It’s a reflection of the remarkable IT skills resource of the Derry~Londonderry region that a local company is responsible for software engineering and development for one of America’s largest insurance companies.
It might seem unusual that teams in Derry are developing software, such as web and mobile applications, for the customers, agents and internal staff of a massive US company but Georgina O’Leary says that in today’s virtual world, geographic location is no longer as important.
“In the morning,” Georgina says, “we complete the work which has been discussed the day before. From 2pm, which is when our American colleagues arrive at work, we’re video conferencing with them. We get a good four hours crossover each day.”
As a result, there is no longer any need for extensive travel between the two countries. “Because of my role I still go to Allstate’s base in Illinois quite often, ” Georgina says, “but for computer programmers on the floor, it would only be once every two or three years. Video conferencing has changed that dramatically.”
The time difference, just six hours, does give Northern Ireland an advantage against many multi-national competitors, but there are other key parts to the equation too. Speaking the same language and the many cultural crossovers with the US are also important.
First established in Belfast in 1998 as Northbrook Technology, Allstate Northern Ireland opened in Derry in 2001, where they now employ 440 people – computing software engineers, business analysts and project managers. The company employ 1,200 people in Belfast and a further 400 in Strabane.
Allstate first come to Northern Ireland because of an IT skills shortage in the US, where such workers earn significantly more than here. “They looked around the world,” Georgina says, “and decided to come here. When they found they weren’t filling positions quickly enough in Belfast they made the decision to come to Derry.”
A key attraction was the number of skilled IT graduates in the region. But Georgina says that when they started recruiting they found another factor was the ease with which skilled IT people could be attracted back home by good jobs.
“I’m a recruit back here myself,” she says. “I worked around Europe – Germany, London and Dublin – and wanted to move back home (just over the border in Donegal). Locals would rather work here than abroad if the jobs are available. That’s because of the high quality of life in so many areas. So many graduates who came here in 2001 now have children and don’t want to leave.”
Staff retention is very high, a big plus for employees, but it’s just one of the reasons Allstate have placed their trust in Derry. “Our Managing Director often says that this site punches above its weight for IT skills,” Georgina says.
The relationships Allstate NI have developed with local educational institutions like the University of Ulster and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology have also proved of huge benefit to the company. Not only do these institutions turn out many highly skilled IT graduates, but they also liaise with Allstate NI to ensure their courses are fulfilling the latest industry needs.
“The software area changes so quickly,” Georgina says, “that we would say you need to adapt your courses for your students to be useful to us when they come out. We arrange work experience for their students and meet with course leaders and heads of departments to discuss what our needs will be over the next few years and where we see technology going.”
Allstate NI have also established a post graduate course with the Letterkenny Institute of Technology that teaches financial services directly related to their business to graduates.
In conjunction with the University of Ulster they also sponsor a computing degree for students who take software A-Levels. Allstate pay the fees, the students spend time doing work experience at the company and are rewarded by a job when their degree is completed. This approach also lessens the time frame of the degree.
At the other end of the scale they help local children with the softer skills, such as teamwork, collaboration and communication, which Georgina believes are as important as technical software skills. “The idea is to help develop the local skills base from school upwards,” Georgina says.”
“We have also been participating in a skills shortage programme along with other locally based business such as Dell, Invest NI, as well as the universities, so we are all working together to develop the skills we need locally.”
“We’ve had a lot of help locally too, including from Derry City Council. We have an excellent relationship with Invest NI, and work with them and Dell around training grants and research and development jobs. That means our parent company is getting great R and D for less than they would pay in the US. ”
Another important element is cost. Compared to the South East of England both office space and wages are cheaper in the region. The area, Georgina says, is also very accessible for travel with US colleagues flying from Chicago to Dublin, then spending time in Belfast before coming to Derry.
In the future Allstate NI will be focusing even more on high level research and development and innovation. Georgina believes that in the area of software development it is to India that the local region must look to as its main competitor.
“India might have an advantage in that produces thousands of graduates but they have problems. Their job retention doesn’t compare, not least because their IT workers are offered big pay rises to switch employers. Also, their inflation is 20% and in a few years the wage level will be the same as here.”
Already the US parent company is working with Allstate NI on new development projects, for instance using Invest NI grants to work with Seasit (?), the Queen’s University research centre and Leoral (?), a software engineering firm which provides them with software research from universities in the Republic of Ireland.
Georgina is also looking forward to Derry’s Science Park opening. “An incubation centre which works on skills, for instance, will be of great use to us,” she says. “It will do two things for us – create a skills base for local people and, if we liaise with them, we can help develop new ideas to try out internally.”
Over the years Allstate NI has developed into an important part of Allstate US. “As a result,” Georgina says, “we now need people who are global leaders, it’s no longer enough to think locally. It’s now about thinking about what will benefit the organisation as a whole. We have shown one of the great benefits of outsourcing over time, we are now a fully integrated part of our parent company.”