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Paul Nelis is founder and director of ChallengeCurve, a quality assurance and software testing consultancy. Originally from Creggan, Paul left the city in 1985 to study a degree in Maths and Computer Science and then pursue a career in IT. He specialised in sales, strategy and development in London before launching ChallengeCurve with his business partner, Chris Bean. This month marks a year since the business established its centre of excellence in Ebrington Square’s AMP building, where it now has a team of 19 people.

Paul Nelis founder and director of ChallengeCurve

How did ChallengeCurve start out?

I’ve known Chris practically all my career. At our previous organisation we both got promoted through to Director level but we were getting further away from being “hands-on” and enjoying our work, so we decided to found ChallengeCurve to work at senior level with organisations and advise them on their QA and testing frameworks and processes.

Usually, we work with FinTechs and challenger banks. We help get them live, hand over to permanent members of staff and then disengage. We liked the cut and thrust of launching a new bank; it’s very exciting. But we decided, instead of leaving behind a good relationship after all that hard work, why don’t we pitch a long-term managed QA & Testing service? To enable to do this we needed to hire our own staff.

Why did you choose Derry as its headquarters?

I live in Reading and have spent most of my working life commuting in and out of London. Pre-pandemic, we always had to be on the client site. But Covid-19 and IR35 [a legal change to off-payroll working rules] created a tectonic shift in ways of working. Applications such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams were also coming of age to enable remote working to become a norm. For ChallengeCurve, this meant we didn’t have to be based in a costly business capital such as London or Dublin.

We considered a few different locations, but we were won over by Derry. We met with Rosalind Young, investment manager at Derry City and Strabane District Council, and chief executive John Kelpie to find out, ‘Has Derry got a talent pool to support our business sustainably, is there business network, what support mechanisms are in place, what’s the WIFI infrastructure, office logistics – can we do this?’ The Council were absolutely brilliant.

The Council organised a mini tour of the city for Chris and Yann Gloaguen (our business advisor) and myself. Over the years I’d always come back to visit with my wife, who’s from Yorkshire, and our children, who liked getting over to spend time with their cousins. But Chris and Yann had never been before. Walking over the Peace Bridge and visiting Ebrington Square, they were both amazed at Derry’s potential.

How did you start building your team?

We are self-financed, we don’t have any venture capital, so it was a bit of a risk. But as a consultancy, people are our business, so we have to invest in them.

We built our own four-week intensive training programme in testing and quality assurance with the North West Regional College, funded nine people through it and supplied them with MacBooks and iPhones to test our client’s online banking application.

The candidates were an eclectic bunch – we had a former barman, a taxi driver, and a costume designer from Game of Thrones. At the end of the course, we decided to make Derry our centre of excellence and employed all of them as consultants. We then successfully pitched our managed service to Nomo, a Kuwait-based banking app in English and Arabic, targeted at high-net-worth individuals. Our team bridges the gap between auditor, the business and IT by providing the evidence that the banking platform is fit for purpose. 

We currently have 19 people in Derry, based in the AMP business incubator in Ebrington Square: 17 consultants, an office manager, and a sales and marketing consultant. 

ChallengeCurve is one of many thriving tech companies in the North West. How helpful has it been to be a part of Derry’s tech hub?

By basing ourselves in Derry, ChallengeCurve can contribute in our small way to help Derry punch above its weight. There’s a culture of networking and collaboration here which we have fostered from day one. Since we moved into the AMP, we’ve given business to a local web design agency, engaged a local law firm, a local head-hunter, and a Derry accountancy firm. We’re doing work for another start-up from the building, who is looking at the traceability of biofuels, and we put money into the local hospitality sector through hotel bookings and social events.

What Ryan Williams, founder of the AMP, has done is brilliant. We need those office spaces, and entrepreneurs and visionaries like him to create the infrastructure and encourage more people to stay in the city or come back and build successful companies here.

What do you do in your spare time?

I was going through my fourth midlife crisis and decided to get into my running big time! I find it very therapeutic, and love running marathons. My children persuaded me to try and get into the Guinness World Records at the London Marathon. I managed to break the world record for fastest male marathon runner dressed as a nun! If I’m doing something, that’s it, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I don’t do things half-heartedly. 

I enjoy coming back to Derry regularly. The quality of life in the North West is a big factor; your money goes a lot further, we have great beaches, and I think the stigma of the Troubles is becoming a fading memory for many. I try and catch the occasional Derry City FC game too. 

What advice would you have to others considering moving to – or investing in – Derry?

On a general point – don’t be afraid to ask for help as everyone from the local businesses, community and institutions are keen to see greater investment in the area and they will be very supportive. At a strategic level, I would recommend engaging with the local chamber of commerce and the council.https://www.challengecurve.com

The North West Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Collaborative Growth Network has recently rebranded as GEMX – Generating Engineering & Manufacturing Excellence.

The network, supported by Invest Northern Ireland through its Collaborative Growth Programme, aims to raise awareness of manufacturing and engineering within the North West, develop a pipeline of talent, and encourage collaboration between industry and education.

Leading companies – including NuPrint Technologies, AE Global, PPSL and Fleming Agri – will work together to exploit opportunities and enhance their competitive edge.

Project director Joanne Sweeney said: “We need to harness the abilities of educational establishments and ensure that they are being fully utilised by local industry.

“Through the elimination of stereotypes, we can develop an engineering pathway to inspire children and young adults and encourage them to pursue careers in an exciting, dynamic environment which is future-proof.”

Invest NI’s Collaborative Growth Programme is aimed at SME-led networks, and provides support for groups to pursue innovative collaborative projects and boost business competitiveness.

Northern Ireland’s largest IT company, Allstate NI, has revealed new flexible working practices as it continues to recruit 100 more employees.

The tech firm has designated all of its workforce as hybrid, meaning staff can work remotely or from any of its three offices in Derry, Strabane and Belfast. Each office has been redesigned to create collaborative working areas, with social spaces and built-in gaming zones.

Vice-president and managing director of Allstate NI, John Healy

Workers can also request a flexible working pattern, including part-time, condensed or staggered hours, from the start of their employment.

Earlier this year, Allstate NI announced it was seeking applicants for 100 new roles in areas including software development, cybersecurity and analytics.

Vice-president and managing director of Allstate NI, John Healy, said: “We are empowering every employee to design a working pattern that suits their needs and the requirements of their team while promoting a healthy work-life balance.”

He added: “With 100 roles currently on offer, we are thrilled to have opened new modern and dynamic workspaces that will foster more collaboration, innovation and socialisation when employees are in the office.”

Information on current vacancies at Allstate NI is available here.

Are you returning to the North West for Christmas? A new campaign is encouraging local diaspora to consider moving home for good.

Job opportunities, career progression, quality of life and the benefits of the £250m City Deal are among the key draws highlighted by the ‘Come Home to Us’ campaign, spearheaded by Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Investment team.

It features testimonials from local people who have returned to live, work and invest in the region after working abroad, plus information about the range and quality of jobs available, from attractive entry level roles to senior executive positions.

A range of ‘Work Life Balanced’ promotional videos, social media and digital advertising will be released over the festive period to support people who want to move home and build a life in the North West – whether it’s setting up their own business, finding a great job, working remotely, or availing of the excellent schools and natural beauty on our doorstep.

The campaign will also showcase the transformative £250m Derry and Strabane City Deal, which will further boost the local economy through cutting edge innovation and research, job creation and regeneration.

Meanwhile, the Invest Derry Strabane website also features a special round-up of companies currently hiring in the North West, including global firms such as Allstate and Seagate, local success stories such as Learning Pool and Elemental, and ground-breaking gaming company Hypixel Studios.

Rosalind Young, investment manager at Derry City and Strabane District Council said: “This is a fantastic time to consider a move home. There are a wide range of opportunities available in the North West, whether you’re a graduate, on your second or third job, or looking for an experienced, senior level role.

“We have a great variety of sectors here who are currently hiring – from financial services and software development, to advanced manufacturing, engineering and life sciences – and a fantastic ecosystem of businesses, both homegrown successes and multinational companies all serving global clients from the North West.

“The recent shift towards remote working has also demonstrated that people don’t have to live in a major metropolis to do business, stay connected and progress their career path. This campaign is a chance to showcase the opportunities available in the Derry and Strabane region, and celebrate what makes it such a great place to live, work, invest and come back to.”

Ryan Williams is director of home care innovator Connected Health, and founder of business incubator and co-working space The AMP, which recently opened a new site at Derry’s Ebrington Square.

“I think there’s an increasing ecology of career progression in Derry, of moving from one company to the next. There are more senior positions, more technical positions here now, and a much better standard of life than somewhere like London or Dublin,” he said.

Jennifer Neff is co-founder of the award-winning social prescribing software company Elemental. She moved home to Derry and founded the company with Leeann Monk after living in Edinburgh and Manchester.

She said: “I am getting everything I need from this city and region and I am giving back too, having created 35 jobs at Elemental with my business partner, Leeann Monk. There is an energy here right now that I haven’t seen before. Lots of people are making great things happen and there is a chance to be part of that by moving to this wonderful place.”

For a round-up of companies currently hiring in the North West, visit https://investderrystrabane.com/worklife/

Software development company AquaQ Analytics is recruiting 40 staff for its new North West branch.

The Belfast-based business, which was founded in 2011 and employs around 250 people globally, is one of Northern Ireland’s fastest growing companies. It provides specialist consulting, software and data services, cloud solutions and more, to clients working in sectors including capital markets and Tier One investment banks. 

It hopes the new roles, which will offer a flexible mix of home and office working, will attract people living in the North West as well as border counties in the Republic of Ireland.

AquaQ recently held an insight event in Derry’s City Hotel to help potential employees and new graduates find out more about the business and speak with staff.

Ronan Pairceir, CEO of AquaQ, said: “We look forward to our expansion into the North West. Since the start of Covid, we have added an additional 100 employees around the world, with plans to reach 400 employees globally over the coming 18 months.”

Patrick Farren, Head of Engineering, added: “We are looking to recruit Java and React developers for our rapidly expanding Software Engineering division. These roles will involve using modern development tools and concepts to deliver high quality, best practice software solutions to our clients. Successful applicants will require a mix of technical and client-facing skills, offering highly rewarding careers for the right people.”

Hinduja Global Solutions (HGS), a global leader in business process management and optimising the customer experience lifecycle, is encouraging North West job seekers to apply for a range of new roles.

HGS recently announced plans to create over 560 jobs across Northern Ireland in customer service, management, and support, with employees able to take advantage of the firm’s flexible work at home model.

With more than 400 positions recruited and confirmed already, HGS is promoting a range of jobs that are currently still available.

Rosalind Young, investment manager at Derry City and Strabane District Council, said: “We’re pleased that HGS is building its presence in this region, with a view to establishing one of their Engagement Hubs in the future. We already know this area is full of talent and potential, and we have been promoting the Northern Ireland as a premium remote working destination for a while now.

“HGS is an excellent company that offers a fantastic range of employment opportunities across our Council area. All of the posts will primarily be home-based, and customer service experience is highly desirable in candidates. Home-based posts come with a number of positive attributes in that they offer less travelling for staff, a better work life balance, and more flexibility. Full training will be provided, and the posts will be particularly suited to those in our Council area attracted to working from home through lifestyle or necessity, and those who live in more remote communities.”

You can send your CV directly to Preston.Recruitment@teamhgs.com

Local employers have joined forces with academics, educators and the Council to encourage further growth of the North West’s digital, creative and fintech sectors.

The Homeground website and interactive digital map profiles more than 90 local companies who between them have created thousands of jobs and are generating millions of pounds in revenue.

The collaboration is intended to raise awareness of the fastest growing sectors in the North West and help ensure a future pipeline of talent by informing young people about the global career opportunities on their doorstep.

Homeground.me

Website visitors can view the map of Derry, Strabane and Letterkenny and click on company logos to discover more information and contact details.

Through Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Education & Skills Delivery Partnership, government, schools, higher and further education institutions and industry are working together to recognise skills gaps, identify how to attract or grow this talent, and nurture the workforce of tomorrow.

Columb Duffy, senior leader at Allstate NI in the North West, is chair of the partnership’s Digital, Creative and Financial Technologies Subgroup.  He said: “The digital, creative and Fintech sectors have been steadily growing in the North West, with over 100 companies offering job opportunities with excellent work-life balance and competitive salaries right here on our doorstep.”

For more information on these companies, explore the interactive digital map at www.homeground.me​.

Magherafelt-based Bloc Group is further expanding its NI operation through a major investment in FAST Technologies in Londonderry. The deal is significant for both Bloc and FAST (Factory Automation & Systems Technologies) bringing together two highly innovative, export-focused manufacturing operations which excel in design and engineering.

Colin Spence, Technical sales director, FAST Technologies, Eamonn Lynch, co-founder FAST Technologies, Cormac Diamond, managing director, Bloc and Ciara McGonnell Cushnahan, financial director, Bloc

FAST provides bespoke technical solutions to its global client base which includes DuPont, Unilever, Caterpillar and Seagate.

Speaking about the new development and what it means for both businesses, Cormac Diamond, managing director of Bloc the deal will enable them to ‘helping organisations streamline and enhance their business processes and operations’.

He continued: “The level of expertise which FAST brings in terms of ‘best-in-class’ manufacturing and automation, complements and furthers Bloc’s long term growth strategy.

“Set against the current climate of supply chain challenges, labour and skills shortages, we view FAST as a solutions provider to the wider business market.

“It has a proven track record in the application of automation across all sectors and industries, and together we will take this expertise to the next level, ultimately helping organisations streamline and enhance their business processes and operations.”

In addition to its impact at a regional level, Cormac believes the synergies between Bloc and FAST will underpin the continued success of both brands and offer great economic potential globally.

He explained: “In bringing together two locally-owned organisations that share a common culture and philosophy we’re able to seize joint opportunities, bring new ideas to life and create solutions which deliver positive outcomes at both business and consumer levels.”

Welcoming the deal, Eamonn Lynch of FAST Technologies, added: “We believe this represents a new and very exciting chapter for both companies and our combined workforce.

“Bloc’s support and investment will enable us to consolidate and strengthen our offering and help FAST rise to the next level in terms of opportunity and growth.”

The FAST team will continue to operate as a stand-alone manufacturing operation at its existing site in Londonderry’s Skeoge Industrial Estate. Co-founder Eamonn Lynch and technical sales director Colin Spence will also continue to head up FAST’s management team.

Bloc are a global manufacturing and design company based in Magherafelt with divisions in Belfast and The Netherlands and is renowned as one of the UK’s leading designers and manufacturers of innovative blinds and skylight systems and recently pivoted into the healthcare solutions industry.

Employing over 250 staff, the company was established in 2009 and consists of Bloc Blinds, Bloc Healthcare Solutions and Bloc Labs.

NI Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has announced the first two of four Assured Skills Collaborative Welding Academies at North West Regional College.

The first two Assured Skills Academies will see 24 successful applicants receive industry-standard welding training during a five-week course at the college’s Limavady and Springtown campuses, followed by two weeks of consolidation training at one of eight participating engineering companies.

Applicants who complete the Academy are guaranteed an interview for a welding position at one of the companies.

Sinead Hawkins, Business Skills Manager at NWRC, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for new fresh talent to progress in the industry by addressing the skills shortage. This will have a positive impact on the North West City Region’s local economy by feeding into local business anchors. We are committed to providing a skills guarantee for a post-Covid economy and future labour market.”

Health Minister Robin Swann has officially opened a Campsie-based manufacturing facility supplying vital PPE to health workers.

NorthWest Medical has created 25 new jobs after being awarded a £6.5m contract to supply Type IIR face masks to the health service in Northern Ireland.

Minister Swann said: “Demand for PPE has soared during the pandemic with many health systems around the world facing challenges in securing stocks of protective equipment. In Northern Ireland, we saw local manufacturers and businesses quickly diversify, recognising that their skills, expertise and assembly lines could be repurposed and they too could join the fight against this virus.”

Director of NorthWest Medical, Gavin Killeen, added: “We are exploring how we can move into other areas so that we can continue to create employment locally and at the same time support our health service by providing a resilient supply line.”