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Ronan O'Brien's Career Journey & how he ended up working in AI & Analytics

Ronan O'Brien speaks to Silicon Republic for a Q&A

Ronan O’Brien is a senior manager in the artificial intelligence and data team at Deloitte. Prior to joining Deloitte, he completed his undergraduate degree specialising in civil and environmental engineering at Trinity College Dublin, after which he completed a PhD focusing on modelling river and groundwater systems in Ireland.

“I really cut my teeth in developing and coding predictive models during this time, learning the importance of having clean data. I was doing my best to collect this ‘clean data’ myself in my waders, standing in rivers and installing gauges around Ireland,” he said.

After completing his PhD, he worked as a hydrologist in Western Australia. It was around this time that his interest in AI and analytics really took off, and before long, he had returned to Ireland and started working for Paddy Power in a predictive analytics role for four years, before joining Deloitte in 2018.

According to O’Brien, a natural love for problem-solving, as well as maths and science, has led him to his current career. “I’ve always loved problem-solving, whether that was putting together Lego growing up, solving brain teasers or figuring out how to build or fix something around the house with my dad when I was younger. I really enjoyed maths and science subjects in school, with engineering and then analytics being a natural progression from there for me.”

‘If you’re not interested in building that in-depth knowledge to overcome a challenge…then you’re working with one arm tied behind your back’

What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your career path in AI and analytics?

For me, keeping up with the changing pace of AI is one of the biggest challenges in my career to date. You’re not going to be able to be a master of everything out there, so for me it’s about having a good grasp of the core principles around machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision, while using your network to keep up to date with big changes and their potential impact.

The democratisation of cutting-edge AI capability through the open source community, and the cost-efficient options provided by cloud for implementing these, has really changed the pace of development.

ChatGPT has been a great example of this. I’ve been doing my own research, reading releases and listening to some of the leading names in AI like Andrew Ng and also leaders within Deloitte’s artificial intelligence community to see where the valuable use cases are for ChatGPT, as well as being conscious of its limitations.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential as your career developed?

I’ve been lucky to work with some very inspiring people, whether it’s been my supervisors that were leaders in their fields during my PhD or my manager in Paddy Power who passed on his curiosity for understanding a challenge from all perspectives while ensuring that you had fun along the way. At Deloitte, there is a very flat hierarchy with regular opportunities available to all to learn from senior leadership as you work with them and see how they approach projects, personal growth and achieving work life balance, all crucial to developing your career.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Having the chance to really get to know the clients that we partner with, their people, processes and data and using that understanding to make a difference for them. We don’t always get the opportunity to publicise the impact that we make with certain clients, but it is inspiring to see the impact that our team made during the worst (hopefully) of the pandemic, while supporting public and private clients as they adapt to the ever-evolving challenge of keeping their businesses performing while working remotely and building a competitive edge with AI and analytics.

What aspects of your personality do you feel make you suited to AI and analytics?

Curiosity. I was always the child that took apart toys, plugs or anything else with screws on it. I’ve always believed that if you’re not interested in building that in-depth knowledge to overcome a challenge that you are working on, then you’re working with one arm tied behind your back.

What can people expect from career progression in the AI and analytics industry?

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve had to continuously learn and add new talents to my skillset. In addition to the new technical skills that I’ve had to develop along the way, as you progress your career you start to lead the teams that are delivering the projects that you are working on, rather than focusing on your own tasks.

These projects rise and fall off the back of your ability to communicate effectively to the team and client stakeholders, all the while ensuring that you are developing the talent that you have on the team. I’ve always been supported to progress during my career, especially since joining Deloitte.

What advice would you give to those considering a career in AI and analytics?

My advice would be to look at what interests you and how that matches with your strengths. If you are passionate about creatively solving problems using data, technology and business insight, then analytics could be a great match for you. If that is you – be curious, talk to everyone and make mistakes, that’s when you’ll really learn the most.

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