SmashFly's NI Dev Conf speakers on the importance of conference culture in Belfast

  • Northern Ireland's top independent developer conference NI Dev Conf kicks off in just a few days on Saturday June 8th, and it seems like everyone in the NI tech scene is looking forward to it. This year's event will see around 60 speakers give talks on a huge variety of subjects, from web development frameworks and game development to cyber-security essentials and machine learning.

    In the lead-up to the event, Sync NI has been speaking to this year's platinum sponsors on why the event is so important to their company. Our final pre-conference interview is with four members of AI-powered recruitment technology firm SmashFly's Belfast office who will be giving talks at the event: Paul Breen, Angela Lavery, Victoria Sloan, and Saoirse McCann.

    Sync NI: Tell me a little bit about yourselves and your roles at SmashFly.

    Paul Breen: So in SmashFly and Belfast we have four teams, and I'm the team lead of team Goliath. We look after some front-end CMS stuff for the career marketing side and some back end processing stuff.

    Angela Lavery: I'm Angela, and I'm one of the graduates at SmashFly and I'm working on the career marketing side and the front end side of things.

    Victoria Sloan: I'm Victoria. I'm a front-end developer primarily working on the UI on the campaigns team, so building out marketing campaigns. I joined about two months ago and I actually joined SmashFly because I was helping mentor at Code First Girls at Queens University where I met Saoirse. Then I started speaking to Roger the tech lead here and was really interested in the work that we're doing in the community. So I've been here for about two months now, and it's great!

    Saoirse McCann: I'm Saoirse and I'm also a front end engineer. I'm working on pipeline intelligence. So it's all to do with candidate sourcing, whenever you're trying to recruit new people, and scoring them based on a set category of skills or a job description.

    Sync NI: Do you know how SmashFly got involved in NI Dev Conf this year? Where did that come from?

    Saorse McCann: So last year, they were one of the key sponsors werent they? And then this year they're platinum sponsors.

    Paul Breen: I think it was kind of me that told them about NI Dev Conf and industry sponsors, and kind of pushed that.

    Sync NI: So have been active in the developer community meetup scene before this?

    Paul Breen: Yeah. So individually, I kind of would go to all the meetups and talk at some of them. And then SmashFly hosted the, Code First Girls.

    Saoirse McCann: We have a Women Who Code event coming up, and the Big Data Conference after NI Dev Conf.

    Victoria Sloan: I think a lot of our developers are quite active in the community anyway, so when they mentioned sponsoring NI Dev Conf was just "Yeah, let's do it!"

    Sync NI: So there are a lot of developers here and a big software development industry here. That means there's a lot of competition for graduates and stuff. So how did you find SmashFly with regards to recruiting?

    Angela Lavery: My recruitment processes was little bit different because actually heard SmashFly on LinkedIn whenever they were first starting out in Belfast. Being able to chat to one of the HR girls at the time and Gareth on a one-to-one basis was really nice and really personal as well. That's kind of what drew me to SmashFly, it kind of gave me that family feeling straight away that a lot of companies in Belfast didn't give me.

    Sync NI: So did everyone else have the same experience with SmashFly, was it very personal or was it much larger at the time?

    Victoria Sloan: Mine was just kind of because I had helped at Code First Girls at Queen's University. I had heard the name SmashFly about the place and then saw that they were sponsoring the likes Belfast js, and other meetups. And then I met Saoirse there as well and she was saying that she worked at SmashFly and she was really enjoying it.

    I got speaking to Roger, our Tech Lead and he said that in the future they want tohost many more events and try to get involved a lot more the community. I'm really active in the community, so that's what really drew SmashFly to me more than anywhere else, really.

    Sync NI: Over the last couple of years there have been a lot of events like hackathons and conferences that are more recruiting oriented. Graduates are looking for opportunities, and companies look for recruits, so it's been a much more personal way to recruit people. Do you think that's been important here?

    Saoirse McCann: I think it kind of highlights the culture of the company. You know, if you have a very formal interview, then you kind of know you're gonna have to come in wearing a shirt and tie. When we do our interviews, we will just wear jeans and stuff like that and it'll be very laid back and you'll have a laugh.

    You know, it's more comfortable and people know that whenever they come into work, that it's going to be the same sort of culture. They know that they're gonna have fun, it's not gonna be as ... what's the word? Stuffy?

    Paul Breen: You know what it's like, sometimes you go to an interview, and you wear a suit and tie and thats the only time you wear a suit and tie. Whereas here it's just kind fo laid back, and it's more casual.

    Victoria Sloan: I met Roger first for coffee and it was just very chilled. I was asking all the questions, I just wanted to know what the culture was like and what the work was like. I felt much more relaxed and he made me feel like if I was applying it wouldn't be a really drawn-out formal process, because that's just not what you want.

    Sync NI: So you're all talking at the event. Can you tell me a little about each of your talks?

    Paul Breen: Security. Talking about what normal web developers should know about security from a web developer. I've a keen interest in general web security, there's a lot of information out there and I'm just kind of giving the basics of web security that most developers should know and demonstrating a few vulnerabilities.

    Quite a lot of people know the key words and phrases, but they don't know what actually means. I'm hoping to kind of dive in and actually show what it is and how to fix it, and to keep it relatively easy.

    Angela Lavery: I'm talking about an introduction to Azure Machine machine learning. So I like to learn about that sort of stuff outside of work and will hopefully get into a role where I'm doing machine learning within SmashFly. So I've just been doing it in my spare time, looking at predictability and hopefully being able to create a web application that and can predict a mix of the clothes and things that come into shops every month. That will kind of give you a report back, like, "Here's your top picks that you might like!" every month.

    Victoria Sloan: So I'm speaking about design for developers and how we can kind of include developers earlier on in the process of design and UI design. A lot of the time the developer will just be given a wireframe and told "Go out and build it." Sometimes the designers may not have thought of the nuances like validation messages and things like that, so I think including developers early on is really good.

    I'm also going to cover some design principles that will be really helpful for developers to make it easier for them to work with designers and work on their own projects too. So it's going to be more of a design focused talk, but kind of technical as well.

    Saoirse McCann: I'm going to be speaking about how you can use Akita JS as a state management tool within Angular. So more and more state management is getting harder to manage on the front end. Akita JS is brilliant, and there's so many different plugins; You can use it for your paging, infinite scroll, and you can use it for your session storage.

    It makes everything a lot easier but there are very few people actually using it. It's such a powerful tool, I love it. It's turned me into a wee bit of a geek! [laugh]

    Sync NI: There are about 60 speakers this year and the number of tickets is massive. It's going to be a huge event. How important do you think events like an NI Dev Conf are for the local industry?

    Saoirse McCann: I think it's really important. It's one of the questions we always ask when we're interviewing people, "how do you stay on top of the tech and everything?" Actually, very few people will say "Oh, I go to events," most people will say "Oh I follow this person on twitter," or "I do this or that." We want to hear people say they go to events, they're the type of people we want here at SmashFly because that's what we all do.

    Victoria Sloan: I think it's extremely important to show that you've got some sort of interest outside of work, and that you're trying to bring the newest tools to work, and that you're open to new ideas rather than just being locked down to certain technology.

    So I do think it's really important, and especially locally because it's so expensive to go away to those big conferences. We'll maybe go away to a big conference this year with SmashFly at some point but I think having something as good as NI Dev Conf is really good for SmashFly and other companies within Belfast.

    Angela Lavery: I think it's also really good to get all the companies together and see what other companies are doing, and things like that. Maybe poach a few ideas! [laugh]

    Paul Breen: It's also just building up relationships and networks, and giving back to the community as well as taking from it.

    Sync NI: I noticed there's an interesting thing with an NI Dev Conf that they have free childcare, free tickets for carers, and discounted tickets for the unemployed and students. They even have a "pay what you want" ticket if you can't afford it. That's not something that a lot of events do, and of course they're only able to do that because of the sponsorship. So how important do you think it is it to keep these kinds of events accessible?

    Paul Breen: Definitely 100%. I've been to other conferences and the tickets are extortionate, like thousands of pounds and that's not including travel and hotels and things. This is accessible to everybody, pay what you want, and for students it's still accessible.

    The location is really good for really handy up in Stranmillis, and the childcare. I know people who came last year and said the child care facility was really good. You could bring the kids and you knew they were safe upstairs.

    Angela Lavery: Yeah, I think it's brilliant, definitely giving people the opportunity to go. I know a lot of students can't afford to go to conferences and things so something like that really opens up doors for them.

    It especially helps them to find out about different companies that they might not have heard of before, because I know how locked in you can get in your final year of University and not know about other companies.

    Victoria Sloan: Yeah, I completely agree. I'd re-iterate what they said about the students because I remember when I was in university a few years ago I definitely couldn't afford it to go to an event like a big conference. I'd always wanted to go, so I would have to sit and watch them on YouTube and things like that.

    It's good to be able to afford to actually go to something like that, because I'm sure the universities I would really encourage all the students to go to events like this. So I do think it's really good, especially women and men with kids that want to come along for the day or maybe the husband and wife might both want to go. It's really, really good to have the childcare option.

    Paul Breen: Going to other conferences, you notice the difference, I went to one of our London and it's all kind of middle aged men. Whereas when you go to NI Dev Conf you can see that the audience is younger and there's a wider range of people come to it because it is more accessible to everyone.

    Saoirse McCann: Yeah, it actually makes me really proud to be part of the tech community here that we do have such benefits like that. Especially as a woman, I think it's amazing.

    Sync NI: Thanks very much for your time!

    For more information on SmashFly, head over to and follow @SmashFly on twitter.
    To learn more about Ni Dev Conf, keep your eyes on and follow @NIDevConf on twitter.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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