The Women in Tech Awards is Ireland's first annual celebration of women and diversity in the technology industry. The goal of the Women in Tech Awards is to drive diversity and narrow the gender gap in an industry which offers opportunity and success to anyone with ambition, passion and a strong work ethic.
To mark this and showcase some of Ireland's most talented 'disruptors' we've asked the nominees for the Disruptor award about their careers to date, and what it's really like being a woman in tech in Ireland. The third interview in this series is with Aoife Sheridan, Head of Customer Success at Version 1 - an Irish company specialising in international management consulting, managed services and software development.
What is your background? How did you get into the technology sector?
I came into the technology industry via a slightly circuitous route. After my Leaving Cert, I originally started a Computers, French & Linguistics course at Trinity College. After about thirty seconds, I realised I was going to hate it!
It was me and around ninety very tech-focused chaps. I left the course to spend a year figuring out what I actually wanted to do when I grew up. This involved studying economics and business-related subjects, ones I'd passed up in favour of science subjects at school. I also travelled and worked in Germany.
On my return, I studied International Commerce and German at UCD, which I absolutely loved, but even then, I would have considered myself weak at the computer module we had to complete in 1st year. On leaving university, I joined Accenture's graduate programme where the first challenge was to learn how to code in C in under 6 weeks. After many sleepless nights dreaming of curly brackets, I finally got the hang of it and the rest is history!
Can you describe your current role - what are your main responsibilities?
I am the Head of Customer Success at Version 1. It's a new function which we have built from scratch to ensure we continue to delight our Customers despite our exponential growth. The team is spread across the UK and Ireland and is made up of a fantastic bunch of talented individuals, all wired for delivery but balanced with very strong commercial acumen.
My job is really to make sure there is nothing in their way as they seek to delight their customers. So that involves:
Making sure they have the right tools, training and support to do their jobs effectively.
Evangelising for Customer Success throughout our organisation and with Customers -our Strategy is based on the 3 E's methodology i.e. Are we Easy to do business with? Are we Effective in everything we do? And are we Empathetic, listening and acting upon what our Customers are telling us?
Measuring how we're doing - we love measurement at Version 1. We constantly track our Customer Satisfaction (monthly and quarterly), our employee engagement (quarterly) - a happy team is generally a happy Customer and of course our usual organisation KPIs such as Customer retention and growth.
Constantly evolving what we are doing either internally or with our Customers.
Keeping the team challenged, happy and engaged - they keep me honest!
What do you attribute your success so far to?
I think I'm seen as a highly energetic, driven and straight-talking person. At Version 1, and in lots of organisations, the ability to get things done, or the 'completer-finisher' mindset has real currency.
But probably the thing that has propelled me forward is a willingness to throw myself in at the deep end, well beyond my comfort zone and see where that takes me. I get bored very quickly if my days become routine, so am always on the lookout for the next challenge or problem to solve.
You've been nominated for the disruptor award - what has been your biggest business risk to date?
I had my own business when I lived in New Zealand, so starting that was pretty nerve-wracking, but at the time I had nothing to lose, living an expat lifestyle with no strings.
So really, it's probably fair to say the implementation of the Customer Success strategy at Version 1 was my single biggest business risk to date. We had iterations before, which had limited success and we were determined not to fail this time around.
We had challenging Customer Satisfaction targets and 85% of the company's entire target budget was going to sit with my team to retain and ideally grow by delivering fantastic business outcomes. It felt like a significant step up in responsibility and was a core pillar of our relatively newly appointed CEO, Tom O'Connor, at the time. So, no pressure!
What trends are you noticing in your industry now? What do you see being the next big disruptor?
For our specific industry, IT consulting, all roads to the Cloud. At Version 1, we've been on that journey for the past 3-4 years, developing super-strong partnerships with key vendors Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle, but it's only in the last year that the demand has really taken off amongst our Customer base.
There is a confidence there now which didn't exist a few years ago around security, partitioning of data by geography and control. It's a challenge for us to keep up with the demand.
In terms of disruptors, it's all about Artificial Intelligence and the impact that is going to (and already starting to) have on the global workforce and without being too dramatic, society as a whole. How do we prepare for it? How do managed it from an ethical perspective?
We sponsored a GeekGirls MeetUp recently where we ran a panel discussion on 'Whether we are building bias into our Bots?'. It was looking at the challenge for AI developers where if 70-80% of the software engineering population is male, will the bots be built with an inherently male viewpoint and bias? It was a great evening with a super panel and definitely made for a very lively discussion.
In what way is your company leveraging new technologies successfully?
We are an IT company at our core and our mission is to prove that IT can make a difference to our customers' businesses. We spend a lot of time making sure we are innovating and staying ahead of the technology trends through our Innovation Labs and Blue Sky Thinking Days with our customers.
As mentioned above, much of what we are doing at the minute is helping our customers to digitally transform their businesses by migrating to the Cloud, redefining the Customer Experience and delivering smaller more rapid change via a more Agile and DevOps centric delivery.
Without exception, all our customers experience significant cost savings, increased efficiencies and reduced time to market or time to change by following our recommended approaches and frameworks. Specifically, on technologies at the moment, we're developing ChatBots, heavy duty predictive analytics, Blockchain, early days on Quantum Computing and are obsessed with automating absolutely everything.
In terms of pitching innovative or new ideas effectively in business, what are your tips?
The single most important thing to think about when pitching a new idea or innovation is who are you pitching to and what matters to them. It's really basic, but it works.
If you're pitching to the CFO, you'll need to make sure your business case stands up to both financial scrutiny and organisation risk, because that's what they lie awake at night worrying about. If you're selling an idea to a Marketing person, what is it going to contribute to sales or brand awareness? And if you're pitching to the CEO, he or she will want to quickly understand how your initiative is going help grow the company, make it go faster or more efficiently or it could be as simple as a passion that is dear to their heart.
Another tip would be to keep it very punchy - the person you are pitching to is no doubt very busy with a lot on their mind, so reel them in fast with the benefits or the risks of not pursuing your idea and then get them comfortable on how easy it will be to implement.
Finally, you are in sales mode which should actually mean you are in listening mode. Your target audience might have some great ideas to tweak or enhance your idea to suit them. Make sure you hear what they are saying and respond.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt over the years?
Wow, that's a tricky one. There have been loads. Can I have two? The first is to not be afraid to be out of your depth. It's both terrifying and liberating and you'll only be a better person and employee if you just dive into things. You'll be surprised at how quickly the arm bands will come off.
The second one is to hire people who are either smarter than you or better than you at what you do. It will make for a stronger team and will also push you and the team on.
How do you stay current in a constantly evolving industry?
I'm not great at reading publications on the latest tech horizons although I'm always trying to be better. So, I have a network of technical people who I chat to about technology trends and the next big thing which is coming down the track.
For example, I brought Robotics Process Automation into Version 1 as an offering based on some work a friend of mine was doing in New Zealand - which is a great source of innovation by the way. Those folk have an almost a cashless society, having embraced the chip and pin 15 years before we did.
It's well reported that women are underrepresented in the technology industry, what has your experience been like? Do you think it's been more challenging for you to succeed as a woman?
I grew up with all brothers and no sisters, so being surrounded by men has always been the norm. So, I never really thought about it too much in terms of holding me back. I've been lucky in my career to have fantastic mentors, both male and female, who have always encouraged be onwards and upwards. However, I did leave my first job because when I looked up the chain I could see no female role models I wanted to emulate.
I started the Diversity & Inclusion programme at Version 1 a couple of years back, which was less about me and more about just being fed up with the statistics on female participation in tech. We were no different and a grad intake of 1 girl and 17 guys were the last straw.
We've made amazing progress in just a very short time - both making Version 1 a more diverse, fun and inclusive workplace, where people can be confident in bringing their difference to work and also in terms of reaching out into our communities to encourage more women into technology.
A lot of it boils down to respect and giving everyone in the room a chance to have their voice heard regardless of their race, gender, sexual identity, etc.
What is the best thing about working in tech in Ireland?
I think we've got a great reputation for all things tech - given the number of big brand tech companies based here (regardless of their motivations for being here!) That attracts such great and diverse talent into Ireland, it makes the workplace both more competitive and more interesting.
Also, I think there are loads of supports for start-ups to flourish via county council initiatives, Enterprise Ireland and healthy culture of sponsorships between larger more traditional organisations such as the banks and tiny start-ups.
If you were beginning your career now, what would you do differently?
I wouldn't do a whole lot different as I've had such a great run - travelled loads, been involved with a start-up, a semi-startup and am now working with one of the fastest growing homegrown Irish tech company at Version 1.
My theory is that people might start out somewhere, but they will ultimately gravitate towards and eventually find what they are great at - their particular sweet spot. So, there's no point in sweating what you could have been, just keep going with the flow, adapting and putting your hand up for stuff that scares you.
Over the years we have established strategic partnerships with clients across all IT industry sectors, from startups to large internationals.
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