Lavinia Morris is the Head of IT at SMBC Aviation Capital, one of the world’s leading aircraft leasing companies. With a background in Electronic Engineering, Lavinia became a successful IT professional with an impressive track record, having worked on the very first online banking system in AIB in the ’90s. She has over 20 years’ experience in the field and uses her passion for technology to inspire girls and women to consider Engineering and IT as a career path.
Lavinia was a mentor on the Girls in Tech event ‘Stepping Up: A Mentorship Program to Empower Women’ on the 6th of September 2018.
Interview by Talita Holzer
Talita: What are your responsibilities at SMBC Aviation Capital?
Lavinia: As a member of the overall Management Group of the organisation, I am responsible for delivery of the company’s IT Strategy as well as delivery of major Business Change programmes. As Head of IT, I am also responsible for running the IT department. This encompasses all aspects of IT, from Infrastructure & Operations to Software Development and from Enterprise Architecture to Information Security. I also have responsibility for the Business Information team that manages and controls all critical business data.
I have worked with SMBC Aviation Capital for four and a half years now. I initially joined to establish the IT function and to lead a major business transformation project. Now that this element has been implemented, I now look at how to use technology to solve business issues and create business opportunities. This business, as one of the world’s largest aircraft leasing firms, has invested heavily in IT and technology and see technology as a key enabler for our business going forward.
Talita: Can you tell us a bit about your previous work experience?
Lavinia: I studied Electronic Engineering in NUIG. I had a natural affinity for Maths and Science so a career in engineering was a natural choice for me. I graduated in the mid ‘90s just as the first technology boom was kicking off. At the time, similar to now, there was huge demand for engineering and technology graduates to fill IT vacancies
Since graduating, I have worked in a number of different sectors. I started off in power engineering with ESB and have spent several years heading up IT teams in the financial services sector with both AIB and Friends First. I have also worked in government and Professional Services and have worked on both the supplier and customer side of IT.
Talita: So, this was the main reason you got into IT, then? You saw this as a big opportunity at the time?
Lavinia: It was! I suppose, through school I had a big interest in maths and science. So, engineering was a natural progression for me. A lot of people, when they think about IT, they think about coding. But this is only one aspect of IT. In fact, I’ve never done a huge amount of coding. Engineering and design is my passion and background. The important thing to remember with IT is that it’s a very broad discipline. There are so many things that you can get involved in. And these days for me it’s all about driving business value and creating competitive advantage through technology.
When I started out in IT in the mid-90s, it was a very exciting time. The Internet was just in existence! I am old enough to remember when there was no web access, when eCommerce was just emerging. I worked on a range of early-days eCommerce projects. In fact, I worked on the very first online banking system when I worked in AIB and it was a really exciting time. Banking online was just unheard of and now it’s the norm. Today 20 years on, we have the next wave of exciting change, the whole digital revolution, the whole app economy. It’s a very exciting time to work in technology. In fact, all through the 23 years I’ve been working in IT, there’s always been something new to learn. It’s just very interesting. You’ll never get bored!
Talita: You mentioned some of the skills you picked up as an engineer. Which of these skills do you think have helped you build your career in IT?
Lavinia: Well, when I started out, my technical skills were very important. Having a technical background has been a good foundation for leading large teams of technologists and gaining their respect and trust. As I have progressed through my career into more senior positions communications and interpersonal skills have become more important. The key to successful leadership is connecting with your team, understanding what motivates them, building their trust and helping them achieve their goals.
I sit on the management team of the company now so business skills are important. I need to understand the business both to be able to talk technology in business terms and to identify the opportunities for technology to drive business value.
Another thing that is very important is being able to reapply your skills. Many of these technologies that I learned 20 years ago are now obsolete. The market is constantly moving, it’s constantly changing. You have to learn and be able to take what you’ve learned and be able to reapply it to a new scenario. I think having a foundation in engineering has been a big help to me, because a lot of engineering is about process, it’s about troubleshooting analysis and once you can grasp the concepts, you can reapply that to most scenarios. In an industry that’s constantly changing at a rapid pace, this is a key skill.
Talita: What was the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in this industry?
Lavinia: I suppose I wouldn’t call them obstacles, I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t come across huge amounts of obstacles. Challenges, yes, absolutely. A big challenge at the moment is attracting the right talent and attracting the right skill sets. It’s a very competitive market, there’s a huge amount of vacancies out there. Everybody’s competing for the same STEM talent and we’re competing with the major tech giants for that talent. Trying to maintain diversity within the team is very important too. IT has traditionally been quite a male dominated industry. For me, it’s been very important to try and make sure you get that correct blend of gender, culture, nationalities into my teams. This is something we take very seriously in SMBC Aviation Capital – in fact I currently have nine different nationalities working in my team, which is great.
Talita: Did you have any mentors when you started your career?
Lavinia: Yes, I did! I’ve been very lucky through my career. I’ve had a number of male bosses who have mentored me at various stages, a number of whom I still keep in touch with. Those are people who believed in me, saw opportunities for me and gave me opportunities and advice. I think having a mentor is really, really valuable. It’s important to find a good mentor early in your career. This is when you cement your values and you cement your foundations of your ‘corporate being’, if you like. Many times, experiences you have in your very early career can consciously or sub-consciously effect your decision-making patterns as you progress through your career. So, I think having somebody to mentor you and advise you in those early stages and give you good foundations is very important. I still have mentors today, and as I said, I still hook back in with some of those people who would have been with me at the very start of my career. There is always loads to learn, and whilst I’m now a mentor to people, I still myself have mentors that continue to mentor me.
Talita: What advice would you give for a woman starting her career in IT?
Lavinia: Don’t play the gender card, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Females are just as capable as males when it comes to technology. It’s important to remember that and to be confident in your own abilities. I have found throughout my career that approaching it not as a female but as a fellow IT professional and earning respect for your capabilities regardless of your gender has stood me in good stead!
Talita: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Lavinia: IT is a very diverse profession. It is not just about coding. It’s important to talk to people in the profession, understand all the different types of careers that are available, all of the different types of options and see if there is one that suits you, suits your skills. You’ll probably find there is, because it ranges from graphic design, which is quite creative, right through to telecommunications engineering, which is very techy, and all the spectrum in between. So before discounting IT as a career, make sure you understand what the spectrum is. Don’t fall for the stereotype, look at the options, talk to people who are involved and see which aspect best suits your skills, what you’re interested in, and find something that you’re passionate about.
The future is technology, it really is. As many commentators say, data is the new oil and this revolution is happening in front of our eyes. It’s an exciting time to be involved in technology – people have a real opportunity to make a difference not just in business but in society. I think this is one of those professions that you could look back in 10 years’ time and go “I was involved in that change, in that digital revolution”.
I’m very excited for the future. It would be great to see more young girls, young women getting involved in the industry and that’s why I got involved in this Girls in Tech mentoring program, to be able to give something back, and to try and encourage more girls to consider it. To show them how good it can be and that believing in themselves is the most important thing.