Training next wave of tech talent will reinforce Northern Ireland's status as world IT hub
Cybersource's new site executive, Fergal Downey, reflects on how Northern Ireland is growing into a globally-renowned IT-hub. Clare Weir reports.
After spending two years in Silicon Valley, Armagh man Fergal Downey returns to Northern Ireland this summer to become site executive for one of the leading financial software firms in the country – with a wealth of newfound experiences to share.
And the top man at Cybersource, which specialises in online payment and fraud management, says that spending time away from home has shown him how our reputation as a global IT hub is stronger than ever and ready to grow even further.
Mr Downey graduated from the University of Ulster in Coleraine with a computer science degree back in the mid-90s and has since worked with Ford Motor Company, Abbey National, ICL (now Fujitsu) and HBOS.
In 2005 he also did a masters in software development research at Dundalk Institute of Technology.
It's been a long journey, which has taken him from Mullabawn to England, back home again, to California and then back to Belfast, but Mr Downey says he is up for the challenge.
"When Cybersource first came to Northern Ireland, it offered something completely different and I was pleased to be a part of that," he said.
"I wanted to be part of a new team building something different and Cybersource certainly offered me that and when the company was acquired by VISA, it opened up huge new opportunities to the Belfast workforce.
"When the opportunity to work with the brightest and best in Silicon Valley came up, I jumped at the chance.
"I would have already been in the USA four or five times a year with the company, building relationships and acting as an advocate for the team in Belfast.
"The secondment started out as one year and then grew into two.
"When I first came out to the States, I knew it was important to deliver a focus – we needed to grow the company.
"The process of developing software needed to be shaken up and the approach to building and deploying the products needed to be streamlined.
"I helped establish the project, build a number of different work streams and took on a team in the USA to work with guys in Belfast.
"There is definitely a different atmosphere in the USA and obviously, a much bigger team – I was working in an environment with 3,000 people, whereas there are 70-80 of us in Belfast.
"When I first went out there, I was perhaps daunted. I thought, I am going to be up against the best of the best here, but I learned that our best is just as good – we in Northern Ireland can hold our own, and then some.
"Northern Ireland is regarded extremely highly in the USA, and globally, not just in technical competency, but in the relentless desire to make things and make them better. This is recognised by the teams in the USA; they recognise that a lot of innovations and improvements have been driven out of Belfast and that is a great testament to the team here."
Mr Downey said that the more big companies which establish themselves in Northern Ireland, the better, in terms of attracting further talent and inspiring start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators.
"I've no doubt that it is the talent which attracts the big companies to Northern Ireland and I think it's contagious," he said.
"When we have software houses that do payment, financial services and banking, basing themselves in Northern Ireland, we attract more and then the more we get, the more we will have in future.
"The alliance between businesses and universities is very strong, which is hugely attractive to big companies in terms of being able to recruit the right people.
"I also think the support from Invest Northern Ireland is very positive. As well as that support to get firms up and running, they also help win over those bigger companies looking for a European location."
But it's not all about the big companies, says Mr Downey – the little guys are drawing attention too.
Last year, Belfast City Council, in partnership with Invest Northern Ireland, led a trade mission for companies working in technology and digital led industries, to Silicon Valley.
The Belfast Tech Mission provided an opportunity for 20 companies to showcase some of the new technologies and products being developed in Belfast to leading companies, investors and venture capitalists from the west coast of America.
"That was a really good showcase," he said.
"It showed we have a good ecosystem, with big companies and small companies, that's healthy.
"While the world is getting smaller, companies really appreciate it when people make the effort to travel out there to discuss and do business with them face-to-face.
"Showing off that spread of businesses to the world is a very important part of Northern Ireland maturing as a tech hub."
"So, how do we keep ahead of the pack in a fast-paced market?
"A big challenge is cost versus quality. Northern Ireland is a more expensive place to base an office than some other places, but the difference is quality. We do have very high-end personnel – and they have to be fed with interesting and innovative work. We have great people, working on great things.
"There is also a continued need to develop and release software faster – in the payments industry there are lots of new entrants into market, new platforms, new markets – some of the smaller companies are very nimble.
"That was one of my main areas of focus in America, to streamline the deployment process.
"As fast as we can build products, we need to get them out the door, we need to be increasingly competitive and we need to be nimble."
Mr Downey said that Cybersource is committed to growing the team in Belfast to 106. With ever more software houses demanding highly skilled IT staff, he said that a diverse approach to recruitment was important.
"Cybersource is a huge fan of diversity," he said. "Not just male and female or cultural diversity – engineers have a totally different mindset to processors, who have a totally different mindset to accountants, but that spread of experience and approach is really important.
"We need to get rid of the traditional geeky stereotype of guys with beards in smelly t-shirts.
"Companies need to recognise the value of diversity in their recruitment strategies.
"I also think, while the collaboration between businesses and universities is great, it needs to start back in school.
"If Northern Ireland is to continue to build its reputation as a global software hub and keep competitive, we need to be training and educating the potential employees even earlier if we want to fill these roles, which are going to grow and grow."
Making a mark with its global presence
* AS a pioneer in online payment and fraud management, Cybersource enables more than 400,000 businesses across the globe to process electronic payments, reduce fraud and simplify payment security.
* CyberSource plays a part in one in every seven dollars transacted online worldwide, one in every four dollars in the US.
* In 2010, CyberSource was acquired by and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Visa Inc. making CyberSource part of the world's largest retail electronic payments processing network.
* Over 370,000 businesses worldwide trust CyberSource to strengthen their e-commerce presence.
* Client base includes global brands such as Google, Facebook and South African Airlines.
* Established in Belfast in 2008 – one of the primary development centres within CyberSource's global development network.
* Full Product Development Lifecycle responsibility.
* CyberSource NI is an Agile Software Development House.
* Circa 70+ employees and growing.
Fergal Downey factfile
* One of the first employees of CyberSource NI
* Northern Ireland born and bred
* University Of Ulster Alumna
* Has over 20 years experience in the industry previously worked in Ford, Abbey National and HBOS
* On secondment to CyberSource US for the past two years; made the transition to the US to lead a global strategic initiative.
* Was the first choice of candidate to fulfil the role of site executive for Northern Ireland
* Fergal will be responsible for the strategic leadership of CyberSource NI
* His goal is to lead the continued growth and innovation of the CyberSource NI office and help CyberSource cement its position in the payments market.