'Success in IT is all about firing up your creativity for the start of the fourth industrial revolution'
A 1980s Christmas present sparked David Anderson's life-long interest in technology which eventually led to a top job at Liberty IT, as Emma Deighan finds out
David Anderson, director of technology at Liberty IT in Belfast, recalls one of his earliest engagements with technology one Christmas Day in the 1980s when he received a ZX Spectrum home computer.
It was a gift from his "intuitive" father, the late radio and TV broadcaster Gerry Anderson.
"I remember the conversation on Christmas Day. I asked him what it was and he said 'a computer'. I then asked how it worked and he said, 'I've no idea, why don't you work it out'."
And so an interest in problem-solving and programming was ignited, triggering a curiosity in all things tech that would take David to the top at Liberty IT, the Belfast and Dublin-based technology arm of Liberty Mutual Insurance.
David, a father of a eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, looks back on his childhood and says: "The best way to describe it is, it was a bit like Derry Girls, only in the 1980s. I can certainly relate to many of events in that series."
And recalling the days when the Spectrum was the height of technological sophistication in many homes, David adds: "You could break into the games and change things. You had to figure out how to do it and you would look at other stuff and wonder what it does."
Later on, at school, David's interest was nurtured by a computer science teacher, who he credits for getting him to where he is today. He then went on to study computer science at Queen's University between 1992 and 1997.
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"I ended up in Dublin afterwards and then Cambridge, as well as Sydney in telecoms. I came back to Belfast 12 years ago to work for Liberty IT."
Among David's posts prior to his current position were several at top mobile telecommunications firms. He was a senior software engineer role at Ericsson, an engineer at Three and a software developer at Nokia, as well as other positions at Siemens and Sony.
Today David is responsible for technical leadership at Liberty Insurance and driving technical strategy for the organisation. He also liaises with senior colleagues across Liberty Mutual - a global insurance business - on enterprise strategy.
Liberty Mutual is based in Boston in the US and has been operating since 1912. It's the fifth-biggest global property and casualty insurer, based on 2017 gross written premium.
It also ranked 68th on the Fortune 100 list of largest corporations in the US based on 2017 revenue. And, at the end of last year, it had $41.6bn in annual consolidated revenue.
It has nearly 50,000 staff in 30 countries.
In Ireland, Liberty IT has over 500 staff members across its two offices in Belfast and Dublin.
It says its focus is to provide highly responsive, enterprise-scale IT solutions for Liberty Mutual.
It's based at Adelaide Exchange in Belfast and was one of the first major US business services firms to set up in Belfast city centre.
It has retained a reputation for being one of the UK's best employers, winning a string of awards - including an excellence in wellbeing award by Great Place to Work earlier this year.
The company's main work is leveraging cloud technologies, agile engineering and disciplined engineering practices to deliver projects to improve ease of access and service to its partners and customers.
David describes his field as a job that offers, and equally demands, life-long learning and that's something he is passionate about and committed to.
"Tech is going to be changing every day. It's about experimentation and innovation so the thing is, it's kind of about learning all the time," he says.
David attributes the success of Liberty IT to his team, who he says has "incredible talent".
"We ask them all to bring themselves to work and be honest because you need real honesty to connect to people. We have a great team and a diverse workforce with an international presence too and a lot of talent coming out of Queen's University and Ulster University," he explains.
On the subject of talent, David describes the IT talent pool here as "world class" but he doesn't court the idea we are feeding from a finite pool of IT competency.
"It often surprises me the talent that we have here and I think the important thing is that there are different skills needed for IT," he says.
"What's important is curiosity and creativity. We are going through the fourth industrial revolution and there are skills that we need to build up.
"We can have a wider focus and if you have people with a passion and a diverse workforce that's what you need going forward," David adds.
"I think it's critical that people think of that in the right way. We need to do more than teach people to do code. We can't be too narrow in our thinking. For example we do a lot of artificial intelligence (AI) work, which needs voices including linguists.
"There are huge opportunities for mathematicians too. We need to think more holistically about it.
"It's a really exciting time because a lot of the digital disruption has changed over the last 20 years and there have been fantastic developments in Belfast and the natural talent we have here gives us a platform to show it."
David goes on to describe the tech sector here as "incredible healthy" and adds that working for Liberty IT gives him and his team the opportunity to work with the best but still live in Belfast.
A recent report by Tech Nation described Belfast as one of the best places in the UK to work in technology, with nearly one in four jobs advertised in the city last year for a digital tech worker of some kind.
The digital tech sector in Belfast now employs 60,000 people, on salaries around 17% higher than the national average.
David says: "We stay extremely plugged into the tech industry and you have to, to stay ahead of the curve. You need to be thinking about the strategies of tomorrow."
And with that mindset David is keen to spread the forward-thinking attitude that is part of Liberty IT. He does this by getting heavily involved in the NI tech community through events hosted by Meetup etc.
"It's a time of change and Northern Ireland can adapt to that. There is a collaborative tech community here that is very vibrant and it's not something you see everywhere.
"It's open, unique and I think one of the things I did as director of technology was set a goal to engage and encourage the team to share ideas.
"We have world class technical people on our doorstep and we are doing cutting edge work so its much better to be collaborative."
Admittedly, he adds, it takes a certain kind of leader to opt for sharing ideas.
"A lot of my peers across the sector are very open. We're a nice size and it's not too big to be anonymous," he says.
"Some ideas are too big to keep to yourself. It's a bit like the scientific industry, it's much better to publish ideas and get feedback than keep it a secret."
On that note, he divulges the work Liberty IT is currently pushing such as emerging tech, innovation and the creation of "exciting software".
In general, he says the company will keep moving forward and inventing.
"One of the things in tech you need to be careful with is finding a sweet spot and staying there. There's a risk you could be stuck and left behind. We stay extremely plugged in and you have to do that to stay ahead of the curve."
He says that way of thinking can be applied to all businesses advising those working in any sector to change to adapt.
"Most businesses realise they need to change. The struggle is what do you change and how. If you have access to a good tech expert,they can help you learn and help you to continue to adapt. Change is the new constant, it's not you bring it in and you're done, it's about how can I evolve and that's a mindset switch and the mindset of leaders."
David has come a long way since he was handed that Spectrum by his father, is it something he hopes to pass on to his own children, the gift of technological curiosity? The interest is already there, he says.
"They both like the creative side of technology. Minecraft is popular and good for that. It helps your learning and helps to think differently rather than being all about playing.
"I would absolutely encourage them to go down that route. Going forward everyone will have to use technology and some of the skills you need to think about technology, including critical thinking, creativity and curiosity and the wonder of how things work.
"When you think about it everyone now works in the tech sector. IT and business used to be two very different things, but now we are all using technology."
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Have the confidence and create the right environment where you and colleagues can fail often and fail early — experiment with your ideas.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Be clear about the problem you are solving and for whom. Ask why product management and service design are worth investing in.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. When I took up the role of director of technology six years ago, I set myself the goal of engaging and encouraging my colleagues to contribute to the vibrant local tech community.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. The most interesting and satisfying aspect of my role in Liberty IT is coaching and supporting colleagues. I imagine that it is very similar to teaching.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. My family and I spent July in Boston where I combined work with a great holiday. Next we are heading to Donegal — there is a family gathering for cousins who are back from Australia.
Q. What are your hobbies/interest?
A. I am a typical tech person so I eat, drink and sleep tech! I spend a lot of time reading about tech and going to meet-ups and events — it’s a great (and free) way to learn.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Derry City Football Club, the team I love so well.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played loads of soccer, never well enough to get me to the Brandywell but I enjoyed playing in teams for local leagues. Unfortunately, my legs no longer keep up with my brain, so I have retired into running half-marathons and bouncing around the excellent local mountain bike trails we have here.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I am currently reading Loonshots by Safi Bahcall. It looks at how we can nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries. A must read considering the pace of change we are all experiencing.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. My early life is a little before the ‘Derry Girls’ phase, being a kid of the 1980s rather than the 1990s, but I can really relate to the series.
Q Have you any economic predictions?
A. I believe that we are starting to feel the effects of the fourth industrial revolution, including digital disruption and change. I also believe that the success of the Northern Ireland economy is based on how we adapt and avail of the opportunities that this level of change brings.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company Liberty IT?
A. I’ve enjoyed my 12 years with Liberty IT. It’s been a journey of learning, mastering emerging technology and making innovation core to how we work. I have especially enjoyed being involved in building world class cloud, AI and engineering capabilities.
Q. How do you sum up working in the IT sector?
A. IT and business used to be two different departments. Over my time in the sector I have seen how two separate and often isolated areas now need to be one. Most customer problems are being solved through technology which means that we are all now working in the technology sector. Change is now the new constant.