Fidelity works on designing a way out of the skills shortage
Julia Davenport leads a 500-strong IT workforce at US financial services giant Fidelity's Irish operations

Fidelity works on designing a way out of the skills shortage

20 Aug 2013

It is ironic that while Ireland continues to struggle with unemployment and emigration after five years of recession, the country’s IT sector is still creating jobs and is actually struggling to fill them.

Julia Davenport is only too well aware that she is competing with other large multinationals to fill the 6,000 or so IT job vacancies in Ireland, according to ICT Ireland.

Davenport is head of a 500-strong IT workforce at US financial services giant Fidelity Investments’ operations in Ireland.

Her advice to other multinationals is to get better at communicating the range of roles that exist rather than allowing an impression to spread that all the jobs are core technology jobs for software developers.

She said Fidelity looks at how the industry is changing and what skills will be required in the industry. The trend now, she said, is moving toward analytics and data visualisation.

“The graduates of colleges like the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) make perfect user experience (UX) design specialists,” Davenport said.

“They understand where people’s eyes are likely to go on websites, they understand colour and what a colour might mean for one culture versus another.”

Jobs at Fidelity

In 2011, Fidelity announced its intention to hire 100 new technology professionals in Ireland. This more than doubled last year with the addition of more than 250 employees.

In late 2012, the company revealed it is to create a further 200 new jobs in Dublin and Galway involving a diverse mix of technology, back office operations and enterprise services skills along side HR, finance and treasury roles.

Fidelity now has 500 staff working in apps, UX design, financial services, financial investigation requirements, and coding and engineering, Davenport said.

Financial services companies are in their own way becoming technology organisations, she said.

“People have no idea how much banks and insurance companies are dependant upon technology. Everything is digital,” said Davenport.

Fidelity has been in Ireland – its first offshore location – for 17 years.

“We are at the sharp end of the spear in terms of how to be an effective global organisation,” Davenport said. “When I think about what this group of people contributes – it is smart people with a can-do attitude who are very flexible and are committed to a highly professional organisation.”

Like many IT and business leaders, Davenport is a liberal arts graduate rather than an engineer. She graduated from the prestigious Cornell University in the late 1970s, specialising in business and computer studies.

A digital journey

Davenport’s digital journey began when she started working with insurance companies bridging the “language barrier” between the technology people and the business people.

“The industry needed people who could speak to both sides of the divide and help to express on behalf of a business person what a tech person needed to understand and build. It progressed from there,” she said.

Over time, Davenport came to love technology. She learned the programming language Cobal, what it took to be a successful software developer, and how to solve problems for business.  This led her to increase roles in terms of team management, project management and organisational leadership, she said.

One afternoon she received a call out of the blue from her brother-in-law telling her to come to dinner, joking that he found her a husband. He wasn’t wrong. Her husband-to-be turned out to be a young Irishman on a rugby tour of the US.

In 1982, newly married Davenport arrived in Ireland for the first time and went to work in the nascent technology section of AIG.

In addition to the bleak economy, what shocked her at the time was the old-school attitudes towards women. “I remember one day being at a lunch and this genial man who was sitting next to me remarked how it was nice to have a young woman present to decorate the table. You really had to bite your tongue in those days.”

After a two-year stint at banking software firm Kindle, Davenport joined Fidelity in 1996 to provide leadership for large-scale IT deployments.

Her present role is to develop her organisation to support the global IT needs of Fidelity, a business with more than 41,000 employees and US$1.7trn worth of assets under management.

Skills for a tech career

IT employers should look beyond the core technology skills and seek out the soft skills and the leadership skills needed for the future, Davenport said.

Aside from engineering roles needed in hardware or medical-device manufacturing, she said she thinks a lot of roles in technology require basic math and good problem-solving skills.

“When I think about what it takes to do my job, I joke with my husband that the technology is the easy part – the hard part is understanding people, their problems and being able to communicate across a geographically dispersed business and keeping teams aligned and engaged,” Davenport said. “A lot of it is about people and people dynamics and communicating and planning.”

Davenport said technology is one career area where more women should naturally thrive and achieve senior-management positions.

“I can’t speak for other companies but in Fidelity, 38pc of senior management is female, the next level down is 50pc female and the next level down from that it is 25pc.”

One worrying trend from a female perspective is at graduate level, where the number of female graduates for technology positions is weak. “When I look at top-level performers, women are well represented but below that at entry level they are under-represented,” Davenport said.

Leap programme

One of Ireland’s contributions to enabling Fidelity to achieve its skills targets is Leap, a programme devised in the country 10 years ago. Leap is a six-month long programme designed to accelerate the development of recent IT graduates in business, professional and technical skills.

At present, Fidelity employs more than 650 Leap graduates worldwide, 200 of whom were trained in Ireland with the remainder trained in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“For Ireland Inc I do see a bigger problem coming down the line. Individual tech companies might be successful at recruiting the talent they need because of their profile – they might be Google, a Facebook or a Twitter, but one person’s gain is another person’s loss and the feeder system from universities and colleges in terms of tech roles needs to see more female representation. That problem actually can be solved at primary and secondary level,” said Davenport.

Fidelity’s Leap programme has a global women’s networking group focused on how to interact with primary and secondary-aged girls to get them interested in tech careers.

The problem the tech industry and industries like financial services that depend on technology need to face up to, Davenport said, is helping people to understand the kind of careers they could have in these industries.

“We as a technology industry haven’t done a great job in helping people envision what their jobs could be like. Some jobs require the perceived ‘hard’ subjects like maths, tech and science, but in reality the industry requires a spectrum of roles,” Davenport said.

Fidelity has a team of designers in Ireland that have come from places like NCAD. The designers think visually and haven’t written a single line of code, said Davenport.

“We have business analysts whose analytical and problem-solving skills are invaluable to us,” Davenport said.

“The writing of code will get commoditised, the real value is the ability to personalise and translate complex financial information to be easily understood for ordinary people using devices like smartphones and tablet computers and to anticipate the preferences of the individuals using those devices.”

Davenport said she believes Ireland’s geographic position gives companies like Fidelity a tremendous advantage in bridging east and west.

“We have teams engaged in project management and leadership, as well as design, and they are co-ordinating work with an end customer in the US and engineers who happen to be in China.”

Davenport said it’s important to place an emphasis on the soft skills as well as the scientific skills. “Can you work in a team? Can you work globally and collaborate? Work should be a noisy, interactive, fun place to be, not just sitting quietly by yourself in the corner.”

Grasping change

The world is changing so fast and the digital experience is changing so fast, so workers have to be good with change, Davenport said. “If you like change there will always be other opportunities for you.”

The technology industry in Ireland is a vibrant industry but it needs to keep an eye on the supply and demand of talent and this extends back to the school curriculum, Davenport said.

“I think part of the solution is improving our partnership with schools and academia. If we can keep an eye on that and keep the talent coming from the schools and feeding into the colleges and universities and out into the panoply of industries dependent on digital, I don’t see anything but a positive future for the economy,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on 18 August

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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