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12 years in Kainos: From placement student to Tech Strategy Lead
15 March 2019 | Posted by Aislinn McBride

Aislinn has worked in Kainos for 12 years and is currently the Tech Strategy Lead for Digital Services. She leads the Tech Steering Group and is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group.

Tell us about yourself. What’s your background?

My journey has been made up of a set of fairly natural choices and a process of elimination. My mum and dad had their own business and I was working the till and making 10p mix-ups when I couldn’t even reach the counter. Growing up in a home-grown business led to a couple of fairly natural choices for me. While I wasn’t an all-rounder at school, I found I could get my head around maths so kept it going through to A level. I absolutely blame this on all that practice with the 10p mix-ups … one for the bag…. one for me…. one for the bag…. one for me J . After that I largely followed a process of elimination avoiding subjects I didn’t like and picking up new things where I could. That ended up with studying Maths, Computer Science and Business studies at A level, and it was a punt that worked! This is where I really found my home; from not being particularly interested in learning I found myself easily working late into the night simply because I enjoyed solving problems with code. That all led to only one degree I really wanted to do, software engineering at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.

Tell us about your time in Kainos

I joined Kainos as a placement student and worked in a great team. I can’t give them enough credit; Eugene Fahy, Colette Kidd, Alison Coote… They were incredible mentors. Eugene, in particular, was an experienced developer and really focused on good practices, good quality code, doing the basics right and building on that. That inspired me and set me on the path I followed.

When I graduated I worked in another software house for a few years but I came back to Kainos because of the team and challenges; my heart was always there.

I worked on a project with Eircom for 3 years. I remember about 2 years into that, a round of promotions came up and many of the team were excited by the prospect of promotion, so even though I knew I wasn’t ready I thought I would throw my hat in the ring. I went for a Technical Architect (TA) interview and it was incredibly difficult. I realised just how much I needed to develop. Suffice to say I didn’t need to wait for feedback to know the job wasn’t mine… yet. While the interview was difficult and a real test of my nerves, it was really useful for the feedback and I used that to drive my development.

I sought, and got, face time with Tom Gray (CTO of Kainos); an incredible individual who really took time out from his demanding role to help me grow and develop. Over the next year I got regular feedback and new challenges that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I failed several times over, but I learnt and grew with each one. I find now that most experiences like this are only a failure if I don’t take the time to learn from them!

So when I applied for TA again around a year later, I was successful! I still had loads to learn, but Kainos gradually increased the scale of responsibility. I moved quickly from writing code myself to leading scaled agile teams; in Kainos terms that meant moving upwards from TA (Technical Architect), to SA (Solution Architect) to PA (Principle Architect). I loved engaging with technical teams to help shape a design, estimate pieces of work and see that through delivery. For me, in all of this, the biggest challenge has been bringing people along and helping people bring their best to the team. The volume and strength of views are invaluable but also challenging to bring together.

Then I took on a new role, which crossed over between engineering and management. This was a great experience and I had some incredible learns; I found a new elevated respect for managers! Kainos is a place that will give people opportunities to step outside their immediate career path, which is invaluable. But ultimately, after a couple of great years, I returned to my engineering roots.

What is your current role?

I’m now working in Digital Services as Tech Strategy Lead, which is a slice of the CTO role. My focus is on technology, from the perspective of continuous improvement, influencing the type work we’re want to do and providing assurance of what we’re delivering. One great part of this role is that I get to engage in many different projects; this year alone I was able to get hands on to address challenges in a time critical to Brexit-related services, shaped a platform for smart cities and worked with tens of different projects supporting the teams in their technical delivery practices.

One of the most interesting areas is running the Tech Steering Group. Technologists come together to discuss where are we today and what are the big things we want to learn. We’ve hundreds of engineers and we know the landscape will keep changing so we need to keep challenging ourselves to update our skills so we can keep helping organisations transform their business with the right technology. We have to be ahead of the game if we’re to bring that thought leadership and experience to our clients! Up next, more Kubernettes, Serverless and Go but never forgetting to keep a good eye on those core best practices which date only slowly.

What are the main challenges you face?

Saying no and, truthfully, sometimes being more selfish. It’s important to keep focus on the goals of the role, but I also need to look after my own satisfaction – my goals and ambitions. It’s easy to get pulled into administration, management or product work because I tend to have opinions in these areas, but I know I’m happier with a technical challenge and want to keep those activities closer.

I have imposter syndrome, I never feel like I know enough. I look at the Kainos technologists and see incredible people, highly skilled and great to work with. The more I learn the more I realise how much I don’t know; but I would much rather have that and know that I work with great people than not have that and be unaware. I think that’s a good balance, a good place to be.

This isn’t unique to me or Kainos, I think most people will have a bit of imposter syndrome. I think it’s really important to recognise it as a good thing that simply needs to be managed. Use all those clever people around you to learn from… and you never know you may help them on their way.

Can you think of a highlight of your time at Kainos so far?

One explicit change after my experience in a people management role has been understanding people better and for me it means everything to see people develop. Of course it’s useful to get feedback and support from your seniors but, for me it’s even more rewarding when you see someone find their way through their journey with your help. That’s a lovely place to be, it’s great to have a positive impact on others.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into IT?

It’s easy to imagine a coder sitting at their laptop all day and not engaging, certainly that’s what most of my friends think I do. Yes, there are people that do that and they love it, and that works, but there are lots of different disciplines within technology. It’s worth understanding the variety of roles – talk to people in IT. There are lots of companies that have open days. Having a basic understanding of IT is really useful but you can move between roles as well. I have! While I’ve stayed mostly within the engineering side of things there are lots of people who have gone from technology into business analyst roles into product roles, the list is endless. You can find your space gradually, it doesn’t have to be a decision you make on day one and you should look for an organisation that will support that. Many do!

My number one rule is to prioritise enjoying coming into work each day. The world around us changes so quickly that you need to keep learning and investing in yourself and that is an awful lot easier when you enjoy what you’re doing.

Who inspires you?

I don’t have to look too far. There are loads of people from Kainos, our CTOs, architects, developers and so many in other disciplines of IT. The network of people I’ve met through Belfast meetups and conferences are incredible. There’s some fabulous support out there where people are simply giving up their time to help others. I’ve tried to write a list, but it falls off the end of the page… they are some of my best friends, they give me daily inspiration and support.

What’s next?

When I was starting out I was excited by promotion and highly motivated by a big challenge. A challenge is always good; I focus now on really enjoying that, learning new technologies and solving problems, but working with great people and enjoying developing others has a much bigger impact on my choices now.

If you’re interested in building a career in Kainos register for our Data Science bootcamp in Birmingham on 2 May. We have partnered with Microsoft to help women of all ages pursue a new, rewarding and creative career. For more information and to apply please visit: https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/athome/digitalskills/women-in-tech/

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