Civica welcome back NI Digital Awareness Week

  • Ahead of NI Digital Awareness Week Sync NI caught up with Aine McCaughey, Principal Software Engineer, and Rachel Steenson, Business Development Manager, at Civica NI.

    Why do you think there is a decline in young people considering careers in IT? 

    Aine: I think it really comes down to an understanding of what the jobs entail and what you can get out of them. I think there is a stigma that the jobs are really hard. I've been to so many events where students are saying they’re not “smart enough” to be in that role. It’s trying to get them to understand that there are so many different opportunities that require different skills and there really is a job for everyone. The core problem is that lack of understanding and if we can fix that we are really on the way to making a big impact.

    Rachel: Yes, I think it's that idea, or that perception, that IT is difficult and lack of knowledge when it comes to the many options available. There's still this perception that the only jobs in IT are coding jobs and they have an image of a guy sitting in front of his computer 24/7 in a dark room drinking multiple cans of Coke. Obviously, that's just not the case and you definitely don't have to be a coder to have a fantastic career in IT. 

    What sort of opportunities exist for computing students? 

    Aine: It's really anything you want as a computing or IT related degree doesn't just mean core software engineering. Yes, that's an area that a lot of people do go into, but there's so many other areas to the sector such as business analysis, product design, user experience (UX), DevOps, infrastructure, and they all require so many different skills. I have done several workshops with primary schools, where there are students that are really good at art and design, drawing and painting and it's about educating them to understand that they can use those skills in an IT career. For example, UX teams need to understand how a user behaves, and understand what they find appealing to design a user interface (UI) and things like that require real artistic ability. I've seen people transfer from literary courses into software, which only demonstrates how IT can be cross discipline, and how you can draw upon all kinds of skills for a successful career in IT. 

    Rachel: The jobs that are available are not just sitting in front of a computer, it's working with customers, it's working with partners, it's about building relationships, understanding what the problem is and coming up with solutions. After I completed my degree in Hospitality Management, I transferred to a Master's in Computer Science. I leverage skills learned through my Hospitality Management degree including working with customers, to help understand and delve into a problem, asking pertinent questions to understand what the customer is really asking for.

    You get to work across so many different areas. I've just come out of a meeting with our embedded engineering team who write code, the code goes on a chip that sits inside products like set top boxes that are then sold on to the end customer. This is bleeding edge technology. In IT you can be working on a component part that everybody's got on their phone. I know somebody who works for Apple who designs emojis, he's coding new emoji's that are then available on your phone, that's just so cool.

    What will students learn from getting involved in Northern Ireland Digital Awareness Week (NIDAW)? 

    Aine: This year we've gone with the theme of IT in everyday life, giving students the opportunity to see how IT does, and can, impact their lives. We will be identifying what IT services are being made and developed by local Northern Ireland tech companies and showing them how they use it daily, maybe without even realising. Students will get the opportunity to engage with people that are working in the IT sector, to get an insight as to what their IT job is really like. 

    Rachel: I hope what they will also learn from the schedule and breadth of speakers is that IT has a diverse workforce. The students will see someone that looks like them, or that they can relate to, and think ‘they've got this career I could do that too.’ Aine and I strongly believe that IT needs to be more diverse. It has been proven time and again that increased diversity leads to more diverse, richer thinking, contributing to innovative solutions.

    Should teachers and parents attend NIDAW? 

    Aine: Teachers and parents are probably the number one influencers when it comes to students deciding what they're going to do with the rest of their lives. My own careers teacher was the reason I decided to pursue a course in computer science and if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have chosen the course I did. You really can't underestimate how big an impact they can have, so if they're educated and understand the opportunities then they're able to share this knowledge of the sector with students. 

    Rachel: This year we have one or two items on the agenda that are for teachers, and careers teachers, on the different pathways into a career in IT, so they in turn can better inform their students.

    What more can be done to encourage the uptake of computing courses? 

    Aine: Events like NIDAW contribute, however real momentum in uptake could be gained through an increase in IT education within schools. We need that buy-in from schools, helping them understand how important and valuable it is to have a good IT curriculum within the school. Currently IT teaching within school is not compulsory. We would like to see this change and from a government level it to be made mandatory. We live in a digital age, and we need as many young people coming into the sector as we can and the only way to achieve that is through education. I know a lot of schools, especially post COVID, are under increasing pressures to maintain existing exam standards including the standards of traditional subjects. But I also think there needs to be a real consideration given to the private sector. The technology sector is shouting for applicants to fill vital IT roles, however we don't have the workforce to fill these posts because we are not getting enough people through education, whether that's through universities or further education colleges. The only way you can get people to do that is to encourage as many young people as possible to take up the subject. We're doing our part, organising events like NI Digital Awareness week as a platform to inform and get students to consider a career in IT, but I do think there needs to be more push from education bodies to see and value IT education for what it is and how it can contribute to the economy of Northern Ireland.

    Rachel: Last year, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT set up the NI Computing Education Committee. Its main aim is to bring all relevant stakeholders together to discuss the issues around IT education. One key focus is the barriers to the uptake of computing in schools. Early this year we developed a short social media video to get students thinking about the possibility of a career in IT. Today everything is technical and digital, and if key roles in IT continue to remain vacant these roles will disappear, and Northern Ireland is going to be left behind. If you compare what we're doing in Northern Ireland to other countries, we are drastically behind when it comes to IT education. We need to be doing more and we need to be working with the IT teachers most of who have not worked in IT. IT is constantly changing so it’s different from teaching a traditional subject such as maths or history where it doesn't really change. There's always a new language, or a new skill, so there needs to be a better partnership between the private sector and the education sector to continue to ensure that students are being taught the most relevant subjects, whether that's language or information about digital technology.

    What advice would you give to people who are unsure about a career in IT? 

    Aine: My advice would be to reach out and speak to someone that works in the sector and engage with as many people as they can working in different types of IT roles. Reach out to local companies and ask them if they're willing to offer work experience. That’s something that we do well in Civica. We take on as many work experience students as we can to help give them practical experience and insight into what it's like working in the sector, to inform their decisions for potentially a future working in IT.

    Rachel: In terms of reaching out, the Bring It On initiative is a fantastic resource for learning about pathways into the sector. I recommend going onto the Sync NI website to look at the companies, the jobs that are on offer, and seeing the individuals that work in the industry. Through these platforms you can approach individuals and ask if they can spare 20 minutes to explain what they do, how they got into the company and if they enjoy what they're doing. There's so much information out there and I don't know anyone that wouldn't help. Aine and I are lucky enough to work in this amazing industry. Most people in the industry that I talk to are as keen as we are in terms of trying to help people to get into the sector and develop their career. Q

    What really inspires you to get out of bed and go to work in IT? 

    Rachel: For me, it's two things. One is getting to solve a problem for a customer. Working with a customer to come up with a solution, and knowing we did that together; I get a real feeling of accomplishment. The second thing for me is working in a company like Civica which is so innovative and leverages new technology. It's like wow I didn't even know that existed yesterday, and now look what we're delivering. That's what keeps me interested. 

    Aine: For me, every day is different and like Rachel said there's always something new to learn. I'm lucky with my role that I'm afforded the opportunity to go and explore new technology, have a play and see what I can do, and find out if the new technology achieves what we need it to. I love that and I couldn't imagine being in a job where I'm doing the same thing in the same way for the next 30 plus years. I know for a fact that what I'm doing right now versus what I'm going to be doing in 10 years is going to be so different and I just find that very exciting

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

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