IBM’s Paul Farrell: ‘Our challenge is to restlessly reinvent ourselves’

3 Aug 2018

Paul Farrell, country general manager, IBM Ireland. Image: Connor McKenna

John Kennedy talks to IBM Ireland’s new country general manager, Paul Farrell, about the company’s culture of innovation.

“My standard way of summarising it is that I am a scientist by education, a soldier by profession and I became a management consultant by accident, to which now I can add I have become country general manager by the grace of God,” said Paul Farrell, the new country general manager of IBM Ireland.

Farrell succeeds Peter O’Neill, who took on the role in 2010.

‘Tech moves at such a pace that unless you are anticipating the next wave of development, you are going to be left behind by default’

IBM has a long association with Ireland, going back more than six decades to 1956 when it first opened an office here. Today, the company has global innovation as well as local commercial activities here and employs roughly 3,000 people in Ireland.

Farrell joined the company 16 years ago and has operated in a number of executive and leadership roles across Ireland, the UK and Europe during his career.

He has primarily operated in market-facing roles, which have previously included market development and strategic sales leader for Global Business Services (GBS) UK and Ireland, and leadership roles across the Nordics, Italy and the wider European market. Most recently, he has been leading the company’s GBS delivery organisation in the UK and Ireland.

Having served as an officer in the Irish Defence Forces, he then worked as a consultant and partner in the Irish market before joining the tech giant.

Farrell will now take responsibility for the company’s business in one of the corporation’s key portfolios, which includes IBM Research (Ireland), IBM Ireland Development Lab and IBM European Digital Sales Centre.

“The opportunity came up to take the role of country general manager back in Ireland. It is something I always wanted, so I jumped at the opportunity.”

Can you describe IBM in Ireland today?

There’s essentially two parts to IBM in Ireland.

There is IBM Ireland, which is our commercial business serving Irish customers across a whole range of industries and the public sector.

And then there’s what we term IBM in Ireland, which is those corporate missions primarily located in our campus in Mulhuddart but also in Galway and Cork.

In those facilities, we have a range of services. We do pure R&D; we do applied research leading to product development; we have our digital business group, which is primarily Europe, Middle East and Africa; and we have a series of facilities that support all of those services across, effectively, western Europe.

What are the big tech trends you are seeing, and how is IBM responding to them?

Our challenge as a business is to restlessly reinvent ourselves. Tech moves at such a pace that unless you are anticipating the next wave of development, you are going to be left behind by default.

We saw that in our case where we first started off the major ramp-up of business in Ireland, which was anchored on hardware and manufacturing. My predecessors – William Burgess, Michael Daly and Peter O’Neill – have kept a policy of keeping an eye on the next wave of development, so that we are not just building for today but we are anticipating and building for tomorrow.

So, what that means in practical terms is that, while we have product development groups here in Ireland, we are building the products that we sell today – primarily software products. We also have teams of pure researchers who are looking at the next wave of development in tech that is coming to the table and bearing on our customers’ problems.

So, [among] the key areas that we are looking at is the all-important one of data trust – security and privacy is a major concern for all our customers and indeed ourselves.

We are looking at quantum computing and particularly the new forms of mathematics and applications development that are needed to both identify problems that can take advantage of the power of quantum, but also then to develop the algorithms that can make use of that.

Artificial intelligence is a big anchor tenant for us in terms of pure research.

And then, finally, blockchain is an area where we are seeing rapid take-up among our customers.

The great advantage that we have in Ireland is having both sides: the pure research and the applied research, but also the commercial operations.

We can partner more easily with our customers and it’s a two-directional partnership because our customers get the value of access to our research facilities and to some of the finest brains that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.

But also it gives our customers the advantage of bringing real-world problems to us. We can set our researchers loose on it, and it really tests the depth of our research thinking when we look and see, yes, this can actually solve this particular real-world problem.

The company in Ireland has authored a huge number of patents. How has this happened?

It has come to be because, first and foremost, IBM as a corporation believes in pure research. We have a number of Nobel laureates on our staff and for a number of years, we have led the world and tech companies in the number of patents granted every year.

I am very proud to say that Ireland stands right up there with the labs across IBM’s corporate world in terms of the number of patents that we are personally responsible for.

That isn’t just in our laboratories; it is particularly important to note that extends through the thinking of all of our staff. In fact, one of the consultants I had the pleasure of working with here locally personally gained a patent for work he had done on research on applied services sciences.

So, it is something that is right there in the DNA of the organisation as a whole and is fundamental to the DNA of IBM Ireland.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years