to people from an array of backgrounds. This has made me more socially aware and has enriched my thoughts and ideas. Engineering has given me a rewarding, challenging career and I am proud to say that I look forward to work.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in engineering?

Engineering is not just about the technology. Good engineers also need great soft skills and a good mindset. It can seem fairly daunting to get into, as there is so much to learn and things are always changing.

The imposter syndrome is something that everyone experiences, so it can be quite easy to exclude yourself from the possibility of having this type of career.

Always remember that a great engineer, whether they are a developer, a tester or whatever other area, is made up of bits of information that they picked up day after day after day. Things might get challenging, so always keep in mind that every challenge overcome is experience.

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