‘En­cour­ag­ing girls into Itis in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult’

NI fin­tech en­voy and All­state di­rec­tor Ge­orgina O’leary talks to Ryan Mcaleer about how she fell in love with com­put­ers as a teenager in Co Done­gal

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Ryan­m­caleer­biz

Fin­techen­voy and all state di­rec­tor Ge­orgina o’ leary on cre­at­ing eco­nomic wealth and how she fell in love with com­put­ers as a teenager

Mother knows best, goes the well worn ex­pres­sion, but in Ge­orgina O’leary’s case it’s cer­tainly true. Now one of the most prom­i­nent fig­ures in North­ern Ire­land’s fast-grow­ing fin­tech sec­tor, the Lon­don­derry-based All­state di­rec­tor could eas­ily have cho­sen a very dif­fer­ent ca­reer save for the in­ter­ven­tion of her mum Anne.

As a teenager raised in Done­gal, Ge­orgina had ac­tu­ally en­rolled in Sligo IT to study psy­chol­ogy. An of­fer had been sent to study com­put­ing on the south coast of Ire­land, at Water­ford IT.

But by a twist of fate, a postal strike that year left her let­ter stuck in a log­jam.

“I was about three weeks in and this of­fer came in,” she re­calls.

“My mum said: ‘Look, the fu­ture is in com­put­ing.’ So she marched me into the ca­reers teacher to try and get them to con­vince me to swap. So I did.”

It was a good move. At 44 Ge­orgina’s ca­reer has taken her around Europe and to the United States. In May this year Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer Philip Ham­mond named her as one of the UK Gov- ern­ment’s new fin­tech en­voys for North­ern Ire­land.

Born in Manch­ester in 1973 to Done­gal par­ents Ea­mon and Anne Mcdaid, Ge­orgina, who was the eldest of four sib­lings, spent her early years in the north west of Eng­land un­til a fam­ily ill­ness brought them home.

“My granny got ill when I was about five, so we all moved back to Done­gal and we set­tled,” she says.

“We were all born in Manch­ester, there were four of us and just four-and-a-half years be­tween us. But I re­ally don’t re­mem­ber much about it at all, apart from our house and back gar­den.”

Most child­hood mem­o­ries are rooted in Malin and Inishowen, just over the bor­der and one of the is­land’s most north­ern points. While mother Anne was a nurse, the fam­ily busi­ness was a garage in the vil­lage of Clon­many.

Her for­ma­tive years were spent in Carn­don­agh Com­mu­nity School, were an im­por­tant purchase by Anne in 1987 sparked a fas­ci­na­tion in tech­nol­ogy in the then 14-year-old.

“My mum bought us this old Mit­subishi com­puter. We had games on it, but I used to sit at it with this book that taught you how to pro­gramme colours and stuff,” she ex­plains.

“It would take hun­dreds of lines of code just to get some colours sparkling on the screen. I used to sit me­thod­i­cally and try and get it to work. That was where my in­ter­est in com­put­ing started.

“There wasn’t a sin­gle com­puter in the school. I ab­so­lutely loved maths, but I had no ex­pe­ri­ence of com­put­ers through school, only at home.”

Ge­orgina is still not en­tirely sure where her mum’s con­vic­tion on com­put­ers came from, but her vi­sion played an im­por­tant role again a few years later, help­ing her to switch cour­ses from psy­chol­ogy to ap­plied com­put­ing.

The switch meant a jour­ney from one tip of the is­land to the other.

“I used to get the bus on a Sun­day at four o’clock to Dublin and then swap over at about nine o’clock and get into Water­ford at about 12 or 1am,” she says.

“But it was ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic. Mi­crosoft had moved to Ire­land at that point, as had Log­ica and a cou­ple of other big com­pa­nies, so they were es­tab­lish­ing re­la­tion­ships with them.

“They re­ally saw the fu­ture and had ta­lented lec­tur­ers who were highly ex­pe­ri­enced coders. It was a re­ally good course.”

The four-year course in­cluded a place­ment with a small soft­ware firm in Swin­don, which led to a move to Lon­don to work for Voda­fone.

The next ca­reer step was a con­sul­tancy role in Ger­many, work­ing with ma­jor firms like Siemens and Mo­torola. Along with the skills and some of the lan­guage, Ge­orgina also man­aged to find her fu­ture hus­band — Wex­ford na­tive Jamie O’leary.

The Ger­man ex­pe­ri­ence helped turn Ge­orgina into an ex­pert in com­puter tele­phony and she re­turned to Lon­don and even­tu­ally went out on her own.

The work largely in­volved pro­gram­ming call cen­tre switches and de­vel­op­ing in­ter­ac­tive voice re­sponse (IVR) sys­tems, es­sen­tially the voice sys­tems call­ers reg­u­larly hear on tele­phones.

It even­tu­ally brought her into the sphere of Camelot, which in 1994 was awarded the con­tract to run the Na­tional Lottery.

“One as­sign­ment was to pro­gramme the IVR for the win­ning Lottery num­bers as soon as they would come up. There would be vol­umes and vol­umes of calls to ask for the Lottery num­bers.”

Af­ter seven years work­ing across Europe, in 1999 Ge­orgina and Jamie set course for Dublin, work­ing for a num­ber of or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing Dell and Bloomberg Po­lar­lake.

In 2000 the cou­ple were mar­ried and a year later their first child Conor was born. Grainne fol­lowed in Jan­uary 2003 and Cian was born in 2007.

With no shortage of op­tions, the cou­ple de­cided they wanted to move closer to Ge­orgina’s na­tive Done­gal and, in 2003, she joined Us-owned in­surance gi­ant All­state.

One of the first ma­jor for­eign di­rect in­vestors af­ter the Good Fri­day Agree­ment, All­state was in its early days of be­com­ing a ma­jor em­ployer in North­ern Ire­land.

But while she took the job to be closer to her par­ents, she ended up spend­ing her first six months with the firm on the other side of the At­lantic, with two young chil­dren in tow.

“I joined in Novem­ber 2003 and my first day was a flight to Chicago,” she re­calls. “I didn’t even make the of­fice in Belfast.”

Al­most 15 years on she is now much closer to her na­tive Inishowen as All­state’s di­rec­tor of global com­posed labs and claims tech­nol­ogy, and the most se­nior fig­ure in its Derry base.

But with All­state be­ing a global or­gan­i­sa­tion, she can be re­spon­si­ble for a staff of 800, with many lo­cated at var­i­ous sites around the world.

In a ca­reer where she ad­mits she was of­ten the only woman in the room, she said gen­der has not re­ally been on her radar.

“I’m re­ally not a fem­i­nist at all, I’m an equal­ist. I just be­lieve that if you’re the best per­son for the job, then you’ll get the job, that’s it, ir­rel­e­vant of gen­der,” she says.

“I don’t even think about it and I know it’s a big topic, but it was never any­thing that was in my con­scious­ness.

“I val­ued my­self as an equal and I ex­pected ev­ery­one else to value me as an equal, and that’s how I acted.”

How­ever, she would still like to see more women pur­sue a ca­reer in com­put­ing and tech­nol­ogy.

“What I do value now in a lead­er­ship po­si­tion is the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity and the more di­ver­sity you have, the bet­ter team en­vi­ron­ment you cre­ate,” she says.

“But en­cour­ag­ing women and girls into IT is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, and I re­ally haven’t fig­ured out why. Be­cause they re­ally en­joy maths and the nat­u­ral step would be tech­nol­ogy, but it doesn’t seem to fol­low through.”

She sug­gests it could be a sim- ple lack of un­der­stand­ing and a mis­guided no­tion that the ca­reer is bor­ing.

“If I said fin­tech to a 17 or 18-year-old, I think I might get a blank look. But if they un­der­stood that their en­tire life is based on dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ences, so when they want to buy some­thing, they utilise Ama­zon.

“Well, if they don’t have a dig­i­tal fin­tech ex­pe­ri­ence, deal­ing with Ama­zon wouldn’t be so easy.”

Ge­orgina’s work­ing week now also in­cor­po­rates her new role as North­ern Ire­land fin­tech en­voy.

Ap­pointed by Mr Ham­mond in May, she is re­spon­si­ble for ad­vanc­ing North­ern Ire­land’s po­si­tion within a Gov­ern­ment strat­egy to make the UK a premier fin­tech area.

“I’m just de­lighted with the chal­lenge and pretty hon­oured to be asked,” she says. “I re­ally do want to make a suc­cess of it.”

The 44-year-old be­lieves there is no sense of a fin­tech bub­ble, but rather sees the sec­tor as fast be­com­ing a linch­pin for the North­ern Ire­land econ­omy.

“The way that we now in­ter­act with tra­di­tional fi­nan­cial ser­vices and in­surance com­pa­nies is now a much more dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s a very in­no­va­tive and fast-paced en­vi­ron­ment, so be­ing able to keep on top of that and con­tinue to cre­ate in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions from here will just cat­a­pult us to be a re­ally renown fin­tech re­gion. “Re­ally, what’s im­por­tant to me is cre­at­ing eco­nomic wealth in this re­gion, be­cause it hasn’t had it in the past, and with that brings a lot of ben­e­fits.”

As a se­nior fig­ure in All­state, Ge­orgina said, like many ma­jor in­ter­na­tional firms, Brexit is high on the agenda. “Be­cause we are in a ser­vice-driven in­dus­try, our worry and con­cern is around ser­vices and peo­ple move­ment. We’re look­ing at con­tin­gen­cies, dif­fer­ent as­pects of em­ploy­ment law, as well as free move­ment of peo­ple,” she adds.

“We’re also do­ing some anal­y­sis on what mit­i­ga­tion plan we can put in place if a hard line is taken, and what a soft line would mean for the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“We are tak­ing it very se­ri­ously.”

As for the fu­ture, Ge­orgina ad­mits that launch­ing her own tech ven­ture re­mains a dream.

“I’ve of­ten thought about it, if the right idea came along.

“I’ve had a few ideas, but I was too slow off the mark and beaten to the mar­ket­place. I’m al­ways keep­ing an eye out.

“I just love be­ing thrown in the deep end and learn­ing how to swim. The big­ger the chal­lenge, the bet­ter.”

I love be­ing thrown in the deep end and learn­ing how to swim. The big­ger the chal­lenge, the bet­ter

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