A policy of grabbing opportunities as they present themselves, together with a with a strong work ethic and a passion for helping clients achieve their business objectives through technology, have helped propel Hilary O’Meara (BSc 93) to head of Accenture’s technology practice in Ireland, leading a team of 500 people.
About Hilary O'Meara
O’Meara’s route into computer science began with a more general science degree. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left school,” she explains. “I just knew I was good at the analytical subjects like maths and physics. I was fortunate enough to get advice from somebody who was doing computer science in UCD, who suggested a broad degree like science was a good place to start and then, if I liked it, to major in computer science.
“That was the best advice I ever got. I think it is still the case today that people, certainly when they’re in school, don’t really know what science or even the STEM type subjects are all about and have a fear of them as a consequence. I was lucky enough to get a bit of good advice and I think it is important that students in school now are getting similar advice and that they know what these subjects are, because there’s so much opportunity there. It’s changing a bit now, but you still find that people are afraid of subjects they don’t really understand.”
O’Meara’s analytical inclinations were evident when she began applying for jobs in advance of finishing university in 1993. “It was before the Celtic tiger had kicked in, so there were no jobs, or very few. I was very focused on those companies that I felt had more than one job to offer to increase my chances of success. Accenture, or Andersen Consulting as it was at that stage, was one of those. They had 20 jobs on offer so I felt the law of averages was higher there than other places with say three or four positions. And I liked the fact that it was quite broad when you came in and then you could specialise based on what you liked.”
Her application was successful and she began with the firm in October 1993, starting off on the graduate programme at analyst level. “I did my training and then went straight out onto a client’s site as a newbie and picked up my trade from learning from those around me and doing what the more junior people typically do on projects.”
She also got the opportunity to use her computer science degree in the early stages when she was involved in doing some programming. “The technology was just moving to client server at the time so I worked on one of the first client sever projects Accenture was involved with in Ireland, so that was very exciting. And that was on the back of the degree I did at UCD, which give me a great opportunity.
“That probably shaped my career path in Accenture in that from there I got involved in the more large scale, custom development projects that we did. So I went up systems integration workstream and moved on from that first role to take more responsibility and ultimately manage and lead some of our big programmes. That first role had a big impact on where I went from there because I found I liked it and found it really exciting.”
The next level
Over the next number of years, O’Meara enjoyed a series of promotions. “Accenture’s career trajectory is very clearly spelt out,” she says. “If you’re performing well and you’re demonstrating that you’re getting to the next level, you will be promoted. It’s quite aggressive and fast paced.
“I was fortunate enough as well to be growing up in the years of the great economic growth in Ireland so we were doing very big, ambitious programmes where people had extra budgets to spend. We’d an awful lot of bleeding edge – not just leading edge – technology programmes and I would have been involved in those. I would have gone from being the tester and developer to the designer, to team lead, to manager within a big programme of maybe 100 people, to the senior project manager on a project of that scale and ultimately becoming accountable for those kinds of programmes.”
In 2009, she took on her current role leading the technology business. The job involves responsibility for the 500 people in the group, including their skills and capabilities development, project delivery and quality, and sales support. The job continues to have a hands-on aspect, she says, which is important to her. “I’d like to keep my skills warm. I’m a doer by nature so I like keeping close to the projects and understanding the risks and how we’re mitigating them, because I think that’s the way you continue to learn and remain credible with clients as well.”
There have been numerous highlights over the years, she says. “Every time you deliver a system to a client and it’s out there, operational, working and making a difference to business, it’s an absolute highlight.
“I’ve worked on two particular projects, probably at the time the largest programmes ever done in Ireland, and both were very difficult, complex and challenging. Just getting those over the line and being part of that was a huge sense of achievement. And I’ve been very proud of various other things the teams working for me have achieved and the commitment they’ve shown.”
As a leader, O’Meara considers herself to have a hands-on style and to be very people focused. “I don’t just delegate things out without giving support. I am extremely hard-working and probably fairly straight talking. I would like to think I’m very motivated to develop the people who are working for me and allowing them to grow. I think I recognise talent and would have a real passion for nurturing it.
“If I hadn’t done this job I probably would have become a teacher. That’s probably what I really wanted to do when I left college. There’s a big teaching aspect of my job, of mentoring and growing the next generation beneath you, and just spending time to explain things and share, based on experience.”
Two valuable lessons have helped the progression of her career to date. “The first one is to grab at an opportunity when it comes to you. Women particularly can have a sense that they’re not ready for a role or that they wouldn’t be good enough to do it. I’ve learnt that if you’re given an opportunity, you really need to grab it there and then.
“When I was about to come back from maternity leave after my second child, our managing director Mark Ryan rang and asked if I’d do the role I do now. It was a huge jump up, there’s no question about that.” She says she was apprehensive, but decided to accept.
“I came back to work with a bit of trepidation, but within two weeks just really enjoyed it. I had to work very hard getting up the learning curve of all that was going on in the technology space. I learnt so much so quickly and got to meet a whole new set of people who I hadn’t worked with directly in the past and just really enjoyed it.
“I could have said no and missed my opportunity, but I discovered I was well up for it. It taught me that I can probably go on and do anything that someone throws at me. If you grab the opportunity, you might surprise yourself.”
The second thing she has learnt is that no one is indispensible. “This is true even on technology projects where it typically comes down to the crunch in the last few months before going live and there’ll be one or two people who’ll be at the core of what’s happening. Even in that context, no one is indispensible. My father taught me that many years ago and it’s really stood to me because it means you can make some brave decisions if you don’t lock people into roles that don’t enable them to grow. If somebody has to leave to move on to another career opportunity, the organisation will survive and somebody else will just step up and take on that role.
“And it’s in those environments where there’s a gap that people really flourish. I think I was fortunate enough growing up in the Celtic tiger years there was a lot of stretch and I got an opportunity to step up quicker and that really stood to me. I had three or four opportunities where it was a big jump up.
“That’s a big one for me. I think people try to hang on to their people a bit too much when they actually need to go on and do the next thing.”
Looking to the future, O’Meara would like to deepen her skills by doing a course in the evening and participating in something outside of Accenture. “But to be honest, with three very young kids, it has been difficult to do,” she says. “You work hard in Accenture, the hours are demanding and you’re obviously trying to have a presence at home and make sure you’re being a good mum as well. So there hasn’t been an awful lot of room for that. In another couple of years I think I’ll have more capacity to do some of that stuff again.
“Within the organisation I suppose it’s looking for the next exciting opportunity when it comes and making sure I’m up for that when it does come. One of the great things about Accenture is there’s opportunity. There’s still plenty of learning in the current job and other roles I can do.”