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TECH MONTH Anthony O’Callaghan

10 Feb 2021

Gareth Fleming, Director of Brightwater’s IT division is in conversation with Anthony O’Callaghan, Chief Information Officer (CIO) of The Carbery Group.

GF: Introduction to Anthony O’Callaghan. Hi everyone. As part of Brightwater’s Tech Month and as our on-going series of Tech Leaders interviews, I’m delighted and honoured to be joined today by Anthony O’Callaghan. Anthony is CIO of Carbery Group, a global leader in FMCG where he is responsible for all digital aspects of the global business. Prior to that, Anthony has held very senior positions in different manufacturing firms where he specialised himself across supply chain, IT,data analytics and AI. Finally Anthony also serves as the chairman of IT@Cork. It is the largest not-for-profit technology focused organisation in the South of Ireland, representing over 300 member companies and does incredible work for the region. Anthony, you’re very welcome.

AOC:  Thanks Gareth, nice to be here.


GF: Let’s kick off. You have a very interesting profile. You’ve worked for some big global names; Flex, Johnson Controls, Tyco, obviously the Carbery Group now and you’ve also specialised across some very different disciplines, IT, AI, data analytics and supply chain. I’ve noticed in your profile that you’ve called yourself a technologist. It’s a great term. How do you define a technologist?

AOC: It’s an interesting question and I suppose I just want to stress at the start that I don’t go around telling people I’m a technologist. But for me, it’s simply defined as my interest in technology and how it can aid in business transformation which is really where my interest lies. I’ve always been interested in emerging tech and its application. I think what we’ve seen in the last five if not ten years is the pace of change in what we’re seeing with this emerging tech and the challenge now for people like me working in tech is where to spend the resources and time which is always quite challenging. As I said, the last five to ten years, the pace of change has been phenomenal in terms of new technologies. Peers of mine could easily spend their week evaluating new technologies. I get pinged multiple times on a weekly basis so it’s important to be decisive and picking a number of priorities that you can see through to completion. One of the pitfalls too often is IT departments pick too many big bets when they’re setting out their stall for the year. They then never see them through to completion which can only drive frustrations within IT departments and your internal and external customers as well.

I would say along the lines of technologist, the role of the CIO or technology leader has pivoted a lot in previous years. We saw a number of pivots, the first one being the introduction of the CTO office when the CIO in a lot of organisations was resigned to “keeping the lights on and largely then the innovation came from the office of the CTO. Thankfully. there’s a trend now of that flipping back to all functions under the CIO and offices of the CTO belonging under the CIO. I think Covid has certainly elevated the role of CIO further into leading business functions. When we look at items like automation and analytics etc, that’s a really positive change in the trends that we’re seeing at the moment.

GF: That’s a really interesting point and I’d agree. I It’s certainly a trend I’ve seen myself, that move back towards the CIO and even that CIO title means so many different things now. Another good point that you made around spend within IT. I think that’s one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic, that the bigger organisations sat back and actually had to really think about where they were going to go in 2021 and what they were going to spend their money on. I think organisations are a lot leaner.


GF: It leads me nicely to my next question. Your role in the Carbery Group, could you tell us a little about that? What is your role in the Carbery Group?

AOC: Carbery is definitely a very interesting story I would say so far. My role is the Chief Information Officer across the Group spanning 10 locations around the world globally. The focus is very similar to my definition of a technologist. It’s around helping to transform the business and leveraging technology as the enabler. In the past, I think the phrase “digital transformation” was thrown around a lot as a buzz word but I’m delighted that Carbery is really undertaking a very significant digital transformation across all aspects of the business. Traditionally the food industry isn’t known for leading the way in digital transformation and we had some catch up which we needed to complete. But I’m delighted that we’re really starting to see some traction now and a lot of this is down to the technologies which we are selecting which are quite nimble. You don’t have your big traditional implementations of, let’s say, your “on-prem” which is normally very clunky. We’re seeing in a lot of these key business services that they can be stood up in a number of days, if not weeks.

I think the challenge definitely with digital transformation is selecting the right priorities which will deliver the biggest benefit to the business. So our transformation really is a healthy mix of core IT deliverables along with business transformation activities. Carbery, like a lot of organisations, is very ambitious but we’re also a practical company so it’s not “growth for growth’s sake” and I think this is where digital transformation is really beneficial into the years ahead as we lay a solid foundation for that growth to sit upon.   


GF: How does that digital transformation manifest itself in what you’re trying to achieve at the moment? Is it a mix of machine learning, AI and automation?

AOC: It’s a mix. There are certainly some foundational aspects that need to be addressed there but when we look at the emerging tech, it’s definitely all those areas.  It’s looking at the analytics area, the machine learning and the AI. It’s all of those but the beauty of items like automation and AI, etc, the barriers of entry have been reduced so low that it’s easy to take these on a pilot. If you look back maybe five years ago, to take on a data analytics initiative might have cost quite a lot and certainly in the area of machine learning, it would have cost quite a lot but now we’re seeing such a huge shift there, where the barriers of entry are so low that a lot of the SMEs can now start to leverage this technology which in the past would have been out of their reach completely.   


GF: Now moving on, one of the most important hats you wear is that of vice chairman and now chairman of IT@Cork. What is IT@Cork and what does it do?

AOC:  So IT@Cork is a not-for-profit technology cluster focused on the South West region. We’ve about 200 members ranging from the largest multinationals to indigenous SMEs to sole traders etc so quite a nice broad spectrum of type of businesses involved there. Our primary focus is to represent the technology sector in the region and ensure that we promote and contribute to the growth of the region. This can take many forms; we can do it via the events we run annually, our TechFest, our Leaders Awards. We have regular monthly technology focused events; our series like Tech Thursday, our Diversity  in Tech, or Tech Brew Series focused on start-ups etc. But it’s not all about events. We also focus on addressing the training needs of our members which is very important to ensure the viability of the sector. We know from talking to our members, we know for a lot of the companies that are coming in here or expanding here, they do so because of the talent and that’s one of the main reasons why they choose this location. We’ve addressed that in multiple ways throughout 2020. From a training perspective, we’ve developed a new technology leadership course under the IMI, we’ve also developed a very innovative cyber fast track programme   to address the booming sector and the skills gap that exists within it. Our programme aims to really help develop cyber analysts through a fast track programme. So those who may not have had a career in cyber or exposure to a career in cyber in the past but who now want to change their career, we now have a fast track programme for those people. All of these training initiatives are done under our SkillsNet training network. We partner very closely with SkillNet Ireland. We have our own network under the IT@cork SkillNet network and this is how we develop out our own initiatives, working with our members. I think that lastly looking at IT@Cork as a whole, my favourite piece about the organisation is the network. It creates…. and it has to be experienced to be understood, this is something I’ve relied on for years and it’s fantastic to see it in action. We’ve really generated a non-competitive environment where peers, of mine and other  technology leaders, are willing to come together and help each other out. Sharing lessons learned openly. I’m sure it’s a common trait of other clusters but the willingness to contribute towards the success of the region is very humbling. This has just gone from strength to strength and particularly this year, that really shone through.

GF: That’s so important. That’s great to hear as I know there must be the temptation for a lot of competitiveness to creep in especially as some of the events that you run have been really impressive. I’ve seen your own “Fireside Chats” that you do with some of those leaders down there.


GF: I know that you recently were awarded a really prestigious quality standard, the European Secretariat for Cluster Analysis, the Bronze Label, striving for cluster excellence. What has the quality standard Bronze Label meant for the organisation?

AOC: This was a great award that we received, it was really a bright light in 2020. It was a lot of work that went into this, essentially the Bronze Label is one of three Quality Labels from the European Secretariat for Cluster analysis. This originally stemmed from a European initiative under the European Commission back in 2009/2010. So receiving this label means that IT@cork has been through a benchmarking process which documents the intention of a cluster management organisation to strive for excellence. We do so by improving management capabilities and performance levels etc. So we worked on this benchmarking process with cluster experts across Europe who assessed our processes and activities against the European standards and thankfully we were awarded this label. I suppose, going through this cluster benchmarking methodology highlighted what we do and where we need to make progress but overall, it strengthened our management processes and quality of services for our members.

I think as well, being a quality label, it also improved the national EU funding possibilities that are open to us which is super important and also important for our members. In summary, with this award, we joined a little over 1,300 cluster organisations across Europe with this label. Currently, there’s a little over 1,100 with the Bronze Label in 46 countries, 132 silver which is the next level across 22 countries and only 110 gold labels across 18 countries. To put it into perspective, when we received the Bronze Award, we joined an elite network of just 22 ICT clusters across Europe. We’re only 1 of 2 organisations in Ireland with this award. This is only the start for us and we hope to apply for Silver next autumn to continuously build upon that success. We’ve intentions of becoming a recognised cluster of excellence across Europe so thankfully this was really a good validation of all the work that went into this.

GF: Well done! It really is massively beneficial for your members as well.  I’m interested, is there a lot of networking that goes on between your cluster and those other 22 ICT clusters across Europe?

AOC: There would be, that’s something we’re really focusing on now going into 2021. We started having a lot of conversations with them. In 2020 a lot of clusters like ours were pivoting and refocusing on what they can do to serve their members. 2020 was a chaotic year for clusters, not only normal organisations but definitely coming out of 2020 and starting into 2021, we’re seeing those conversations ramp back up again. One of the things we’ll be doing this month is talking to another cluster in Europe and trying to learn lessons from each other and seeing where we can help. A lot of our members would have intentions of scaling into Europe so how can we help pave the way for them to scale into Europe, tying into various clusters and the opposite as well. So there would be a lot of healthy engagement there.


GF: If you look back for a minute at last year, (2020), horrible year by anyone’s standards, extraordinary as well. How was your IT@Cork client base affected in 2020? How did they fare? I presume the likes of the start-ups found difficulty in fund-raising, accessing credit and hiring. I’m sure there was some success there as well. What have you seen yourself across your members?

AOC: Not ignoring the challenges because there were many and they went from the multinationals right down to the sole traders, there were many challenges. But I think in general across our member base, they fared well. The tech sector, I think is very resilient and we’ve seen this throughout Covid. The early days of the pandemic obviously were very busy for technology organisations as we were relied upon to drive the mass movement of employees into a remote model. Tech companies, a lot of them needed to pivot. As project work would have dried up in the professional services area, they would have to pivot into a different business model. I think, when you look at hardware companies who saw their demand go through the roof when there were runs on laptops etc. A lot of the multinationals that would be in our member base from a hardware perspective, they saw a massive increase in volumes as well.

I think it’s a mix. As we got further into this, there were many massive success stories excelling. You have companies in the employee engagement space or the well-being space, those tech companies went through the roof. You have companies like PepTalk in Dublin, you have Workvivo down here in Cork, those saw huge demand for their services as employers focused heavily on engagement and wellbeing. From a recruitment perspective, obviously if you look at Q3 and Q4 (of 2020) we’ve seen a huge spike in demand, again as companies restarted a lot of stalled projects. I’m sure you’re seeing that as well, Gareth. We started to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel but coming into where we are now at the moment in Q1 of 2021, from a technology professional services perspective, I think it’s all good.

Then on the flip side, there’s a lot of technology leaders who, throughout Covid, have said Covid drove their digital transformation. My opinion is that there were leaders who were probably already behind from where they should have been from a tech perspective. It is what it is and use this opportunity to move forward which is great. There’s no doubt that Covid has really elevated the importance of IT to the top table in an awful lot of organisations and definitely I certainly don’t see that changing any time soon.  It highlighted the importance of investment and strategies etc and certainly around disaster recovery because this was a scenario that none of us had ever planned for.

GF: I know some of the multinationals in Dublin, there were a few panicky moments at the start, a few rushed trips to Power City and PC World to buy laptops. I think we’re all well into it now and as you said, recruitment is very busy and Q1 looks to be a very good quarter, hopefully for most parts of tech. If I was to judge it on the first few weeks of this year, there’s a lot of confidence out there and it’s been incredibly busy.  


GF: I’m interested, in your role as Chair of IT@Cork, you must work a lot with the different state bodies; Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, the local county councils, the government. Are state bodies doing enough to promote the right environment for start-ups and high growth SMEs to achieve success?

AOC: I think there’s no doubt that in the region, and we work incredibly closely with all of them, that without the support of those organisations like EI (Enterprise Ireland), the IDA and all the various local government organisations in the region, that we would be nowhere near as vibrant without them and without their continued support. I think, throughout Covid, we’ve seen continuous success stories. Down here in Cork we have companies like Qualcomm right in the middle of the pandemic, supported by the IDA taking up home here in the city centre with massive jobs announcements. Right in the middle of Covid, we have a lot of indigenous companies, like I’ve mentioned with WorkVivo and Global Shares down here as well, supported by EI announcing yet another expansion both in the regions and overseas. Then we have the local governments that also play a huge role in the success of the sector and the regions with their support of clusters like ours, which we get huge support from, support through the neo networks as well.

As I said, the sector would be nowhere near as vibrant as it is without them. Down here in the region we have over 30,000 people employed across the tech sector. That’s in the region and this grows year over year. It doesn’t happen by luck. This is down to the phenomenal commitment of organisations like EI (Enterprise Ireland), IDA, local authorities, chambers and IT@Cork etc.  It’s a model that’s clearly working and going from strength to strength. This has clearly shown, year over year, if you look at the investment numbers, if you look at our indigenous exports annually, that it’s clearly a model that’s working and going from strength to strength.

GF: It really is and I think Cork has really been at the forefront of innovation now for a long time and I think sometimes, Anthony, a lot of the good news tends to be very Dublin focused. We see these big pillar companies moving to Dublin. They get a lot of headlines but if you look at a lot of the R&D and innovation, that happens elsewhere. So it’s great to hear that. That does sound really very positive for that region.


GF: A quick move to gender equality, Anthony, and the gender paygap in the workplace. It’s long been a point of debate in technology. What does IT@Cork do around the whole area of D&I (Diversity & Inclusion)?

AOC: There’s no doubt that this is an issue. There is lots done and lots more to do but I think we all know that there isn’t one solution to this issue. It needs to be tackled, I suppose from many angles and on many fronts. In terms of what the region and IT@Cork is doing about it, thankfully we’ve a number of great initiatives going on in the region, driven by many organisations, not just IT@Cork and this starts from many angles. If you look at it starting from the ground up, we’ve an initiative like “IWish” which I’m sure you will have heard of, which is an incredible STEM initiative which went national and has been over the last number of years. It primarily supports school going girls making a career decision in STEM. This is something that’s gone from strength to strength and went national over the last few years and has supported tens of thousands of kids nationally. We hope to probably address the supply issue which is clearly there.

 From an IT@Cork perspective, for the last few years we have been running a number of events annually under our Diversity in Tech series which has been incredibly successful. Most recently one of the ones that we got off the ground in 2020 which is focusing very specifically on this problem is our recent SkillNet initiative which has identified, we initially started off by identifying 10 females looking to pursue a career in cyber. We have trained them up to a level where they can now enter into the market where they may not have had that experience in the past. I think that’s just the start of that one, there’s more coming in behind that as well but I think in general D&I is an incredibly important topic for IT@Cork and for all of our members. It’s not just approached as tokenism. It is taken very very seriously and it’s something that needs to be addressed. Even for ourselves, over the last number of years, on our board, we have 17 board members, we have an office team of 4-5 as it scales throughout the year. Throughout 2020, we appointed a new Chief Operations Officer and we’re delighted that ending up on 2020, our gender mix is 50/50 between our board and our back office team perspective. We’ve worked very hard to put that in place. There’s a lot going on here, certainly lots more that needs to be done and it’s not just a problem in a region, it’s a problem nationally and internationally. Thankfully there seems to be an awful lot of progress being made here.  

GF: I think so and I think that the government has done really well if we look at the different clusters around the country. In one of our previous interviews I did with Martina Fitzgerald, the CEO of Scale Ireland who is a huge advocate for this. It’s great to see and I love that SkillNet exercise. I think that’s obviously brilliant and into a very busy area as well. A lot done and more to do, as we say. That’s a very positive start.


GF: I think we’ll end on something more positive. As we look ahead to this year 2021 with vaccines on the way hopefully shortly although I don’t know if you’ve used that app yet to see when you’re eligible for it or when you’ll actually get your vaccine. Mine said 2024 which is not great as I do want to go on holiday this year. I think we’re going to hopefully return to some sort of normality this year. What do you think 2021 holds for the Carbery Group and for IT@Cork network?

AOC: I suppose like yourself, I’m hoping for some glimmer of normality in 2021 but what that normality looks like, I guess we don’t know.  When it will happen and what it looks like, I don’t know but we’re prepping right now for a return at some point throughout the year with our teams and what this model looks like in terms of the hybrid working model, the working remotely etc.

From an IT@Cork perspective, it’s also very similar. We’ve coped well during Covid and transitioned online with all our events. We’re looking forward now to getting back to a return to somewhat face to face, knowing that it will never be kind of fully face to face as well going forward. We now have a model that will work, a hybrid that’s a good thing. We’re expecting 2021 to be a very busy year for IT@Cork. We’re about to execute on our strategy starting this month as well which was generated with a view to it being a bumper year for our members as they return back to normality. For us, we’ve a lot and our Tech Festival planning is well underway, we’re building on the success of last year’s week long event. In previous years, it would have been a single day. We have now expanded it now out to be a Festival of Tech which worked very well remotely last year. We’re just figuring out this year what way we’re going to run it. The calendar of events is already planned out. We are starting to develop out our international connections as we mentioned earlier with the clusters etc and our training plans are ambitious.

I think, personally throughout 2020, I’ve seen massive benefits from a technology leader perspective, again not ignoring the negatives that came with it, there were a lot of positives that came out of 2020. Certainly when I look at the benefits of a network like IT@Cork, more than ever, I was very humbled to see how our members and our networks rallied together to the many calls that came throughout the year, whether they came from the health service etc,  that they really jumped on and tried to help out where possible. I think that it just summed up for me, everything that is so great about the region. I’m convinced that from a company, from a member perspective, from a cluster perspective, I think we’ll bounce back stronger than ever. That’s already showing.

GF: It sounds like it and it sounds like an amazing network to be part of. I love the way you’ve described it there. It does sound very supportive and again I think that’s the beautiful thing about these clusters, whether it’s Cork or whether it’s Dublin, everyone does pull in the same direction and I think that’s why it’s so important. I think that’s a really positive note to finish on, Anthony, I really do appreciate the time you’ve taken today, I know you’re very busy and I wish you, IT@Cork and the Carbery Group a really successful year. I look forward to hopefully attending some of those events to see what they’re all about. Thank you again, Anthony,

AOC: Thanks for the opportunity!