AIB’s head of technology, media and telecoms John O’Dwyer has a background in computer science and corporate finance – and a role that allows him to combine both.
Can you tell us about your role as head of technology, media and telecoms banking at AIB – what are your responsibilities and what does the role involve?
My job is to lead the bank’s tech sector strategy, which involves broadening our business in the wider tech sector, originating deal flow and ensuring our customers in this sector have has much of a voice as more mature and developed sectors of the economy.
How much of your time is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management side?
It depends on the project or the deal but generally speaking, it’s half management and strategy and half deal origination and execution. That can range from understanding the technical proposition of the customer’s product – its value proposition – to a more rigorous and detailed financial assessment of the business to make a banking proposition work for the bank and the customer.
From your CV, you’ve had a grounding in both accounting and software engineering. Do you consider yourself a technical person who has had to learn about business, or vice versa?
Somewhere in the middle. Bizarrely, I started out in computer science and then migrated into business and corporate finance. I enjoy both and like flipping between the two. AIB gives me the opportunity to dabble in both.
It’s a bit of a cliché that technical people don’t grasp wider business issues – for instance, they might want to introduce a cool new technology to an organisation but there may be no business benefit. Based on your own experience, how have you been able to reconcile the two sides?
Yes I think sometimes in the early days of a nascent technology, there might be too much of a solution in search of a problem and that’s a hard sell to any board of directors – particularly in times of tightened corporate budgets.
Do you think the skills can be learned on the job, or is it important to go down the route of more formal learning and obtain a qualification in order to change from a technically focused mindset?
Exposure to real-life situations and experiences are the best learning and most people learn by doing – and, of course, from mistakes.
Banks are known for being quite risk-averse when it comes to deploying technology: do you think that approach is still the case, or can you give examples of where AIB has been early to adopt a certain technology or trend?
I think digitally enabled banking for consumers and businesses is increasingly the way of the future. AIB is at the fore of this in the Irish market, for example, with our Tablet Banking App for personal financial management, also our M2U app. We have a top-class team of digital innovators in-house who are at the top of their game internationally.
What’s the most significant finding from the technology survey AIB launched this week?
There were a number of very interesting findings but on a personal level I was intrigued at the increase in overseas applicants for our accelerator and incubator programmes in Ireland – this demonstrates the quality and pedigree of Ireland as a place to start your business.
The survey found that seven out of 10 indigenous Irish technology companies increased their turnover by an average of 30pc last year and six out of 10 are now looking outside Ireland for their main market, according to a major survey of the sector.
As well as having a strong multinational presence in Ireland, there is a scaling indigenous technology sector worth €2bn in annual sales. This sector alone employs 30,000 people, accompanied by a buoyant emerging technology start-up ecosystem that has evolved across the country.
Were there any findings that surprised you?
I think the issue of scale is something that continues to affect many Irish tech SMEs, be it expanding overseas or in attracting and retaining the right talent.
How can Irish tech SMEs overcome this issue of scale?
I don’t think the issue is one of funding anymore, perhaps it is an issue of attracting experienced management teams into young companies – I don’t know. And the question is at the fore of many stakeholders in the sector: it’s very challenging to get companies to the €50m to €100m+ barrier.
We are excellent at creating the idea, building products and getting start-ups going. Enterprise Ireland have done a superb job in driving this agenda as have our seed funds and serial entrepreneurs who have recycled their own gains into new start-ups.
Overall, the environment seems to be coming right: great accelerators and incubators with ambitious entrepreneurs, a serious FDI track record and a bright and educated English-speaking workforce between the US and Europe. I think the future is bright.