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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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employability Employer Engagement Employer events Employer Insight Employer Panels Employer Q&A Employers Gradfest2021 Technical skills Technology Version 1

‘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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Employer Engagement Employer Insight Employer Panels Employer Q&A Employers Uncategorised Version 1

“The Google news tab can tell you the most recent company info, so you are not caught out in an interview”

Graham Ryan, Strategic Resourcing Manager at Version 1 gives his top tips on navigating the graduate recruitment and application process.

Graham Ryan, Version 1

How can I use my LinkedIn profile to stand out?

Okay, so first, depending on what you’re interested in from a business point of view, you know, follow the companies or [graduate] programmes…writing blogs, as we know, for the last couple years is a huge thing, you know to comment back on people you are following that are in your area that you either want to get into, or you’re in at the moment. But also don’t forget the personal side, your own interests, things like that don’t feel that LinkedIn is purely just from a business point of view. If you write a blog on something you’re interested in, that’s not necessarily in the area, you know people, you know, people like that and people are open minded, but definitely get involved, certainly from a blog point of view and liking and sharing material.

How do I build valuable work relationships in a virtual environment?

Okay so, when you’re coming onboard and starting in a new role you have to make a good first impression – that’s key. Regular catch up sessions with the business, don’t be scared to have chats with different people across the business. Gain trust from others by keeping up communication.

So, if I was going to do one thing today to make me stand out in the recruitment process, what would that be?

Just one of the key things here as far as research, you’ll find a lot of people do this but when you’re Googling a company just go in news tab, find out the recent stories so you don’t get caught in interview if a company has had a recent win they ask you about. Have a look at the news tab of Google when you are going for an interview in a company, it’ll give you the recent news just in case it’s brought up and you never know it might not be brought up, or the candidate could bring it up, which would be obviously very impressive, if someone did that.

What is the etiquette for virtual meetings? Should I keep my camera on, should put my hand up to contribute and when should I use the chat feature?

So obviously always camera on, unless you’re told otherwise. Certainly, camera on in interviews settings and meetings. The chat is used throughout, some people raise their hand on Microsoft Teams for example or else just write a comment if it’s a question or something like that. Don’t be afraid of what the right thing to do is, all the tools that are there, so put up your hand or write in the comment section… don’t overthink it. Don’t overthink it, don’t be worried about it. There’s no right or wrong way.

If I don’t like my job how long should I stick at it?

You might get better opportunities to move into different roles in the company. The opportunities are not going to be handed to you then, and you know if you get in, put your head down. Mightn’t be an area where you want to end up or stay, but just work hard on it and all of a sudden you’ll see the opportunities come at you, without a shadow of a doubt.

What are the top skills you’re looking for in graduates?

So in terms of technical skills first anyway in terms of that so like software engineers, it’s a big thing at the minute, data analytics, business analysis, DevOps engineers their level of skills and soft skills, well maybe we can upskill on themselves, you know, depending on the company, certainly development is a key area that we’re looking at. 

What support will I get starting a new job working from home?

You’ll get senior leaders in the business who are really impressed when graduates reach out to them. People are easily accessible nowadays – I know it’s not face to face but everyone’s online – a quick catchup for a 5-10 minute chat – you know it’s there. It’s seen as a really positive thing for senior leaders. 

What do you love to see in a new recruit?

Attitude, someone who’s very driven, open-minded. If you come with all the knowledge but a bad attitude a wrong attitude. Certainly, someone who comes in fresh and ready … It’s just a good idea to try different things and to get involved in different things based on the different projects and different teams and to hit the ground running.

What can I do to make myself more employable?

Okay so, so, upskilling. Use the time to upskill if you’re out of employment. We’ve seen in the last year people taking up banana bread and people have done stuff with their career as well – just explain what you’ve been up to as well.

What is the most common mistake you see in interviews?

Like at the end of the day an interview – it’s, it’s a conversation with a stranger. When you’re having a conversation with a stranger on the street you don’t just shut up shop. Treat it as a conversation that the interviewer’s trying to get more information out of you. So if you don’t know something or you’re unsure – get them to reword the question, what I would say certainly if you don’t know you don’t know. Be aware of the waffle – it’s natural because of nerves. But in terms of an engineer because it happens it’s actually taken for nerves as well as the press that every given question, but just think about it from that aspect. First impressions are key you will get some hiring managers that will listen to what their thoughts are, you know – have a smile like we do on a face to face smile and a strong handshake. Be yourself. Because if you come in with a shop. You know it’s just hard to come back from that.

Where can I find opportunities?

Ask your mates who’ve been through it recently or their siblings – you’ll be amazed at the different companies, you’ll get by reaching out to your friends and things.

If you Google news on a company how can you drop it into an interview without it sounding rehearsed?

You just say for example, there’s always a situation, when you get an opportunity to ask questions. Just say I noticed you won that or you’ve acquired this company – can you tell me a bit more about that? Bring it forward in the interview and wait until the end. 

What could I ask at the end of the interview?

Keep away from the question to ask for salary and things like that. Another thing you could say is, how would ideally a person succeed in this role? How could I shape this role? Rather than “what are the benefits?” Another thing to say is just, just not to curse. I know it sounds easy, but just to be conscious of that.

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

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Adaptability Discover EY Emotional Intelligence EY Gradfest2021 resilience Workplace Culture

“It’s important to be able to adapt to any change that comes your way.”

Rebecca Sinclair, a Student Talent Advisor at EY’s London office on why employers value cross-cultural sensitivity and emotional intelligence. 

Rebecca Sinclair, EY

What is cross cultural sensitivity and awareness and why is it so important in the workplace?

I think for me cross cultural sensitivity is really about cultural awareness and being able to work with different people from different backgrounds to you at any level. So maybe as a student, you know, working in teams of different people, welcoming people from different backgrounds to yourself. And then also, when you’re working your colleagues, your manager will when you become a manager, the people that are working with you might be from different backgrounds, or cultural backgrounds or otherwise. So I think cross cultural sensitivity and cultural awareness is being aware of those differences and celebrating those differences so that everyone feels like they can bring their best self to work really, or to whatever environment is,

Do you think an international experience like study experience or work experience abroad might help develop that skill?

Definitely, I think any experience you can get that puts you in a maybe out of your comfort zone, or that helps you to meet people from different backgrounds, you get different experiences under your belt will, will help. And there’s no better way to get exposure to different cultures and different ways of living and different lifestyles really than to travel. And things like a year abroad or study abroad or traveling, you may not always get the opportunity to do that at a later date. So the more you can make the most of opportunities that come your way the better I think.

What is emotional intelligence? And how is it valued in the workplace?

I’ve actually done some learnings about this. Recently, we have had the EY badges programme, and I’ve done their badge in Teaming. So quite a lot of the learning was about emotional intelligence and more of the people side of things, I think. So emotional intelligence is different to, kind of, IQ that you actually think about. Emotional intelligence is having that understanding of other people around you, and learning to be aware of other people’s emotions, or how they might be handling a situation so that when you’re talking to people, you’re working with people, you can pick up on those natural indicators of how they’re feeling. And if you’re, you know, delivering news, you can start to get to know that person. So you can think, you know, what questions might they have that are going to come up from this? What concerns or other emotions might they be feeling? So you can be aware of that so you can learn to adapt your style, so that you can work with them really well?

What type of role would require emotional intelligence?

To be honest, I think any role that you are dealing with any people in any, any platform, it would be useful skill to have in terms of emotional intelligence. Particularly in professional services, the roles that you’re working with clients, and you’re building those relationships with clients, which for us personal services, it’s what we do giving guidance to clients. So having that emotional intelligence skill, being able to collaborate really well with your colleagues or with your clients can really help and you can build that positive relationship with your client. So it is definitely something that we look for, throughout the process, that ability to work with others that are different to you, if you’re in a group exercise, making sure you’re read in the room, and you’re making sure that everyone’s you know, everyone’s comfortable, and they’re able to share what they think if someone’s being a bit quieter, you know, check in and see if they have any thoughts that they want to share what they think about that’s been discussed so far. So it is definitely a really important skill that we look for during the process.

What other skills are linked to emotional intelligence? 

So yeah, there’s loads of strengths that are closely related to emotional intelligence. The ones that come to mind are resilience. So that’s one of the key strengths that we look for throughout the process. So resiliency, to keep a positive mindset and when challenges and problems come up, maybe you need to take a minute, think about what’s happened, regroup, and then keep towards that goal that you want to achieve and maybe that goalpost might change, but you still have that resiliency in you to keep going. So resiliency is a key one, and that links to team working and emotional intelligence, you know, being able to kind of rally your team around you, if you’re going through maybe a budget cut, or the switch to working virtually rather than work in the office, you know, trying to keep positive and, you know, working with your team to help everyone get through what could be a talent or could be a difficult time. So resiliency is definitely a key one. And the other one I’ll mention is adaptability. So this is another one of the strengths that we look for being adaptable is really about links very closely to resilience that looks better as a team working, and it’s about being able to adapt to changes that come your way. So if a that’s the scope of a project changes, or the budget gets cut in half, it’s about being able to still regroup, figure out what changes you need to make implement these changes. So maybe you need to have a change of timeline. And you might need to think, okay, what’s now our biggest priority, because we’ve got less time to get things done. Or if a date changes to five years in the future, maybe this project now needs to completely change, it becomes something different for the time being, until there might be other priorities that you need to work on. So I think being adaptable, and being able to collaborate with others around you know, what you can bring to the table, knowing your own being aware of your own emotions, and what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. And when you perform your best is all really closely linked, I think,

How would an employer, for example EY, assess emotional intelligence? 

Our application process is partly through, like online tests. And we have a job simulation, which is the third stage at the final online test, and that’s linked to the job that you’re going to be doing. So for that one, you’ll get questions that are linked to the role. So say you’re applying for consulting or you’re applying for insurance or tax, it’ll be linked to that role. And through the questions that you’ll get there. We’ll be looking for that, that strength. So how do you work with others around you? How do you handle a change in in what’s going on? So you might get questions around, you know, how would you handle this particular situation? Or this news has come out or this something’s changed in the- your managers running late? Or the client wants something different? How do you handle that? So we’re looking for that resiliency? We’re looking for that collaboration? How do you work with others? And then at the Assessment Center, which we call that experience day, you’ll have different tasks that you’ll do. So some of them will be one to one, some of them will be in a group. And throughout, we’ll be looking for that collaboration, strength. So, you know, how do you work in a team? How do you communicate your ideas, and also how to make sure that everyone else is also contributing their own thoughts, making sure that everyone’s getting the chance to share and hope bouncing ideas around and how you then kind of bring those ideas together into the final outcome. And then the last stage is the final interview. And this is with a senior member of the team that you’re applying for. And again, they’re really looking for that collaboration, you know, so you might want to have some examples in your mind of how you’ve worked in a team, what the team achieved, but also, what did you personally do towards that team success? How did you support the team? How did you make sure that everyone, you know, kept going? Did you face some challenges? How did you regroup and keep that going positively? So it’s a vital skill anyway, but it’s definitely really important for us because we work so much with clients. So it’s a really key area that we look for.

And how can you develop that skill? 

So, there’s two different ways to think about it. So there’s sort of thinking about the theory side of things and developing the strength. So there’s loads of good resources that you can do in terms of EY, I’ve done the EY badges. So I’ve done I could spend hours talking about it, but I’ll keep it nice and succinct. So I’ve done the teaming badge, which is very much about you know, how you work in teams, how you can make sure that the team is working effectively. Maybe you’re working like virtually as we are now maybe you’ve got colleagues that are in a different country or a different time zone, you know, how do you work together? So there’s learnings he can do through those kind of badges. There’s also a badge about diversity and inclusion. And that was where I learned a lot about, like cross cultural, we’re talking about a bit earlier about how you can work with people from different backgrounds. So there’s learnings you can do in that. And there’s lots of good courses on things like Udemy, about working effectively in teams and cross collaboration and cross cultural experiences. There’s also things you can do like on watching TED Talks. So I watched a really good TED talk that was called the power of introverts. And that was about something about their experiences of being an introvert and how they’ve gone through that experience, and how you can be making sure that those are quieter, and your team can still feel included. So there’s that kind of learning aspect to it. So is that good books and TED talks and YouTube videos that you can get involved in. And then there’s also the experience side to things. So when you’re thinking about your own experiences, whether it’s like workplace, so anything working in a team, you know, a consulting firm, or working in a team at a supermarket, or working in a team at a cafe or anything? What team experiences do you have? You know, try and think about who’s on your team? Or who’s in your, your business area? And how do they- How do they work? You know, and think about your own experiences? When are you happiest? What are you doing at that time? When do you feel stress, what might be causing that stress? And the more that you can learn about your own performance and your own emotions and what kind of drives you, you can then start learning about other people. And then you can bring that into practice, when you’re thinking about interviews and preparing the interviews, and thinking about what teaming experiences you’ve had, and it’s the in what did the team do? What did the team achieve? And then what have you done towards that? What’s your personal contribution to that team working?

Do you think a gap year might develop that skill a lot more?

So from my personal experience, I always went straight into the next stage, and I never took a gap year or year abroad or anything like that. It’s not essential, it’s not something that we look for, you don’t need to have it. But I do think that having that year abroad, or that experience says something a bit different, can definitely add to your, your strengths and your experiences. And especially it can give you a good platform to talk about, you know, challenges that you’ve gone through I know, some of the offer holders that we’ve had recently have talked about experiences like volunteering abroad and working in teams of people from lots of different countries and helping a community or doing something that’s just a bit different and a bit out there. So it can definitely add to your experiences your application and show that you’ve had these experiences and what you’ve learned from them. And it can get you to something a bit different to stand out. I think.

Do you think that travel can actually develop those qualities such as resilience or productivity, for employment in the future?

Yeah, I’m sure it would, I think resiliency is a difficult skill to master. So the more different experiences you go through, and you might have to face challenges and overcome them can definitely help build towards that. And many people do years abroad, or they spent time living in it in a different country that they would never have the opportunity to do. So you’ll naturally develop some strengths that you probably never would have had the opportunity to develop if you hadn’t had that opportunity. So I think it can definitely help to build your resiliency skills and learn more about yourself throughout that process as well. And also, it’s a great experience to try something different level a different country and you know, do something a bit different.

And so, why would employers like EY, for example, value resiliency or flexibility, in their employees?

So I mean, there’s gonna be loads of reasons why we look for it, but it’s definitely something that we look for throughout the process. I mean, look for it in our people. We’re very people focused organization, both in terms of the work that we do for clients, you know, we provide guidance to them, and what the client will need is constantly changing and evolving. A lot of the stuff we’re doing at the moment is on digital innovation and, you know, industries being massively disrupted by innovation and tech and especially that’s been escalated over the last year. Working virtually. So it’s a rapidly changing industry, a new regulation can come out or there can be a massive change in the wider environment like this last year has shown. So companies, our clients need to rapidly adapt. So we need to be there for them. And we need to be flexible and adaptable. And we need to be thinking about you know, what’s out there? Is there a new tech coming out? Or is there a new regulation coming out that might need to be thinking about so that we can be that go to advisor for them.

And so is that why employers look for someone who’s adaptable?

Yeah, so we call it agility in terms of the strength that we look for. So it’s about being agile to new, new things out there, whether that’s a new regulation, or a new way of working, or a new opportunity for one of our clients. And we look for that strength through your experiences, whether it’s, you know, previous work experience, or whether it’s working in a team, in a sports club, or working in some other some other experiences you’ve had in your personal life where you something changed. And, you know, it got through a difficult time or the last year and how you adapted to that and, you know, studied from home or worked from home or did something different. So we look for that agility, skill, being able to take on new opportunities, learn new skills, learn new, pick up new information, and then apply it to what we’re doing. So where you might have been our client site and been able to go up to a client and ask their advice. And the same in the kind of student environment, you might have been working in a team on a team project, and you can all chat and bounce ideas in person. And then you have to adapt that to online. And maybe you’re on a zoom call, or Microsoft Teams call or something else to then try and hash out ideas and figure out what you wanted to do. And it’s about how did you adapt to that situation? And what did you learn from that time?

How do you think employers can test a candidate’s agility?

So we like to look for that strength. And we like to challenge so you might have questions like, you know, what would you do? Or how would you handle if your client disagreed with you? Or how would you handle if your manager wanted to go in a different direction, and we’ll be looking for that response of how you’d handle the client, or how you’d handle your team. And maybe you’d, you know, reflect and go back and get some more evidence to support this change. Or maybe you’d work closely with the client on what they what direction they wanted to go in. And really, we’re looking for how you handle that situation, how you think about the clients best interests, how you maintain the integrity throughout that process, as well. So it’s the integrity of the company. And it’s also thinking about the client and how we can be supporting the client to get the best outcome for them as well.

How do you think students should use a gap year to develop skills such as agility?

Yeah, so I think it’s all about putting yourself out of your comfort zone during that experience. So whether it’s some kind of travel, or whether it’s some kind of volunteering, work, you know, think about what, think about why your comfort level is where you are now, and then try and think of things that are going to challenge you and they’re going to help you develop. So I didn’t take a gap year, but I did a volunteering project in Borneo, Malaysia. And we were working with a, a center there that work with disabled children, and we were building a sensory garden for them. And so through that experience, I had never had any real life experience of that before. And so it took me out my comfort zone, I was in a different climate, it was really hot and muggy that all the time, which I wasn’t used to. And I was working face to face with loads of different children I hadn’t met before, I hadn’t really had experience working with children before, and especially children with different kind of learning abilities. So that definitely put me on my comfort zone. And then I talked about that in my interview, but how I’d worked in a team with the other people that were there with me and we’re done like the physical work building this playground, but we’d also had this learning opportunity that hadn’t experienced before. And so you could talk about what you learn from it experience, how it’s then helped you when you go on to work with different people that you haven’t worked with before and from that learning so you can show that you’re really comfortable with working with different people. And you’ve had this experience and you’ve gained this from it.

Would you recommend something like that, like volunteer experience? 

I would recommend, like I said, anything that puts you out your comfort zone, and especially through the last year, there’s probably lots of different places that need support at the moment. So I think any experience that you can get that will put you out your comfort zone, that will help you to learn more about yourself and also more about others around you can help. So there’s loads of different volunteering opportunities that you can do, whether it’s more, you know, working with people, and there’s opportunities like in a teaching English in different countries, or working with children or working with adults, or there might be opportunities more like project based, like helping to clear up some land or build a house or something like that. And there’s also opportunities closer to home, I find that there’s like National Trust opportunities you can get involved in. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be abroad. But I do think that having experience to work with people who are different to you and different to your background, whatever your background, might be, can help you learn as well. So that when you then go into the working world, you know, you’ve had this exposure to different things. And you’ve developed skills about yourself, and you think, well, if I got through, like that time when I was away from home and like compensate, I can do this project. So I think it’s good in that aspect.

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Categories
Commercial Awareness Employer Engagement Employer events Employer Insight Employer Panels Employer Q&A Employers Gradfest2021 Randox

“Employers want to know that you have researched their specific sector.”

Courtney Ward, a Quality Team Leader at Randox, shares her advice for graduates.

Courtney Ward, Randox

So what is commercial awareness?

So commercial awareness to me means having a real understanding of all the key companies operating in a specific industry or area or sector, you know, a knowledge of the different products that those different companies sell, what services they offer, and any kind of direct competitors, you know, companies offering the same product, you know, or any kind of slight differences between those products that they offer, and kind of my advice to graduates would be to really do your market research, yes you may be interested in various  different you know sectors or kind of companies but make sure you’ve done a little bit of digging a little bit of research around that area and who definitely, maybe the geographical area you’re interested in, who are the key players, you know, in that area.

What ways might an employer assess commercial awareness on an application form or a cover letter?

So, they’ll look that you’ve actually done your research, you know, they’ll look that you’ve tailored your cover letter or application to that specific employer or sector, that’s one of the biggest things. Show them that you’ve done the time and the research in their area. You know – then they’ll take their time with your cover letter if you haven’t taken the time with them then they won’t take the time with you. So you know making sure that you demonstrate that you have an awareness of the business landscape, you know that you’re aware of that and how that role that you’re applying for fits into it you know they’ll want to see that you’ve actually read the job spec, and you’ve demonstrated that again, back in the cover letter you know that you’ve hit all those key essential criteria, and just indicate to them that you’re aware of where they fit against other companies and I really think tailoring is the biggest thing, tailoring it that you’ve read, you know, their details and if you answer all of the you know the, the criteria or desirables they’re looking for, or address some of them they now know that you’ve actually read it and as you’re happy, and understanding, you know what it is they’re actually looking for. 

How can you demonstrate an understanding of the business and knowledge of his activities and products?

So, take every opportunity in your interview to demonstrate this, so as I said, doing that market research and that research in the company beforehand is really critical. But make sure you take the chance to express that in the interview don’t do all that research and then not saying anything about it unless you know, don’t wait for the question. Take your opportunity. So, common questions will be, you know, why did you apply for this role for this company? So that’s your key to go and demonstrate your research, you know, do they have a top-selling product or service? You know, mention that, you know, they’ve been demonstrate that they’re moving into a new area, or they have an upcoming product – you know, mention that you’ve seen that, you know, that you’re aware that they have that product or that service and offering. Have they won any awards for any of their products? We can always drop in or, you know, ‘award-winning product or service’ and things like that. A big one would be to read the latest news section so a lot of companies -particularly Randox will always put new brand new things or things that are out of the company on the latest news on our website so always check in that because that’ll be the big things they want to share so that’s your first check box – oh I actually went on the website, read what’s happened with the company. 

When’s the most appropriate moment to mention your research in an interview?

So it could be why are you attracted to this role, what does this role mean to you? If your role directly relates to any of those products or latest news? If I were to do it for my role – what interests you in a quality role? You could say I’m interested in having high standard testing, making sure everything is meeting all the criteria. I saw you guys recently got your accreditation or you guys were awarded some other accreditation for a certain test – that could be a nice way to roll that in. So I think prepping before hand is really good. So if I ever have interviews what I would do would be to write down those key questions that I think they’re going to ask and prep a little bit of an answer – nearly like an exam – you know making sure.. well this kind of goes out the window in an interview when you’re nervous – but having done it beforehand you will have at least though through the answers.

So how important is it for a graduate to keep up with economic and political trends and what exactly does that mean?

That is a really difficult for graduate you know that’s something that you’re only going to learn when you get into an industry you know, there’s only so much research and that you can do with it experience in the job role of how things affect different businesses. I think being aware that they can so example would be, oil and gas, political trends you know will affect industries, different economic upturns and downturns you know will affect that. The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest one there so whenever we began the testing back in March 2020 you could not get your hands on supplies, materials for testing, they became like gold dust when the entire world is trying to test for COVID-19 – lab consumables, pipettes, reagents, all become, you know the limiting factor, industries, not be able to get into manufacture them to get out so that was a key thing, that’s something that even me before this all happened I wouldn’t even think that that could have to that was an experience that I had, you know, going through my role. Again – rollout of vaccinations is another good one, you know that was a real political and economic debate so being up to date with current affairs, reading really good kind of online publications, you know that talk about these things. It’s a really good way, even if – you don’t need to know the ins and outs of it, a very broad level understanding will set you apart from other graduates you know by even actually having went that bit farther and trying to get that understanding. 

How important is it for a candidate to research, and keep up to date with knowledge of an industry or knowing the major players so the competition that you’re up against the brand, how important is it to know all of those?

I think it is important because particularly for certain roles – it will be more important. So, if you’re doing sales, for example, you know that’s really, really important that people want to know, well actually I know that your company is the best seller of this reagent, you know, so I know that it’s up against these other you know players and difference in geographical, you know, where does that company sell, you know will be very important. Again, you’ll not be expected to know everything but you know, having an awareness of that is so important. Following different publications, there’s lots of resources online, you know that will do these kinds of reports and trends you know of different areas. but again, social media posts, that’s actually – LinkedIn is actually really great source. You can follow CEOs of companies you know different people, they’re always gonna be posting on mine when something is doing well, they’ll post those key facts and figures. So it’s hard to keep up, particularly as a student, if you’re doing your exams you know you have expected to spend all day long. Dipping in and out of it – create like your own kind of professional Twitter your own professional you know what your LinkedIn will be – but one tailored  to do that so you can say oh well, actually half an hour today ago set and have a look at the industries and look down and then you can look down any key facts and figures that you see, bringing company feeds for example, around our Randox newsfeed we’ve publicised quite heavily our achievements with the COVID 19 pandemic and our different tests. So we will always put things on there quite regularly. So, if the company really using social media and actually makes it a lot easier, because I’ll be posting stories quite regularly.

So how can you demonstrate an awareness of how your role affects business performance and how your actions as a graduate affect the business’ bottom line?

I think, read around the role – a lot of roles, despite being vastly different industries will have may have different names, but to be very similar role, you know, certain types of companies will have the same role, no matter what it is the sector they’re in. See if you can find any testimonials – people, you’ll often find online people saying, a day in the life of such and such, you know a specific role. Can you find anything detailing, those different roles, every role is imperative to a business, so being able to see how it fits in the bigger picture is important, reach out to people on LinkedIn, you know, in that role. I have some questions about that, some people will be responsive to that you know they will be willing to offer you some advice on that. And also highlight any kind of experience or transferable skills you have, no matter where you’ve worked in what areas you will always have a transferable skill. There’s skills you know like communication, teamwork, whether you whether you’re the top dog or just entry level you will have been demonstrating the same skills across the board so even if you’re going from one sector to another and that’s a complete 180, you will have transferable skills. That was really when we had to hire a lot of testing staff, obviously the testing numbers that we do. We got a lot of applicants from people with non-science backgrounds. They were able to demonstrate to us that you know yes, I have to have a science degree but I have all these key transferable skills. They slotted right into the roles with us. So, you know, for me from my background I got pulled in from design and then was that in doing PCR testing so it really is. I have transferable skills and think that yes some of them were technical but there’s all these skills that were so important to my participation in the Randox kind of National Testing programme.

So what are your top tips to develop a commercial awareness?

As I said before, it’s a lot of time and effort, and typically when you’re still doing your studies, it can be a bit overwhelming but just that little bit and often I think keep yourself in the loop, particularly if you have a passion for a certain industry or a certain sector, or a certain company, you know, you may have followed up from you were young, just keeping up, up to date into that specific, you know, professional Twitter accounts that you follow relevant people you could dip in and out off wherever you want to, set up email alerts you know for relevant Twitter feeds, relevant terms , follow different reporters or some reporters who are very interested, you know, in certain sectors you know they’ll always publish really useful information for you. And so, I think, little and often is the key. It can be overwhelming but even taking that first step forward, will really set you apart from other graduates. 

How important are time management skills, organisation skills, planning skills and prioritisation? How important are these and how can you develop them?

They are really important, no matter what area you work in the business, be it science and r&d, sales, anything. All of these, all these skills are transferable and they’re very important at all the different roles  and you’ll develop them no matter what role you’re in. It’s very important to ask for  feedback so from both your peers, and from your supervisors or anything like that, you know, can they offer you any constructive feedback you know of anything if any of those particular skills that you think you want to build on, because sometimes it’s hard to see from outside – someone might say you’re really good, you know, at time management, I’m really impressed. Maybe your organisation could be a bit better but these are things you can do. So just being vocal on that.  One of the big things with graduates is the fear of the phone. No matter what business you’re in, you need to pick up that phone if someone is asking you we need a response we need that information right now, you might think I’m going to send them an email first and give them a couple of hours, you know you need confidence, picking up the phone and even, even after all my studies and my PhD and stuff, with all emails whenever I went into the kind of, you know, an industry job, you have to do that. So, you can always follow up with a good follow up with an email with a call, you know, discuss those and say, as we discussed in the phone – here’s all the points the from the call. But yeah, That’s a big thing, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone – you’ll forge relationships that way and then you can always call them again. It’s always good to get relationships with people in certain areas.

How can a student who doesn’t have professional experience demonstrate skills in an interview? 

One of the big things with that would be flexibility. So being able to show – I’ve been involved in a number of different clubs and societies – I’ve juggled a part time job with my studies, you know, I’ve been able to do it that way, because for the most part you’ll never really have one project, you’ll probably have five, you know, and you’ll have to keep them all long side by side, you know, like did you study different courseworks as mini projects, you know that you’ve got yourself through to the end. Communication, really important, as I said, you know, I can pick up the phone and I can call people, I can communicate with people at various different levels, you know. Were you a student rep, where you communicated with lecturers, key people in the course organisation, your peers. Persuasion and negotiation is a hard one to demonstrate particularly as a student I used to give workshops on how to do this. Have you had to persuade different clubs for time, use of a room, use of a football pitch? That’s persuasion and negotiation – negotiating for different tutorial times. Everyone will have evidence of these skills – it’s taking the time to sit down and actually write them down, you know, being able to be specific with them you will have them it’s just one of the hardest things.  Keep a record, you know, keep a record for yourself when you demonstrate certain things now when it comes to those job interviews, you can open your book and I did that last day and they did that.

How important is it to stay calm under pressure?

It’s really important. I can say from working in testing labs whenever the samples are flowing in at an astronomical number, you really have to keep your pressured head. It can be overwhelming, different work – someone might come in and there’s 10 different people vying for your expertise and your time at any one point. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to step back and take your time to think about how you’re going to respond to all of these different pressures. Some people will just go ahead and start rushing through it but I think it’s important to take, even if it’s 5-10 minutes to kind of sit down. I always make lists, you know, what are the things I need to do, and I still even if it’s tiny – I’ll write it down and tick it off because always feels really good, because otherwise you’re just sitting thinking I’ve ten things to do and you can’t focus on the job at hand so sometimes write it all down to prioritise it. Take that 10 minutes take that half an hour, even if you’re under pressure, that’s most important. It’s like essay answers – taking the time to brainstorm, you know different projects at work. And then you know you’re going to answer all the things you need to do and you’re going to do it effectively.

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