Gary: So John, tell us a bit about Citi operations in Northern Ireland.
John: Citi has been in Belfast now for just over seven years. The idea was it would be a technology centre with 375 people. Now, in the event, Citi were hugely successful in finding the right type of talent, and very quickly we went back and revised the business plan and said we would grow to be 560. Now, as we sit here today, we are over 700 on the technology front, and alongside this we have 350 users of our software here in Belfast. And on the ground floor of this building there is a legal and compliance function with over 100 people. So we’ve grown from nothing in 2005 to a delivery centre with over 1200 people here, Citi has had phenomenal success in Belfast.
Gary: On the IT front, what sort of work are you doing?
John: We service the institutional clients group, which is the investment banking side of Citi. And the type of work we do is that we work predominantly for the Capital Markets business – that’s the equities, the rates business, and the foreign exchange side of the business. And the guys here are writing the software that is used in the trading, settling, confirming of trades around our global network. And as well as that we have a sizable group in our Citi transaction services business and also a sizable chunk of roles in infrastructure as well – the SAs and the DBAs, who make sure the applications are up and available.
The centre in Belfast is part of a network of delivery centres – so Citi operates in over 100 countries and we’re in 12 from a technology perspective. There are four of these centres in EMEA – Belfast, and there are centres in Warsaw, Dublin and Budapest. And we in Europe sit alongside our colleagues in North and South America and Asia.
Gary: So what has Citi liked about Belfast, John?
John: What works for us here is four-fold. First it’s the ability to find the right kind of talented people. We now have a very successful entry-level programme and we find that the calibre of talent coming out from the local universities is first rate. Secondly it’s about the cost of the resources – there’s no getting away from it, we are cheaper than corresponding resource in New York, or London, and that is attractive. Many of the other foreign investors here find that very attractive too. Coupled with that we’ve got the geographic proximity – from here to London is a very easy trip for people here to go and visit their clients, or indeed, for clients to come here. So there’s the geographical proximity, but as well as that there is cultural proximity – we all speak English. and on top of that, there is the risk management element, by having this network of centres. And it really came into its own with the recent hurricane Sandy passing through New York. New York was knocked out but centres like Belfast were up and available and were able to take work on. So that diversification very much works, in terms of managing the risk profile of the business.
Gary: When you mention taking on recent graduates – is that restricted to IT related degrees?
John: No. When we were out recruiting – and we’re just about to start recruitment for 2013 – yes, we’re very interested in the students with computer science degrees, but we also recruit very heavily across Maths, Physics, Engineering and other numerate disciplines. It’s the numeracy that is the key success factor for our technologists. We bring these recruits through our Citi Technology Academy. We give them a week long induction on how to be successful at Citi and a lot of team building exercises. We follow that up with two weeks of financial markets and banking training – because there’s no real culture of investment banking in Northern Ireland – and then we have nine weeks of technology training, where we take them through the operating system, database technology and programming languages that we use. So we put them through a pretty intensive set of training, and at the start, you can see that the guys with computer science have an advantage, but by the end of the training you can see the guys from other disciplines are really coming through just as strongly. And once they’ve finished that programme, they get out into the businesses and start their career at Citi proper.
Gary: So what have been the main challenges in building what clearly has been a success story for Citi? And what are the challenges as you go forward?
John: Well, the challenges – number one is resources. We take on a significant number of graduates every year. We could take on more if there were more out there at the level at which we are recruiting. Also, there’s the challenge of market knowledge – there isn’t that heritage of capital markets here and so when we recruit further up, we have to spend a lot of time getting people trained for our particular sector.
The other critical success factors are around the relationships with universities, the very good working relationship with local government and the Assembly, and the very strong working relationships between the companies around this agenda of skills, is hugely positive.
Gary: So tell us about your own role in the company, John.
John: I am the head of the technology group and head of the site. So as well as my responsibilities directly for the technology side of the business, I also look after the governance for the site as a whole. And a large part of my role is around communications – communications with the employees and back into London and New York, the different groups and stakeholders who use the services from Belfast. So a large part of what I do would be working with teams elsewhere to understand the demand for the centre and how to match that up with the supply of skills we have already and what we need to recruit.
Gary: How did you get to where you are now, John?
John: I graduated from Queens University in 1992. I’d done an engineering degree and then I did an MSc conversion course into computer science. At that time, after graduating, you either got a job with BT or you headed off to start your career elsewhere. So I went off to London and joined an investment bank called J P Morgan. I had a very good career with those guys and got to work with a lot of exciting technologies. And I got to work in New York and Tokyo. But then Northern Ireland drew me back! So I came back to bring up my family in Belfast. I then had a spell with Liberty and was the CIO for the Grafton Group in Belfast. But I came back into the corporate world with Citi in 2007, two years after Citi had begun their operations here.
Gary: So what is it that you’re really good at, at this point, John, and how did you get good at it?
John: Well, what I do is really all about communication. It’s about being able to talk to your colleagues in the business and really understand what’s going on, and then being able to talk to the customers – our internal clients – to be able to understand what it is they’re looking for, so that you can put the two bits together. And something I learned very early in my career, is that to be good at technology doesn’t mean you have to be a programmer. It’s very much around how technology can be used to solve business problems. So that’s really what I do – I communicate about how we use technology to solve some of the problems of the business.
Gary: This is a perception a lot of people have about the technology industry – you’re going to be sitting at a screen all day, tapping away. But that may not be the case?
John: That is absolutely not the case. You will always have that very strong core of pure technologists, but you have a very full array of different disciplines and functions within technology that are needed to support the business – business analysis, quality and testing, support services, project management – all absolutely critical to the delivery of a quality software product.
Gary: Let me ask you about motivation in a place like Citi. You can imagine in a small technology company, where everybody has a sense of shared purpose, perhaps they’re bringing some new technology to the market – in a bigger company, clearly the dynamic is different. How do you get people to buy in, to feel a sense of vision?
John: Citi is a huge company – 270,000 people around the globe. But when you take it all the way back, each of us is working in a team. And it’s at that level that people get motivated – that teamwork. You need to know what your role is, no matter if you’re working in a big company or a small one – then you’re able to deliver. And it comes back to this thing about communication – what part of the business are you servicing, what is the delivery about, and ultimately what is the goal for this team?
Gary: So what sort of qualities do your team leaders at various levels need to have in this business?
John: We always say that we take the academic side as given – good degrees – but it’s other skills that can be the differentiator. You need people who can function within a team in our environment. So we spend a long time in the recruitment process in looking at the non-technical side of people, at the competencies that will drive the delivery from within the team. Also our company culture, the way we do business, is very important for us. We want new people to have the same sort of outlook and values.
Gary: Do you think really good people managers can be trained, or is it built in?
John: Within technology, there’s a history of people coming through who are good at technology and technology delivery, who then suddenly find themselves looking after teams, where they may not have the desire or the ability to move into people management. Technology companies often match success with managing people. But that’s not the way it should be. Some people are good at managing people, some would much rather work with the software and the technology. We will promote and drive both types of people. So we give opportunities for people who want their career to move along the technology front and for those who are more interested in people management.
Gary: You said earlier that you have quite a bit of contact with other technology companies. As you look around Northern Ireland – we’ve done pretty well in the last 10-15 years in growing the sector – what do you think we have going for us and where do you think we could take the technology sector?
John: I think we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to grow the technology sector in the Northern Ireland economy significantly. There’s a huge global demand for technologists and for the services we offer here in Belfast, because we are recognised as being good at delivering software and technology. So the prize is very sizable.
Now what we have going for us is that we are a pretty compact unit where we’ve got successful businesses lined up with government who want us to be successful, and a university and college infrastructure which is there to support us and help us build the skills within the economy. So if we can see that there is that big prize to go for, I think we have the three pillars of education, government and business itself to really push and grow the sector. That’s a huge bonus and something that we have here in a very co-ordinated way that other parts of the UK or Europe just don’t have.
Gary: So do you see the inter-relationships and the co-ordination between these “pillars”, these organizations that is required – do you think that is there?
John: I do indeed. I see great leadership being shown across all three pillars. There has been some super work been done by the Department for Employment and Learning – e.g. Minister Farry and his working group on ICT. You look at the universities and through their industrial liaison boards, they are working very closely to see what the requirements of industry are. And then at the sector level, the businesses are working very closely together to see what they can do. While they’re all competing for the talent, they all understand their joint responsibility to help grow the sector.
Gary: Last question, John, if you had to give one piece of advice to a young person coming into the industry here, what would you say to them?
John: Firstly, I’d say, that it’s a very exciting time to be in technology. In the 20 years I’ve been in this industry, there’s been a complete transformation. So there are great opportunities. And so my advice would be – strive everyday to be as good as you possibly can be; get out there, do your job & enjoy it and take all the challenges as they come your way.
Gary: John, thank you.