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CIO podcast: Ireland, the land of hope and glory

Written by Mark Chillingworth

Walk along the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin in an eastward direction with your back to the famous Trinity College and the two red and white striped power station chimney stacks, that once dominated the skyline are now obscured. Though still present, your immediate horizon is consumed by striking modern architecture, all of which is home to the powerhouses of the modern economy – digital businesses. Facebook and Google share a quarter with the traditional Ferryman pub and Dublin’s latest cultural hub the Bord Gais Energy Theatre. Across the Liffey from the social media giants, PWC and a host of financial services globals rub shoulder to shoulder with startup hubs, restaurants and bars. Dublin is a city that is thriving, only this week UK banking giant Barclays announced plans to move parts of its operation to Dublin, where it has a banking licence.  So as the minority Conservative government accelerates the exit of the UK from the European Union, will CIOs need to consider working in new geographies? And does Ireland have the talent CIOs need to keep their businesses on-track in a post-Brexit economy? 

This week’s Horizon podcast comes from Dublin where we gathered three technology leaders, two with CIO remits and a third from the technology supply sector to discuss the skills and opportunities Ireland has on offer. 

Ireland has a wealth of skilled technologists, but being an enthusiastic member of the European Union means Ireland can ensure it has the skills available to it when required says: Fiona Taaffe. Taaffe is Head of Information Technology and Business Improvement for AWAS a leading aircraft leasing supplier. Aircraft leasing is a niche of business-to-business financial services where Ireland has a dominant market position; 40% of the world’s airline fleet is leased and the majority through Irish suppliers such as AWAS. Taaffe has led IT at AWAS since August 2011 having joined from financial services provider CIT where she was European IT Director.

Fiona Taaffe, Head of Information Technology and Business Improvement for AWAS

“We are open to taking people from other countries outside of the EU,” she adds. “We have a very strong wealth of IT skills in this country,” Taaffe says the history of direct foreign investment in Ireland means Ireland has “always had to work hard and get the right skills”. The IT leader adds that a recent history that has seen the likes of Apple, EMC and VMware invest in Ireland meant that “that graduates had the opportunity to work with the latest technology and that has built the skills base at the right time and the government made sure that there was investment in the computer science and business analysis areas at schools”.

“Culturally Ireland is a very open country, because we have depended on foreign investment,” she says.

“When a large organisation choses to set up base in Ireland you find because we are small they can go to the local education authority and get a course set up because they can guarantee a jobs,” says Derek Kehoe, CEO. Kehoe is Director of Ergo a managed services and cloud technology provider.

“It has grown from that, there is no problem for any graduate leaving college to get a job, we don’t need to go abroad. IT is now part of everything that we do and computing is being taught at the basic level and computing is part of the curriculum from primary school and we recognise that we need that skills base.

“We are an open economy and in our organisation we have 24 different countries represented and there is no shortage of graduates coming through,” Kehoe says.

“Students that leave secondary school and go into higher education, we need to capture those that have done business and finance degrees and bring them into IT and the CIO’s organisation so that we are not just taking from the technology skills base,” says CIO Brian Kennedy of the need to make sure Ireland develops a diverse range of business technology skills. Kennedy was EMEA IT Director for Doosan, the Korean construction vehicles manufacturer that rivals JCB and Caterpillar and is now in a consulting capacity at SQS, a provider of quality assurance and digital transformation services. 

“I think that is one of the inhibitors we have in IT, not just in Ireland, is the key skills in IT are those with business competency, because at the end of the day you are running a business. You take business needs and turn them in to technology solutions,” Taaffe says.

Ireland’s tourism industry, itself a critical part of the nation’s economy, has emphasised the friendly culture and that same attitude is beneficial to business technology leadership.

“Because we are so open and we are able to build relationships, there is a culture of people like coming here, businesses like investing here,” Kennedy says. “So as long as we continue to be Irish and act Irish,” he adds of the need to remain authentic.

Taaffe says it is not only friendly, but because Ireland has one of Europe’s lowest populations it creates career openings for technologists: “There is more opportunity for people to move from one discipline to another in this economy because at the end of the day we have a small population so we have more jobs than we have people and because of that as hiring managers will look holistically and say, I can take that person and teach them the other skills, so you get a lot more lateral movement to provide a different career path.” 

“There are some challenges in a shortage of resources in key areas and you try and come up with a smart way of doing something about that, as people are our largest cost, we try and keep as much as we can in Ireland as possible,” Kehoe says of recruitment challenges.

Brexit benefits?

Barclays is the latest UK company to announce a major move into the Irish economy as it worries about the sustainability of the British economy once the UK leaves its largest trading partnership. Is that impacting CIOs in Ireland?

“A lot of people are talking about Brexit and it is fuelled by the uncertainty, so a lot of organisations are dipping a toe in the water for opportunities here from Brexit. The Irish Development Agency (IDA) has done a fantastic job of delivering results to the Irish economy and in particular the tech sector,” Kehoe observes.  “So when one international company sets up here, then other think we should be there too so it is a natural roll on and I believe the IDA has promoted Ireland successfully.”

CIO Brian Kennedy was EMEA IT Director for Doosan, the Korean construction vehicles manufacturer that rivals JCB and Caterpillar and is now in a consulting capacity at SQS, a provider of quality assurance and digital transformation services.

Taaffe and Kennedy add that Ireland’s growing reputation as a centre for research and development (R&D) as well as “favourable taxation” are helping cement the nation’s position.

“We have created two separate companies and we realised that they had to grow on their own, so we moved them outside of the building, as an organisation that is 26 years old, we were trying to put too much process around a startup, which will kill it when it has to  be agile,” Kehoe says adding that Enterprise Ireland, “has been critical for that”.

“They do encourage and help you succeed and make sure that you have thought things through,” he adds. All three business technology leaders see the startup community really thriving in Ireland and benefits CIOs.

“There is a huge opportunity for startup around the country and the city, there are hubs and the University and the Bank of Ireland have started up innovation branches where you can sit with people and network,” Taaffe says. “If you look across the spectrum you have the universities, the banks, EY and they hand off to each other and say, I can only take you so far, but here is the next step,” she says of the integrated approach startups in Ireland grow amongst.

The 2008 financial crisis hit Ireland hard and some observers believe it hit harder than in some economies and as a result Ireland has become more innovative.

“There was a focus on doing things cheaper from the crash and there was a huge focus on process improvement, it was happening anyway, but it kept the focus,” Kennedy says.

“I think we returned to a competitive basis, waste was taken out and it has corrected the market, but the recovery is Dublin centric, I’m not sure about the rest of the country and there is a lot of talent around the rest of the country and the startups around the country need to be fostered,” Taaffe of AWAS says.

“When you are a small country the problems are easier to manage, the turn around has been dramatic, but I agree, it has been Dublin centric, in the next two years we will be back there [pre-2008] and the wage increases are going up and we do have a problem with housing and that is something that we need to solve and that is a national problem,” Kehoe says.

Cross the Irish Sea?

Derek Kehoe, CEO. Kehoe is Director of Ergo a managed services and cloud technology provider.

Should CIOs in the UK cross the Irish Sea? Well the CEO may make that decision for you.  Kennedy believes Ireland is not really a near-shore option for CIOs looking for wage arbitrage as the pound devalues during Brexit, but Kehoe disagrees and says the access to the European markets and the European talent base will mean that CIOs driving digital transformation to meet new customer demands will need to really consider Ireland.

“Brexit is an opportunity and why should a CIO consider Ireland? We are in the EU, we are English speaking and our laws are very similar, so that is why you should come over here and open up,” the CEO says.

“English is the common language of business in the European Union and we are aligned to the UK in terms of laws and business practices and Northern Ireland is part of the UK and you have a very accessible border,” Taaffe adds.

One of the many stumbling blocks the Conservative Party are finding in negotiating Brexit is the relationship and border with Northern Ireland and all three business technology leaders are concerned of the disruption and market volatility that the UK crashing out of Europe will cause.  Important as stable market relations are, peace in Northern Ireland is perhaps the greatest concern.

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