William: Liberty IT is based here in Belfast and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance. Liberty IT is 15 years young and I joined the company in the first cohort of recruits. The company has grown dramatically from those early days. The original intent was to grow to 126 people over 5 or 6 years but before we reached that, Liberty Mutual was so impressed with what we were doing that they wanted us to grow the company further. So we’ve seen reasonably rapid growth over the company’s lifespan and now employ over 340 talented IT professionals. Though we like to think of ourselves as taking a careful approach, focusing on ensuring we get the right type of people to fit with our organisation, and then ensuring we attain the right sort of work for our people.
William: Our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance, is one of the world’s largest property and casualty insurance companies. While the majority of their business is in the US, a very significant portion is also worldwide. And the insurance business is no different from any other – it requires significant computing resources and skills. Liberty Mutual employs around 4,500 IT people; with teams of specialists working within a range of areas from infrastructure, software engineering and architecture design to information management and verification. We work across the whole Liberty Mutual organization – the personal insurance business unit, which sells car and home insurance; the commercial insurance business unit, which sells to businesses; and for the global specialty business unit, which includes all sorts of specialist insurance products for different sectors – such as the building trade for example. So we have people working for parts of the business as far away as Australia.
Here in Northern Ireland, we’re focused on software development and engineering and for the first 10-12 years that was the key thing we did – now we have teams carrying out great work in other areas too. Shortly after we started the software operation, we started growing an automated testing group and have grown that in parallel with the software group.
Gary: So does that undertake a testing function not only for here, but for other parts of the Liberty organization?
William: The team provide specialist testing services for other parts of the organization more often than for ourselves actually. So they will develop test strategies and test models for some of the large strategic software initiatives, and here in Belfast we will develop parts of those systems. So we do get benefit from our verification team but the benefit is broader than what is delivered locally. Importantly, this team is seen as providing thought leadership in this area to the whole group.
Gary: There has been a lot more emphasis put on quality assurance and software testing in recent years. It used to be that software testers were not perhaps the primary candidates for software development. Has the professionalism that has come into the area of software testing changed that?
William: Absolutely. Our testers do not do manual testing or write test scripts. They develop test frameworks and test strategies. So we’re increasingly seeing a need here for classical software development skills in that group. At the moment we have a couple of vacancies in this group and we’re looking for people who are fundamentally software engineers. The skill set required to put together appropriate test environments for modern day systems has moved very much towards the software development sphere. That doesn’t mean you don’t need classical testing engineers – it’s just that there is an increasing continuum of skills required.
Gary: So are you looking at testing across the whole life cycle?
William: Our verification team considers testing that is performed towards the end of the lifecycle but the software development model here at Liberty IT is all about integrating testing right through the lifecycle. So even before code is complete we’d have a strong emphasis on peer reviews and then supplement that with developer-led testing, unit testing. So we’re seeing quality processes and aspects of testing and reviewing applied earlier and earlier in the development lifecycle. That’s something that we as a company have believed in from day zero and now we’re seen as leaders in this domain within the wider group.
Gary: So the quality of software coming out of this operation here in Belfast is recognized by the company as being very high?
William: We get significant recognition for the engineering skills we’ve brought to the company. This is not just in terms of the quality of the product and lack of defects, but also in regards to the integrity of the architecture, its scalability, maintainability and extensibility and we are highly regarded for that.
Gary: And is the growth you’ve seen likely to continue? You said you now employ about 340 people?
William: Yes. We had a major recruitment campaign that recently came to a close where we were advertising for people to join us across multiple disciplines. But the recruitment continues past that specific campaign. As a company we’re always looking for people with a broad range of skills – it’s not just software engineers or testers – we’re looking for information management experts, business analysts, project managers, project leads etc. Also, we don’t always go external; we have some fantastic talent coming up through the ranks so we do a lot of internal promotions too. There is a lot of scope for career development within our company.
Gary: Do you tend to take experienced people or graduates and then train them? Some software companies will take good quality graduates who are not computer science graduates and train them – do you take that approach?
William: We take a mix of mostly experienced individuals and graduates and we like to grow from the bottom where we can – every year, we bring in around 20 graduates. We also bring in about 17 placement students every year, of which approximately 80% return to us as graduates. We’ve actually just been nominated as a finalist of the University of Ulster Placement Employer of the Year Awards which we are obviously very proud of as it demonstrates the significant investment we put into developing our placement students. Working with and engaging with these young minds are imperative – after all, they are our talent pool for the future.
So, most of these people will come from the software engineering and software development courses, and typically from the two local universities. We do however take on people with other skills. So, for example, the QA Academy which takes existing graduates and retains them in software testing – we were one of the primary instigators of this initiative. Also, DEL has just launched and supported a new apprenticeship programme for IT and we’ve taken 2 people through that scheme, both of whom have non-IT backgrounds. So far this programme is working really well for the company and the apprentices are coming on well.
Over the past 5 years, we’ve also taken on some great employees from a STEM background – mathematicians, engineers, physicists and so on. This ethos also extends to our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance. In fact, it has very recently been recognized by the Museum of Science, Boston as one of the 2013 Stars of STEM for the difference it has made to the lives of others through its commitment to innovation and STEM education.
So in answer to your question, while the universities’ computer science degrees suit us very well, we do like to make our industry attractive to people from outside that space. Basically we’re just looking for smart people who will fit in well with our organizational culture and work ethic.
Gary: The IT industry in Northern Ireland has been burgeoning over the last 10, 15 years. There are a lot of new companies around. Invest NI continues to be successful in bringing in new technology investments – that all puts demands on the market and over the last few years a lot of companies have found it more difficult to recruit. What’s your view as to where we are right now and how well are we coping with the demand?
William: This is not just a Northern Ireland problem or an Invest NI problem – it’s a global problem. I guess companies come here believing that there is some available talent and the fact that they come and grow shows that there is. Without demand, you don’t get supply. To some extent the industry exists and is the size it is because of the new entrants that have come in. However, as we’re seeing elsewhere in the world, it is becoming harder to get skilled software engineers and I believe this is a trend that will continue for several years until the benefits of the various education initiatives flow through into the business.
Gary: Willie – what does a career in software development offer? What would you say to a young person thinking about what career they want to follow about the potential in our industry?
William: For starters, I’d tell them that they would be entering into an industry that is crying out for their skills which is always good to know! There are great technological opportunities out there and things are so fast moving so they’ll certainly never get bored. In terms of the types of work, it’s likely to be quite varied from company to company but will almost certainly encourage them to be creative and innovative. Ultimately, I’d say to young people to grab every opportunity with both hands, challenging themselves along the way.
Gary: Why would people choose a career within Liberty IT as opposed to other similar companies?
William: I think the thing that sets us apart is our genuine appreciation of our people. We are aware that we wouldn’t have the success we do without their hard work, commitment and brilliant minds! I think what also sets us apart from others is that our company Vision – being innovative, bold and courageous – is not just words on a page; instead we strive to implement our values into our everyday work. Demonstrating our excellence is obviously a key concern but we don’t take ourselves too seriously and pride ourselves on having a fun and relaxed culture. Every Friday we have dressed down days and every month, our social committee organizes events for all employees whether it be a comedy show, rugby matches, or weekends away. Any excuse to socialize really!