View of man with glasses in blue shirt smiling sitting against cobalt blue wall.
Noel Barry. Image: Workhuman

How a last-minute change transformed this man’s career

11 Sep 2019

Noel Barry did a total one-eighty on his chosen field of study at the last minute, opting not to do computer science at undergraduate level. Here’s why it actually helped him in his current role as director of engineering at Workhuman.

As is often the case with people operating at the highest levels in top firms, Noel Barry’s path to his role as director of engineering at Workhuman was not a straightforward one.

His interest in computers and the ‘magic’ they seemed to make possible inspired him at a young age, but he took a rather sharp left turn when it was time for college, applying for a business and French degree instead of the computer science course he had initially fixed upon.

In the end, the snap decision proved to be a benefit for his career, as Barry explained here.

What first stirred your interest in a career in engineering?

It all started with a rubber keyboard and a tape deck. My ZX Sinclair Spectrum 48k is definitely the most memorable present Santa ever brought down my chimney. BASIC was my introduction to programming.

As I recall, the user manual came with the code you needed to run a primitive version of Hangman. It’s been ages since I’ve thought about that … It really brings back the excitement of being on the carpet in front of the TV in our living room in Athlone, running the code and seeing the game actually work. Magic!

What education and/or other jobs led you to the role you now have?

As with most things in life, the path has had a few twists.

First of all, when I was 17, I made a last-minute decision to switch my study option from computer science to business and French in college. Then, four years later, I turned down the chance to start earning ‘real money’ in a graduate banking role to study a postgraduate computer science conversion course in Belfast instead. So, was my undergraduate degree a misstep? I’d have to say absolutely not.

It gave me a strong grounding in management and innovation thinking, which still stands to me today. It enabled me to play to my strengths when working with others more technically minded than me, especially when finding my way in the early years of my career.

While in Belfast, I was lucky enough to score myself a ticket across the Atlantic to work as a software developer in Boston at Sapient – then a relatively small IT consulting firm riding the dot-com boom. Their business model, which expected coders to also run workshops, be familiar with user design principles and do QA work for the other developers, gave me a solid multi-disciplinary foundation in software development lifecycle and practices. This was of great value to me later in my career.

I later moved back to Ireland and joined Workhuman (then Globoforce) as a senior software developer. At the time, it was essentially still a start-up and forming as a company. One thing that was already in place was a strong culture of respecting people, working hard for each other, delighting customers, and determination to be successful and to have fun along the way.

Being in on things so early positioned me well to grow, as a person and a leader, along with the company.

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path and how did you deal with them?

A key way for leaders to be ready to deal with surprises and challenges is to be disciplined and persistent in their drive to build highly effective teams. If you’re doing that, then most things thrown your way can be managed. It also helps to work in a company that values the same traits and behaviours as you.

As an individual, I’ve found it’s important to know what approaches work well for you in dealing with change and responding positively to it. This is a key skill in the world we now live in.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

I’m going to cheat and name three!

In slightly stereotypical fashion, the first two are my parents. They provided a model to me of letting people choose their own path. Shine a light to guide, shout a warning if the cliff edge looms near and be very mindful of the risks of being overly prescriptive in your advice. Be open to accepting that the decisions others make may not be those you would make yourself.

Jonathan Hyland, our CTO at Workhuman, has also been a key influence. He hired me back in 2004 as a software engineer, and has been giving me opportunities to learn and challenges to meet to this day. He has always stressed the importance of people and culture to business success, and has been pivotal to my own development as a technology leader.

What do you enjoy about your job?

It’s the people who work here at Workhuman who maintain and evolve the culture and I feel we’ve done an excellent job doing that over my time here. Central to it are characteristics like being helpful, being honest, caring for others, being creative, trusting people to do their job and that they’ll be there for you if you need to call on them for something urgent, while also having a laugh at every available opportunity.

Workhuman’s continuing success and growth consistently opens new opportunities and challenges that keep life more than interesting – and the dynamic pace at which things happen is something I thrive on.

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to this job?

I feel it’s valuable to be comfortable admitting when you’ve got it wrong or telling colleagues about your weaknesses. None of us are perfect. This is something I look to practise, hopefully pretty well! Being honest in this way helps build trust, which is the foundation to successful teamwork. And in this job, you’re nothing without your team.

How did Workhuman support you on your career path, if at all?

The first thing that comes to mind is the level of trust and belief in me. This was shown when I was working with key customer contacts at large global companies, and when I was given my first opportunities to lead people and teams.

As the company has grown, opportunities have arisen for me to play a variety of different leadership roles within our technology team, working across a diverse range of functions. This has given me a breadth of experience, as well as a deeper knowledge of where I feel I can best apply my own strengths.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in this area, or just starting out in one?

First of all, be clear on your personal values and goals. Look for a work environment where the culture and practices are in line with this, and the career opportunity on offer moves you toward your long-term goal.

Continuously invest in both your technical and people skills. Always look for the best in others, and be appreciative of the support they provide.

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