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Andrew McKaskill: A BIMA 100 Tech Pioneer


Note: This article originally appeared on the Great State blog.

Andrew McKaskill has been a Great Stater for just over 4 years now. When he joined, he brought with him a wealth of experience in tech development and he hit the ground running when he got stuck into the employee empowerment app, MyNavy.

In recognition of his work, he's just been awarded a place on the BIMA 100 Tech Pioneer list, which is a pretty impressive thing to do owing to the number and calibre of applicants who give it a shot. So, let's find out a bit more about Andrew and what makes a Tech Pioneer...

Congratulations! You've officially made it onto the BIMA 100 list. Tell us a bit about yourself, your career experience, and your role now at Great State.

I've always loved tinkering with computers and have been surrounded by them from a young age. Both my parents built multiple tech companies while I was growing up, and my grandfather founded the first IT company in New Zealand (25 years before there was even an internet connection!). Reflecting on that environment, it's no surprise that I built my first software application at age 14 or that I decided to study Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at University.

After leaving university, I co-founded a business application software company, starting off as lead developer and then eventually running the development department. Doing so exposed me to hundreds of clients across multiple industries and countries, all of them unique.

As Lead Technical Architect at Great State, my role is to get a grasp on the landscape of those challenges and map out how any solution we develop fits in from a technical perspective. Technical Architects sit in this strange space where we have to be able to do big high-level thinking -- looking at the big picture of how lots of little systems fit together and thinking about how they will change over time -- but also getting down into the details -- implementing new applications to evaluate them, or writing code to create a proof-of-concept.

You've made it onto the Tech Pioneer list. What does being a tech pioneer mean to you?

Being a tech pioneer, for me, is about solving new and complex technical challenges. Sometimes it's creating a new solution using components that haven't ever been used with one another before, sometimes it's about adapting an existing solution to work around specific constraints that would otherwise make it unusable.

It's about inspiring the client with the future possibilities of what the technology could do and working with them to create a realistic and achievable vision. Once you have that vision, you have to design the long-term roadmap to get you there. How can you break down this technology shift into manageable chunks that provide small improvements without blocking your overall progress?

It's your work on MyNavy that really impressed the judges -- tell us about the journey of MyNavy from the perspective of a Technical Architect.

MyNavy started as a progressive web app that let serving Naval personnel access their pay and career information, and some content to support their health and well-being. Since then, it's changed hosting environments, expanded to 16 different product areas (including e-commerce) across two armed forces (Royal Navy and RAF). We have also added native mobile apps with offline capability.

As the Lead Technical Architect for the project, it's my responsibility to keep track of all the moving parts and how they fit together. Because this is a solution for the Royal Navy, I also have to be aware of and work within the additional security, governance, and documentation required by the Ministry of Defence.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into tech? What kind of opportunities are out there? What might surprise someone?

You don't need a formal education in computing or Computer Science. I would say less than 50% of developers I've hired or worked with over the years have formal training. Find a mentor to work alongside and listen to their advice.

There are plenty of senior engineers and developers that've been around the block. They may not know the fanciest, swankiest new language of the day, but the fundamentals of how you structure successful software projects haven't changed, and these mentors will have seen it done well, and crucially, done badly.

Also, find non-tech things to do outside of work and hold that balance. It's hard, but if you don't, you will burn yourself out. It's one thing the tech industry is not great at -- so speaking from personal experience, it's important to safeguard yourself.

What opportunities are out there? More than you think. The tech industry is STILL crying out for people who are curious, can think outside the box, and love solving problems. Generative AI isn't going to change that, it's just going to become a new tool in the toolbox. The challenge won't be 'how do I write this code?', it will be 'how do I define the problem so that the AI can write 90% of the code for me?'.

What always surprises me is how often I have to look under the surface. There are so many layers of abstractions in tech that people claim “just work”, but they never get it right 100% of the time. There will always be strange edge cases or custom circumstances that mean you have to go one or two layers down into the underlying technology to work out what it's actually doing in order to understand how to structure the solution at the higher level.

If you could think big, and pick a dream project to work on, what would it be?

Probably projects for NASA or the ESA. I've always loved space, and I think the technical challenges working with and around spacecraft are interesting and complex, and almost always involve solving new problems that no one has ever thought of before.

And finally, if you didn't work in tech, what would you be doing?

When I was younger, I would've said Astrophysicist. I almost chose that for my degree instead of Computer Science. Nowadays though, it would probably be some sort of structural engineer. Over lockdown, I re-structured our whole garden, building terraces and steps from railway sleepers, a patio, a pond, and even an elevated deck. There's plenty of planning needed, as well as problem solving (when the pieces of wood don't line up). It's also incredibly rewarding to physically see and hold the things you've built. Pointing to a screen and saying ”look at this” just doesn't feel quite the same.