19 Jan Interview with Una Fitzpatrick, Director of Technology Ireland
BF: Ireland’s tech sector has grown significantly in the last decade and is now the second largest exporter of ICT and IT services in the world. However, recent job cuts have raised questions as to whether the market’s tech bubble has popped. Can you tell us about the key factors behind the fast growth of Ireland’s tech sector? And what kind of future do you predict moving forward?
Una Fitzpatrick: In terms of the tech sector in Ireland, it’s built up a very strong base that would have come here probably over 30 years ago, in terms of inward investment that was attracted. Companies like IBM, Ericsson and Intel, for example, have all been here over 30 years at this stage. Back then we were more in the manufacturing end of the market. What’s happened now is that that has evolved. Over the past 30 years, what we’ve seen is the services side of the business really grow. There have been a number of factors behind why companies came here back in the 1990s. There’s so many to go through; things even like peace on the island (that really laid the foundation behind a lot of success), strong government support, availability of talent, and to be able to attract talent.
Over the last 20-30 years, we’ve seen the population increase as well. We have a very young population, but we can attract a young workforce as well. It doesn’t come without challenges, butm, in terms of the sector itself, we have seen, over the last 10 years, growth in excess of 10% every year. The growth rates are phenomenal. It’s an ecosystem as well. Maybe we were previously quite dominated by FDI companies, but we actually see much more of a levelling out now with the indigenous tech sector.
In terms of employment numbers, specifically in what we would call the ICT and tech services, it’s on a par with 52% being multinational companies and 48% being indigenous companies. It just goes to show, and when we’re speaking to government as well, when we talk about the technology sector, we’re not just talking about the tech sector, we’re talking about the entire ecosystem. The ecosystem really does work together. It’s a reflection of our own membership.
Historically, there were two separate trade associations for the multinational technology companies and the indigenous technology companies. It was only in 2017 that they actually came together under the umbrella of Technology Ireland. The association was formed by the merger of ICT Ireland and the Irish Software Association. What we’ve really seen is that all the issues are pretty much the same. There are some nuanced differences, and we can work on those, but the industry does rely on itself to proceed and to turn out high-quality talent. People at different stages of their career, or at different skill levels, are looking to work in different parts of the sector.
While recent challenges such as the pandemic, Brexit and the conflict in Ukraine have upset value chains and caused global GDPs to spiral, they have also opened up opportunities, particularly for new digital technologies. What kind of impact have recent crises had on Ireland’s tech sector, and what kind of new opportunities are Ireland’s tech companies now tackling?
Una Fitzpatrick: Specifically on Covid, those two years saw phenomenal growth in terms of a sector that outperformed itself; you can definitely point to the tech sector. From the stats, I’ve seen about 30% growth in the sector in Ireland in that two-year period. That’s phenomenal. It’s also probably unsustainable in terms of that level of growth.
Regarding our more recent challenges, everything now has an eye to sustainability. What our members are looking at, all across the value chain, is being as energy efficient as possible, the use of renewable energy, and access to renewable energy markets. That’s really a focus. What’s interesting is the software as a service companies: now they’ve built sustainability into the very start of the development process, and they’re making sure that anything that they’re designing has sustainability at the heart of it. That is an interesting shift. And they analyze what sustainability is here; it’s actually been built in from day one.
BF: Technology Ireland represents more than 270 companies related to all manner of new tech. The entity’s 2022-2026 strategy outlines some key tenants for association, including raising human capital, promoting ESG leadership and supporting SMEs. Can you give us an outline of Technology Ireland’s current strategy, and milestones it has passed on its current mission?
Una Fitzpatrick: Our new strategy launched in the summer of 2022. It was developed to identify the top line issues for members and then develop initiatives underneath them to address these. One of these, from a lobbying and policy point of view, is “30 for 30.” It’s 30 things we need to do to secure, grow, retain, and enhance the technology sector in Ireland toward 2030. It’s not that far away. Within that timeframe, what are the things that we need to do? Some of them are large scale issues; they are things around housing, transport and other infrastructure, but there are also things that are very practical in terms of the engagement between be it policymakers, industry, and European representatives as well, and making sure that all of those stakeholders are actually speaking to each other, reflecting positions with each other, or informing each other of the issues. What we can see is we’ve gone through a period of significant change. This is an industry that, when I entered it in the early 2000s, wasn’t very heavily regulated. It’s now become a much more regulated sector, and that’s as it should be.
BF: You’ve seen a complete change.
Una Fitzpatrick: Yes. I came from the biopharma sector before working with the technology sector. Biopharma a really regulated sector, so I’m very used to regulators and regulation. When I came into the tech sector there wasn’t anything, but that changed very quickly, and that’s not a bad thing. My experience with the pharma sector was that there was a very high degree of respect, but a good relationship between the industry and the regulators. There was an ongoing conversation on changing regulations, how it was going to work after it has been established over a long period of time. That relationship is really just coming into place now; it needs to deepen, and it needs to develop. That’s very much one of our tenants in terms of the future, in terms of taking leadership: being cohesive on policy and having strong well-resourced regulators in place.
You mentioned ESG, as well, as another factor. Again, it’s linked to regulation because what we’re seeing now is that there’s going to be significant reporting requirements on companies. Again, as a business group, that’s something we can support members with. But it’s also about the design of that, to make it as impactful as possible. All these regulations that are coming in, they’re coming in for good reason. But it’s to make sure that it’s business friendly from a usability point of view. There is no issue with complying with any of the reporting requirements; it’s to make it as practical as possible. That’s where we can help and represent our members’ views on what insights they have.
As the representative body. we can take secure coordinated responses, because if we run a consultation with our members, we hear all the issues and we try and get everyone to a position that they’re happy with. When we do bring a position to a stakeholder, like the government or regulators, generally there has been a lot of work to get to that point. We work with members to get to a position that all of our industry or sector agrees to. I would hope that that’s then respected, because for us to get to an industry viewpoint, it’s taken a lot of work to get to that level.
BF: How important is the role of education and training in maintaining the growth level of Ireland’s tech sector? What is Technology Ireland doing to promote advanced knowhow in the local job market?
Una Fitzpatrick: It’s the number one issue in our strategy: building the future workforce.
It’s a global issue. I meet with colleagues from tech trade negotiations across Europe. I’m just back from a meeting with them in Sweden. Across the board, everyone’s number one issue is talent and skills. What works well, from an Irish standpoint, is that we do genuinely work with all parts of the system in terms of designing the best ecosystem, be that both at the primary and secondary level through school, then at the third level, but then also upskilling and reskilling. From an industry viewpoint, you can’t focus just on upskilling and reskilling, or just focus on early stage.
Specifically ourselves, Technology Ireland, we have two Technology Ireland skillnets: Technology Ireland Digital skillnet and Technology Ireland ICT skillnet. That’s very much industry working with government through an agency called Skillnet Ireland. We receive funding on an annual basis to design industry designed accredited courses, and that’s specifically around upskilling and reskilling.
Skillnet Ireland is a government agency, and there are over 70 different skillnets. They release funds to the different skillnets. We can see that we have participants from all across the different sectors engaging in the courses from the Technology Ireland Skillnets. For instance, a new ‘Data Skills Framework’ from the Technology Ireland Digital Skillnet has attracted participants from a number of other sectors, like retail. Business analyst roles need to have a lot of people with good data analysis skills at all levels; you need someone who both process the data, but also who can interrogate it as well. What is interesting is that there are courses that we have been designed for the tech industry that are becoming ubiquitous across all the sectors now.
That’s our thing: the fight for talent and skills. We’re in a war for talent versus all the other sectors like the med tech, pharma and the financial services. Everybody’s fighting for the same qualifications.
We’re really trying to promote the upskilling and reskilling of people who are already working in those sectors, because we see that was being in our interests as well, in terms of retaining tech talent in the tech sector. That is going to be the number one key issue and it scales across all levels. We know there’s going to be a huge demand for AI and machine learning type skills. Not every industry is there yet, but from the tech sector point of view, we can see that across our membership that good technical skills are hugely in demand.
You asked the question earlier, if the bubble has popped. Absolutely not! In terms of the hiring rates that we’re seeing across the sector, there is still lots of hiring happening. Maybe some functions are less needed than newer functions, and it’s a symptom of this sector that jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago are now the hottest jobs ever. Being an AI specialist or a machine learning specialist is now a really key skill that the industry is looking for. That’s just reflective then of why people need to continue to upskill and reskill, because the changing needs of the sector are what they are ultimately looking for.
BF: The Irish government has played a huge role in building Ireland’s tech scene, whether it is in major financing, tax breaks or policy shifts to help build new companies and scale up existing ones. How would you assess the support system for tech companies in Ireland, and what kind of policies is Technology Ireland advocating to ease the doing of business?
Una Fitzpatrick: We can see what the level of investment here is, and there has definitely been a good job done in terms of attracting business. But we always say tech-driven business is highly mobile, highly international, and you’ve got to fight to retain it, and you’ve also got to fight it to grow it as well; never ever be complacent, never take it for granted. It’s not something that any government or any country could ever do. We need to make sure that we are as competitive as possible. As well as economic factors like taxation, from an Irish viewpoint, in terms of OECD tax agreements, we’re supportive of that.
But in terms of the wider issues, they are primarily infrastructure issues. These are really the blockers at the moment, infrastructure, as in access to, housing, transport or energy. If you want to grow your business here, or move a business over, you want to obviously make sure that all the things that you require to be in place are in place.
We’re still seeing good levels of investment, which is positive to see. The population is growing, and we need to keep up with that. That’s going to be important in terms of the growth of the sector, because the number one issue for the sector is access to talent and skills. We’ve been very successful at bringing people over, and the number one thing for us is to make that as easy as possible, to actually attract people into Ireland, make that entire process as straightforward and streamlined as possible. Then there needs to be government supports, things like R&D tax credits, or any of the business incentive schemes. We always saying that we need to have to have a small business first mindset; it’s about supporting the smaller businesses. We’ve heard from companies that if something is too complicated to apply for, then they would have to nearly put somebody working on it full time, and it’s just not worth it. It’s to make the process of getting government support as straightforward as possible. It’s not to avoid checks and balances. It’s not at all.
It’s to make it a more streamlined approach and that even comes back to greater use of things like digital at a government level. We are seeing positive moves there with the new National Digital Strategy. We have been lobbying for things like greater adoption of digital at the public service level; we’re seeing some movement on that. Business has moved ahead in terms of how efficiently it is using technology. The national digital strategy came out in February this year and we now have the foundation stones for what must be put in place, but there is still some movement needed to finalize all the actions required.
BF: Ireland remains Western Europe’s top FDI destination. American FDI in Ireland stood at $390 billion in 2020, more than the US total for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa combined. What new opportunities are we seeing in Ireland that US and foreign investors might be interested in, and what can be gained from creating partnerships between Irish tech companies and the world?
Una Fitzpatrick: The one thing members always say, especially for US audience: Irish companies actually employ more Americans than American companies employ Irish people. But just in terms of partnerships or ways to work together, there’s a huge focus in terms of sustainability. That was a huge focus for a number of our members. I know that the energy crisis might not be quite the same in the US, but I do think that advances that are maybe being made right now, and some of the technology that’s being worked on, both from a efficiency perspective, for monitoring and really kind of measuring outputs, that could be something that maybe, in collaboration with US colleagues, could be developed further, because it’s very much tied in with an ecosystem. You know how to measure an ecosystem if you’re familiar with this or how it works. It can be quite localized to sort of things like smart cities. If you are already based in geography, you’ll have a good understanding of how it operates. Those kinds of partnerships are where the future could be very bright.
BF: You stepped up as Director of Technology Ireland in 2018 and have led the organization through some extremely interesting times! Before that you had 15 years of experience working in the knowledge economy at the organization. What are your current top priorities as Director of Technology Ireland, and what kind of vision do you have for the sector in the next five to ten years?
Una Fitzpatrick: I was previously actually in the sector for six years before I became director, and then before that I was in the biopharma sector. In terms of experiencing change, the regulatory landscape in the sector has changed significantly. I suppose that’s something that will probably continue to increase. We know, at the European level, what’s coming: the implementation of the Digital Services Act, digital markets act, AI act. So, there’s a huge amount coming at industry; it’s been called the tsunami of tech regulation.
I suppose really guiding the members through that and advocating, some of those files are still very much ongoing. My role is to support member companies through that, be their voice on a lot of these key issues, and when those files and regulations land, to support members to actually interact with the regulator as well.
Beyond that, for a large part of our SME community, it’s about building the awareness of the sector and building awareness of the indigenous side of the sector. Obviously, we’ve seen the employment numbers shoot up. But, it was a quite a challenging time for some of the indigenous companies to hire tech talent, because they were often being outbid by the larger technology companies; that has settled down somewhat now. My role is to advocate on behalf of those companies and the overall ecosystem, but also, the career opportunities that can come out of those types of companies in terms of having a much more rounded experience, because you will probably work across multiple areas within the company. My role is to support members and to ensure that they can grow, to support members through any of the tough times that we’re currently in, and hopefully to achieve an even stronger technology sector base here. That’s good for me; it grows my membership, but also then supports the overall ecosystem.
BF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Una Fitzpatrick: For the members here, it is about how Ireland can be helpful to US and US companies in a European context, in that we are geographically as close as we can get; we’re the only native English-speaking country in Europe, and we also support open strategic autonomy.
We are generally aligned with the US on many policy issues. That has been important to our membership: that we make sure that from an American company perspective that they are aware that, we, from a European perspective, absolutely hold up to European values when it comes to technology and the need for ethical and trustworthy technology in AI. However, we’re not protectionist and we value open trade. How you marry those two is something that we’re very much aware of.