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TECH MONTH Stacy Keogh

14 Jan 2021

Stacy Keogh IT Recruitment Manager in conversation with Gareth Fleming, Director of Brightwater’s IT division

GF: As part of our Tech Month, we’re here talking with Stacy Keogh. Stacy is a Manager in Brightwater’s highly successful tech recruitment division. She joined BW in 2016 with a view to building and eventually leading out software development recruitment for Brightwater and she’s been a specialist in that space for 7 years across Ireland and Canada. She leads the IT team in placing of software professionals at all levels from graduate to senior director and has a very strong understanding of what skillsets and attributes are essential in our market. She has become the “go-to” software development recruiter for her clients. Stacy, you are very welcome!

SK: Thank you Gareth, that was more than nice and more than I expected. I appreciate the introduction.

GF: Please give us a quick intro of you and your vertical.

SK:  I’ve been with Brightwater since 2016, I started off my recruitment career in Canada and moved back home in 2016. So I am the IT recruitment manager here on the permanent desk. My speciality or vertical is software development which is quite a broad enough term that covers a lot. To put it bluntly, I cover everything within that area so you’re looking at the likes of Python, Java, everything from Front-end to Back-end, Full Stack, C#. You see other areas tying into that as well. Automation and Quality Assurance are also areas that I cover from all levels from junior to senior manager, Architect, different titles within that realm.  I would cover pretty much every area within that stack which is a very busy role but I feel that over the last four years, it’s definitely an area in which I’ve become a specialist.  Give me a Python role, give me a Java role and I know exactly where to go.

GF: It was a very strange year, some areas have been hit more badly than others with the pandemic.  How has software development fared during the pandemic? I know that development and IT in general tend to be fairly resilient. What has it been like in your area and vertical?

SK: It’s definitely been a strange year, a very unexpected year. The run-up to 2020, if we look at 2019 running into the beginning of 2020 in the technology space, we saw massive growth within software, within technology. It was all go, go, go so highly competitive and then we hit this in March. Like everyone else, how we took this as human beings, companies were the exact same. It’s taking that step back, the fear factor, the fear of the unknown really kicked in. When you look at technology, yes, we’re well set up and more aware and more used to how working from home and remote working works. It’s our speciality, it’s what they do but you have to look at, within Ireland and within these technology areas, a lot of these groups and a lot of these areas are connected to very large financial companies, you’re looking at banks, insurance, retail distribution, a lot of technology teams in Ireland are tied to these areas. They’re also tied to the travel industry, they’re also tied to the car leasing. There are a lot of different areas that until something like this happens, you don’t realise the impact that it can have.

To answer your question on how badly it impacted, it didn’t necessarily impact the IT market as badly as it impacted every other areas. Obviously if you look at the likes of the travel industry, airlines, companies that specialise in bookings, everything that’s connected there took a massive hit. It’s definitely an area where we saw a lot of layoffs, a lot of people’s work hours work days cut in half but most other areas where we saw a lot of growth, life sciences, healthcare, distribution, manufacturing, anything connected to retail or e-commerce, food industries, we definitely saw a massive increase because of the need and the requirements that were there. Then within other areas that wouldn’t necessarily be heavily connected to airlines or travel, they didn’t take a hit but they came to a standstill. It was small hiring, taking a step back and saying “let’s hire what we really need, let’s check and see how this is going to go, let’s adapt, let’s take it one step at a time and not rush into hiring”. So hiring activity did slow between March and those months coming into early summer but as we all adapted, as we got used to the word “Covid”, as we got used to the word “pandemic”, people started to see that it was more than doable and how we were capable of being able to work from home. It was finding the positives within that area. Within technology, projects had already kicked off, budgets had already been approved, areas had been signed off. These projects don’t stop, they have to keep going so they steadied, they hit a bit of a standstill and then as summer hit and we got used to the pandemic, we found ways to make it work, hiring began again, things started to pick up and to be completely honest, as we approached the end of the year, things got very busy again. So it was just a bit of a stop sign, a bit of a yield sign and then things started to slowly move as we got used to how things were and the “new normal”.

GF:  From talking to a lot of clients on these interviews, they saw the same. A lot of stuff stopped, Q1 of 2020 busy, Q2 and Q3 cautious and Q4, things have begun to really pick up again and I can certainly see that in your space.

GF: If you look forward, what does 2021 look like for developers?  What are the growth areas and where do you see the demand for developers in 2021?

SK:  I’m pretty excited for 2021. At the end of the day, there were massive plans for 2020 within the technology space. We were speaking with a lot of our clients within that area and they had big plans to grow out the software development piece of their teams. That was right across mobile development, across Python, Java, data science, AI, Cloud, DevOps, cyber security, the list goes on. People took a step back, budgets were cut. We’re now looking at 2021 and most companies are saying, “Ok, what we couldn’t do in 2020, we now need to do in 2021” as well as merging the plans of what they also had set out for 2021. We’re expecting a very busy year.

From speaking to clients, from the beginning of 2020, I found the big growth areas within software development was a lot of Python and a lot of Java roles. We saw a massive amount of growth in that area. Within those roles, having experience in the Cloud, AWS, Azure, Micro Services, a lot of the buzz words that we tend to see in these job specs, we saw a massive amount of growth in the mobile development piece as well. We saw a lot of growth in JavaScript roles that tie into the UX/UI side of things.  You’re going to see a lot of companies going into 2021 hiring within those areas because they couldn’t do it in 2020.

You need to look at 2020 as a year of coming up with ideas as well. A lot of companies are going to be asking themselves “how are we going to be able to stand out amongst the rest?”. The likes of big airline companies, that are going to be competing with each other, are going to be making changes to their websites, how they look and how they function. Within that, you’re going to see a lot of design, a lot of UI/UX type roles popping up as well, things happen in the background so I think we’re going to see Java, Python, Cloud, Micro Services, but I also think we’re going to see a lot of that front-end and a lot of that design area as well within 2021.

 

GF:  If you look at salaries, was there a huge impact then in terms of 2020 and what do you think will happen in 2021 for software developers? What will be the salary impact in 2021 for software developers?

SK: I expected a massive change because of that uncertainty but if I’m completely honest, we didn’t see a huge change in that area. Simply because the demand was there, because we knew it was a temporary issue, we weren’t going to live with Covid for the rest of our lives, that it was definitely something we were going to be able to figure out, because of that, we saw a lot of companies that were hiring were still being quite competitive. They were still up against other tech companies that were hiring as well and we did see an awful lot of growth within particular areas, within life sciences, within healthcare that were still paying quite highly. If you’re looking at a company that isn’t necessarily directly related to those areas, they’re up against those types of companies. They couldn’t drop their salaries as they would never get the candidates. They’d never win at the end of the day so we didn’t see a massive change.

Where I did see a slight drop was across the less in demand roles so we saw a drop in salaries around those support roles; system administrators, application support. We did see some layoffs within those areas as well because there wasn’t as much of a need. There was cutting around areas they could have developers to do that support if they were less busy, so we did see a drop in those salaries. But for the more niche areas, the more highly sought-after talent, there wasn’t a massive drop in those salaries. We saw a little bit around candidates willing to be a little more flexible than they used to be but if I’m being completely honest, they still got what they wanted in the end.

GF: It’s interesting, that’s what I mean by resilience. There are very few industries where salaries stayed the same and didn’t take cuts.

 

GF: Was there a big shift towards contractors in software development?

SK: I didn’t see a massive shift but I definitely did see a shift. One of my clients I would have worked with heavily in 2018 and 2019 that hired massively on the permanent side across software development, I saw maybe 2 or 3 permanent roles within 2020, the rest were contract roles. That’s quite a large organisation that would hire quite a lot within the tech space so we saw a massive amount of contract roles in that area. We did see more and more companies that may not have touched upon contract before that were more willing to hire on a contract basis. They’re more open to finding out more about it, how it works. Some companies were not even aware of the benefits of contracting either so we did see a growth within the contract area.

GF: Have daily rates increased for contractors in that space or have they stayed stable?

SK: They’ve stayed stable. That’s been my experience. I do work with a colleague of mine who covers the contract desk. It’s still very competitive. The work is still there for them. If the work is not there, that’s where we see the drop within the daily rates but because they’re still being contracted, because they still have the pick of roles. These guys are highly sought after talent. They’re still being contacted by 3 or 4 companies, some weekly, some daily so at the end of the day we didn’t see a massive drop. I would be speaking with contractors and I’d be trying to have that conversation in regards to “can you be competitive, can you drop a little?, you’re on €650 a day, would you look at €550” and the answer would be “no, I’m interviewing for 3 roles this week where the rate is €650 so there’s no reason why I’d look at less” So if they’re being contacted and they have those options, then there’s no reason for a massive drop.  

 

GF:  Outside of salary, we’ve talked about the skills that will be in demand next year, Python, Java, those kind of skills, Cloud. What are the softer skills we’ve seen creep into job specs, come up in conversations with hiring managers? What are the softer skills that IT professionals, particularly software developers should have alongside their already brilliant technical skill sets?

SK: Over the years, this has changed. When I first started in technology, things like client facing, commercial, ability to communicate with team players, clients on the phone, in person, in meetings, doing presentations, they were never words that would be put with software developers. It’s not something that you would see. That’s all completely changed. The days of being a coder, hiding behind your computer, working at a desk and not really interacting with other people, that has changed significantly.

So what’s happening and what I’ve found over the last few years, the last two in particular, is the big need now is for software developers to be commercial, to have the ability to be client facing, to be able to work with teams, to be quite out-going, to have that energy and enthusiasm, and that kind of willingness to think outside the box and interact with their team members. We’re seeing all this Agile, Scrum and Stand Up team meetings, it’s all tying into that. Someone who can stand up and come up with ideas and say “this is the plan, this is what I think we should do, this is what I don’t think we should do” and doing the same with their clients and customers. Definitely communication, commercial, client facing; those are all the areas we’re seeing that are requirements for software developers most of the time.

 

GF: I think the drive for people to work from home has really driven that as well. How has the working from home piece worked for software developers?

SK: Completely. The work from home piece for software developers, I used to see this quite a lot before the pandemic where I would literally see on a LinkedIn page, or their CV, “remote work only”. Naturally, I would think I’m not going to place them, I’m not going to find something for them, I’m not really going to have something there for them simply because we as recruiters didn’t see as much of it as we would have wanted. Clients were able to go to candidates themselves because it’s so attractive to find them. They could go outside the country to find them. But now, it’s highly competitive because everyone is working remotely. That option is there to work remotely. Companies that may not have been all for it or not as flexible around the issue are now seeing the benefits of it and are seeing how it works. They’re also seeing how they can secure candidates for that reason alone. So definitely, the remote piece of it has made it an interesting year to watch.

GF: I know you have done and are doing some work in the international space so has that ability to work anywhere now helped?

SK: Completely, very much so. The international roles are way more open to the remote side of it because they’re securing talent. Ireland obviously is a hub. It’s known for the technology piece, a lot of software developers, a lot of tech talent, developers from South America and from different parts of Europe are coming here. But there are countries in Europe and around the world that cannot attract talent the way we can for many different reasons. It’s been great to work with these international companies and getting people here in Ireland to work for these international companies and work from home but also finding talent in other areas of the world for these companies, it’s been highly attractive to candidates. It’s been a good sell for me as well, it’s been almost an easy sell, there’s an excitement there of working with a company that are very open to that remote piece. Tech companies are coming over here and opening up shop and they’re hiring people here remotely. They can continue to stay working remotely even when they have an office open in Dublin but are been given options. “You can work remotely, you can come into the office 1 day a week to meet the team, there’s a lot of different options here for you” so that international piece has been fantastic and it’s been a great area to hire in. They’re very open as well in regards to offering benefits and asking us what they feel candidates are looking for, what’s competitive and what do people want to see. That alone is great because you’re speaking to candidates and asking them if they’d prefer healthcare, if they’d prefer pensions, if they’d like something extra on your salary and the candidate chooses where that goes to.  Companies are being very flexible, the international companies, with regard to taking our advice on board and using that to secure candidates so that’s been quite interesting.  

 

GF:  Let’s talk about STEM because you’ve been involved in a lot of different initiatives in this area. What has 2020 done to those initiatives? Has it hampered them? Is there enough being done to encourage women into tech and into STEM subjects in school?

SK: Well, I think in 2020, there were big plans for companies to have events. We ourselves had planned events around women in technology and due to the pandemic, anything that was connected to events, even outside of STEM, took a bit of a hit. We were figuring out ways how to do these online which has been fantastic. I’ve seen a lot of events that have been happening around STEM and around women in technology and science. They’ve adapted and brought them to the online world. It did come to a bit of a standstill temporarily, that’s been my experience and the only reason for that is, and I don’t like to say that other things became a priority, but some companies panicked and people panicked. It came down to putting out fires, it came down to prioritising, it came down to “let’s come back to this and let’s just figure out the best ways of making all of this work and making this situation work”. So it did take a little bit of a hit and the plans for 2020 really were hampered and definitely didn’t go to plan.

What I have seen happen towards the end of 2020 was a lot of social media, a lot of different blogs, companies coming up with different ways to highlight around STEM, how to hire and how to attract talent. They’re coming to companies like ourselves, recruitment consultancies, and finding out what other companies are doing, asking how they can become more diverse and how they can really put a focus on that. Companies are still eager, they still want to balance out those teams and hire and attract more women within this tech world and be more diverse. So the whole Women in STEM issue is still there but it’s definitely hit more of a standstill due to the pandemic.

Now for 2021, we’re going to see a massive focus on this. We’re going to see all the events that took a hit, that couldn’t happen, we’re going to see companies finding new ways of being able to do them, doing different meet-ups online, doing different MS Teams calls on line, Zoom calls online and finding different ways of doing this, videos like this, interviews like this with women in technology. So I think the plans for 2021 will be massive but I think it hit a bit of a wall in 2020 like a lot of different things did. 

GF: IT graduates, actually all graduates have had a pretty stressful year, they’ve had to adapt to learning from home, they haven’t had the college experience and they’ve had to graduate remotely. They’re going into a world where things have stopped, where companies are very cautious. If you look at your market now, how are IT graduates beginning to find that market? Is there still space for them? Are companies still taking them on? What does the market look like for IT graduates coming into 2021?

SK: So it was difficult for graduates, we didn’t really see any roles throughout 2020 for grads and internships, simply because you shadow people as a graduate and intern. You go in and learn, you learn from watching people and obviously we lost that because you couldn’t be in the office so it was very difficult for them.

What I find within the graduate piece and what’s quite difficult and a lot of graduates have come to me on LinkedIn, even some universities that I’ve had conversations with is around preparation for work. I did an interview at the start of the pandemic on interview preparation, on remote interviewing and how to approach a remote interview. That went down quite well with the universities and the graduates. I don’t feel that a lot of the time within universities that there is enough of a focus on preparing graduates for the real world and what it’s like when you leave. I was the same when I left school, I think we all were, everyone has the same experience. For technology professionals, they’re book smart, they’re project smart, they know how to code, they know how to work a project but those commercial and client facing pieces have become very important in the world of IT.  I feel where grads are lacking and where the universities should really put a focus on before those people are brought into the real world, is preparing them, CV preparation, interview preparation, preparing their GIT hub, how to do a technical test, how to do whiteboarding. All of those areas are so important because that’s how you secure a job and that’s how you make yourself stand out amongst the rest.

I had a lot of graduates contacting me saying “I watched your video, are there any other tips, is there anything else I can do to secure a role, what else can I do even if I don’t secure a role this year, what can I do in 2021?”

This year was a good time even if they couldn’t secure a grad role due to the pandemic was finding ways to prepare yourself and make yourself attractive and competitive within the world of 2021. That includes how to do a remote interview, ensuring you keep your GIT hub up to date, doing your own projects on GIT hub, showing that you can code, putting those details onto your CV, ensuring your CV looks well, it’s well prepared, it’s formatted correctly, that you’re in touch with recruitment agencies, that they’re giving you advice, you’re sending your details out to companies as well and having a good plan in place of what type of companies you want to work for and why. A lot of companies are asking that question on interview calls, ie. why us? Why do you want to work for us? Sometimes you can give a very generic answer and you can use that answer over and over again. They don’t want to hear that, they want to hear that you’ve done your research on their website eg. you know what their audience is, who their customers are, what their specialties are.

If grads prepare themselves really well this year, even if they haven’t done it in 2020 and they take the Christmas break to prepare for January, use those areas to focus on because you’ll stand out. You’ll always know, from my experience and I’m sure from yours as well Gareth, that when you’re interviewing someone, you’ll know if they’re prepared or not, you know if they’ve done the groundwork. At the end of the day, competency based tests, using different techniques, are still used in the tech world. You still have the technology questions, you still have the tech tests, but those competency-based questions are used for that commercial aspect of the role. Sometimes interviewers ask questions where they know you won’t know the answer but it’s how you answer it or were you simply honest in your answer “I actually don’t know but I’m willing to learn, I want to learn, I’ve learned something similar in the past and I’m well capable, I have that want and need and motivation”. It’s about knowing how to approach an interview like that.

GF – great advice, thank you. It’s worth watching that remote interview preparation video again because it’s really good advice for graduates. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you today. Thanks for all your information on the software development vertical and we’ll see you soon!