Leaders’ Insights: Bill Kearney, IBM Ireland Lab

23 Mar 2016

Bill Kearney is the vice-president of the IBM Ireland Lab and its Dublin Technology Campus.

Bill Kearney IBM

With more than 30 years’ experience in the areas of business and technology, Bill Kearney has been with IBM since 1995.

The IBM Ireland Lab is one of IBM’s largest R&D labs outside of the US. It is located at three sites in Dublin, Cork and Galway. The Dublin site is located at a 100-acre Technology Campus, which is IBM’s largest campus in Europe.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role focuses on building IBM’s Ireland Lab, where we have three sites in Dublin, Cork and Galway. We are now the largest software R&D function in Ireland and complete work in domains such as security, collaboration, data, commerce and cognitive, and focus on industries such as health, fintech, telco and cities. The role involves managing R&D talent, innovation, client interaction and seeking areas for growth.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I have a strong, effective, talented and competent team, hence, I spend very little time on metrics and day-to-day operations. Broadly, I focus on innovation, client activity and mission changes within the lab. We look at key lab metrics in a monthly one-hour meeting, spending 30 minutes on finance and 30 minutes on operations. I spend some time on helping within the broader ecosystem in Ireland and currently I am on the Fingal Chamber Council, Irish Software Association executive, LERO governing group, IBEC IST Policy Committee and involved in various academic initiatives, including an ongoing focus around Irish design.

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

IBM is currently working on a transformation to support the new world around cloud, analytics and cognitive business. Talent and skills are fundamental for transformation and so we are doing work with academic institutions in Ireland around growing data science and cognitive skills. The changing nature of the Irish economy with a shortage of rental housing is also a concern as we have a lab comprising employees of 50-plus nationalities.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

Our CEO Ginni Rometty has said that ‘data is the new oil’ and we are seeing opportunities in cloud, analytics and cognitive computing.

Cognitive computing enables greater collaboration between humans and systems, providing the ability to communicate in natural language and analyse massive amounts of data to deliver business information and insights more quickly. To do this, we’ve combined research innovations to create cutting-edge technologies, such as IBM Watson. Watson integrates machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies into a scalable system that can be accessed through a range of applications. This move to cognitive business is opening up opportunities in areas such as Watson Health, internet of things and education.

With data, analytics and cloud we are seeing opportunities around hosting, compliance, certification and security. For our clients, this means we’re helping them to seamlessly marry a company’s systems of record – their data and systems – with new and emerging systems of engagement: cloud and mobile. We’re able to help them using analytics to mine their data – in all its formats – as the new natural resource while protecting privacy and security. We help them to quickly integrate existing and new services and data to drive new innovations for their business, and easily control, manage and secure where their data and apps reside.

‘I have made many mistakes and the majority are linked to a failure to follow my gut instinct’

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

My first technology job was in General Electric and it was a powerful education in management systems and the need for both visibility and understanding of the operation.

I moved to Wang Labs and in the late ‘80s saw the shift from hardware to software and joined a new activity within the company around software. I moved from Wang to Lotus Development and this company was acquired by IBM in 1995. This broad trend towards software development continued with IBM’s acquisitions in software and services. Around 2004, with support from IDA Ireland, we initiated the IBM Ireland Lab. The timing for the lab was good as there was a growing focus within Ireland of moving up the value chain to R&D. To support my career, I started with a focus on maths and electronics. I supplemented my education with quality and finance programmes before completing an MBA.

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

I have made many mistakes and the majority are linked to a failure to follow my gut instinct. This resulted in procrastination around some decisions or failing to act quickly enough to address problems before the situation deteriorated.

The two main learnings are, firstly, to be paranoid when you’re doing well to avoid becoming complacent and, secondly, to not hesitate and follow your gut instinct. Many industries fail due to an insular approach to technology shifts and a complacency towards transformation. The idiom ‘he who hesitates in lost’ is relevant.

How do you get the best out of your team?

It is important to have a small number of focus areas that you can clearly articulate and communicate to the team. Great teams do not need to be managed and, in general, the most effective way is to ensure clarity of vision and purpose and support where possible in removing obstacles or sharing in the ownership around the risk. I am low on hierarchy and big on supporting and encouraging ability. My observation is that the people on the team who are willing to share knowledge for the greater good are normally the best and most respected leaders. I am very supportive of the concept of ‘master class’, where practitioners help to spread their expertise in a manner similar to the guild system.

‘I am low on hierarchy and big on supporting and encouraging ability’

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

I spent a portion of last year on the National STEM Review Committee. STEM is fundamental for our economy at a deep technical level, but also in terms of general conversation. As a country, we have a lack of diversity within STEM but we are increasingly becoming more dependent on STEM in all industries, including food, biotech, telecoms and the general impact that the internet has on our lives. Developing interest in STEM needs to start at the primary level and the evolution of our education system towards discovery-based learning will be good for understanding of scientific method.

Who is your business hero and why?

I admire lots of people in leadership roles in society and business. In terms of IBM locally, I admire both Pat Toole Snr, a former IBM senior VP, and William Burgess, former managing director of IBM Ireland . Together they had the vision and drive to create the IBM Dublin Technology Campus in Mulhuddart 20 years ago and, also, the subsequent leaders who have transformed our operations here to be totally different from the original vision.

External to IBM, one of my business heroes is Richard Branson. Richard thinks around big ideas, has fun, perseverance and confronts the rules. He is also very visible and comes across as a leader who is willing to engage and give back to society. I am also in awe of the achievements of Joanne O’Riordan and my niece, para-equestrian rider Helen Kearney, who overcame real challenges and makes issues in business look trivial in comparison.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer: I once trekked to Everest Base Camp and this is the 1996 story of leadership, tragedy and planning errors that ended with the worst single-season death toll in the peak’s history.

Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore: Relevant for the introduction of new tech in small and large companies.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: Design leadership, which is relevant to a renewed IBM focus in this area.

Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? by Lou Gerstner: Transformation leadership, which is always relevant for a technology company.

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

My wife’s cooking is the No 1 ingredient for success. I can make an attempt at cooking but lack the flair and ability that she has.

In terms of technology, my smartphone, iPad and Mac loaded with IBM Collaboration tools are essential. In terms of space to think and focus, I find the early morning 30 minutes to clear email and a walk at lunchtime work best for me. I try to spend more of my non-work time outdoors and enjoy walking, sailing, skiing, Leinster Rugby and home DIY projects.