If you have ever made a bank transaction in Ireland, applied for a driving licence in the UK or placed an order with the German-based meal kit delivery multinational HelloFresh, you have used software made in Belfast and rolled out behind the scenes by Kainos.
As the chief technology officer of the group’s digital services division, Aislinn McBride leads the hundreds of software engineers and architects putting together the nuts and bolts that help financial services firms, healthcare providers and public administrations interact with the public in an increasingly connected world. “For example, the NHS app, which is used by 22 million people across the UK to get repeat prescriptions, contact their GP and download information: Kainos has been at the heart of the delivery of that service with over 70 of our people as part of that team,” she says.
I meet McBride in Kainos’s boardroom in the company’s discreet, efficiently modern headquarters on a quiet square just off the hustle and bustle of Botanic Avenue and Queen’s University. Kainos was born in this neighbourhood 36 years ago out of a Queen’s University spin-off started with Fujitsu.
The large windows overlook a typical Belfast streetscape, facing directly onto two neo-gothic churches. Yet the most striking development at Kainos in recent years is how much it has outgrown the immediate surroundings of its British and Irish markets.
Annual results for the year ended on March 21, 2022, released a few days before our interview, illustrate this international expansion. Group revenue topped £300 million for the first time, up 29 per cent on 2021. Two thirds came from McBride’s own digital services division (the other third was generated by Kainos’s Workday implementation business). And its fastest-growing markets are now Germany and North America, with revenue outside the UK and Ireland doubling to £84 million last year.
All was not rosy in the past year. Kainos’s profit growth stalled in the face of rising costs after a jump in 2021, and its London-listed share price has taken a beating along with the rest of tech stocks. Yet with a £1.3 billion market capitalisation and no debt, the group remains in a strong position to continue on its upward trajectory.
Over the course of this interview, McBride discusses how she goes about replicating the formula that has established Kainos in these islands into more diverse markets; what her team does to prepare for the risk of ever-present cyber-attacks; and how she believes in Kainos’s long-term view to attract enough recruits to do it all.
But first, I ask her how she became a senior tech executive in the only true digital multinational to have yet come out of the island of Ireland.
“I grew up in Belfast,” says McBride – “in some of the most contentious parts of Belfast, the Ormeau Road, schooled on the Falls Road.” There was no computer at home. “My parents had a newsagents and stocking shelves is what I assumed I would do for my life.” Then when she was 16, all of that changed.
“I never would have contemplated a career in technology until I was really inspired by a girl that came to my school and told her story,” McBride remembers. “She had joined a local company and was in this software engineering career… It resonated so well with my interest in maths, my interest in business studies, to then take on computing and solve real-world problems like she was able to do was just hugely inspirational.”
In hindsight, McBride says that meeting a short while before she made her education choices was “pivotal” – because it presented her with a career in technology as something normal. But she did not realise this on the spot, and she never got to thank the visitor to her school: “It annoys me to this day that I can’t remember who she was because, at the time, I thought of it as just another one of these career days.”
The small number of kids dreaming of an IT career in Northern Ireland in the years following the Good Friday Agreement was reflected in the size of her class in software engineering at the University of Ulster, with just 21 students. In that group, she was one of three women. McBride is not keen to act as a poster child for women in tech, and I’m happy to skip the clichéd questions on how hard it must have been to build a career as a female software professional. But on the side of our interview, she slips me a link to an initiative Kainos ran last autumn to offer schoolgirls virtual work experience and try their hand at coding.
As part of her degree, McBride secured a placement at Kainos and got to work on a Dublin call centre project. Although her first job out of college was with AMT-Sybex, she quickly returned to Kainos after three years and has been with the group ever since. Such longevity is not unusual at Kainos and she points out that its chief people officer Colette Kidds and group chief technology officer Tom Gray, who recruited her at the time, are still around, too. This will come up again later in our interview.
AI and ethics: The next frontier
Two months ago, Kainos and the media publisher Tortoise released a report on the future of trust in artificial intelligence, drawing from interviews with 19 academics, business practitioners and government officials. The study frames technology ethics as a sustainability area comparable to climate change, with issues emerging around corporate responsibility, regulation and public acceptability.
When asked about the next steps in technology development at Kainos, McBride points to the data held by the group’s customers and the ever-growing capabilities to exploit it. “Where we see a real challenge in the market is, yes, you’ve got lots of data. Yes, you can apply technology to it but is that the right thing to do?” she asks. “What kind of outcomes can that create? And if things go wrong, whose problem is that? Is that the developer’s? Is that their fault for making an ethical decision? Or is it the data? Who takes responsibility? For us, it’s a real focus area to bring ethics right to the fore. We’re hiring at the minute for a dedicated ethicist while we continue to work with consultancies and do our own research into this space and trying to push the boundary forward.”
McBride’s career took her around Ireland, commuting to long-term projects at Eircom in Dublin and an insurance company in Galway. This, however, was just a taste of the amount of travelling she would do later. Fast forward to this year, and Kainos has nearly 2,700 staff in 22 countries. In the Republic of Ireland and continental Europe, it has been expanding in financial services and insurance (FSI). In public services, it now counts the Canadian government among its customers.
Aislinn McBride (AMcB): The new big area of growth for us, which is really interesting for the longer-term future of Kainos, is in the North America region. Specifically, over the last year, we’ve set up an office in Toronto and started to grow that team. So that’s taking what we’ve delivered within the UK and helping Toronto get the benefit of that.
It’s a really interesting market when you compare the state of the nation here on the level of technology advancement and impact versus where that market is – they have an awful lot we can bring to it and work in collaboration with their business, their problems, to have a great impact. It’s a really exciting time to take this UK model and apply it somewhere as big a market as North America. We can see we’re already having great impact and getting great feedback from our customers there, that they want to work with us more
Thomas Hubert (TH): How much of the model you mentioned, what you’ve achieved in the UK, can be replicated elsewhere? Within Europe, there are a lot of common standards. Even though Brexit has happened, you’re still very much aligned with regulation, the way people are used to work. When you cross the ocean, I’m sure there are different standards, different criteria. How much of your technology is directly reusable and how much additional thinking and development do you have to put into it to make it compatible with another country like that, so far away?
AMcB: Our focus is always tailoring for the environment that we’re in. So even within the UK, while you might have consistent standards, every solution is unique. Every customer is unique. The reuse that we bring to a lot of those solutions – whether they’re in the UK, Ireland, Europe, the North America region – is the knowledge and the experience that the team has of how to use the technology really effectively, and how to solve those types of problems.
For example, within our service design capability, we are very deliberate about how we put the user at the centre of our journey, how we reflect the whole business process and all of the different stakeholders that are engaged – and being very inclusive about that, deliberately. That model is less about technology – actually, technology is usually the easy part of the problem. If you can really understand the problem that you’re solving and have all of the right people involved, the solutions come much more naturally.
When you have good strong experience of the technology itself, reusing the best practices, knowing what technologies are strong in what areas and applying them appropriately, this is where our strength really lies.
TH: I want to take the example of the Republic of Ireland where a lot of The Currency‘s subscribers are based. How much of the business takes place in the Dublin office and how much is linked back here in Belfast? How do you work with a destination market country like that? You said you’re very close to the customer. You need to do a lot of work with them, I suppose face to face. How much of that can be reverted back here where the core engineering is taking place?
AMcB: We’ve got a bit of a mix. So we have a Dublin office that we’ve had for many years and that is very customer-facing. Those individuals are on site on an almost continual basis and they are largely within the consulting space. But we do have a group of technologists within our Dublin office as well and they engage in project delivery and they lead those project deliveries through that engagement.
We do balance that, then, with the Belfast-based staff, Derry-Londonderry staff, as well as people from our Gdansk office – we’ve got a big development site there. For any individual project, where our people come from really depends on what’s the customer? What’s the interaction model that we need to have in place? And how do we get the best balance of delivery capability and engineering excellence combined with that cost-effectiveness as well, and appropriate use of the skills across the organisation? So it isn’t a one-size-fits-all for any customer. But there is a balancing act between Dublin-based the staff versus the rest of the team together.
McBride on cyber security
The systems built by Kainos handle vast amounts of sensitive personal data, in a world where the war in Ukraine has exacertabted the risk of hacker attacks. “Every month there are new threats, new vulnerabilities, but also new products, new technologies to solve those problems,” says McBride, adding that security proofing is part of any project design from the very start. Yet she is honest: “The reality is, it’s it’s a changing landscape, and you can never be 100 per cent confident that you’re absolutely foolproof, because it is it is ever changing.”
She describes a multi-layered approach where the security capability built into the Microsoft or Amazon cloud platforms hosting Kainos systems forms the first line of defence. “That’s a baseline, you then need to work to build on top of that. So we have grown our own cyber capability within Kainos and that’s spread across our our geographies. A number of years back, we invested in sending some of our core engineering team on masters training on the speciality of cyber security.”
She adds: “That capability has led on setting the best practices across all of our teams, and helping to educate our architects or engineers on what good practice looks like. So within any team, there may or may not be a security specialist, but they will all have access to and be educated with that security training material and then can leverage individuals from that capability to bring them into the project, depending on the context.”
Kainos’s office in Gdansk, Poland, opened in 2007 and McBride says it now employs around 250 people. Much like other western European software businesses, the Belfast-based group is increasingly drawing from the Polish workforce. “We have a solid engineering team over there. I’ve spent a lot of time in our Gdansk office,” she says.
Initially, a team from Northern Ireland moved to Poland for several years while a local leadership was being assembled: “You can’t take Northern Ireland culture and say, let’s just apply this in Gdansk. It’s different organisations, a different ecosystem you’re working within, but getting a meld of the two is really important – and getting the best of both,” says McBride. She adds that she travelled to Gdansk every week or every second week for two years, though this has now reduced to once every couple of months as a growing number of international locations compete for her attention.
This steers the conversation towards the global scramble for tech talent. Rising payroll and recruitment costs are among the key factors behind Kainos’s declining profitability in the past year. Even though the group’s annual results report a 668 increase in headcount and a high staff retention rate of 86 per cent, this is down on the previous year.
McBride acknowledges recruitment as a challenge and her discourse initially ticks the usual boxes: “We believe in growing and developing people, their careers, their journeys…” Then as she goes on, real flesh begins to appear on the bones of Kainos’s hiring, training and retaining efforts.
“Rather than employing people with the expectation that they stay for one or two years, we want people to enjoy long career journeys with us. So for us, that means a real focus and priority on our early-careers hiring,” she says. Kainos has the usual partnerships with universities to offer placements and its own internal training centre for existing staff, but also spots future recruits much earlier.
“Our earn-as-you-learn programme takes people from exiting school age into a company like Kainos. We bring them through an academy and support them through doing their degree for the following years,” she explains. The apprenticeship format allows students to pay their way through university thanks to a part-time job in the group. “That brings people into Kainos that may well not have ended up in technology and creates more space for people to move into technology.”
“It’s really important not to just look at one channel, but have a whole range of channels that bring people in.”
The group also participates in Amazon’s AWS re/Start programme, which helps people who have been out of the workforce retrain for cloud computing jobs. McBride says these can be people coming out the army, returning to work after a period raising children or caring for a loved one, or residents of disadvantaged areas.
“We work with AWS to try to place them in Kainos and find successful careers for them,” she says. “So for us, it’s really important not to just look at one channel, but have a whole range of channels that bring people in from an early stage with great diversity, and then complement that with experienced hires. You couldn’t get away from the scale that we’re growing at, it’s inevitable experienced hires have to be part of that – but as much as possible, using that for different types of skills, different types of specialisms, individuals that bring something really new and different to the company.”
In either case, she adds that new recruits are firmly put on a learning ladder that will extend through their time with the company.
AMcB: When you join Kainos in your early career, you’re part of a very structured 18-month program that gives you that support under quite structured training, and gives helps cement that mindset of continuous learning and improvement from day one. As an experienced hire, you can be part of our communities of learning, you can be part of the our certification programs, you can be part of our in-house training and go to big conferences, do really challenging projects and get that mobility across the organisation as well to learn and grow. For us, growth from a people perspective is about all of those different things, tailored to the people that need the supports, that are going to grow and be the next leaders of this organisation.
TH: For example, if I was to join Kainos next week, your description of the induction sounds very important. So what happens from day one, the typical itinerary?
AMcB: For an experienced hire or for early careers? They are very different
TH: I’d be early career when it comes to software engineering, very early career!
AMcB: Brilliant. So those first few weeks are incredibly important. We bring them on board and we usually spend the first couple of days with representatives from across the organisation,doing an introduction to who Kainos are. You’re just coming out of university or into this type of work for the first time, not everybody really understands what Kainos is. We try to shape this as “This is who we are”.
We can only do that through the stories of our team. So quite often, Brendan Mooney, our CEO, will come into that session, and share his personal story and the story of Kainos. We’ll see Colette, our chief people officer, come in and share her story. And that will be the same for a number of the leaders across the business to really show the importance of of those hires and to help them understand who the organisation is, what culture they’re joining, and get involved and be part of it as early as possible.
They then go on to technology training, helping them understand how to code, what it looks like to put something into production, how to work as a team, how to share knowledge and information. All of that is quite new for those individuals. When you’re doing a joint project in university, it’s very different from working as a team with all of these different disciplines at play. For us, it’s really important that they touch and feel that. So, as part of the next stage of those academies, we run a real-life project with them as part of it. And we’ll put in place testers, developers, product owners, project managers to simulate a real project and they live into that. They produce a real working system at the back end. So by the time they go on to their real projects, they already know what it looks like to be part of a team, to develop code and to do, for example, code reviews for each other and get feedback and deal with what that looks like.
We also put quite structured training in place for specific technology, deep-dive areas, and specific soft skills areas like giving and receiving feedback, or how to write a piece of Java code. Those are are all deep dives that we incorporate into our programme. Then they go on to their project deliveries where they all have a project buddy who supports their software development within the project and is there as a real mentor, as well as their their manager in their project, and their people manager that supports their wider personal development over the years. And over the following 18 months, they have regular short bursts of training through that period until they graduate. That’s all tailored to skills that need to be developed to grow them to the next level in their career.
TH: I noticed things afterwards, in the longer term – staff empowerment policies. I heard about something called Spark and Scale, things like that. You seem to have a retention approach of giving people chances to shine if they have ideas to contribute. How does that work?
AMcB: One thing that we certainly believe is really important is giving lots of different ways that people can contribute and be part of the organisation, and be seen to be in the organisation. That can be that whenever individuals come in, we encourage them to go back to their universities and to share their stories.
We set up our communities that focus on specific disciplines. We’re open by default, so our default response is “This is a community of people that are interested, your voice will be heard if you want to be part of this, put your hand up”. But we don’t mandate. We don’t say that you must be in this community, or you must be interested in this thing. The important thing for us is that we’ve got the outlets for people to engage.
Another example is our ideas hub where anybody in the whole company can submit ideas and make suggestions for anything in the company, whether it be having a fruit bowl in every room, or can we enter into this new market? Every one of those ideas are evaluated by our team. If you’ve suggested it, you’ll be part of it. It’s about having space for that creativity across the company. And people and ideas can come from anywhere.
“The accelerated pace of digital adoption is going to continue, perhaps not at the same rate post-Covid, but it’s still going to accelerate.”
TH: You’ve talked about your own 15 years here and more before as an intern, and then your senior managers who were here before you joined and some of them are still here. It struck me in some of the official company documents, there is this long-term approach publicly stated that you want to work over several generations. A lot of listed companies, when they talk about the long term, it might be five, 10 years. So that’s very unusual. How successful are you at maintaining this staff retention and career length and participation by people? How do you benchmark?
AMcB: For us, that longevity really, really matters. And if you look at our strategy, that long-term sustainability that we talk about externally is absolutely part of our value system internally. It’s part of everything that we do. Your perception is 100 per cent right. If you’re inside the organisation, you’d see that even more strongly. Our senior leaders, a huge proportion of them have come all the way from entry level and have been here for 20, 30 years. I’m still a newbie in comparison to so many of them.
We do look to replicate that across our team and we look at our retention numbers against other organisations – we’re in a great place there. But our benchmark is not other organisations, our benchmark is our own standards, and how can we improve? How can we keep thinking of new ideas to develop and to grow our team? For things like this, I’m not sure that you can really put a number on it so much as develop and build a culture that’s going to grow people. And if that’s working, you’ll see it and you’ll feel it within the business.
TH: In the context of having Dublin just down the road and London across the water, which are major tech hubs when it comes to recruiting people – how competitive is it? I know you’re saying it’s hard and it’s clear from the company’s latest results. They say there are more opportunities than we have staff to deliver. So there is a need for more, but is it just within Northern Ireland? Or is this pool from Dublin and London something you’ve to fight with? Or is it global?
AMcB: My opinion on this is that globally, we’ve seen the market change. Across the world, the demand for technology has increased. We’ve seen through Covid-19 – and the research is showing us – that the accelerated pace of digital adoption is going to continue, perhaps not at the same rate post-Covid, but it’s still going to accelerate. All of that is creating opportunities for people to get involved and be part of it. It’s creating the demand that’s causing the markets to be very busy. I see it as a challenge globally, rather than isolated to a specific office our region.
Inside Northern Ireland’s tech community
I first met McBride at BelTech, the Kainos-sponsored Belfast technology event, which she says is now the single biggest conference in Northern Ireland. “It’s absolutely phenomenal the way that has brought people together. The connections and the relationships within that have, I think, open people’s eyes to the art of the possible. Through that we have created quite a number of ideas for different communities that have been spun up in Northern Ireland. I’m not saying they’re all directly because of BelTech, absolutely not! But I do think that’s been some of the inspiration.
“Across Northern Ireland, we have quite a few Meetup groups. So if you look Meetup.com, you can see a whole range from the Bash events to the Microsoft sessions to the Java community. They are well attended, it’s a well-engaged community. And within each of those communities, the leaders are well networked between each other, share ideas and support each other.
“You can see that replicated then if you look at the likes of the start-up communities here as well. Kainos reach out and lean into that community to try to support and help smaller start-ups within Northern Ireland be successful. I think that’s the culture of the tech community in Northern Ireland. And we’re delighted to be able to push and nudge that culture forward. Ultimately, if those organisations are successful, that helps all of us grow the skills and the opportunity here.”