‘Pace of change has led to growth in the volume and variety of customer needs’

20 Apr 2021

Karen O’Connor. Image: Datapac

Datapac’s Karen O’Connor discusses the challenging pace of change in her industry, how the company is tackling the IT skills gap, and how things are changing for women in tech.

Dr Karen O’Connor is general manager at Datapac, a technology solutions and services provider with bases in Dublin and around the country.

O’Connor joined the company in 2005 and now has strategic and commercial responsibility for its ICT services and solutions business. She holds a doctorate of business administration from WIT, and a master’s of business from UCC.

‘Eight or nine years ago when I took a general management path, I found myself at vendor and industry events where I was often the only woman in the room’

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Scheduling of key tasks and interactions is important – such as management meetings, vendor quarterly business reviews etc – so that the core of my day-to-day role is attended to. Selective attendance at events is also key. In my role and in our industry you could spend a significant amount of time attending events – albeit virtually at the moment!

I allow time for more strategic planning and to support colleagues across the week. I also build informal self-achievement checkpoints into my day, be it noting to myself what I achieved or having more strategic catch-up calls with colleagues. This reflection allows me to truly switch off after work.

Work and life balance for me is key. To be truly effective in my role, I need to have had effective downtime outside of work. While my role isn’t exactly nine-to-half-five, it affords me great flexibility when needed to balance work and home life.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Pace of change is a big challenge – we tackle this by having close relationships with industry leaders, through participation at partner advisory board level and attending conferences, with the support of technology group leads for key areas such as networking and security or infrastructure and cloud, as well as customer road mapping.

Cybersecurity is also a major challenge, especially with more people working from home, and we tackle this through a dedicated team, working with global leaders and awareness campaigns for customers.

Another challenge we face is the IT skills gap. As a talent-dependent business, increased demand for IT skills has seen Datapac vying for the same talent pool as other organisations and an increased number of global tech inbounds.

We are focusing on growing our own talent through work placement, graduate placement, reskilling, a focus on diversity and international recruitment, which has been a positive step towards increasing our talent pool and staff retention. We have added a regional and remote working dynamic that has allowed a greater quality of living – less commuting, quality affordable housing, lifestyle amenities etc. This has allowed us to reduce direct and indirect recruitment costs and maintain low attrition rates, delivering a greater ROI from training investments and in turn, a greater value add for our customers.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The same things that are challenges!

For example, core capabilities around capacity planning and talent development have enabled us to grow our outsourced IT services and the demand for this at a customer level is being driven by the IT skills gap, which find customer-level organisations struggling to hire and keep skilled IT professionals.

The pace of change has seen a growth in both volume and variety of customer requirements, but our close customer and vendor partnerships have enabled us to bridge these gaps for our customers.

And the development of our managed services offerings to deal with challenges presented around cybersecurity is a key growth area in demand for services.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I certainly didn’t set out to obtain a general management role in the ICT industry, but I can clearly identify a few key cogs in the wheel that led me to where I am now.

Gaining significant exposure to, and experience of, organisational change and development within my early career in HR ultimately set me up with the skills needed to undertake a role in an environment that is dynamic, talent dependent and full of challenges and opportunities.

Continual learning and development, ultimately leading to obtaining both a master’s and doctoral qualification, but undertaken in a way that had significant knowledge transfer back to the organisation, also set me on the road to where I am now.

I also had a good mentor within the organisation who challenged me, often outside my comfort zone.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

When I first started my working career, I always thought I had to be the best at something or to be very knowledgeable about something in order to be successful. There were times this held me back and had an impact on my confidence to take certain opportunities, as I felt I hadn’t the knowledge.

For example, I don’t come from a technical background and therefore really struggled from a confidence perspective moving in to a role that saw me leading the technical part of our organisation. What I had overlooked were all the other skills and abilities that I possessed, which brought a different dynamic to the role.

If I was to give advice to my 21-year-old self, it would be to not be so linear in my focus when it came to career development and to focus on gaining lots of transferable skills and abilities.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By creating a team of equals. I don’t like hierarchical rigid structures – that is not to say I don’t like organisation, but I prefer dynamic work teams and more agile practices. We are all part of the one team, working towards shared goals and a shared ethos. Everyone has a part to play and no one part is more valuable that the other – if a link is missing in the chain it simply doesn’t work.

Respect for one another and the part each person plays is key. We used to use an image in our advertising some years ago of everyone in a boat rowing together and I think that represents the culture we have created and which has seen our business go from strength to strength.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Yes and no. In Datapac, I have never really noticed a divide. We are a fairly gender-balanced and ethnically diverse business in our make-up.

I have noticed the divide at an industry level, however, particularly eight or nine years ago when I took a general management path. I found myself at vendor and industry events where I was often the only woman in the room. This is changing and every year more and more women are at tech conferences and sharing the table at advisory board meetings.

I think ‘women in tech’ awards and ‘women in tech’ events are a nod to acknowledge that gender balance is something that needs attention at an industry level, but I think it will take more than a nod to change things. Sometimes actions speak louder than words and, as a woman attending a conference, the absence of women’s-fit merchandise at the swag stand speaks more volumes to me about a vendor’s commitment to gender equality than having a ‘women in tech’ session on the conference agenda.

Sometimes it’s a reconsideration of the simple things that will have the greatest impact on changing culture.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I really like the Harvard Business Review Emotional Intelligence series. Each book covers a different topic such as empathy and resilience and these are helpful to understand the role that emotions play in work and life. I’ve always had a keen interest in the area of emotional intelligence and spent much time looking at it through an academic lens. While having a basis in research, these books come from a more practical everyday perspective.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

The team around me and a good home support structure are key to achieving my work and career objectives.

In terms of technology, it has to be Microsoft Teams. It has not only enabled seamless continuity of connectivity and collaboration with my team but, in fact, I feel it has enhanced this throughout the pandemic.

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