Leadership Tips from Dr Tony O’Donnell, Site Head & Vice President of Engineering at Shutterstock

Leadership Tips from Dr Tony O’Donnell, Site Head & Vice President of Engineering at Shutterstock
Lorraine Bolger   by Lorraine Bolger. Published: 12/11/2018

A little bit about myself:

I live near the Curragh with my wife Emma, our 4-year-old twin boys and a menagerie of pets. I am deeply passionate about enabling intellectual curiosity, and about the transformative role engineers play in our society. I am currently the Site Head for Shutterstock’s product development lab in Dublin, as well as VP of Engineering overseeing the development of multiple products(Footage, Music, Editorial, Premier, Offset and Bigstock) and managing teams based in our Dublin, New York, Montréal and London offices. At Shutterstock, I have the opportunity to work at the intersection of technology and creativity. My teams do amazingly challenging technical work providing a platform and content that supports international enterprises as they create advertising campaigns, Hollywood studios producing blockbuster movies or media publications covering major celebrity and news events like the Academy Awards the Met Gala and the royal wedding in real-time.

I have taken on parallel career paths in my life and have learned a great deal as a result. My primary professional focus has followed a conventional route having graduated with an engineering degree and PhD from Trinity College, becoming a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of Engineers Ireland, and working in a variety of challenging roles at SAP, EdgeVerve Systems, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and most recently Shutterstock.

On the other side, my alternative professional career has spanned an array of roles including a newspaper editor, freelance journalist, community activist, county councillor, GAA administrator and academic. Ultimately, I have an unquenchable urge to try things out and get stuck in. This variety of activities has really helped me gain a strong sense of perspective, and a level of confidence to try thinking differently about the challenges that cross my cluttered desk. They have also helped me learn how to balance multiple, often unrelated, threads in my head simultaneously. As I have taken on more senior roles, this ability to multi-task, as well as quickly shift audience and focus has served me well.

My tips on building a strong quality culture within this industry…

Trust is the basis for a strong culture. Without it, organisations struggle to achieve agility and to scale effectively.

There is a fine line between agility and instability, and it is all about responding to an issue or feedback with the right instincts and reflexes. In high trust companies, everybody feels empowered to make their best decisions for the team, and to put their hand up when they encounter a problem.

Process and bureaucracy alone can never deliver amazing performance at scale or in distributed organisations, and so granting trust up front is key.

My secret to driving change through challenging times…

All positive change is based on doing the right thing at the right time. Sometimes change can be difficult and in complex situations, the context that makes the change the right thing to do can be hard to see.

Irish people have an amazing gift to explain through story-telling. When change is required, I always to try to establish the context by telling the story of how we got here, why we need to change and why this plan is the best plan. Interestingly, if you cannot tell the story simply and sincerely, you probably haven’t fully understood it yourself. This can be a great discipline for ensuring you really understand it, before bringing others into the conversation.

Organisations also need to be honest and decisive around change. Anguished delays and introspection do not serve the business or those affected well, particularly in situations where roles are in jeopardy. Avoiding difficult truths often amplifies their effect and creates contagion and stress; it is always better to gather your data, perform your analysis and then follow through in a timely manner.

My secret to becoming a true partner to our clients…

Listen, empathise and always work to better understand the real needs of your clients and customers. Engineers love to solve difficult problems, but often these are not the most useful. Technology evolution is littered with examples of engineers building for themselves or for a specific scenario/problem and ignoring the needs or requirements of the customer.

I also believe in rapid iteration and open dialogue. The reason projects become ‘too big to fail’ is because of the time and resources invested in them without adequate engagement with customers. It is always better to fail early and learn and to ensure that the more you invest the more certain you are that the result will be valuable to customers.

The biggest challenge facing my industry today…

Disruption is the constant challenge for all industries today. For legacy players, disruption poses an existential threat; for the disruptors, the challenge is around truly understanding the next state vision and working relentlessly to achieve your potential.

At Shutterstock, we pioneered the subscription-based two-sided marketplace for high-quality image, video and music content in 2003. 15 years later, we are continuing to pave new paths in our industry through the tools and services we provide. In order to be successful, we need to focus relentlessly on our customers and contributors helping them evolve through waves of disruption and grow with the technology and experiences we provide.

The greatest opportunity available to our industry today is…

Democratisation and access are huge opportunities for us. The powerful consumer technology available today has made the creation of compelling content easier for millions of new creators around the world. Similarly, the explosion of connectivity in the developing world, where some people are getting 4G before running water, opens up enormous potential for everyone to grow.

I am very excited about the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our world too. Shutterstock currently has over 225 million images and more than 12 million video clips in the collection, and it’s growing at a million assets a week. Helping our customers find the content they need quickly is a major priority. Our team is leading the way in building innovative search technology using AI and custom-built machine learning technology that enables our contributors to make their content more discoverable and helps our customers source the content they need more efficiently and streamline their workflow.

My view on key concerns to look out for moving into 2019…..

We are in a fascinating period of competing dynamics. It will be interesting to see how various aspects of international trade and migration play out, with many of the old conventions being revisited. In parallel, the world is increasingly connected, and the ability to innovate, scale and deliver services are opening up amazing possibilities.

There is an increasing degree of volatility and unpredictability at play, so successful companies will need to be flexible and adaptable to maximise the opportunities that arise.