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‘We build tech for human beings – real users that have problems to solve.’

Mark McCormack Aflac
Mark McCormack, Aflac

Mark McCormack, Head of Tech at Aflac Northern Ireland on his journey to tech leader.

‘We build tech for human beings – real users that have problems to solve.’ 

Mark McCormack, Head of Tech at Aflac Northern Ireland on his journey to tech leader

How did you get into tech?

I graduated in 1998 with a degree in Zoology. I always had an interest in science at school. I studied the sciences at A-level. Took that on through to university and kind of built on that learning and knowledge as I graduated and got to the end of my degree, I faced that question that many people face is basically, ‘what’s next?’. 

If you haven’t gotten a degree that has a very direct career path in front of you that can be a challenge sometimes, and so maybe the romantic part of me at one point thought I might study lions in the Serengeti or something… But unfortunately, David Attenborough wasn’t calling and so I had to think about what I might do next. And I’d always had an interest in computing … in computers, and I could see the advances of technology and where that was going. 

There was a conversion course running that was taking non-IT graduates and teaching them how to be software developers. I got enrolled into the very first pilot program of that initiative program called the Rapid Advancement Program or RAP. That was fantastic that that took graduates from a whole range of different disciplines and give them some skills in terms of how to be a coder, how to program and languages that maybe aren’t used so often today. 

As I moved into some of my first jobs and careers, I’ve been over 20 years in the tech sector here in Northern Ireland, based almost entirely in Belfast. Throughout that whole time, I worked with smaller companies, local companies and the tech sector of work for very large corporate organisations. 

Before joining Aflac two years ago, I worked at Citigroup. I led the Chief Technology Office at Citi and worked there for 11 years. 

What’s been your most valuable career lesson?

It’s not just about the technical side of things, not just about the engineering and the coding and all of that sort of thing. It’s about the people that you work with, it’s about working in teams, and you know, collaborating, sharing information, and solving problems which are too similar to how we work in many different industries as well, and so there are loads of parallels regardless of the background that you that you’ve come from.

I mean, going back to my early career and kind of coming from the university, I was kind of thrown in there into a course to teach computing skills with people from the whole range of different backgrounds – with law degrees, with engineering degrees, with marketing degrees, with English degree … like a whole broad spectrum …. I think that has been a really interesting part of the success of those programmes because what you bring together is a very broad range and a diversity of thought. And you have people that can represent a whole range of different ways of thinking, and they’ve come from different backgrounds with different knowledge, and they come together to work on, you know, problems. I think that’s incredibly valuable, and I think that today when we think about IT and tech, there’s so much more to it than just the ones and zeros and the data. 

There are so many fantastic opportunities in the sector because, at the end of the day, we build these systems, and we build these platforms and we build this technology. But we’re doing it for human beings at the end, right? We’re doing it for real users that have real problems that you know, we want to try and solve. So that kind of breadth of understanding is just incredibly valuable. 

What skills are important in the workplace?

Adaptability – because it’s all about how you can adapt to what the world needs. And if you look even at this small country here, that’s kind of what we’ve done. You know, once we were the linen capital of the world, once we were the rope making capital of the world, once we were the shipbuilding capital of the world and we don’t do any of those things anymore so much now. Now, it’s about world-class studios and being one of the cybersecurity hubs of Europe and one of the tech centres in Europe as well. And this is a place that can adapt and change what we do to whatever the word means. So, it’s all about as if you come to Northern Ireland, you see us now, and you want to see us in a year or five years, we’ll probably be doing something different, and we’re better to build a Centre for advanced technology here in Belfast. So, we’re incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved.

And those other two words around resilience and reinvention. You know, we want our people to be able to grow, adapt, change, and reinvent themselves. And I suppose I don’t need to tell anyone that lives here and often about resilience. You know, we’ve had our fair share of some tough times, but I think as we grow, develop, and go through that, we look forward to an incredible amount of positivity and optimism about what we can do and can achieve from here. So, I love working here, I love being part of the community here in Northern Ireland, I’m very proud of what we can do from this place. I think it all comes down to the fantastic education system that we have and the wonderful people that we have from here because, for me, all the way work with computers, it’s really about the people that I work with – That’s what motivates me, and that’s what I enjoy doing. You know, we solve problems together, we collaborate on things, and we work together as a team.

Those qualities, those skills that you can build, regardless of what your educational background is, regardless of what your degree is, it’s those abilities to communicate to work hard to you know, demonstrate empathy, to bring problem-solving skills. Those things are universal, so whether you work in IT, in business, in engineering or a medical setting, these are the qualities that kind of separate us from the computers in a sense and bring you to know that uniqueness to the things that we can do.

What advice do you have for graduates?

I’d say build your network. This is because they’ll help you grow your understanding of the world of work. They’ll give you advice, they’ll give you some support. You can even do something as simple as building a good profile on LinkedIn and connect them with a few people that you know and getting introductions to some other people who maybe work in some companies that you’re interested in. You’ll find that people who do work in the industry are open to sharing their knowledge and their experience tells you about what it is like to do work in an office or to work remotely, or to work for a big company or to work for a small company? The culture of that organization and what you can expect? You know, those are the things that you’ll learn, and you’ll find that you know people from here are open.

And also, the other thing I would say is always be learning. You know, for me, if you’re not learning, you’re not enjoying yourself because it’s the ability to learn and adapt and to pick up new skills is that makes work exciting. And I’m working alongside great people as you do that is really what it’s all about.

What advice would you give your my 21-year-old self?

I suppose if I go back and ask myself that, I will say try and be as fearless as you can be. There’s a lot of things in life we hold ourselves back because we’re worried about what people might think of us, or how we might come across, or we don’t know anything. And because we don’t know it and don’t know anything we might not try. And I think in this part of the world where maybe not be on the front foot as much as we could be, and I can tell you all like we are as good as anyone in the world. We’re as good as anywhere in the world to do the things that we can do. I’ve worked with teams in eight or nine different countries across the globe, and I can tell you that pound for pound, we’re probably the best place in the world, particularly for technology, particularly for problem-solving, but for doing so many things, so I would encourage us all to be myself about that age to be more fearless and to get out there and get involved in things. Because we are as good as else and we’re just as capable. So that will be my advice to a young Mark McCormick younger, better looking, more McCormick. I’ll tell him to try and stay good looking, but I don’t know if we can.

Read next: Five tips for building a career around your passion

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Higher Level Apprenticeships Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week PwC Software With Digital Technology

HLA Student Case Study: Software Engineering with Digital Technology

Maisy Sinclair, Level 6 Higher Level Apprentice, Software Engineering with Digital Technology Partnership, PWC/Queen’s University Belfast

Maisy Sinclair, Level 6 Apprentice

“I was doing a weird mix of A-levels – Art, Spanish, Maths and Software Systems and I had never done any computer-based subjects before that. I really liked Software Systems, it was a challenge, so then I applied for Computer Science at Queen’s. I got an email about this course.

My dad never went to University or anything but he himself did an apprenticeship and he was really encouraging me. It’s really good to have practical experience as well as educational, so I just jumped at the chance and took it on board and I’d definitely say it has lived up to my expectations. 

I like the way it’s structured and I get to go on different placements throughout my whole degree rather than having one full year out.

It’s really good to be able to have that uni experience and being able to apply that to the job environment. From my perspective, I was able to have a full year in uni before I had to go into placement and start applying it to the workplace and I definitely found that I was more equipped to work better in the working environment that if I had had to go in blind with no university education at all.

In terms of then coming back to uni after placement, I’ve definitely been more in tune with the business perspective when I’m studying my modules.

So, I’m not just thinking about studying for an exam, I’m thinking, well how can I apply this work that I’m doing in uni to a business perspective and a job in the future.”

Find out more about Higher Level Apprenticeships at Queen’s.

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ECIT Higher Level Apprenticeships Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Computer Science Software With Digital Technology

HLA Academic Case Study: Software with Digital Technology

Dr Charles Gillan, senior lecturer at the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Computer Science

“I’ve been with Queen’s now about 20 years as a senior lecturer and throughout that time, we’ve always had very strong links in our computer science department with industry, particularly on the research side with the ECIT Institute. It makes sense, then, for us to expand and deepen or links by proactively collaborating with employers for the undergraduate programme. And that is what the Higher Level Apprenticeships allow us to do on. We have a Software Engineering with Digital Technology partnership, which is strongly associated with PWC.

We engage with other employers as well in the University, law enforcement and banking to name two, who are particularly strong players in the IT sector in Northern Ireland. 

The content of our degrees therefore reflect challenges facing industry today and indeed facing all IT-based organisations. So, it’s not a surprise to learn that in the later years of our degree, students engage with cyber-security topics: malware and analytics related to Security. Plus, on the other side, artificial intelligence and machine learning are now driving lots of parts of the economy and our students have the opportunity to engage with modules on those topics. This is in addition to traditional computer science topics, such as advanced programming and performance. So, in the round it’s a degree which allows students to engage with all the topics that are active in IT at this time, so they generally report that they find it very interesting and exciting.”

Find out more about Higher Level Apprenticeships at Queen’s

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Employer Engagement Higher Level Apprenticeships Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week PwC Software With Digital Technology

HLA Employer Case Study: PWC

Joanne Corry, Student Recruitment Manager, PWC

“Our Higher Level Apprenticeship that we have with Queen’s University Belfast is a Software with Digital Technology. We have just recruited our fourth intake for 2021. It is a four-year degree programme, and you are an apprentice from Day One at Queen’s University. 

“For us as a firm, this partnership brings a lot of benefits. We have students that are quite focussed on what they want to do and the career path that they want to take.

They complete placements throughout their time at University with PWC – in first and second year, a 3-month placement from June to August, and then in third and final year they do nine-month placements, split over two placements. 

For us as a firm, it diversifies our workforce. So, we’re getting them straight from A level, they are learning up-to-date academic knowledge in that field and bringing those key skills into our workplace, which really benefits us as a firm.

We’ve had some amazing students in and we have already used some of their proposals of work they have done.

For the student, it is excellent. You are an employee of the firm from Day One. You get all your fees paid, you get a salary from PWC and alongside the salary and the University learning, you also have that support network in the firm as well. 

So, you will be able to be mentored by people that are specialist in the area that you wish to pursue your career in and support your academic learning also. 

We became involves in the HLA partnership because we felt it was necessary for our firm to look at other options and it’s been a real success to date.

It is important for PWC to have an influence on what’s covered within the programmme because that is what we need future employees of the firm to be aware of. Mixing that academic with industry experience gives the student a better overall experience of putting the theory in to practice, so it really important to have industry within that academic piece, to bring it all to life for the students and  see how it works in the real world.

There is a learning experience to come with it. There is a bit more pastoral care needed and a bit of upskilling in professionalism and how to conduct a conversation with clients etc, but what I would say is they take it up really quickly because they’re really engaged and really committed to what they’re doing.

We don’t really see them as apprentices but as graduates within the firm because they are doing the same level of work and they are coming back with that experience each placement.

There is probably a bit of structure needed in place to support them because it is a big learning experience for them, going betweenUniversity and the workplace. We have put a lot of time and effort into that to make sure we do give all the support that’s required.” 

Find out more about Higher Level Apprenticeships at Queen’s