Interviews

Tony Marron on Liberty IT’s Belfast innovators

  • Liberty IT’s Senior Director of Applied Innovation, Tony Marron, sat down with Sync NI’s Tina Lauro Pollock to discuss the innovation happening right on our doorstep within LIT, as well as giving us a snapshot of its Digital DNA speaker line-up.

    Having fallen into programming because of his adaptability and love of mathematics, Marron explained that there were few roles in LIT that he hadn’t filled on his climb up the ladder to his current role leading all things innovation.

    His talented team tackles the toughest business problems for the Liberty Mutual family and is moving from strength to strength.

    “Over the years it has changed and we have evolved to a point where we have earned our credibility as engineers globally within all parts of the business”, explained Marron. “Now we are really focused on taking the most interesting business problems and seeing how we can use our engineering expertise to solve them.

    “As part of Liberty, we sell next-to-no products, so we like to think of ourselves as Liberty’s best-kept secret -- Belfast’s best kept secret -- because we have one customer - our parent company Liberty Mutual Insurance. People don’t traditionally think about us as working on really cool challenging problems and working on emerging technologies.”

    Liberty IT's Tony Marron
    Liberty IT's Tony Marron

    Digital DNA has become a cornerstone of the NI tech scene, and Liberty IT is an event sponsor this year. Marron is introducing a series of lightning talks from his team members and was keen to make the LIT innovation pipeline clear to the DDNA audience.

    “We thought we would take a slightly different approach this year at Digital DNA. Lightning talks are very important here locally in Liberty IT, and it also gives us an excuse to do two things: Get lots of our people up talking (which is great for us); and showcase our innovation process. Contrary to popular belief, it is really structured, very disciplined, and a lot of hard work! We have some really incredible talent doing some really wonderful things, and it’s a chance for them to share their story too.

    “We are going to have one of our youngest team members, Ovi starting off the first talk, and they are going to be focused on ideation. This is the really early stage for us where we would run lots of ideation sessions and workshops with business and IT partners to explore different problems, challenges, and opportunities. After the ideation phase then we will typically move into the Proof of Concept or Proof of Technology phase. At that phase we are going to have Nikita talk about an idea -- a PoC -- that she has been working on.

    “We are then going to have Chris, one of our engineers, talk about his experience of bringing something from that PoC stage into the MVP stage, which again is a very powerful story. For the last part of the process we are going to have Andrew and Steven talk about taking a product into production, which is the end phase.”

    When we conjure up an idea of what innovation looks like, we tend to think of emerging technology and cutting-edge engineering. Marron explained that three areas of his team come together to ensure their innovative solutions don’t cross the line into bleeding edge: He was keen to explain that it takes more than just the flashiest toolsets and an amazing dev team to make a logical, leading solution to modern business problems.

    “We have three distinct areas of the team”, Marron explained. “We have a a team of experts focused on building business relationships since Liberty has 50,000 people worldwide and most of them are not technology individuals. We have a team who have very wide networks and are specialists on the business transformation to bridge that gap between our technologists and the wider business. They have a lot of experience partnering with different parts of the business and finding some of their really challenging problem areas, and they heavily  leverage all of the teams and the leaders that we have right across LIT to do that.

    “Our second team, the emerging technology team, is probably the one that people are most familiar   with and think about immediately. We have a bunch of very talented engineers who are really creative and work on the ideation phase about the rapid prototyping, trialling, and testing -- all of the things you would associate with design thinking and that side of the life cycle -- and others who are experts at consuming and understanding new technologies and using them to build solutions very quickly.

    “The last section of our innovation team is our consultants: the people who are experts on the ways of working, the methodologies, and the practices. There is no point having expert engineers if you don't have people who can talk with business customers, understand the problem, and guide them through the whole process, and this is something we really focus a lot on.”

    The Belfast team isn’t unique in providing business and technological innovations within the Liberty umbrella, but the engineering excellence established early-on makes our local talent a key piece of the global LIT and Liberty Mutual innovation strategy. Marron pointed to the fostering of this engineering excellence culture as the reason for their great success on the wider stage.

    “Liberty is a really large organisation and as you would expect there is business innovation and technology innovation teams all over the globe, but we have actually got to the point now where we are sort of the central organisation that is pulling all the different groups together. We are able to start looking at some of the themes that you can see across the business and use the solutions that we are building potentially for multiple parts of the business, so we are at the point now where we don’t need to sell our services and it’s great for us.”

    “We talked a lot about the process, customer engagement, and ideas, but none of that is possible without a really deep engineering culture. We talk a lot to a load of local companies about how you get started in innovation and people sometimes default to the process and the ideas and building things, getting things out there, but it’s not sustainable unless you have a really deep engineer culture, people who are really proud of the engineer excellence in your company. That’s the foundation, so we need that in place before anything else is possible and it’s the most important thing.

    “It’s really important for us to allow our engineers to go out and share their stories. It drives pride for them because they are showcasing some of the really cool things they are doing. I can’t stress this enough: They excel not just on a local stage in NI, UK, and Ireland; it’s on a global stage. We have engineers who are coming up with concepts and technologies and solving problems that are being pointed out on the global stage, so it’s really important for us to showcase the local talent that we have here in LIT. We love to let the people here in NI know it’s possible and you can actually play from an innovation perspective on that global stage right here at Liberty.”

    This interview originally featured in the summer 2019 edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download it here and sign up to receive the next magazine here.

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