Deborah Threadgold, IBM Ireland on the Importance of Paying it Forward

15th January 2024

This week we hear from Deborah Threadgold, General Manager, IBM Ireland. Deborah received the WMB Businesswoman award last October.  Mentors have been ‘on occasion pivotal in setting my direction,’ she says.  Deborah believes in paying it forward.

Q: As General Manager for IBM Ireland, you are one of the country’s top leaders in tech. Can you give our readers an insight into your role at this global organisation?

IBM has been constantly evolving for over 100 years, from a deep background in computing hardware, software and services, to today’s focus on responsible AI and hybrid cloud computing.

I was appointed Country General Manager for IBM Ireland in February 2021 and am responsible for business growth, client satisfaction and our employee experience. It’s fantastic to have a role that is so incredibly diverse and since I took on this role, I’ve led our post covid return to the workplace into a hybrid working model; overseen the spinoff of one part of IBM’s business; and the divestiture of another, to mention just a few!

We have in excess of 2,400 staff in IBM Ireland, comprising over 60 nationalities, so creating and maintaining an environment that is inclusive and where our people actually can see career progression is key.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing your sector?

Simply, the pace of change.

Technology is evolving so quickly that we need to work hard to ensure we have a responsible and effective approach to implementing these technologies. For example, just look at 2023 when we saw AI hit an incredible inflection point. It was without doubt the technology talking point of the year. It’s been challenging for organisations to get beyond the piloting stage, to deploy AI at a scale in order to make a difference to their business. This has been compounded by a growing understanding of the need for strong governance around how they deploy AI to ensure they capture the benefits and also meet new legislation, like the EU AI Act which was agreed at the end of 2023.

Skills gap is also a challenge. To address the challenge of developing new skills, IBM has established a global programme, IBM SkillsBuild, to provide wider access to critical skills and training. It’s effectively a free platform that helps students, job seekers, and organisations access the learning experience that’s right for them.

Q: And the opportunities?

We’re really only at the beginning of the AI story, in terms of using it to deliver real benefits for business, public services and society generally. Looking a little further ahead, Quantum Computing is on the cusp of opening up a whole range of opportunities – by solving problems that are effectively impossible with classical computing, Quantum could radically alter how we can optimise, simulate and forecast. It will be disruptive in areas like chemistry and materials science, logistics, and risk management.

Q: How would you best describe your leadership style?

I’d like to think of myself as collaborative, authentic and empathetic; all driven by a genuine interest in people and built on a history of reflecting and learning from those that I have worked for – good and bad!

Q: Recently you were presented with the WMB Businesswoman Award 2023. How did you feel about receiving this recognition?

Honestly, I was totally shocked – I just didn’t see it coming; then after the initial surprise there was pure delight.

I felt proud of that 16 year old girl who left school with no role models, no idea of what opportunities the world held for her and despite all that was driven by a burning ambition and a resilience.

The recognition also reminded me that we need to show an appreciation of others irrespective of who they are or what role they do; everyone deserves – and needs – to be recognised.

Q: Mentorship is something that you are passionate about. How important is it to ‘throw back down the ladder’?

Let me start by saying that I genuinely challenge anyone to say they got where they are on their own! And even if they did I would suggest they would be even better with the benefit of diverse insights and opinions.

Mentors have played a key role in my personal journey and have been on occasion pivotal in setting my direction.

I feel very honoured to have been mentored by some inspirational individuals, many of whom I now call friends; and on occasion I continue to seek their counsel.

And so, I am a big fan of paying forward.

I mentor both men and women, but what I see in particular with women coming up through the pipeline is a lack of confidence and self-belief, most certainly not a lack of competence!

They question their capability and readiness for roles.  From my experience, that nudge at the appropriate time can make all the difference.

Q: Women make up c.30% of those working in AI today (WEF 2023 Report). What needs to be done?

I see the problem of low female representation in AI as part of the wider problem affecting IT generally.

I think we have to go right back to the start to excite young girls to want to come into technology.

It’s not just about widgets and qubits, it’s about how technology can help address the challenges facing us in the world, such as climate change, treating diseases, or even managing pandemics.

For this reason we are actively involved with Teen-Turn & Digital Futures, organisations which provide teenage girls the opportunity to gain hands-on technology experience, visualise themselves in fulfilling careers and make informed third-level course choices. IBM has also become very active in Connecting Women in Technology (CWIT), an organisation representing technology companies in Ireland, to attract, promote, and encourage women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers. And in June, we hosted Purpl Unicorn, an organisation using SkillsBuild to support migrant women who want to upskill and access the workplace, as part of National Refugee Week.

Q: How do you promote and encourage Women in Technology?

Recruitment is just a first step, it’s equally important to figure out how we retain women once they’ve joined because there is a stage in their careers when they are more likely to step away.

We have an active women’s BRG in Ireland called Women in Ireland Networking (WIN). In 2023 it appointed a senior male executive co-sponsor as chair to demonstrate our commitment to allyship. It also ran initiatives and events such as Unleashing your Leadership Potential, career roundtables, and International Women’s Day events. The group also supported women with educational programming about health and wellness including reproductive health, menopause, and work-life integration.

It’s never enough, but we are making progress.

Q: What advice would you offer your younger self just starting out?

•Be curious about the opportunities the world offers. Don’t restrict yourself to what you know and don’t expect to end up in the right place straight away.

•Believe in yourself. It took a long time and a lot of people before I finally realised it wasn’t all down to chance.

•Don’t lose sight of who you are. Remember your priorities and embed that into your responsibilities.

Q: R&D is one of your key objectives at IBM. Can you elaborate?

IBM’s Research division is the organic growth engine of IBM and an innovation engine for our customers and partners. It anticipates and examines “What’s next in computing?” to ultimately create and integrate the technologies the world relies upon to solve big challenges or unlock new opportunities.

To achieve that, we have more than 3,000 researchers in 19 locations, located across six continents, building that technology pipeline and making the innovations developed in our labs commercially available. And we have a very proud history: six Nobel Prize winners and held the record for the most annual U.S. patents for 29 consecutive years. I’m also delighted to say that one of the labs is here in Dublin, and crucially it’s the only one inside the EU.

Q: Your predictions for 2024?

The age of AI is upon us and in 2024, I can only see it accelerating. I expect AI will continue to hit the headlines, especially as enterprise AI really comes to the fore by leading companies that go on to demonstrate the real capability and exponential benefits that can be achieved.

As more of those stories emerge, we’ll see that companies no longer see AI as an add-on; it will become central to their operations. I also think it’s inevitable that we’ll start to see people or roles that use AI replacing those which don’t.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave behind?

For my sons, a genuinely inclusive view of the world where gender inequity is not a point of  discussion.

At work, I hope my legacy will be that more people want to work and stay at IBM. I want them to stay because they feel that they belong, that they’re respected and valued, and also because they see that there’s a career path for them. And then, I want them to tell their friends!