CIO Spotlight: Mairtin O’Riada, Ravelin

What has been your greatest career achievement? “It’s a tie between creating the self-contained intelligence system used for covert anti-corruption agencies used in several countries and co-founding Ravelin.”

Headshot of Mairtin O’Riada, Co-founder & CIO at Ravelin

Name: Mairtin O’Riada

Company: Ravelin

Job title: Co-founder and CIO

Date started current role: January 2015

Location: United Kingdom

Mairtin O’Riada is co-founder and CIO of Ravelin. Fanatical about preventing fraud, Mairtin has had a storied career working for the likes of Scotland Yard, United Nations and Anti-Corruption taskforce.

What was your first job? My first “job” was a little business of my own, printing cards on a dot matrix printer, gluing each side together and “laminating” them with contact plastic, to sell to a bunch of small hotels and B&Bs in my hometown in the west of Ireland. It was pretty amateur, but I was pretty pleased with myself because it gave me an excuse to mess around on the computer all summer.

My first salaried job was working in the County Mayo Fire Service. Before we had postcodes in Ireland, we would record every obscure placename in the county, many of them with differing transliterations from Irish, and some areas with folk names, or highly localised nicknames, that had never been officially recorded. We’d ring the rural post offices and get them to every possible placename variant they’d encountered, then geolocate them on a map so the fire service would know how best to deploy.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. I wanted to work in science, and I started a science degree. Coincidentally, that’s when I stopped wanting to work in science.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I changed from science to a humanities or liberal arts degree – Russian, as it happens. I hold absolutely no relevant certifications, nor in fact anything that qualifies me for a technical role.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I went to work for the Metropolitan Police in the now Old New Scotland Yard, starting in 2004. I wasn’t a policeman. I was an intelligence analyst. This title covered a range of roles from the qualitatively interpretative to the technical. I found that I leaned heavily towards the technical, and more surprisingly, I had some aptitude for it.

I worked on organised crime, then kidnaps, and anti-corruption. It was really fascinating to bring statistical, and a data led approach to crime. In some units there was considerable leeway for experimentation and creativity. I became a kind of proto data scientist, although we certainly didn’t call it that then. 

They were very good to me – unusually for a civilian role, I got to do some stints overseas. First in Kosovo at the end of the Balkan Wars, and I got to lead the analytical cell in the UN’s Central Intelligence Unit.

When I came back, I spent a year working in the Flying Squad, before heading out to the Caribbean to work in an anti-corruption unit for three years. It was all very positive but with one big caveat. As a civilian, there was little or no career progression to be had, except in a narrow civilian path. Civilian leadership in the Met was pretty dire, and not something I aspired to.

I left and consulted in fraud and anti-corruption for a few months, before I got approached by a tech company in London asking me to interview for a “Head of Fraud” position. That’s where I met my cofounders of Ravelin. We worked together on this really intractable but fascinating problem, how to detect fraudsters in a matter of seconds, with a small amount of information.

The treatment needed to be statistical rather than investigative. Data science and machine learning in particular was essential. We realised that we could build something not just to service one company, but to service anyone exposed to credit card fraud, who’ve just been completely abandoned by the police and prosecuting authorities, who have neither the time nor resources, nor (to be frank) the institutional understanding to tackle the sheer volume of small cases. I cofounded Ravelin and took on the role of CIO. As for detours, well, I’ve stayed mostly in crime so not really?

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Ravelin’s service is fundamentally a prediction. We sell those predictions to clients who suffer from fraud attacks, and thereby need to predict who to let through and who to challenge or block. The thing is, fraud evolves, crime methods evolve, and so must we.

At the moment we serve a range of predictions, e.g. is this account held by a fraudster; or has this previously good account been compromised. We are adding to the types of predictions, and this will likely mean an investment in specialist machine learning experts, and systems to host different types of predictive models.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? We started out as a small startup with a few clients, all hard won, largely from the European tech scene. We’re now much larger, and growing, and we have clients all over the world. We have a phenomenal Client Operations team and as we grow ever larger, we need to ensure that the gold-plated service we offer our clients is not just sustained but augmented as we take on larger and more demanding clients. In practical terms, this means using specialist software and services for things we could, at one time, do in spreadsheets and local databases and the like, as well as hiring and nurturing specialists to add to the generalists you find in startups.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I’m not sure. I think one way to delineate companies is whether they were born tech or had tech thrust upon them. The CIO’s role will be very different in both cases. In Ravelin’s case, as we innately self-identify as a tech company (among other things), there is a diminished need for traditional CIO focuses such as “digital transformation”. I work hand-in-hand with my friend and co-founder Lenny Austin who is our CTO, and the division of labour is quite natural for us. I deal with client operations, fraud system performance, data science predictions, proofs of concept, prototyping, account management technical and otherwise, and all the teams responsible for these outputs. He deals with platform stability, uptime, systems engineering, and all the teams responsible for those. More than other C-roles, I suspect there’s greater variance in remit for CIO’s from company to company.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Not explicitly, except in the sense of Trotskyite permanent revolution. There are always things we can do better, and we’re not permanently wedded to any system. We were born of tech promise, and we’re totally comfortable with purging the old for the… less old. We favour the cutting edge over the bleeding edge, because we really value stability. But we’re not sentimental or emotional about systems.

They’re there to serve our mission and that’s it. That said, we actually have traditionally optimised for customer experience. We do want to examine operational efficiency, I think totally normally for a company of our size and age. And there are certainly things we can do that we’re not. But I think we will continue to optimise for client experience when talking about this choice. Other choices actually play a bigger part in my thinking, such as staff welfare.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Asking us if we have KPIs to quantify the value of IT in general is a funny question to me, because it’s like asking if I have a KPI to quantify the value of oxygen in my life. It is a fundamental necessity, without which we wouldn’t have a business. The maturity of our digital business is 100% equivalent to the maturity of our business. Now for specific systems, we do attempt to quantify costs and ROI etc, of course. We mint hundreds of millions, if not billions of predictions every month, and the architecture needed to support that scale means we have to be mindful of unit costs. But the value of IT is unquestionable for us. We can only do what we do because of advancements in tech over the past 5-10 years.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Kindness, empathy and intellectual curiosity are paramount, as are ethics and integrity.
We are trying to stop something unequivocally harmful – fraud, and we are up against fraudsters who are often smart and resourceful. All of these qualities make the perfect adversary to a fraudster. Our empathy for our clients and victims motivates us. Intellectual curiosity helps us think of ways to confound fraudsters. Our kindness makes us look out for each other. Our code of ethics and integrity means we don’t overstep the mark or risk collateral intrusion while stopping fraud. We cultivate this by being explicit about these values and trying to embody them. We set up processes and systems to bolster and reinforce them, such as our ethics committee. We hold regular AMAs (ask me anythings) with the Founders to keep us open and honest.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Data scientists and engineers are always hard to hire, because there is such a febrile market for these skills. We have to compete with behemoth tech giants with deep pockets and so we have to make our company a great place to work to hire and retain people. We also have to acknowledge that we started out as a company founded by four guys. We’ve made great progress to redress our gender imbalance, but we can’t be complacent.

What's the best career advice you ever received? In the early days of Ravelin the four founders had a mentoring session with a senior business figure. He sensed some unease among us about being “founders”, perhaps a sense of unearned leadership. His advice was to be unapologetic about the position and embrace leadership. It came with founding and owing the company. He didn’t mean us to close ourselves off – it just meant listening to everyone but trusting your own and your cofounders’ judgment. It really made everything better for everyone.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. While it’s not an explicit plan by any means, I have a team of four immediate reports, our Chief Scientist, our VP Client Operations, our Director of Intelligence and Investigations, and our Director of Integrations. I would be proud to hand over the reins to any one of them. While we’d all be different in some details, I know they care deeply about the same things as me: staff wellbeing, codes of integrity and ethics, and catching bad guys. The company will be in safe hands.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Make your company as diverse and inclusive as soon as you can – it’ll be better for it, and easier to do it sooner than later. Be suspicious of uniformity of opinion.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It’s a tie between creating the self-contained intelligence system used for covert anti-corruption agencies used in several countries and co-founding Ravelin.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have started learning the violin at age 9 instead of 39. I would have learned woodwork. I’d have bought an almond farm. With Ravelin, I’d do very little differently.

What are you reading now? I only read fiction which seems to be unusual in the tech community which is awash with glorified self-help books with titles like How to Lean Hard in Hard Things Hardly. I always have a huge reading pile that looms at one side of the room, and totters precariously when a door opens or planes fly overhead. At the moment, I’m reading Piranesi by Susanna Clark, 4321 by Paul Auster, and The Contract with God Trilogy by Will Eisner.

Most people don't know that I… have a secret second life as an electronic musician. My stage name is… no, I’ve said too much.

In my spare time, I like to…play the violin and a few other instruments.

Ask me to do anything but… drink tea made from a bag with a string. In fact, I agreed to do this interview on the sole condition that I get to reveal O’Riada’s First Law: “if a teabag has a string, it’s going to be bad tea”. Teabags should come exclusively from that well known tea producing region, Ireland, where teabags are mercifully stringless.