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As part of The Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Mark Finlay who is Head of Public Sector for AWS, a company that provides services in cloud technology solutions in areas including compute, data storage, data analytics, machine learning and security.
A subsidiary of the e-commerce and tech giant Amazon, AWS was founded in 2006 in the United States and services a broad range of sectors, including aviation, electronics, banking, military, and intelligence services.
In 2007, Ireland became the first country outside the US to host an AWS Region (AWS’s name for their data centre infrastructure) and the company’s investment in Ireland has grown significantly since then. AWS now directly employs more than 3,100 people across the country and a further 3,700 jobs through contractors.
Mark earned his undergraduate degree in Commerce and French at the University of Galway in 2001 before going on to claim a master’s degree in Marketing Practises at Smurfit Business School in 2002. He began his career as a Business Development Manager with Convenience Advertising in 2004 before moving in 2007 to O2 Ireland where he remained until shortly after the company was acquired by Three Ireland in 2014. A three-year spell as Sales and Marketing Director with Motech Electronic Services, a company that provided digital mobile solutions to assisted living service providers, ended in 2018 when he joined AWS as the UK & Ireland Team Manager for Mid-Market Territory Sales. He became Head of Public Sector for the Republic of Ireland at AWS the following year.
As Head of Public Sector Mark provides support to public sector organisations as migrate from legacy infrastructure, transition away from paper-based operations to digital processes, ad improve citizen services, all supported by AWS services.
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
Do what you say you’re going to do; if you don’t know something, say you don’t know; take care of your networks. They’re actually very simple things but earning trust and maintaining credibility starts with following through on things you have committed to doing and being honest about what you don’t know. That way, when you do speak on a subject, people know you’re giving an informed answer. Looking after your network is so important also – not least because Ireland is small and people cross paths on a regular basis. In terms of career development, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve never had to go through a recruitment agency for a job. My network has helped me progress into new roles.
What was the best advice you ever received?
Failure is okay. There have been times over my career when I felt a failed effort would set me back but when I spoke to others about it afterwards, they said they could see that I’d learned significantly from what had happened and was applying those learnings to other things. I don’t like failure. I’m a competitive person and I want to succeed but I’m not as hard on myself as I used to be because I know if I do fail, I’ll learn a lot and I’ll take those learnings into future situations.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
My work style has changed as I’ve matured. I wanted to be much more in the detail at the beginning of my career, particularly in management as I was maybe a bit too concerned about how certain things might reflect on me. Now, I’m much more collaborative in my approach. Key to working together in a high-performing team environment is having each other’s back, wanting each other to succeed, and being able to engage in a respectful manner. Many people have left meetings feeling as though they’ve been undermined or spoken to in a negative manner. I don’t understand how that helps a group or organisations. Ensuring that we have a collaborative, trusting, and respectful environment is very important to me.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
Two things: teams are more than the sum of their parts, and the importance of having a strong team culture. I’ve played team sports for years and, from a management point of view, I very much enjoy figuring out how to bring different individuals together and get the best out of them. AWS puts a lot of emphasis on creating the right culture. It had 14 leadership principals when I joined. There are now 16. When I first saw how those principals are lived on a daily basis, I understood that this was an organisation that I wanted to be part of. The culture of AWS is critical to ensuring that we can support our customers, which in turn means that the organisation and its teams remain successful. That’s why customer obsession is the first among equals of our leadership principals.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
Our solution architect teams are a key resource for AWS. They meet with customers to understand their challenges and propose one or more of our 200 services as potential solutions. Customers would previously have thought of our services solely in terms of compute and storage, but the breadth of our offering is much more extensive. We have services in AI, machine learning, virtual reality, internet of things, and our solution architect teams bring all that to life and help customers understand how those solutions can meet their unique challenge.
In terms of tools, the working backwards principal is a something we use on a daily basis, meaning we work backwards from a challenge to develop an appropriate solution either from the 200+ services AWS has to offer or from our extensive partner network. The concept grows our array of services on an annual basis. In 2011, we released 80 new features. In 2012, we released 160. In 2022, we released more than 3,300 new features. The pace of innovation is increasing within the business and that’s due to our commitment to really listening to the needs of our customers.
In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish companies?
The Connecting Government 2030 Strategy aims to move 90% of government services online by 2030. That’s a significant move for the public sector in terms of moving away from paper-based operations that are still so prevalent in healthcare and education, as well as central and local government. It also represents a significant opportunity for all IT cloud vendors. We’re working to support the government on that.
In terms of EdTech, Irish firms must realise that they are not restricted to the island of Ireland. They can deliver their services anywhere. AWS has 31 Regions globally, with another four coming online. In addition, we have a new service called local zones in which we are investing hardware and infrastructure. There are 32 local zones globally, with a further 21 announced. This investment means that EdTech organisations that are AWS customers can deploy their software or applications close to their customer base and enter new markets across the world.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
What people expect from government services has been transformed by their exposure to digital applications like Netflix, Airbnb and Zoom – all of which are built on AWS. The same is true of students and what they now expect from third-level institutes. It’s led to a total mindset change within universities. Lancaster University in the UK has developed an application using the Amazon Echo, the in-home voice-activated device, which allows students to engage with campus activities, understand their timetable and when certain services are available, with the aim of improving overall student engagement. Students are making decisions as to which universities they want to attend based on the university’s digital offering. This is particularly true of international students, a cohort that serve as a real revenue driver for universities. Once these digital tools have been deployed, the ability exists to use machine learning to understand where there might be student drop-out and launch faster interventions to reduce the risk of drop-out. A nice example of that is Schoology, an organisation supported by AWS that provides a learning management system that is accessible and personalised to individual students. We’re seeing more personalisation of engagement with the students. That’s where R&D is so important.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
If you look at ways in which students traditionally engage with universities, much of it is being digitalised. Indeed, as I already outlined, the digitalisation of student life is becoming more important to them. We work with organisations that are working with universities and libraries to put books and other academic material online, which not only is more convenient for student but also helps to significantly reduce the cost of entry to the university world. Again, these innovations meet students where they want to be in terms of how they want to access information. Increased digitalisation, and the drive for more personalisation of engagement with students, has resulted in an exponential increase in data which EdTechs need to collect, store, analyse and get meaningful insights. The ability to build data lakes that can grow through AWS, and link into learning management systems and other AWS tools, is particularly important. A big trend is the analysis of data to extract personal insights and provide information to students in a manner that they want to engage with.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
For AWS, a key area is digital skills, and we have a number of programmes to help people in that regard. AWS GetIT is one focused on getting 13- to 14-year-old female secondary school students interested in careers in IT. We also have Re/Start which sees underrepresented or unemployed members of society enrol in a 12- to 16-week programme in which they learn digital skills and engage with employers with the aim of getting them in at entry-level cloud IT roles.
In parallel to that, we have programmes like AWS Educate, which is for anyone who sees themselves as a student and wants to learn AWS cloud skills, and AWS Academy, which has a dedicated curriculum developed for universities to help students gain the needed skills for the future. A large number of universities are leveraging the Academy programme, including the University of Limerick, Trinity College Dublin and Technological University Dublin. That investment and focus on long-term skills is critical for us.
How does AWS support EdTechs?
We support EdTech firms in many ways. The AWS Activate programme provides a dedicated architectural framework that customers or Edtech start-ups can use to help them on their AWS journey. It also provides €100,000 in credits to customers that are looking to build their applications on AWS and launch those services to the wider community. That’s a fantastic way for our EdTech community to engage and get access to those credit programmes and those technical guidelines. From a networking and collaborating perspective, we have the AWS Startup Loft, the most recent of which was launched in Dublin. It’s a space where start-ups, including EdTech firms, can meet with peers, learn, and gain insights and ideas from each other, as well as engage with the AWS community of experts. In terms of training, we have over 500 different trainings that are available free of charge online to our customers as well as more bespoke and defined training programmes that we’ve put in place with customers.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make The Leap… And Others Don’t by Jim Collins.
The book sets out seven pillars that make companies successful over a long period, such as management structure and style, the use of technology, and having the right people in place. The premise is about creating organisations that outlast all of us, which is what we’re focused on at AWS. I got a lot of from it in terms of thinking about how a company stays successful in the long term.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
We’re always looking for opportunities to engage in meaningful ways with the EdTech community, to sit down and hear about the challenges they face, the trends they’re seeing, and their pain points. That way, we can understand how we might best support them. Membership of Learnovate gives us the ability to collaborate, engage and understand how we can bring the vast array of resources that we have to the EdTech community. We had a lot of very meaningful, face-to-face conversations with customers at last year’s annual Learnovation conference. The Patron dinner was a nice way to engage in an informal manner. That’s Learnovate at its very best.
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