This article is sponsored by &Open as part of the ‘10 Minutes With…’ series.
How did you get started in software engineering?
Ever since I was given my first Nintendo for Christmas, I’d always been drawn to computers. The interactivity of games, the fast feedback loop and feeling of progression has a lot in common with software engineering as a discipline – at its core is this compelling mix of creative problem-solving, challenging trial and error, and constant learning.
I got into computer science properly through developing an interest in web design, which brought together my interests in art and design with the rapidly expanding capabilities of the late-’90s web. Web design at the time involved some fairly lightweight programming, but everything was changing quickly so it was an exciting time. That led me to doing a degree in computer science in UCD, and subsequently beginning a PhD.
A year before I was due to finish the PhD, I got some friends together to take part in an event called Start-Up Weekend, which challenged small teams of four or five people to conceive and prototype a start-up idea. This was an engaging challenge and we worked on what would become a product for public transport journey-planning that we called Hit The Road.
The process of starting a business and releasing software out into the world for immediate customer feedback was hugely motivating, so that led me down the path of developing software for a range of start-up companies.
Why did you choose to work with &Open?
Before &Open existed we met with Jonathan, Ciara and Mark, who were running the online retailer Makers & Brothers, which curated really great gifts from lots of small suppliers. By chance, the same week that we had began talking, a request came in from Airbnb to bid to become their global gifting partner. We knew this was a huge project with a major software requirement, so myself and my business partner Fintan got involved in the proposal.
Going into the pitch, the group of people that would eventually become &Open were very much the underdogs, a very young company, just incorporated, and a small team punching above our weight. A unique combination of skillsets plus a bit of luck came together at the right time to see us win a contract that set us on the journey that is &Open.
This opportunity was a real highlight of my career so far. It was fantastic to be building something that had no legacy code to build on top of – a “greenfield development”. We were able to build with the best tech available at the time, and the platform that we built in the first phase has stood the test of time . We’ve iterated and expanded, but the core of the platform has stayed very stable.
What are you working on at present?
We’ll have a significant product launch early next year that will expand our range of gifts and delivery options, but that’s under wraps for now. Meanwhile we’re always broadening the range of gift options – new gift types, vendors and partners, and new opportunities for new gift redemption experiences.
Everything we do aims to generate joy and resonance for the person receiving the gift. So we’re always working on improving the experience of being notified that you’re going to receive a gift, building anticipation, helping the recipient to track their deliveries in a fun way, and collecting feedback from gift recipients so that our clients can see the impact of their gifting strategies.
What is the best part of your job?
I’m really proud of our software platform. I have really loved watching it go from its very first version to where we are today, seeing which parts needed to change over time and which parts we had working right at the beginning. My job lets me engage with the platform at every level, from our high-level yearly strategies and priorities, down to the fine details of our UX and UI, security policies and CRM systems that we integrate with.
Where do you see your industry in five years?
We still see the gifting space as being a very early market. There are so many use cases for sending gifts still being explored: employee retention, sales leads, customer service, hiring, marketing, overall customer retention. We have clients using the platform for each of these things, but most start with gifting for one of these reasons, whereas we know it can ultimately be used by all clients in all use cases.
The space is on a significant growth trajectory. We expect gifting will increasingly be seen as a first-class strategy – people currently use discounts, vouchers, points systems, but they don’t yet always use gifting. We’re here to prove that the ROI of incorporating gifting into your year-round outreach strategies is high, and that the resonance for recipients has both immediate and long-term value.
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice at the start of your career, what would that be?
Keep an eye open at all times for people who can act as mentors at each stage of your work life. These can be teachers, colleagues, managers, even clients sometimes. I also believe in finding a project that you feel is doing good, in every sense. It’s important to work on something you believe in and that you believe has a lot of potential, in terms of the technical challenge, commercial opportunities and impact.
If you were applying for a software engineering role today, how would you prepare?
On our team we always want to learn from new people, so when we’re hiring, aside from assessing competency in your area, we want to learn what processes worked best for you in previous roles. We’re very open to being shown a better way to do things as we’re constantly iterating our own processes.
I also love to see when someone is passionate about the product and the opportunity that they can see within it. The most important question to ask in an interview is: “Tell me what you know about our company”, as it will tell you everything about the preparation that a candidate has done, and how keen they are on the specific challenges and opportunities you’re addressing.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about interviewing for a role like yours?
One of the key skills to develop is to not just be technically able, but to also have commercial understanding. To be able to combine your technical know-how with an understanding as to why customers buy certain products and how to position a product in a commercial setting will enhance your engineering and product decision-making. Starting your own business is the best way I’ve found to get a crash-course in understanding commercial concerns that you’ll ever experience.
What would you say are the key skills and capabilities necessary to be good at what you do?
Developing good instincts is something that obviously comes with experience, so regularly putting yourself in difficult situations where good decision-making and ability to argue a point and convince other people is critical. Taking lots of input and context from various sources and synthesising a decision based on that is a key skill. We have a great team here that I work with very closely, and for a successful outcome, it’s important to distil their input and listen as much as listening to your own instincts.
And, finally, you need resilience. Software and product development is hard, and everything is constantly moving underneath you. You need to be able to stick with projects through the difficult middle so that you can come out the other side with a successful launch!