Grant Powell MBCS recently spoke to Enrique Martin Ocaña about achieving a prize at the Young Software Engineer of the Year awards, sponsored by BCS, as well as his inspiring career.

Enrique Martin Ocaña was presented with the runner-up prize at this year’s Young Software Engineer of the Year awards for his use of autoregressive language models designed for the classroom. The project considered the effectiveness of traditional educational content compared with content generated by AI in an educational setting. As a student of the University of Strathclyde, Enrique was among the best and brightest recent graduates recognised at the ScotSoft awards event, held in Edinburgh, which is now in its 34th year.

You’ve very recently graduated. How did you secure your current role at Aston Martin F1?

I started working as an intern for Disney straight from University, helping with business operations, systems maintenance and the setting up of new accounts for employees at Disneyland Paris. After that I went back to Spain to work for Santander, but this lasted for just 5 months. When applying for the role at Santander I had also applied for a role at Aston Martin, and incredibly I was contacted the day before I joined Santander to ask if I would be interested in joining them. And here I am. Santander was my first official job and everyone there treated me really kindly, sympathised with my situation, and was very supportive of me while I waited to begin my role at Aston Martin and arrange to move back to the UK. Working in the world of Formula 1 has been one of my dreams.

You work for Aston Martin F1 as a performance engineer. What does this involve?

We mainly build the applications that extract key performance information from Aston Martin cars and transform this data into something that our strategists and data analysts can use. It’s a high pressure but exciting and rewarding environment. During race weekends, for example, we have to be up and onsite very early to make sure that the systems are online and running, and that we’re getting all of the required information that we need from the cars.

We also work closely with the people who build the models for race simulations. We usually have only two or three days’ physical access to each vehicle to perform various tests, to make sure everything is adjusted and operating smoothly, and that data from the cars’ systems is being correctly transmitted and interpreted. This is incredibly important as after we lose access to the car it’s too late if something was not calibrated properly when race day comes around. We need to be sure that the relevant people within our teams get the information they need, presented exactly as they want it.

Did you imagine that you would have hands-on access to the cars?

I thought that I would be very much working in the shadows, perhaps off in a factory somewhere very separated from cars and drivers. In fact, many here work directly trackside and it’s a dream to actually have the chance to be out there in the paddock.

It’s certainly changed my perception of what working in Formula 1 would be like. And recently, when the team came back from Brazil, there was a great buzz and fantastic atmosphere around the place. Everyone was very happy. When someone wins a trophy we are all made to feel very much like it is a team effort. The directors of the team actually take the time to come around, talk to us all and say ‘congratulations, this is thanks to you’. It’s a very nice feeling.

How did it feel to be awarded as a runner-up in this year’s Young Software Engineer of the Year awards?

I still don’t believe it. I remember I had my award on my desk afterwards and I kept staring at it. It felt like it couldn’t possibly be mine and must belong to somebody else. The event was amazing, and I was so proud to be recognised for my achievements. I believe that my EdTech project can really make an impact. In Spain the number of school drop-outs, and those that do not carry on education after secondary school, is quite above the European Union average.

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To have something designed for students to help them get more interested in their subjects and to really engage with learning, that was my intention. Even when we tested the app, the students who agreed to take part were all super engaged in the process, but also seemed to be having fun while they were learning. If you enjoy what you’re being taught, I believe you are much more likely to work hard, and therefore to succeed. I was so proud to be awarded a prize for my work, and hope this inspires others.

How did you come up with the concept for the EdTech app?

In Spain I had a physics teacher who, when it came to setting a problem for us to solve, would really try and bring it to life for the whole class. Instead of beginning, ‘Joe went to the farm and got 30 watermelons’, for example, he’d add me or one of my colleagues as the character example, and provide additional information around this so that we were all much more involved. It was funny but it also helped us engage much more with the challenge.. He would say, ‘Enrique is late, he’s trying to catch the train, he’s running at this speed… It got everyone in the class motivated because there was a background story.

We knew that this guy had missed the train this morning, as well as other details and events that brought the story to life, made it realistic, helped us envisage it. I thought how great it would be to take this concept and use it, so I started developing my app with just a few AI prompts and some training. It started as a simple project to add personalisation to learning, and grew from there.

What advice do you have for young people who might want to follow you into a career in tech?

The best advice that I can give is to just start creating things. I started creating mobile apps and I had a lot of fun with that. I also tried to write scripts in Python, just to see what I could do. It’s about finding things that interest you - building a webpage for example - and this leads to further learning, doing more and more research while you’re actually building something. Eventually you will find what you want to focus on. For me it was .net. And I’m still learning new things all the time. When you have a bit of experience you can decide what you really want to focus on, and this can help you decide on an educational path to follow and eventually what career to pursue. You can never have too much experience, so just creating, learning, reading, studying – building a wealth of skills and knowledge will put you in a great position for the future.

Do you have any closing words?

I would actually like to take the opportunity to thank my parents. If it wasn’t for them I could not have achieved all that I have so far. I could not have taken that first step, which was to move to the UK from Spain. The day I got the award they were there to see me receive it, and I just think it would be great to thank them. That day I was on cloud nine and it was all because of them, so ‘thank you’.