BE ’00, PhD ’05, MBA ’13
As someone who has always been interested in innovative technologies and new ways of doing things, Prag Sharma got involved in data analytics and artificial intelligence while still in college. After spending several years in post graduate research, the world of consultancy and in UCD-based Research Centres, he is now Global Head of Artificial Intelligence at Citi.
About Prag Sharma
Tell us about your education and early career
I was born in New Delhi, India but grew up and went to school in a few different countries including Dubai, Egypt and Ireland. This was because my father was a career diplomat with the Indian Foreign Services. We moved to Ireland in 1995, which coincided with my Leaving Cert year. I was suddenly faced with James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh, whom I thoroughly enjoyed (after a fashion).
I then went to UCD to do Electronic Engineering in 1996. I followed that up with a PhD in Computer Vision. Some of my longest lasting friendships are from my time in UCD, eight years in a row. From there, I moved into the world of business technology consulting and spent over four years at Accenture in various roles.
In 2009, I was tempted back to academia – and UCD – and joined Clique, an innovative Science Foundation Ireland-funded research group as Programme Manager. The group focused on analysing big data using graph and network analytics approaches. After four years there, I was appointed Data Analytics Business Development Manager at the Insight Centre for Data Analytics which was being set up at the time and was also based in Belfield. At the time, centre was one of the biggest public-private partnership in the emerging space of data analytics and artificial intelligence anywhere in the world.
During my time back in UCD, I met a great number of interesting and talented people, with some of whom I co-founded start-ups. At every unsuccessful attempt to become a millionaire, I learnt a huge amount. One prominent example was EgoNav Analytics, which developed a system for identifying and highlighting real-time fraudulent behaviour in large customer datasets using graph and network analytics approaches. The company got funding from Enterprise Ireland, and we built out a product to take to various clients. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful in scaling the start-up. But we learned some very important lessons, including the fact that the sales cycles for large financial institutional clients can be a couple of years. If you don’t anticipate that, you’re likely to run out of money before you end up selling the product or service. We worked on it for around two and half years but because of the lack of sales didn’t progress the company. Nonetheless, it was a very valuable experience and an enjoyable time too. I had a very talented co-founder, and we still keep in touch.
After six years in UCD, I felt it was time for a change. The corporate world was calling me again and there were some exciting opportunities in the now mature artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) space as people were starting to recognise their value. So, I took a role managing AI/ML activities in Deloitte. There was a lot of interest in blockchain from clients at the time and I got involved in that as well, including one of the first proof of concepts in blockchain in Ireland. This led to the setting up of a blockchain centre of excellence in Deloitte, which is still here in Ireland today.
Within the year, an even bigger opportunity arose for me with Citigroup. Citi is a truly global bank – it has a physical presence in over 100 countries and does business in more than 160 countries. It has huge resources to really make things happen, and an amazing client base.
I joined in September 2016 as Senior Vice President, Citi Innovation Labs, leading the emerging technologies group which focuses on building innovative products/services for large institutional clients, developing technologies powered by AI/ML and blockchain.
What is your current role?
At the beginning of 2021, I was appointed Global Head of Citigroup’s Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence (AI CoE). We are a one-stop shop for AI-related activities across Citigroup. Our role is to ensure that Citi harnesses the power of AI to best serve its customers and staff. We operate right across the spectrum of all Citi’s businesses. It is a really exciting role with the potential to make a global impact. I enjoy this aspect of the job tremendously.
What motivates you?
What I’m doing is ultimately very innovative. Looking back at my career and studies I’ve always had an interest in how to do things differently. Most products and services that we use today can be improved. Figuring out how is what motivates me. That’s why I did engineering in the first place and why I progressed to do a PhD, why I did an MBA, why I undertook technology consulting and ultimately why I went back to UCD to work in an innovative culture with a group of specialists. And now it’s about being a part of how Citi does things differently.
What are your main influences or inspirations?
There’s inspiration all around at the moment. Technology in the last few years seems to have accelerated the pace of innovation and has become the primary driver in creating truly novel solutions. Spectacular, technology-driven innovation is happening all around us, from self-driving cars to space exploration. Underlying that is this use of data, technology and more generally, just digitisation. Artificial intelligence alone has made such big leaps in the last few years, that it’s starting to compete with human intelligence in some areas, such as vision. Having said that, we are still a few Nobel prizes away from general intelligence, ie the ability for computers to do things we as humans can do effortlessly, such as wonder at our own existence. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in this stuff. That inspires me.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style could be described as open and honest, at least that’s how I see myself. I always want to make sure I understand the other person’s perspective. It is a lack of understanding of where the other person is coming from that often causes misunderstanding and subsequent issues.
I’m generally very easy to talk to. More conservative types may think I overshare, but I believe being forthcoming opens people up to say what they think. One thing I don’t like is if somebody’s not saying what they really want to say.
The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has been associated with the quote: “We are never offended, and we are never hysterical”. I think that’s really good advice and a key component of my leadership style (sometimes).
How important is ongoing learning to you?
Since my MBA, there have been numerous online courses that have taken my interest. There is so much change in my area and so many new models and techniques that come out, literally on a daily basis, that just keeping up to speed with the pace of change is a full-time job. So, we need to continuously learn, efficiently.
I enjoy the challenge of learning and read a lot in my spare time. There is no shortage of excellent blogs, tutorials, courses, and e-books online. For example, I bought a Raspberry Pi a few years ago, attached it to a camera, used an open-source face detection algorithm that relies on a deep learning image processing algorithm (CNN) and trained it to recognise my daughter’s face using one-shot learning techniques. I got it working so I stuck it in a stuffed toy, a cat, with the cat’s nose doubling as a camera. Every time she passed the cat would detect her face and say: “Hi Maia, how are you doing?”. It was a fun experiment.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
I believe, our biggest achievements should be the ones that give us the most joy.
My daughter and I wrote a book that is available on Amazon called The Dressing Gown Adventures. It is my ‘biggest’ (read, ‘most fun’) achievement because I worked with my daughter and we had a lot of fun writing it. It’s not going to win the Booker! The next book is with my son, if we ever get around to it.
On a more personal level, my biggest achievement was finding an amazing life partner! She is standing behind me as I write this, so I thought I should include her.
What is your advice for success?
Ireland is an amazing place to innovate. There are so many opportunities – between the funding available and the global talent in Ireland –to get involved. So, get involved. Some action items for your to-do list:
It’s important to pursue what you want to do and not to look back with regret. I think we should just take our chances and go with it – don’t overthink it. This advice works better before you make too many other commitments, but it is never too late.
I also think it’s important to remain open to new ideas. Don’t get comfortable and stuck in a routine. Try new things. For example, even though I don’t upload any images on Instagram or videos on Tiktok (you can thank me for that some other time), I do have an interest in these widely successful apps and often browse them to understand their success (and to keep an eye on what my kids may be seeing).
Read everything – especially views that don’t align with yours and on topics that have nothing to do with you. You’ll be amazed at how much you will learn. A quote that I live by is: “I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times”.
What are your career or business aspirations going forward?
I look to identify opportunities to make an impact on a global scale, develop and build amazing products/services within the job I do today. Citi is such a large organisation that there is always the opportunity to learn something new and different if you are so inclined. There are more roles in Citi that I would love to do in the future.
Large organisations like Citi also offer opportunities to travel with work. I’ve spent the last 25 years in Ireland after travelling so much when I was younger. I met my wife and we stayed in Ireland. When we met, my wife was about to move to Spain and I was thinking of going back to India but we both stayed here. Now we have kids so it’s a little bit more difficult to travel but every year we have this conversation: “How about Australia or Singapore – the weather would be good – or maybe we could go to England and have a change of scene”. The good thing is that the opportunities in Citi are all over the world, so, who knows?
How has your degree benefited your career and/or personal life?
I have a bachelor’s in electronic engineering, a PhD in computer vision and an MBA, focusing on innovation. In every case, I have learnt a little more about the world around me and a little more about myself. I would love to study more. Next up is economics and philosophy (after retirement)
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
We did a course on negotiations, a skill everyone needs, every day. I used to love those classes. Also, there were a number of ‘characters’, both lecturers and students, who were a lot of fun to hang out with. There was this one time…
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
It’s great to keep in touch, catch up and find out how everyone is progressing. I also often get useful advice from my college mates, from my undergraduate, postgraduate and MBA cohorts.
What are your main interests outside work?
Reading – I love to read and would love to be a writer one day!
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I enjoy eating (more than most people might think). I love to try different cuisines. I still enjoy playing video games (please don’t tell anyone).
What piece of technology can you not live without?
I think when push comes to shove, I could manage without any technology, but not without books to read.
What is your pet hate?
Two-faced people! There is no need.
Do you have a favourite writer or book?
There are so many:
- Science fiction/fantasy: China Mieville, George RR Martin and Isaac Asimov
- Historical fiction: William Dalrymple, Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, JG Farrell and Joseph O’Connor
- History: The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham (one of the best books I have ever read)
- Philosophy: J Krishnamurthi
Do you have a favourite band or musician?
Eclectic: Tracy Chapman, Metallica, Boyzone!
What’s the last gig/play/film/exhibition you went to that you loved?
Pre-Covid! – I can’t remember that far.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Chickpeas in curry (chana masala) – I think I have finally nailed it down (but it’s still nothing like when my mother makes it).
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Anywhere nice and warm, to be honest (but I am not a beach person). I would love to go on a trip to some of the Pacific islands with my wife (minus the kids)!
Where is home and why?
Home is Dublin and New Delhi (in that order). I am man of the world, it’s difficult to nail me down.
Name three things on your bucket list
- Travel to all countries I haven’t been to yet (that’s a tall order)
- Write a book
- Retire early (to complete the first two items on the list)
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Médecins Sans Frontières – Impartial Medical Aid (Doctors without Borders). I think they do amazing work.