Niamh Tohill

In its industrial heyday, Northern Ireland was a world leader in engineering. Inventors like Samuel Davidson revolutionised the tea industry with innovative tea dryers and played a role in the early development of air conditioning. Firms like Mackies and Davidson's Sirocco were renowned around the globe.

Today, a new, micro, form of engineering, electrical engineering, is changing the way we communicate and Northern Ireland is at the cutting edge of this technology too.

For Niamh Tohill, Head of Android for VML (Video Mark-up Language) Technology in Belfast, it's an exciting time to be working in this area. Her path to her current role began when she embarked on a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Queen's in 2013. And while it has hitherto been a male dominated field - only a small percentage of those on the course were female - she is proud to be one of the role models for the future in a sector fast catching up with the gender gap.

Along with an understanding of the field, Niamh and her fellow students were constantly encouraged to be inventive at Queen's, to share ideas and learn how to market them. In her fourth year, she and four other students invented a smart bag that tracked the items inside it. Called Evy it used a system of antennas and coded stickers. An app scanned the bag and told you what was inside, and, just as importantly, what wasn't.

"Evy came from a university module in which we had to create a product and business that could be commercially successful," Niamh says. "A smart bag seemed a good idea to us. In our first year at school we had 30 books for 15 subjects. If we forgot a book we could be de-merited!"

Others thought it was a good idea too. The five students won the People's Choice and Student Choice awards at Invent 2017 as well as the Electronic Category. "It was nerve-racking pitching the idea in front of over 800 people at the Waterfront, but a great experience," Niamh says.

The team also won £4,000 for development for the project from the Queen's University Dragon's Den.

The prospect of a business career loomed but a corporate job didn't really appeal. "I have to be learning and challenging myself, always looking for something new," Niamh says. "I love the start-up vibe, that's how I got into my current role."

By the time she had graduated from Queen's with a first-class Master's Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Niamh was pretty sure of her future path. 

In the same year she and the others had been pitching Evy, Niamh won a Google-funded scholarship for the online digital skills learning programme, Udacity, which allowed her to undergo six months training in Android development. She was one of 1,000 successful applicants out of 70,000.

"I found Android development very exciting. I realised that this was the direction the world was moving, particularly in terms of software."

In her final year at Queen's she got a placement at the firm where she currently works, VML and as soon as she finished her degree she started full-time at their Belfast office. She is now is Head of Android, managing their Android team and overseeing software development.

World leaders in the field, VML's groundbreaking technology enables organisations to converge data and video in real time, in ways that were previously impossible.

"The unique nature of the technology means that video can be personalised to each individual viewer, with no data privacy or control concerns," Niamh says. "Before, if you needed to send a personalised video to a hundred people you had to create, store and distribute a hundred different videos. With our technology, which works across a range of platforms, from mobiles to computers, you need only store one video. There is no scaling, one person or a million can watch the video with no additional overheads."

"Northern Ireland's fast-developing tech entrepreneurial culture makes it the right location to run with innovative, creative technology. Blue chip US and EU clients believe it's an incredible technology and a big success story for Northern Ireland," she says.

Niamh, a passionate artist who has travelled Europe with her Irish dancing group, is excited by the kinds of people now working in the sector. "We have so many different backgrounds in our team, we haven't all done the typical computer science learning route and we thrive on that diversity," she says. "VML are also very good at empowering women, our CEO is a woman and 66 per cent of our top-level management are women."

It may have been men that dominated the first great age of engineering here, that will certainly not be the case for this latest and equally exciting era.