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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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‘University graduates can be the catalysts for organisational change’

Dermot Murray, Senior QA Engineer at Version 1 gives his top tips on embracing workplace systems and tech.

Dermot Murray, Version 1

Why would you say enthusiasm to embrace tech is important in graduate roles?

It’s very important. Just in terms of the kind of innovation and bringing a fresh perspective to companies. So, like graduates are at the forefront of theoretical thinking. And what we’re looking to do is actually apply this knowledge into the real life and into the work industry. So, like if you take for example, a lot of kind of, you know, hardware and software, you know, the iPod Touch, for example, let’s say you know, it’s quite redundant nowadays because things change very quickly. And what we’re looking at is innovation and more efficient ways of working in industries, so, you know, one thing that companies can fall in the trap of is, you know, being reluctant to change. And actually graduates can be the catalyst for leading change. An example I can give would be, you know, the pandemic, for example, working from home. This is the kind of new normal that everyone’s really in, but you know, your university experience user being at the forefront of this, and how did you adapt and overcome these challenges? You know, the initiatives you use brought in terms of communication, engagement, socialising? These are all the things that need to be transferred into the industry. And these are things that we’re looking for. So it’s extremely important for enthusiasm and embracing change.

In what ways does your business rely on tech to maximise performance?

So it’s no surprise that for Version 1, it’s absolutely essential. So, we are consultancy, and we do specialise in supporting the digital transformation for clients. So we bring people through a journey using various technologies, what we try to do is use the cutting edge to deliver for our clients. But internally, so that’s the probably technical side. But you know, what we actually do ourselves is we use it to communicate and standardise. I’ll give a few examples of, you know, some of the kind of tech initiatives that we do, we have a podcast, you know, once a year one in which we have conversations within the industry. On our website, we’ve got webinars, blogs, white papers, news articles, and these are things you know, to engage with the industry and engage with many different people, social media platforms, that Instagram that I’m on right now, we’ve also got Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. You name it for contact. And internally, as much as maybe you know, us, us and university, we’re using teams to communicate with clients. And finally, then, you know, we’ve got like a SharePoint with a widevariety of tools, for using timesheets, you name it, so absolutely essential, yes indeed.

How would you go about proving ability to use common programmes and apps in an interview?

That’s a good question. It’s hard to kind of slide that into the question, how you’re phrasing that. I think the star approach is quite interesting. So, you know, kind of being concise and what that really is – situation, task, action and result. And maybe within the action, you could incorporate these kind of common tools and what you’ve done. So maybe an example that I could give would be that, say, one of your modules, and you’re required to do presentation, will, the action in which you can provide could be, you know, using PowerPoint efficiently and effectively, to relay the information to your peers, to you know, everyone, like the ultimate result being you know, like you achieve top marks. And also, there’s definitely ways of fitting into the question tools in which you know, you can, you know, provide results for if that makes sense.

What examples can you use of innovating to maximise technology?

One example could be for a solution, there could be an alternative tool or technology that could be used, or maybe you could extend in a technology. So for example, that’s you know, we’re on a Teams meeting, Microsoft Teams, and we’re trying to kind of collaborate together, you know, some project, there’s a tool – Slack, which can actually be used for sketching. And that’s quite useful for like, you know, drawn with feedback, kind of in sketching, going through walk walkthroughs so you know, instead of using teams, maybe you could migrate your kind of communication to Slack. The point on expanding then is, you know, using it in additional scope as well, slack also has like a kind of app directory as well. So you can add in polls, you know, chatbots news feeds. And there’s different ways of just, you know, not kind of following what is set in front of you, but actually using your initiative and, you know, embracing the tech really, and, you know, leading on further so I suppose.

How would you advise a student to show their passion for tech when they don’t have a tech background? 

So, I suppose from my perspective, I have to put myself out of the mindset of being in tech. But that’s, I think, a good way of kind of, you know, showing your enthusiasm can really be through hobbies and interest, really. So that’s dependent on the person, but I’ll give you an example, maybe of a few kind of hobbies and interests that I have, you know, if I’m reading a book, for example, you know, I’m interested in reading, specifically, one of the books I’m reading right now is on the stock markets, flash boys are called, and it’s on high frequency trading, and the kind of idea of being closer to the stock market servers. Think sports, you know, we’ll play a bit of football. And I’m kind of using, you know, stat sports. So it’s kind of integrate and, you know, heart monitor, kind of initiatives and all that stuff. And then Sports Science again that podcast I’m interested in, there’s one, dark net diaries, but just kind of cybersecurity focus. So even though I’ve kind of got my technical job, if you picked up the side, there’s a whole wide range of kind of, you know, industry within tech and these tech tools in which you can like, kind of, take your hobby, and maybe think of, you know, some kind of innovation in tech tools that you can use to, you know, showcase that. So, just a few points of my interest might not be to impress everyone here.

How can you show that you have the ability to adopt and use technology in an interesting way?

Yeah, so I think you could maybe think about how you can use it an interesting way, think about, like, what you’re currently using stuff for the think of like, you know, your smartphone, for example. It’s got so many applications in which you can download, as I mentioned, with your hobbies, you know, Strava, being able to, like, you know, detect your matrix of roaming, for example, everything, these are kind of, you know, common applications that you don’t really think that you’re using, but you’re actually using, think of maybe, you know, smart appliances, for example, around the house, you might have kind of smart TV, or smart lamp, and how you can actually then, you know, showcase that and help people. So I’ve got family that always asked me ‘Dermot, how do you do this, do that.’ And I’m always kind of demonstrating to them, but also by kind of, you know, using this tech, you understand it more, and you can actually demonstrate it to other people. And that really helps with your show of skills with kind of, you know, leadership, it helps for what the industry is really looking, you know, you’re looking a community of practice people who share, collaborate and transfer knowledge together. And just by getting cool, and getting stuck in really kind of corny, it’s not.

How can you embrace technology and help others to do so?

I’ve really touched on that and for example, of maybe helping, you know, that’s, you know, like, update the latest software on his phone or laptops, for example, some security plan says, and my mom dad’s face, you know, helping them kind of just stuff yet. And that’s kind of you know, one of the things really just by getting involved and getting stuck in even necessarily you don’t quite understand that at the time but by getting involved in that tool, and helping other people you know, you’re helping yourself as well. And I think it’s just kind of a stage of getting involved really is the best way to do that.

How important what would you say, is practical experience of workplace technology.

So, I do think it’s kind of very important, you know, you’ve got the theory behind it, and you want to kind of, you know, put it practical. So that’s the kind of stuff you know, with uni, you’d want to take into the industry and kind of get stuck in. And that really is the word kind of get stuck in. I never imagined myself kind of growing up to be a software tester. But getting involved in the IT industry, you see kind of what opportunities arise. And not even just within the kind of tech sector, think about the other different industries, in which you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting involved in, but by you know, utilising tech tools and, you know, embracing innovation, think of that as the bigger picture rather than, you know, specifically just tech related, but innovation. Going back to kind of, you know, tech, there’s a lot of open source tools that you can use, and they will be free to use in terms of, you know, try and find the right things, there’s a lot of free trials of stuff. So for example, maybe like Photoshop or video editing skills, if you need some experience, but then in industry, or within a kind of, you know, hobby that say, I don’t know what but you can maybe use that for like 30 days or seven days, and that might be sufficient to kind of pick up your skills. Finally, as well, like, there’s, if you’re going technical, there’s, you know, Azure has free courses for students, and it also has a free account where you can get, you know, up to 200 pounds, etc, you know, that kind of sandbox and play with kind of technical tools. And, yeah, I think as well, one important thing is even like the practicalness of social media is so important, and a lot of kind of students and people forget, you know, how important it is for companies. So even just, you know, you’re you’re getting full freight and with kind of social media, and that practical way of applying your skills. 

How can you demonstrate that you have developed key workplace skills, and technology?

Yeah, so the demonstration then is kind of, by providing and showing examples of how you’ve kind of came up with that, I think, like, by demonstrating as well, you need to kind of understand, firstly, that it depends on the role. Or at least, like, there’s a lot of opportunities in which you can actually, you know, enhance your skills, I would give examples of, you know, on LinkedIn, if anyone’s involved aon LindkedIn, there’s a lot of webinars in which you can kind of do get involved within tools and tech and understand kind of components. As well as that specifically within your industry. I think like one or two personal references, which I used to be Udemy. And it’s good for kind of, you know, harnessing and developing skills, and then being able to present them and relay them back into work back into my CV and back into kind of, you know, day to day skills as well. So there’s a lot of opportunities out there. And there’s a lot of kind of free things that you can view online and just taking upon each of the applications as well, such as meetups really, like might be a bit hard during the pandemic, but embracing the change, maybe you know, Slack or, you know, Teams might be a good solution for that. So webinars. Yeah.

What soft skills would you say go hand in hand with tech skills?

There’s, there’s a lot really like, one thing to think is, is well, that, you know, technology skills are just tools of making your soft skills more efficient than effective. So like numeracy skills, for example. I mean, that that’s really given within the IT industry, you know, you could talk about coding performance or all aspects, but not just specifically with the IT industry, like you can think about, you know, your communication skills with putting this many times but social media, using teams, you know, creativity skills as well. creativity to complex solutions, like my job is doing quality assurance, and it kind of plays into analytical thinking and problem solving. And by problem solving, you have to be very creative on you know, there’s a lot of constraints to the problem and how you fix that. So there’s there’s definitely ways to express willingness to learn as well. So embracing the technology which is the key point of everything, being able to, you know, go into new skills and new tools and test new systems up correctly. And even gone non technical within the IT industry, you know, there’s a lot of project masters and kind of, you know, Scrum masters etc project manager sorry that, you know, we really focus on organisation and there’s a lot of kind of tools that are available to you know help kind of do that, calendars, JIRA for, you know, management. So, they’re inextricably linked, really in my opinion.

What would you say you should include in the IT skills section on your CV?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I suppose it’s dependent on the possession and the industry, I mean, you should really do your research on kind of, you know, what type of roles you’re applying for, and kind of think about that, I think, but whenever you were talking about the common applications in the office 365 suite, you know, there’s always, you know, opportunity ability to kind of show that, and that’s, you know, applicable across any industry. Think about the bespoke software on which you can use, might go back to, you know, if you’re doing some design with somebody with a website in Photoshop could be useful, you know, five years from now, that could be a tool your skill to be included. But going back, then definitely have a look at the industry standards in which you’re applying for. So if I go back to my kind of key position, I’d be looking for kind of buzzwords with selenium, kotlin, cucumber, postman, Java, just you know, as an interfere. And if I just see that within an application, that would pique my interest, and you know, like, that would be the same thing that you need to think then is going to position like, take up the industry standard tools, and learn a wee bit about that. So whenever you go into, you know, an opportunity or an interview, you’re able to kind of, you know, demonstrate ‘Yes, I know what that is certainly’. Also, it’s always nice to kind of add in any certifications that you’ve got within your university – Udemy courses, as well as other mentions. And definitely, as well, like, you can also maybe use going back to the kind of soft skills that you’re mentioning, you can maybe then use IT skills to support your soft skills. So I’m good at communication. Here’s a reason. So evidence based as well so it’s ready and can be used really.

Interested in Version 1? Version 1 are currently recruiting. You can find details of their current vacancies on the Gradfest2021 site

Version 1 are proud sponsors of GradFest2021

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Queen’s intern abroad designs award-winning fire fighters’ helmet

Imagine you’re a firefighter entering a burning building. The room is so thick with smoke that you can’t see. How do you know which way to turn? This was the challenge set for Queen’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering graduate Sean Hackett before he helped design an award-winning fire fighters’ helmet that tells the wearer which way to turn with a simple buzz to the left or right of the head.  

As an IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience intern), Sean is enjoying a year placement as an intern at the Visual Intelligence Studio in Carnegie Mellon University in the USA, where he is part of a research team exploring a safer communication tool for firefighters. 

Under Senior Systems Scientist Dr. Yang Cai, the ‘Haptic Helmet’ prototype conceived by Sean’s team won the award for “most commercially viable” at the NIST Haptic Interface for Public Safety Challenge. The contest assessed the use of virtual reality environments as a development tool for creating safety technologies. 

As part of the project, Sean and the team travelled to Denver, Colorado for live demos in a fire fighting training facility. This practical experience allowed them to understand how firefighters navigate unfamiliar paths through burned buildings filled with smoke and noise.

Sean said: “The experience of interacting with real-life firefighters and working independently on solutions has been very interesting for me.”

The prototype helmet

Dr Yang said: “We encourage engineers to find simple solutions that work in the real world. “Although I give them instructions to guide and get them started, I also encourage them to use their own knowledge and experiment because in the real world there is no textbook that tells you what to do and engineers have to work on a lot of problem-solving”.

Along with Dr Yang, Sean and the team worked to develop technology that successfully improves firefighter’s safety and efficiency of in the most challenging and hazardous environments.

Sean with fellow intern Florian Alber

During his internship, Sean has also been helping edit a research paper for presentation on “Indo-Navigation and Fire Fighters Activity Recognition”. 

Dr Yang commented: “Students and participants from western Europe have a brilliant work ethic. Together, they produce research papers and work on innovative solutions, adding value to the lab. Some European interns have great writing style in addition to other talents and that is monumental when it comes to writing and editing research papers for conferences, which is great additional help.”

Sean works on drone projects for public safety alongside a fellow researcher

According to Sean, it wasn’t hard settling into the new environment thanks to the immense support offered at the lab. “Of course, it’s challenging to be away from friends, family, and home. It takes a little while for the initial adjustment of the processes and procedures but once that is done, it’s pretty smooth sailing.”

Sean and Florian check out the Grand Canyon

The year stateside has also given Sean the opportunity to experience American culture and interact with people from diverse backgrounds, participate in social activities and enjoy American adventure and sports.

To find out more about IAESTE internships, visit https://iaeste.org/open_internships

More about Sean’s research

To discover more work and study abroad programmes, visit our Global Opportunities page

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“My life changing experience on an international internship”

Queen’s Chemistry student Anwin Robin has described a paid internship with the British Council’s IAESTE (International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience) programme as “the best year of my life.”

Like many Queen’s students, Anwin took the opportunity to gain international experience and boost his employability skills on a paid placement abroad. 

Anwin, from Dromore in County Down, moved to Switzerland in June 2019 to work with Empa – Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.

Anwin said: “During my internship I drew on my background as a chemistry student to carry out research into making stronger materials. Knowing that they may be used in the future in structures ranging from airplanes to wind turbines made my work feel tangible and relevant.”

Anwin at work in Switzerland

The best year of my life

During his time in Switzerland, Anwin also had the opportunity to meet up other interns working across the country through weekend excursions organised by IAESTE, the largest global mobility programme for STEM students in the world. 

Anwin added: “My time in Switzerland has been the best year of my life so far. My IAESTE placement showed me how international many companies are today and confirmed that I want to grow my work experience outside of the UK. I will forever be grateful to IAESTE for providing me with this opportunity.”

Adapting for Covid-19

Anwin enjoyed the experience so much that when Switzerland went into lockdown because of Covid-19, he chose to stay in the country and continue his internship from home. He also used this as an opportunity to develop his coding skills.

Anwin has remained in Switzerland since finishing his IAESTE placement in May. He is currently applying to further internships in the country and hopes to eventually study for a Masters in computer science.

Whilst Covid-19 has restricted much travel this summer, many IAESTE placements have shifted online in response.

Among the 15 students from Northern Ireland who are currently undertaking remote internships with organisations in the USA, India, Bangladesh and Poland, are several Queen’s students who are joining online seminars and discussions. Their subject areas include biomedical science, business and marketing, computer science, aerospace engineering and chemical engineering.

Life changing impact

Jonathan Stewart, Director of the British Council Northern Ireland, said: “It’s wonderful to hear about the lifechanging impact of Anwin’s IAESTE placement, and we wish him all the best as he starts out in his career. Despite Covid-19, the IAESTE programme has quickly adapted and continues to offer quality opportunities for our university students to gain international experience. The remote internships help to provide Northern Ireland students with new technical skills while also experiencing different cultures and ways of working.”

In Northern Ireland IAESTE is funded by the Department for the Economy and delivered by the British Council.

Queen’s STEM students interested in applying for the IAESTE programme can find more information here:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/study-work-abroad/outside-uk/iaeste

For more information on work or study abroad programmes, visit our Global Opportunities site