Roundtable event: 'We explore why FDI's invest in Belfast'

  • Photo: Victoria Milhench; Sarah Milliken; Alan Wilson; Russell Beggs; Chris Wallace and Tom Keating

    Written by Kathryn McKenna

    Sync NI invited a series of industry leaders to a roundtable event generously hosted at Rapid 7’s state-of-the-art offices in Belfast city centre recently, where Kathryn McKenna posed a series of questions around American FDI’s who have set up in Belfast, all with inspiring results. Guests included:

    Chris Wallace

    Chris Wallace is the Director of People Strategy at Boston-based Rapid 7, and was the first seat on the ground when Rapid 7 set up in Belfast. Now marking its prestigious 10 year anniversary in Belfast this year, Chris continues to play a pivotal role in building and making the Northern Ireland team a resounding success.

    Chris is passionate about leading the practice of HR management, system creation and project delivery aimed at maximising positive business outcomes and optimising employee engagement, to result in a highly successful business staffed with people who feel empowered, engaged, rewarded and valued. At the forefront of network security, Rapid 7 has have been taking the hackers on at their own game and winning since their inception in 2000. Rapid 7 have expanded significantly in Belfast and currently occupy all eight floors of their modern Chichester Street office.

    Russell Beggs

    Russell Beggs is the Site Lead and Senior Vice-President of Engineering at ESO. As an experienced software engineering VP with a demonstrated history of delivering large-scale, technically innovative digital, IT and web-based solutions, Russell is passionate about technology and growing business.

    ESO’s mission is to improve community health and safety through the power of data. In fact, ESO stands for Emergency Services and Operations and it supports fire, emergency services and hospitals to make the most informed decisions when it comes to patient care, safety, efficiency and clinical improvements. Russell has previously stated his passion for working in a company with such an important mission “gets me up every morning”, adding “what we’re doing will leave a positive legacy on the world.”

    The software company, which is based in Texas, selected Belfast as its first European base back in 2019 and Russell was an instrumental part in helping ESO become established in Northern Ireland. Russell counts building meaningful relationships with his team alongside nurturing and supporting local talent as one of the key things he enjoys in his role at ESO.

    Alan Wilson

    Alan Wilson is the Head of International Investment at Invest NI. Alan is an international business and technology leader with over 30 years delivering win-win solutions with customers across North America, Europe, Middle East and Asia.

    Alan currently leads Invest NI’s Foreign Direct Investment team- attracting innovative investments across sectors including software and communications technologies, financial, legal and professional services, life and health sciences, green tech and advanced manufacturing and engineering.

    Alan was also Head of Trade for two years assisting first time and experienced exporters to appoint dealers and distributors and to win direct contracts in overseas markets.

    Sarah Milliken

    Sarah Milliken is the Head of Talent and Culture at Aflac Northern Ireland.

    As the Head of Talent and Culture at Aflac NI, Sarah is responsible for owning and leading the strategy for talent acquisition and creating an enviable culture that helps to differentiate Aflac Northern

    Ireland in the market. Sarah works as part of the leadership team to align the strategy with Aflac NI’s organisational goals, developing the brand presence locally, and leads on marketing activities.

    Sarah also guides the culture for Aflac NI, ensuring that Aflac NI upholds Aflac’s values, celebrates achievements, and supports employees' well-being and development. Additionally, Sarah champions the Aflac NI agenda around philanthropy, and leverages her expertise in talent acquisition and culture to recruit and retain top talent from various backgrounds and perspectives.

    Though Aflac has been around since 1955, it wasn’t until 2000 that the Aflac Duck became a part of the family. Since then, the duck has been both a brand icon as well as a symbol of Aflac’s support of children fighting cancer. And now, he’s comforting the children of Northern Ireland, with the cuddly, companion, My Special Aflac Duck for children ages three and up who have cancer to symbolise that these young patients and their families are not alone. The results of a recently released, three-year independent study on the effectiveness of My Special Aflac Duck, conducted at eight U.S. hospitals found that it has had a significant impact on children and parents in terms of stress and anxiety reductions. In partnership with Children’s Cancer Unit Charity, Aflac Northern Ireland has committed to provide this robotic companion to paediatric cancer patients, free of charge.

    Victoria Milhench

    Victoria Milhench is the Europe Director of Marketing at Applied Systems. Victoria leads the marketing and communications strategy in Europe to support the delivery of strategic goals for the global insurance broker software company.

    In 2016, Applied Systems acquired Relay Software, the leading software provider for insurers and brokers in Ireland. The acquisition expanded Applied System’s international footprint, strengthening its position in the US, Canada and the United States. Applied Systems Europe opened its new office in Belfast in March 2022 which was said to mark a "significant milestone" for Applied as the business continues to expand its presence in Northern Ireland.

    Tom Keating

    Tom Keating is the VP, Essentials and Belfast Site Lead at Proofpoint. Tom holds over 30 years of diverse IT industry experience and successful experience as a senior manager with responsibility for organisation setup, strategic planning, technology / security strategies and planning, business plan development, product development, customer relationship management and organisational budgets. 

    Tom also possesses a proven track record of success in software product development / engineering, technology research, vendor management, data centre management, service management, professional services, PMO, change management and IT management within the international software, cybersecurity and financial industry.

    Proofpoint is a global cybersecurity company that helps protect people, data, and brands against cyber attacks. They offer compliance and cybersecurity solutions for email, web, cloud, and more. Their Northern Ireland office is located in Belfast’s Weavers Court business park, making it one of their largest locations outside the US.

    Sync NI: What are the key attractions of Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular as location for establishing a business?

    Chris Wallace: “Rapid 7 has been here now for 10 years. And whenever I first met with Rapid 7 back in 2013, they had been informed by Invest NI about the quality of education in Northern Ireland, and about the enthusiasm and the willingness of the universities to form relationships with companies that were coming to set up over here.

    “When I was hired, it was time for me to find out, was that true? And I think it is one of the real plus points of Northern Ireland that our standard of education is very good. In my experience, as the first seat on the ground here for Rapid 7, was that the universities were so willing to understand what the company was about; promote the company; and almost be our voice and our brand at a point in time when we had none. I think that was a really key thing.

    “Of course, then there are the things that I'm sure everyone would know, which is Northern Ireland has had a really strong tech community for a long time. Certainly, these days, it's increasingly a cybersecurity hub globally, which really helps companies in the same line of work as Rapid 7.

    “Lastly, I think there is also a really strong entrepreneurial spirit amongst people here. Certainly, what I found was, there was a sizable enough community of engineers here who were willing to take a chance on something, to be a part of something exciting.”

    Pictured: Chris Wallace, Rapid 7

    Alan Wilson: “Just to tie in with the Rapid 7 story, I was involved in leading the Rapid 7 investment before it came to Belfast, working with our Boston office and on our cybersecurity strategy before that.

    “If we go right back to 2001, the strategy for developing the sector was challenged because Northern Ireland still had the image of ‘The Troubles’ from over 20 years ago.

    “So, the challenge in my mind, was how could we change this image and differentiate ourselves. It was really about recognising our really smart people. Northern Ireland had the strongest GCSE and A-Level results across the UK. It’s the number one region, every year, from then to the present day.

    “The focus for us at that time was on product development and high-end services companies that paid good salaries and required well educated talent.

    “When you build a product, that means you're dealing with the requirements specification upfront, you're dealing with product management, you're doing the ideation and design. So, it's a much, much richer, high value engagement and experience. And then you're able to build products and high-end services that have all aspect thought through - not only to deliver the business functionality, but at high performance, global scale and with built in security.

    “We have a huge amount of people in Northern Ireland who are highly skilled in terms of product ideation, design, development and most importantly delivery and that's why Northern Ireland remains attractive across our key sectors.

    “Northern Ireland is the number one location for cybersecurity for US investors – and that's quite impressive.”

    Russell Beggs: “The interesting thing for ESO is, we are a relative blow-in when it comes to FDI, compared to the likes of Rapid 7, who've been here for 10 years now, and we're getting to stand on the shoulder of giants as a result of that. After ESO had tried to expand into the international arena in terms of talent, it hadn't gone particularly well when they were invited by Invest NI to come and see Northern Ireland.

    “The big thing for ESO was the cultural dynamic. And like Alan just pointed out, the product-led development is exactly where we are now as an organisation.

    “So, we started off by asking: “How do we get more engineers in another location and how do we grow and scale our engineering capability?” But it wasn't long after that, we started getting product managers, product owners, product designers and getting the whole end-to-end solution for the organisation. And outside of the US, we are now the largest of our international locations. And I think a lot of that has to do with exactly what's been talked about here, it's the talent and it's about developing for the future.”

    Sarah Milliken: “I would follow on from what Russell had said in terms of, we've had the giants to help lead the way before us.

    “It's a really strong proposition when Invest NI comes to American organisations and says, “Look at who's been there before you and paved that way,” and that was part of the attraction.

    “You know, there was 15 different European cities that were looked at before Aflac landed on Belfast, so it wasn't that we took that decision lightly. We're only the third global location for Aflac. So it's US, Japan and Northern Ireland. That decision was really helped by Invest NI and helped by the showcasing of going to meet the teams at Citi and Liberty and hear their story.

    “For us, it's definitely who’s paved the way. It’s the culture and also accessibility as well in terms of time zone. But primarily for us, the access to education and the fantastic talent that's produced here played a pivotal role.”

    Victoria Milhench: “Applied Systems has been here for about eight years.

    “And we would certainly agree with everything that has already been discussed and I think the other thing I find is, that the fact that we are a small microcosm actually means we can draw on so many different talent pools and from a collaboration point of view, that works really well for us.

    “On a really practical matter, although Northern Ireland is small, traveling extensively to the UK, Europe or the US, is relatively easy. Using Northern Ireland as a base into both Ireland and the UK, for us has been really beneficial. At the moment, we are using Northern Ireland  as a hub. We have an office in England, but actually in Northern Ireland, we're finding it so easy for the team to get to and that's a soft added advantage, on top of the very specific skill-set ones.”

    Tom Keating:  “The biggest positive are the people here, they have such a positive work and ‘can-do’ attitude. We find that there's less talk about doing and more doing, it’s just the way people are here.

    Proofpoint have been here for over 10 years also, we came through an acquisition of a local, indigenous business and have continued to grow our site as a result of this.

    “We could have been your classic FDI company that acquired a local business and continued in the same way, but we realised, we could do more here. Part of this reason was InvestNI’s help, they showed us that we could more than just product development/engineering. Two big areas we expanded into were Operations and Customer Support servicing the need of our customers worldwide.

    “The other attraction, which is very good from the US corporation point of view, is tenure, people stay longer here. It's a cultural thing here in Northern Ireland if you are treated well and looked after, in the main, people will stay longer so the investment in people is brilliant - rather than the classic three years, you'll most probably get five to seven years, which is amazing!”

    “In addition to that there is a good cyber security and technical ecosystem here with lots of different organisations which means there is a sizable pool of talented people. We started off as a small site but now we are one of the largest sites outside the United States delivering services and products across the world and that is all down to the people who work here.”

    Chris Wallace: “It was the exact same experience with the senior leadership of Rapid 7, I think it is surprising to American companies how good the talent in Northern Ireland is. Like whenever Rapid7 set up, the mission to me was in three years time, we want to have 70 staff in Belfast. And they thought that that was very optimistic. And we had surpassed that number very comfortably in, say, a year and a half. And the thought at that upper level very quickly pivoted from that will be a location for us to that will be one of, if not the location. I think people are just really surprised when they actually see the output.”

    Sync NI: How does Northern Ireland compare to other countries you currently have offices in, and does Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole, stand out for anything in particular?

    Tom Keating: “The Belfast site punches well above its weight and delivers high quality products and service across the world to our customers. We can find the qualified and experienced talent we need here plus having a site here in Northern Ireland is cost effective. We stand out as a site as we get stuff done, we add value and we deliver great service.”

    Alan Wilson: “So when I talk to technology companies setting up here, getting established and executing on their products, one of the measures I hear quite a lot from NI site leads is the minimal number of defects in production.

    “And the story from NI site leads was always ’Compared to our companies’ other locations around the world, we have minimal or no defects in production from our Northern Ireland team.

    “So that means the product gets stood up and almost never fails. That is a really important metric for companies. And that's why I talk about the NI ‘product mindset’ and the fact that we know how to build product that just works.”

    Pictured: Alan Wilson, Invest NI

    Tom Keating: “There's a lot of smart people here. And that's the thing that I've been blown away by as a leader of the site. It is the staff that are here, and just that point - they're the reason why our customers stay with us.

    “We recently had a big client of ours telling us in a review that they ‘love dealing with the team in Belfast.’ Allowing us to be self-contained and take responsibility has been crucial.”

    Chris Wallace: “From my perspective, I think technically the engineering staff in Northern Ireland can go toe to toe with engineering staff anywhere around the world. And I think that to the point that was mentioned there, giving people proper work to do and giving them ownership of things is so important. But I think that one of the things which has really stood Rapid 7 in really, really good stead and other companies around the table, is the willingness of headquarters to give that location, autonomy, ownership, and the ability to have a lot of impact.

    “I think those two things, the quality of the engineering, plus that exciting mission, are key to the recipe for success.”

    Russell Beggs: “Tom really hit the nail on the head, the cost effectiveness is really important. And that's a very nuanced subject, because to your point, it is very cost-effective low cost, but you know, there are many other sites that you can get many more people at a different price point, but you will get a different output, different productivity and different quality levels.

    “And I think that's also something that as leaders of this industry, we need to be mindful of as well. So the thing I think is a challenge to all of us around the table is how do we keep that moving forward and to make sure that that we don't lose sight of that thing that sets us apart and differentiates us.

    “An interesting thing about ESO was it was started in Austin, Texas, which is a little bit different to the rest of Texas. Belfast is a little bit different to the rest of the UK and the rest of Ireland, it's a little unique thing. And other all our other sites tend to be a little bit far away from where the main capital city would be. And that talks to, what is our fabric? What is our culture and why Belfast is uniquely positioned. Belfast might not be as big as some of our other locations, but actually, that's something very special as well.”

    Victoria Milhench: “I would build on that in terms of the relationship side of things. From a marketing point of view, we're marketing a global product and whilst it is a similar product with a similar use case to a similar audience, the market dynamics are different.

    “What we find is that the relationship building with our clients and partners is a key differentiator for us and it is the world renowned welcoming culture and ‘can do’ attitude of the people of Northern Ireland that puts us streets ahead.

    “I think that's a very unique attraction because we're there for the long haul with the customer and very much about building those relationships. And interestingly, we've had teams coming across from the US and they've been blown away by the relationships that we have, not just with customers, but with other stakeholders and other partners.

    "They understand, even in this very digital world, it is really important to also get those face-to-face interactions. And that's something that by the very nature of being a small ecosystem in a central city location, gives us more opportunity. With the broad tech and business ecosystem across Ireland as a whole, we have tech giants on our doorstep.”

    Sarah Milliken, Aflac NI

    Sarah Milliken: “I think that relationship point is really key and one of the things that impresses our US executives is the connection we have with the universities.

    “How willing they are to work with you on curriculum and bringing you in as guest lecturers is so vital. The relationships that people are able to build upon here in Northern Ireland, absolutely sets us apart.”

    Sync NI: When working across multiple locations, with different time zones, of course, how do you build team morale? And that all-important company ethos?

    Russell Beggs: “One of the things that we do, which seems counterintuitive, but it's important, is making sure teams can be self-contained and autonomous so they can work independently.

    “And that doesn't actually create the connections back and forth. Because people are working, and there's the potential for silos to happen. And when you do that, then you need to be incredibly intentional about how you create the avenues for engagement and for cross-team and cross-department and cross-level interactions.

    “A few of the things we therefore do, for instance, is every quarter we make sure we've got all of our senior leadership team across the globe, having these breakout sessions with approximately 10 people in them. They could be from completely different departments, completely different levels, and people that may have never met before, but it starts to build these interaction points. And I think there is a lot of agreement here today that relationships are the key thing that differentiate us.

    "Sometimes that happens naturally, and it's a lot easier to do in person. But in lieu of having that in-person interaction you need to be very, very deliberate about how you build those connections.”

    Victoria Milhench: “The multiple locations and multiple cultures are absolutely brilliant, and bring so much added value to our business, but as Russell says, ensuring you don't have silos and you don't have teams working independently, for us, it comes down to flexibility. You have to have a flexible approach. You've got to have the collaboration, and you've got to bring the team works together.

    “Having an element of flexibility allows those cross functional teams the opportunity to meet. Sometimes in a business planning and a business operational process, it's so regimented in terms of what you're trying to achieve, you actually need step out of that more formal engagement and take the opportunity to get to know your colleagues.

    “We have a ‘fun budget,’ and it's very much about bringing in other teams and encouraging them to talk. It's a small example, and for it to be really effective you have to be quite intentional in terms of what you're trying to do with it.”

    Pictured: Victoria Milhench, Applied Systems

    Tom Keating: ”Definitely autonomy in the sites is good married with very good communications. We do have to remind ourselves at times to honour the time zone differences for our team across the world when having meetings and so on.

    “We have moved to a hybrid model so staff meet each other more and can collaborate better. While it has been a transition to go back into the office for us all since the pandemic, it has been overly received in a positive way and does help with morale and a sense of belonging to the organsiation and teams.”  

    Victoria Milhench: “It has to be an inherent part of the ethos, and it has to be at all levels. The leaders have to lead by example.”

    Chris Wallace: “Technology helps, Zoom and Slack, and there's no, there's no substitute, obviously, for spending time together with individuals. So, if you can create those opportunities, the more opportunities you can create for people to work together, ideally, to meet from time to time, these things will all help. And then also, I think one of the things that I really observed is, you know, having that strong company culture and having that consistent DNA, thread throughout all of your locations.

    “But then understanding and acknowledging that each of your individual locations will put their own flavour on the top of that. So like the DNA of all of Rapid 7’s offices, and our culture, is very consistent. For example, our Singapore office feels very different to our Melbourne office, which feels very different from our Reading office. Encouraging people to have a say in the culture of the space while being respectful of the culture around them is key.”

    Sarah Milliken: “We were quite lucky in the sense of our timing worked to our advantage in helping with this. We launched in October 2019, and then lockdown happened in March 2020.

    “So everyone was at home across the whole organisation globally due to the pandemic. Everyone was in their house, everyone was joining calls with their kids running around in the background! So for us, that was actually a really nice way to ground everyone and build those connections, because everyone was in the same position, dialling in from home. So that definitely worked to our advantage, trying to take some positives out of Covid19.

    “Having our executives joining from their houses to welcome people and make sure we were all alright was nice. Little things like that, from a timing point of view, made it very personable.”

    Chris Wallace: “Lockdown was a great leveller!”

    Victoria Milhench: “Interestingly, we talk about people's wellbeing and the pros and cons of our new way of working. If colleagues are not coming on camera during team calls and they aren’t coming in and out of an office every day, it can be difficult to pick up on how they're doing and how they're coping with work.

    “So being really mindful of that, we have tried to instil that ethos of cameras being on during video calls. I think we've all agreed it's actually really important for the wellbeing of the of the teams.”

    Pictured: Tom Keating, Proofpoint

    Tom Keating:  “I think that is a really important point when considering the importance of mental health. I think now we’re getting people back into the office it has helped, people are reconnecting.

    “It is back to the importance of human connection that we forgot about and we took for granted.”

    Sync NI: As a business, what strategies are crucial in attracting and also retaining top talent?

    Sarah Milliken: “For us, one of our value propositions is; we do serious work, but we don't take ourselves too seriously.

    “We talk about creating an environment where you know what, it's okay if things break, fail, that's fine, you learn from it, just try not to make the same mistake twice…you move on. Some of the people we've brought in have been maybe with larger organisations where the environment wasn't as supportive.

    "We're a team of 170, we're not huge, so creating a culture where people feel valued, they have opportunities to continuously learn, and they're challenged, but in a good, safe way.

    “When we set up back in 2019 people couldn’t even say 'Aflac.' We weren't making anything, we had no product here, we weren't selling anything in the market. So when recruiting top talent, it was really around the question of, ‘what are you going to get if you come and work for us?’

    “As an organisation we are here to help and support you as you grow and develop in your career with us. Delivering on the promise from a retention point of view is important to us. We've had very low level of attrition in a really buoyant market, growing during COVID, and have brought people on during that time. I think that the proof is in the pudding, it is about delivering on those promises that you've made, because the market is small and everyone knows everyone. So reputation and company culture is really important.”

    Chris Wallace: “I agree it is a small market. And as I've said to a few folk who've looked at Northern Ireland as a location, anyone that tells you that hiring is always easy, and that the streets are paved with engineers, there's more to it than that.

    “I think that the things like the money and the benefits, obviously need to make sense. And nice work environment is going to help. But ultimately, I think some of the things we touched on here are the real key things in attracting and especially retaining staff, which are: Is the work interesting? Is it an exciting mission that I want to buy into and get behind? Is the culture here one that resonates well with me, do I feel supported? Do I feel like I'm working with people who want to see me be successful and who I want to assist in being successful as well?

    “There can be a lot of window dressing that might help get bodies in through the door, but what keeps people is the meatier stuff.”

    Russell Beggs: “I think that's right. I think it comes down to what are superficial and what are the intrinsic motivators for people. We were talking about, ‘why is Belfast an attractive proposition for companies?’

    "It is because people are talented and they want to do hard work and they want to be able to problem solve, they need to be able to do that.

    “They need to be able to be stretched and to grow and feel like they're being supported in that, because to me, one of the key things is that challenge. Sometimes you might see people leave the organisation, and that's okay, if they've grown, and they've gone on to a bigger challenge elsewhere. You want to support that.

    “I think historically in somewhere like Northern Ireland we might want to keep people as much as possible, but if we look at the bigger picture, we're all in the same boat here. As long as the talent here grows and develops, that's going to continue to help us be attractive to foreign direct investment and support indigenous investment as well. And indigenous innovation, too.”

    Pictured: Russell Beggs, ESO

    Victoria Milhench: “I think that's an important point as well, in terms of growth - people need to see that they can grow within the organisation, and if there's a strong industry, and supporting industries around that, then they can see an opportunity there.

    “That is reflected in the amount of talent within Northern Ireland. Trying to maintain that is really important.”

    Tom Keating: “I do think hiring is probably the easiest thing. It is retaining that is the biggest challenge and a task you need to work on constantly.

    “Candidates need to like what they're going to be doing, feel they’ll be supported, feel they’ll be empowered, feel valued and enjoy working with the people they are going to be working with every day. We like to harness the “Northern Ireland edge”, and what I mean by that is the entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, result orientated and professionalism. If you harness that, then you will be successful as a company/site.”

    Victoria Milhench: “It’s important to come back to what you said, Russell, at the start and Tom alluded to it there in terms of building up the ownership,

    “They have to be able to see the vision. And there can't be a level of ‘That is as far as we're going to get, because the senior leadership team is based elsewhere.’ In terms of giving them the autonomy, and the ownership to actually lead that part of the business, or to see where that part of the business is going is also really important too and, it's almost self-perpetuating as that sector grows, then there are more opportunities, and there's more opportunities across the industry.”

     Sync NI: How do you ensure diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as well as embracing different cultures?

    Tom Keating: “I'm involved in one our diversity groups, and we've made a conscious effort on actually educating people around the diversity, equality and inclusion as well as autism awareness. I’m the executive sponsor for the disabilities, allies and caregivers groups.

    “What we at Proofpoint have done is help educate people to understand the differences and understand things about themselves. Because whether we all like it or not, we all have the classic unconscious bias.

    “It was great that they did that throughout Proofpoint, to let people be aware of these things. It wasn't just a ‘tick-box’ exercise and I think that's key.”

    Chris Wallace: “I am sure for everyone on the table, every company, diversity and inclusion is an extremely important thing. I think one of the things that's really important is for it to be clear why it is a very important thing. That needs to be very well communicated and very well understood, and so that it doesn't feel like it's some sort of ‘tick-box’ exercise.

    “But rather, you know, it's really important for us and I’m sure all the people around the table, that the company's position is really important for us to have diversity of thought. We want to be holistic in how we approach things, we want to get as many voices as possible. Diversity of thought is really what we are trying to address. And it so happens that one of the really valuable ways of getting diversity of thought is including lots of different voices and perspectives, whether that be folks who are neurodiverse, or gender, and more.

    “So having folks understand the why behind it, which is a really cliched expression, but having folks understand why it's important thing is key in terms of getting that buy-in."

    Sarah Milliken:  “We ask the team frequently as well. We ask, ‘what do you want us to do more of, what do you want to see more of?’

    “Actually, one of the things that came back that was really interesting, which we implemented, was around the traditional bank holiday versus the annual leave model. Feedback from the team said that a lot of the traditional bank holidays fall around Christian holidays. So, from a diversity perspective, particularly around religion, we wanted to avoid automatically puting everybody into one box. So we just grouped our holidays together, no set ‘bank holidays’ to take, you have a lump sum allocation and you take them to suit your own needs. It was really simple, but if we hadn't of asked the team, we might not have thought of that.

    “Sometimes you can get overwhelmed whenever you start to talk about DE&I, particularly as a smaller organisation, because you can't do it all. So it’s about being really clear with the ‘why’ and articulating the reasons whilst still allowing the space and the voice for people to come with other ideas and suggestions. And it doesn’t hurt that Aflac Incorporated, which consists of Aflac U.S., Aflac Japan, Aflac Global Investments and Aflac NI sets a tone at the top that diversity is a good thing for the business.”

    Victoria Milhench: “Ultimately I feel it almost becomes second nature. There has been a really significant focus on it at the minute and there has been in the past number of years, and I think it is really important to understand why you're doing it and the benefits to the broader team.”

    Russell Beggs: “I've been fortunate because we've got a Chief People Officer who's very good at this and is open to doing things that will make a big difference and make a big impact. So when we think about, you know, paternity, maternity leave, what does that look like? And what is the modern world look like? In terms of who is looking after the children and therefore what leave should they get and how do we equalise that? I think those sorts of initiatives are really important and to get a different lens on those challenges and question, how do we tackle these things head on and make a change about them?

    “I think about, how much more can we do? Are we doing enough? I look at things like the statistics, and somehow, we are above the industry average in what we do and yet I look internally and think, we can do more, there's so much more. I've got two young daughters, I think about their future, and how do I as a leader in this moment in time, make a bigger difference than we're currently making.

    “I think that goes back to what was previously mentioned, in that there are so many things you can do. That's definitely one lens, I think about. But also, how much more can we do, as leaders, holding ourselves to that high bar and holding our fellow industry leaders to the high bar to make sure that this is a focus and a priority.”

    Tom Keating: “Going back to the Autism Awareness, the reason why I initially got involved was because I know my daughter is on the spectrum. I didn’t understand it at first but now I do. Having that awareness and being able to have conversations as well as being open about it has been great and gets people to realise they are not alone with similar challenges, as they say, it is good to talk and share ideas.”

    Victoria Milhench: “It comes full circle then, in terms of building that all important company ethos in different time zones and different locations. Coming back to your point, it's really important because it actually builds that company ethos and cements it all together. And gives people an opportunity rather than just sitting on a zoom call talking about what products they're working on. There's another talking point there for them. There's another area of interest where they can bring diverse groups of people together.”

    Sync NI: Have there been any specific examples of positive experiences from establishing a business in Belfast, or Northern Ireland as a whole, that you have been able to implement in other locations?

    Chris Wallace: “Belfast has been a real success story for Rapid 7, and much more of a focus area than the company ever thought. And as a result of that, our intern program in particular has set the standard across the whole company of how we think about early career development.

    “We have other engineering offices, including Dublin, and Galway, and Prague. And in all of those locations, we are looking to what has been so successful in Belfast as we think about growing and scaling those locations as well. The intern program has been intrinsic to Rapid 7’s success in Belfast and that is something we are currently replicating in Prague and Dublin.”

    Tom Keating: “Proofpoint have been able to hire a lot of smart people that have been empowered to develop highly productive and cohesive teams made up of all key components, engineering, architecture, product management, QA, DevOps and program management.

    “This has been recognised as the best way to deliver a high quality product and service to our customer with clear management of expectation which is now being sought to be replicated in other sites.”

    Russell Beggs: “The High Performance Entry Level Programme, which we started in Belfast, is now being rolled out to other locations because of its success, similarly to Rapid 7’s intern programme.

    “And then on the engineering side, and product, actually; I'm very fortunate to have recently been promoted into the C suite for ESO, which shows the strategic importance of Belfast as a location. And it's got more engineers than any other locations. But equally, our head of UX and design is based in Belfast as well. And a lot of the principles being developed here, are now making it across to North America as well.”

    Sync NI: What support did you receive as a company setting up in Northern Ireland? And how vital was this for you as a company?

    Alan Wilson: “At Invest NI, right from the start, we try to target investors that are going to be additional, who will offer something new to the economy, that is key. For example, in the cybersecurity space we did a gap analysis and matched that against the cyber top 100 by impact for our target list. i.e. the companies that were really impactful, not the big ones, but the impactful ones. One of the gaps identified was ‘open-source’ software, mind not in Northern Ireland as a whole, but specifically in cybersecurity.

    "To that end we targeted the global leaders in open-source cybersecurity and were successful in attracting them to Northern Ireland. Gap filled.

    “We do a lot of work in market with companies at an early-stage, to clearly understand what their real requirements are, and based on those requirements, we build a bespoke visit programme in Northern Ireland. And that's where the support comes in, we try to get very targeted support for what the company really needs. I would call it consultancy support rather than grant in the first instance. It's around introducing them to Queen’s and Ulster University, to the research centres, reference companies, lawyers, accountants, etc. So, if you like, there's a whole piece of soft, project enablement support we do up-front, which then continues during the set-up phase through to establishment – noting that almost 70 per cent of investors re-invest in NI.

    “A lot of what we do is project enablement rather than funding, however if the project is mobile / competitive, we can offer financial assistance towards the creation of the new jobs, skills development or research and also pre-employment training support through the Department for Economy Assured Skills programme.

    “For example we can provide funding against a training plan for the first two years of getting established and a customer can come back after two years and say, “Okay, we did that and now we need to train up in AI now,” and then we can then help with that too.

    “However, the one that grabs the headlines is ‘how much of a grant did you get?’ To us, it's no longer a really strong metric, because we see the companies come here for the overall value prop

    “Another incentive is research and development funding. So, if you've an existing product and you want to make the next gen product, then you can come to us. We can provide research and development funding in addition to an investors ability to take advantage of R&D tax credits. It used to be just Invest NI, but much more so we work with Innovate UK and look for bespoke funding from broader sources too.”

    Chris Wallace: “That is such a good point that Alan makes, because if I think back to a point in time in 2014, and at this stage, Rapid 7 had committed to being in Belfast, but had yet to receive funding. In fact, we haven't even completed the application process for funding. And I remember talking to one of the executives at the time, and asking: “If the funding doesn't come through, what does that mean?’

    “And the response was: “Honestly, Chris, funding is an avenue. And of course, we will avail of that avenue because it will assist us.” But to Alan's point about all of those sort of consulting services upfront at that point in time, we are confident enough in this as a location so that whether the funding is there or not, we are committed to doing this thing in Northern Ireland.

    “So much of what Invest NI does is in helping potential companies and potential employers understand what the ecosystem is like, and selling the opportunity of being in Northern Ireland. And to all of that, funding – to put it crudely – is just the icing on the cake.”

    Tom Keating:  “When Proofpoint came to Northern Ireland back in 2013, we did so via an acquisition of a small indigenous company, it could have just ended there with the Product being developed with a small engineering team and nothing more but with the help of InvestNI they opened up the opportunities for us to expand our footprint beyond just engineering to operations, product management, PMO, customer support, finance, professional services, HR, Recruitment, IT and GIS groups.

    "This has allowed us to grow a significant site here in Northern Ireland for Proofpoint with a critical mass of some great local talent.

    “It’s fair to say that the advice, employment and R&D grants from InvestNI has really help build and grow our site. Proofpoint’s site here has been a great success for us and are continuing to build on that success now.”

    Russell Beggs: “I 100 per cent agree. Establishing our engineering hub in Northern Ireland was a logical move for ESO and as I mentioned earlier, a strategic decision driven by our recognition of the region's talent pool. But whilst the decision was informed by this, our integration couldn’t have been made possible without the support extended to us by Invest NI. From initial funding to consultancy, collaboration and the partnerships extended to us which most importantly gave us all to all the region has to offer - and you simply can’t put a price on that.”

    Sarah Milliken: “Yes, one of the really useful things which Alan mentioned earlier and we talked about at length, is relationships.

    “We could have lifted all of the relationships we had from the US and used them here, but intentionally, we wanted to be part of the local ecosystem. From our relationships with local solicitors to the accountants to the property, and even where we've ended up with our office right in the Harbour Estate we wouldn't have had that had it not been for that support from Invest NI but also Aflac.

    "Aflac take the same position with Aflac Japan, in that even though Aflac Inc. is a U.S. company, they see great value in Japanese people running the operations in Japan. I think it's probably downplayed that soft support, but actually, that's really critical to embed in the ecosystem. We now talk about how it's been a ‘farm to fork’ evolution in terms of what we've set up here, because all of our relationships are local and that is really important.”

    Sync NI: Are there any initiatives or programs that would help to further support FDI businesses have established an office in Northern Ireland?

    Tom Keating: “InvestNI are a great support to all FDI in Northern Ireland, I think they should, after the initial contact/setup stay in close contact with existing FDIs to be updated on expansion opportunities such that they can support these opportunities with a view to encourage them to be brought to Northern Ireland rather than get moved to other geographical locations.

    “In addition to that, a focus on STEM for schools kids and AL/ML technologies events are key to growing the potential candidates for organisations.”

    Russell Beggs: “Absolutely, I think collaboration is paramount. And in addition to tapping into organisation such as Invest NI looking to local universities which allow us to tap into their research prowess and access skilled graduates – it’s not just about hiring talent, but fostering a culture of innovation. Networking is equally crucial. Engaging with local stakeholders and industry peers. It's through these networks that opportunities often arise, be it partnerships, investment leads, or valuable insights and by pooling resources and expertise, we can tackle common challenges more effectively and explore new avenues for growth.”

    Chris Wallace: “I know we spoke a little bit earlier about the diversity in the north, because I have no doubt that there are lots of things happening to further promote STEM as an avenue to young kids in schools between the ages of eight and 16. But as much as can be done to promote tech careers, STEM subjects is of great importance.

    “STEM subjects and tech as a whole is still quite a male-centric course of study, so whatever can be done to feed the top of that funnel in terms of interest and promotion, can only be a good thing for all of us.

    “Better transport links would also be a good thing. It is optically challenging, if not logistically challenging, for people to land in Dublin who want your business and then travel up to Belfast.”

    Sync NI: Which skills pathways have you found best suit your hiring needs here in Northern Ireland. How does the quality of the talent pool compare to other office locations and how would you like to see that evolve in the coming years?

    Tom Keating: “I think we need to talk to primary level children, about the potential options in technology and cyber security, I feel we as leaders should focus on going into schools, showing the potential opportunities and also have them to meet some role models.

    “The EmPower Girls event recently held in Winsor Park was a great example of this, it was great for many of those school girls meet and speak with female leaders in tech / cyber security and help eliminates those thoughts of ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’ It is a long-term problem for us all but I think you will find if we put more time into this then more kids will think about going into Technical / Cyber Security careers and you may find more women going into tech.”

    Chris Wallace: “I think if you are optimally getting in front of primary school children then it is a long game. It will be in 12 years’ time that this will pay off. It is hard to commit to that when the payoff is so far in the distance – and yet, it is such an important thing.”

    Victoria Milhench: “When I consider my own children I think there is still very much a focus on a lot of the traditional subjects. I have three children, all of whom have different interests and strengths, and none of them have gone into this industry and I believe that is indicative of a really big challenge that has to come with a supportive industry – but which also needs to be supported at a central level.”

    Sarah Milliken: “I agree, I think it is about the consistency of teaching, as well.”

    Victoria Milhench: “It’s like any career, you might start off in one aspect of it, and over time it becomes clear how technology helps make it even more innovative and exciting and ultimately helping us live our lives.”

    Russell Beggs: “I have to agree with Tom, there’s no longer just one route to employment and it needs to start with educating people on their options. At ESO, we find diverse skills pathways vital for hiring and have found real value in candidates with varied backgrounds and experience.

    “This approach not only enriches the team with a multitude of perspectives but also fosters creativity and innovation, which is a huge driver for our mission in empowering emergency services.”

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