BCS NI Awards: In conversation with recent winners

  • Recent recipients discuss their work and how industry recognition has helped them.

    Northern Ireland’s IT and tech sector has seen rapid growth in the past several years thanks to both large firms expanding and an explosion in the local start-up scene.

    As the official chartered institute for IT, BCS NI has been an important part of Northern Ireland’s IT sector at all stages, with strong links to local schools and members throughout industry.

    The annual BCS NI Awards celebrate those who go the extra mile to help develop the local IT scene, whether through their dedication to formal education and mentorship or outstanding leadership within their company. The awards highlight individuals that are held up as role models in the local IT and tech sector and help to showcase the region’s computing skills to the wider community.

    Sync NI caught up with some of the recent winners of the award to find out more about the work they do, how they got into the IT industry, and what the future holds for them.

    Roisin Rice, St Mary’s College

    IT Educator of the Year 2019

    Roisin Rice has been teaching ICT for most of her career and now works with young people to inspire the next generation of digital natives at St Mary’s College in Derry. “I am passionate about being an educator and I am always looking out for new and innovative ways to teach and inspire the young people that I work with,” she told us. So when she heard about the Digital Schoolhouse programme that uses play-based learning to teach computational thinking skills at a young age, Roisin knew it would be perfect for St Mary’s.

    “My school principal, Mrs Marie Lindsay is an extremely innovative leader and when I explained how the programme worked we decided to submit an application for St Mary’s College to become a Digital Schoolhouse. After a lengthy and rigorous application process we were awarded Digital Schoolhouse status, at that time one of only five in Northern Ireland.”

    The scheme has been an unparalleled success in the tech education field, with the workshops being fully booked in a matter of hours from its first launch. “Over the course of the Year 2018 – 2019 nearly 900 primary school children and over 60 teachers had taken part in this exciting and fun filled programme,” Roisin told us. “It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding years of my teaching career.” 

    Roisin’s experience at St Mary’s has helped with mentoring young children in developing computational thinking skills, an essential early step that equips people to develop skills that could make them the software engineers and IT leaders of their generation. “It was during this time that I met Dr Irene Bell, Chair for Northern Ireland Computing at Schools and the Regional Academic Lead for Digital Schoolhouse who supported and encouraged us on our Digital Schoolhouse journey.” In recognition of her effort, Dr Bell nominated Roisin for the BCS NI 2019 IT Educator of the Year award.

    Roisin actually came into ICT later in her career, initially completing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Social and Economic History at Queen’s University Belfast before doing post-graduate ICT study at Ulster University. “I have been fortunate to have been teaching during a time of great change and innovation in digital technologies,” she told us, having seen the world of IT teaching evolve over the past several years. 

    “I am passionate about working with teachers to improve learning, share good practice, develop a sustainable digital strategy and promote excellence in learning and teaching using digital technology,” Roisin summarised. Being recognised by the BCS with the IT Educator of the Year award is vindication of that passion, and it’s safe to say that the award has opened some doors. “Since winning the award, I started a new post in September 2019 as Acting Vice Principal at St Mary’s College. I have connected with and built an extensive network of local primary schools as well as partnerships with business and the local community.”

    This was Roisin’s very first award from industry, and it’s helped her students too: “Winning this award has widened this network and further benefited our students and those who have participated in the very successful St Mary’s College, Digital Schoolhouse programme. I think it is important that all young people but especially girls know that they can succeed in STEM and IT industries."

    Tina Lauro Pollock, Brain and Nerd

    IT Young Professional of the Year 2019

    Tina Lauro Pollock has run independent game development studio Brain and Nerd since 2012, taking on technical management and production roles on the studio’s games. “I came from a management and games journalism background initially and have always been an avid gamer,” she told us. “When we founded Brain and Nerd in 2012, I led the studio’s crowdfunding efforts and we became the first Irish studio to successfully crowdfund a game on Kickstarter with our first title, the space strategy game Predestination.”

    After managing the studio for several years, Tina took the bold step of returning to University to study Computer Science part time in order to become a more technical leader. “I was managing a team of artists and programmers to develop games, and have always had a way of critically thinking about game mechanics as part of my games journalism work,” she explained, “but I had no formal education in software development.” Going the extra mile has helped Tina to make Brain and Nerd more effective as a studio, and she’s recently transitioned from a Project Manager role to a full Producer position more deeply involved in every aspect of the studio’s game development.

    BCS NI recognised Tina with the 2019 IT Young Professional of the Year award for her efforts, and it’s not the only award she’s been highlighted for recently. She was recently nominated for the Unsung Hero award at this year’s Game Dev Heroes awards and the Mentor of the Year award at the MCV Women in Games awards. In recognition of her work as a STEM Ambassador and providing work experience for students, Tina also won the Community Award at the most recent NI Game Awards. 

    “STEM education is extremely important to me,” Tina told us, explaining that “At Brain and Nerd, we’ve run over 70 work experience and STEM events for young people over the years.” Tina is seen as a role model for young people in the local game development scene, and is keen to get the message into schools that there are plenty of IT careers in the field. “The games industry is now globally bigger than movies and music combined and the roles available cover a wide range of IT skills from software engineering and systems design to agile methodology,” she explained, “but some schools in Northern Ireland still don’t see that it’s a viable career for their students.”

    The game development industry in Northern Ireland is really starting to take off thanks to schemes such as NI Screen’s Pixel Mill game development incubator, and the future looks positive for Tina and Brain and Nerd. “The Pixel Mill put us in an incubation space with several other talented studios in Northern Ireland, and has really helped us build a tightly knit game development community here.” The game development sector in Northern Ireland is now starting to attract global publishers and interest from investors. As Tina put it, “It feels like we’re right on the cusp of something huge.”

    Dr Jaine Rainey, Queen's University

    IT Professional of the Year 2019

    Dr Jaine Rainey has been working at Queen’s University Belfast’s Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology since 2015 and was the recipient of the 2019 BCS IT Professional of the Year award. Her work has both research and teaching aspects and spans work on multiple types of cancer, from colorectal and esophageal to ovarian, breast, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

    “In terms of the research aspect, I have a team of PhDs and MSc students who use mathematics, stats and computing to answer clinical and biological questions,” Jaine explained to us. “For example, why do some women with epithelial ovarian cancer not respond to platinum-based chemotherapy?” 

    Modern cancer research involves heavy data analysis, and Jaine has borrowed tools and methods from other areas of statistical analysis to make sense of the data in her research. “Different types of data require different analytical methods, what is suitable for one dataset may be inappropriate for another. Sometimes you face issues with data, and have to think of new approaches. Having a background in mathematics and computer science is useful as you can identify an hypothesis and design/implement the software to go with it. It can be quite a holistic approach.”

    In addition to her research work, Jaine is Course Director for the MSc Bioinformatics and Computational Genomics at Queen’s University Belfast. All students in the MSc degree are taught by lecturers involved in active research and are exposed to the real challenges facing the field, such as quality control of data to the ethical issues in bioinformatics.

    “For me, ethical issues in analysing data are crucial. Not just ensuring that data is anonymised and patient confidentiality is protected, but beyond that, statisticians and bioinformaticians need to held to the highest standard when analysing patient data. Patients consent to their data being analysed for research purposes, and it is up to us to ensure that we have performed our analyses to the best of our abilities.”

    Jaine was recognised by BCS as a positive role model for students in IT and is passionate about gender equality in the field. She regularly gives talks to schools and appearances at public events to show students how computing and statistics can be used to make a real difference to patient health outcomes. Part of this is showing students that there isn’t just one educational route into her field.

    “I have had a varied career (I am a Careers Teacher's nightmare). I loved maths at school, but was also very creative. I studied maths at undergraduate level, thinking that I wanted to do research, but not sure quite what,” Jaine told us. In fact, she didn’t even finish her degree initially as she had to take time out of university due to illness. It was only years later that she went back and took up the Computing and Information Systems MSc at Ulster University, and several years later returned to university for a PhD.

    Speaking about BCS membership, Jaine explained that it had been a real starting point for her career. “My father (a retired senior lecturer at Ulster University) has been a long-term member and suggested that I apply. I don't often say this, but my Dad was right! I had thought that I was too far away from my computing roots to be considered a 'proper' computer scientist, however I am still using all that I was taught at Ulster and continue to build on this foundation.”

    Winning the IT Professional of the Year award has helped her with a problem that many people in the tech sector face: Imposter Syndrome. “We all need 'pats on the head' regardless of our age or career stage. I received a TechWomen100 Award (UK) and the Irish Women in Tech Award (Data Scientist) this year as well. The software that I developed (GECA) was a finalist in the European DatSci AI Awards recently.”

    Recognition from industry helps in more ways than one, and Jaine hopes that awards such as these will help open some doors. “I am hoping that it will help with funding applications, I have a few in that I am waiting for the results on. Fingers crossed! If doors don't open, I'll go in through the window!” 

    Dave Vincent, Tourism NI

    IT Professional of the Year 2018

    Dave Vincent from has made a career out of digital transformation and enabling change at Tourism NI, and was recognised for his efforts in 2018 with the IT Professional of the Year award. 

    “My job in Tourism NI has both internal and external aspects,” he explained, “transforming the organisation and making it fit for purpose while working with the wider industry to provider digital thought leadership.”

    Throughout 2018, Dave transformed Tourism NI with a full technology and hardware refresh programme and procurement of new software systems to help the company be more efficient. He procured new CRM, finance and HR platforms, launched new corporate websites, and migrated much of the existing infrastructure to cloud-based services. At the same time, he led external projects across immersive technologies, IoT, and artificial intelligence.

    Dave initially came to IT through a Computing Degree at Ulster University in Coleraine, and in his placement year he found his niche: “It took a placement year with NICS to light the fire and for me to understand the opportunity for a role sitting between technical teams and business users,” he told us, adding that he’s “spent the last 25 years developing” that role. He later went on to complete an MBA in eBusiness.

    Industry recognition from awards like this have definitely helped Dave in his career, and it wasn’t the only accolade he’s received recently. “This award and a number of other pieces of recognition last year (Digital Leaders 100 and Digital Leader of the Year Nomination; and Nomination for Computing Awards Digital Ambassador of the Year) have helped to continue to build my own profile but also to continue to expose the opportunities that tourism offers for technology innovation.” He told us that the BCS award “definitely reignited relationships with the wider sector and kicked off a number of new relationships and conversations.”

    While we typically think of IT as its own sector, Dave recognises that there are aspects of IT that fit into a much broader range of companies. “The IT, engineering and digital mindset and agile delivery focus has huge potential for deployment wider than just the traditional IT and development silos.” He sees his current role in transforming business practices as more than just an IT one: “It's about enabling change, supporting the development of new business models and helping organisations that I work for become more effective and efficient.”

    Kelly Moore, Kainos

    IT Young Professional of the Year 2018

    Kelly Moore started her career in tech back in 2016 as a placement student at Kainos, and has worked with a range of cutting edge technologies and contracts for major clients such as the Department for Transport. ”In 2018, I was focused on AI & Machine learning in Kainos – developing prototypes for customers and in house projects,” she told us. “I spotted a knowledge gap not only in Kainos but in the NI industry and got involved in a lot of workshops and meetups where I shared the basics of Machine Learning.”

    Kelly took a classic STEM route into industry as a software engineer, studying ICT at A-Level and going on to complete a Software Engineering degree at Queen’s University Belfast. 

    Like many young women her age interested in the tech sector, her formal educational exposure to programming and computer science before university was limited. “I had never programmed before joining uni, but I was always interested in how computer software worked,” she explained, adding “Luckily, I realised in 1st year of uni that I loved it and haven’t looked back since.” 

    Being recognised by the BCS as the 2018 Young Professional of the Year has definitely been beneficial to Kelly. “I met a lot of new people in the industry at the award ceremony which was great and since getting the award I have been promoted to Senior Software Engineer in Kainos,” she said. The award also helps to hold Kelly up as an example for younger students who will follow in the years to come, and may encourage more people to enter the field.

    “I really enjoy programming and would like to stay on the Engineer path,” Kelly said. Speaking about future plans, she added “Possibly aiming to be a Technical Architect developing and designing technical solutions, but who knows what the future holds!“

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