Feb 18, 2022
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What’s different for CIOs in Ireland

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Ireland has long been a technology powerhouse, with deep roots in hardware engineering, computer science, and IT support. This is largely due to the Irish Development Agency’s efforts to make the country a regional hub for American and global companies seeking direct access to the European market, of which Ireland is a member, as well as to a highly educated talent pool from Ireland’s universities, which successive governments invested in to help the country of 5 million go beyond its agrarian roots into a more cosmopolitan status.

Ireland’s small population — about the same as New Zealand or as the US’ San Francisco Bay Area — means that organisations tend to be on the small side, so the CIO role is less common and the head of ICT role more common.

“In the public sector, CIOs are generally only found in the larger organisations. In the private sector, CIOs are also usually found in the larger organisations but that can differ depending on the sector,” said Liam Stewart, head of ICT at the Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí, or Office of Public Works, in Dublin. But titles can be misleading. “The difference between a head of ICT and a CIO role is not all that clear, as many heads of ICT are often de facto CIOs,” Stewart noted.

Ireland is in the Common Travel Arrangement with the UK, which allows free travel and work rights between the two countries, similar to what Ireland enjoys with fellow European Union members. It’s also fairly easy for Irish professionals to go to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, as well as for citizens there to go to Ireland.

Large Irish diasporas also make it easy for the Irish to work in the US and for Irish companies to recruit in the US, though the US is stingier about work permits.

And, of course, English is a native language in Ireland, in addition to Irish Gaelic. All of that makes it easy for foreigners to come to Ireland, and for the Irish to work elsewhere.

The emphasis on Irish call centres over the last 20 to 30 years has done more than provide jobs, said Rob O’Donohue, a global Gartner analyst based in Ireland. These call centres serve English-speaking countries all over the world, and non-English-speaking ones as well. This brings in foreign staff in addition to the Irish ones, helping diversify Ireland. The rise of multinationals only accelerated that cosmopolitan shift.

As a result, IT in Ireland has a very heavy proportion of jobs at technology firms, from Dell to Amazon, Intel to Apple. In that way, Ireland is akin to the US tech centres of the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Austin, Texas. Gartner notes that nine of the 10 largest global firms have centres in Ireland. That skews the demand to product engineers, software engineers, hardware engineers, and similar “builder” roles, largely bifurcating IT into the tech-provider and organisational-user domains.

Ireland’s strong investment in university research, often in association with major tech providers, has helped keep Irish IT talent at the forefront of emerging technologies, O’Donohue said. “When the cloud came out 10 or 12 years ago, EMC was at the forefront of the private cloud and partnered with [Irish] unis on the first cloud masters.” When “cutting-edge tech” like big data, blockchain, quantum computing, and AI emerged, Irish universities and major tech firms joined forces to pioneer aspects of those fields in the country, he said.

Outside the tech firms, Ireland hosts centres for nine of the 10 largest global businesses (from financial services to manufacturing), Gartner reports. And although the tech-vendor community is concentrated in Dublin, IT is hardly confined to Dublin, despite its population advantage, O’Donohue said. Ireland’s second city, Cork, is its fastest-growing city and a centre for the pharmaceutical industry. Limerick has a strong R&D base, while Galway has emerged as a centre for software development, he said.

Given the border permeability for workers, you might think that Ireland risks a brain drain given the high demand for IT skills.

But thus far, Ireland is faring well in the competition for talent, even given the ease its citizens can work elsewhere. An affordable cost of living (especially if you’re willing to commute to Dublin or Cork from a nearby village), an open, cosmopolitan, and friendly culture, a willingness to do business, a talent pool long familiar with working with multinationals and peoples of other cultures, and a young, vibrant population (half the population is under 35 years of age) all have made Ireland attractive for both native Irish and foreigners, Gartner’s O’Donohue said.

Ireland did lose IT jobs to London and Australia in 2008 during the financial crisis, he said, but “that’s been reversed, and today Ireland is generally an attractor” of IT talent. O’Donohue said that “Ireland is probably in a better position than many other countries” when it comes to finding IT talent, though it “it’s an employees’ market, a competitive market, where individuals can hop around a bit”.

As in most countries, public sector CIOs face a more difficult path in hiring, said Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí’s Stewart. “Staff recruitment in the public sector has to go through a rigorous screening process. The public sector is in competition with the private sector for the best ICT talent but is not generally willing to pay the high salaries on offer in private companies.” As a result, “most public sector bodies now outsource a lot of ICT services (such as the service desk) as they don’t have the skills within the organisation.”

Local businesses — not just government agencies despite offering pensions — also can struggle to find ICT employees in Ireland, said Gartner’s O’Donohue. “It’s more challenging for nonglobal companies to attract talent” because of the high salaries paid by American and other multinational tech firms. Still, he sees some shifting as the workforce ages. “People have had more of a realisation of what’s important to them, so while you can get a 25% increase at a tech company, [there’s also an attraction in] the flexibility or enjoyment of a government role or working with smaller company with greater purpose and deeper connection with the work.” And saner hours, too.

O’Donohue does wonder how the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately affect IT jobs in Ireland. The shift to remote work caused by the pandemic has allowed workers to live outside the increasingly expensive Dublin, as companies have had to stop insisting on people working in a specific location. But that shift to remote work may also let many IT jobs, and perhaps Irish workers, drift outside of Ireland, because they can now work in inexpensive and more relaxed parts of the UK and other countries remotely, not just in Ireland.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion in IT, O’Donohue said the issue in Ireland is more about being conscious of inclusion in hiring and management, not so much about redressing past discrimination. As the country doesn’t have a history of being a coloniser or a slaveholder, many of the racial dynamics at play in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand don’t apply. Instead, the focus is on active inclusion of everyone, to balance out the tendency of all people to think first of their families, neighbours, and other close contacts, he said; that is, to expose and correct unconscious bias. “We’re generally a very inclusive type of people, but we need to be more vigorous,” he said.

But Ireland does struggle with attracting more women into IT roles, O’Donohue said. The data he’s seen suggests that Ireland’s proportion of women IT workers is at about the same 25% to 30% level seen in other Western countries. “Lack of women in IT is a global problem.” The issue seems to start very early and is first broadly evident in education — “the majority of women are not going down the STEM route,” O’Donohue said. Irish society needs to try to change that, he said, and also help provide women better opportunity to return to work after having children. As elsewhere, women who do come into Irish IT tend to be found more in product and process management and less in hard-core tech such as engineering, so the pipeline is uneven even where it exists.

Britain’s recent rocky divorce from the European Union has caused some financial services and fintech firms to move from London to Ireland, as well as to other EU countries, O’Donohue noted. Despite the resulting increase in demand for IT skills, he sees the shift as a net positive for both IT employees and overall technical skill development in Ireland.

In the public sector, Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí’s Stewart has seen no strong effects due to Brexit so far. “There were some supply chain issues initially but they didn’t last long.” But he cautions that the long-term impact of Brexit on Irish IT remains unclear: “It should be borne in mind that Brexit has largely coincided with COVID-19, with many people working from home, so we really haven’t had the experience of a ‘proper’ year yet.”

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