60 Seconds With

“Success is not about one person” – 60 seconds with Graham Abell, Vice President and Site Lead, Workday

By Business & Finance
12 September 2023
A man in a suit smiles at the camera. The background is golden and emblazoned with the 'Workday' logo.
Pictured: Graham Abell, Vice President and Site Lead, Workday

Graham Abell is Vice President and Site Lead of Workday, a provider of enterprise cloud applications for finance and human resources with 1,800 employees in Ireland.

What was your first job?

As a teenager, my first casual job was with an air conditioning company in Walkinstown, I learnt a lot! I did everything from metalwork to driving a forklift there at weekends and over summertime – lots of problem solving. For my first career role, after university I moved to Edinburgh and landed a contract job with GE Energy, in QA (quality assurance), which involved testing to identify issues with software before a product launch. It was a stepping stone to get into the world of software and it was great to get that exposure to a large global organisation.

What pushed you to pursue a career in this field?

I see technology as creative problem solving. As a child, I really liked creating things with Lego. Then, when I was aged 10 or so, I got an Amstrad computer. My older cousin Gary had upgraded to a new PC; I persuaded my parents to purchase his second hand one. These were the days of the green screen monitor, tape cassette to load games and 45 minute wait time, but I loved playing around with it.

By the time I got to CUS Leeson Street secondary school, I had upgraded to a better PC and was even building my own machines to different specs. My CAO application featured every type of computer applied course you can imagine, the only question was which university to go to. I ended up at Trinity, doing a BA in Information & Communication Technologies. I got a real buzz from being able to write code and see something very tangible come out of that process.

What would you regard as your greatest achievement to date?

I am very proud of our new partnership with TU Dublin that came into effect in April 2022. This has been a big team effort and involves deep-rooted engagement across our own workforce development, research-based community outreach and our new Research Chair in Technology & Society – a first for Ireland! Part of this involves funding new research to develop a practical STEM programme for 10-12 year olds which our teams will help co-deliver to 600 students in local DEIS schools from September this year. We have also committed EUR 2 million to a new Chair of Technology and Society, which will examine key thematic areas like AI Skills. Our hope is that the outputs from this research will also inform policy at a national and potentially EU level. Our new EMEA HQ will be built adjacent to TU Dublin, so I want to continue to strengthen this strategic partnership because we can experience true innovation when academia and industry converge.

Career wise, would you do anything differently?

Rather than having regrets, I think it’s about taking on challenging work and bringing people on the journey to achieve the objective.  In the long term, you can somewhat plan a career but then deal with obstacles that arise in the short term. When I speak to graduates, I try to impart the importance of taking on a challenge and seeing it through.

In one sentence, how would you define success?

Success is not about one person, it’s about the team effort and ensuring people have the space to do their best work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Always focus on lessons learnt, rather than blame attribution. Earlier in my career, I was party to a technical crisis at a multinational company. I saw how the leader managed the crisis and its aftermath by focusing laser-like on the problem and the lessons learnt.

How do you motivate yourself and your staff?

Getting people back together after COVID is important to me – renewing a sense of belonging and direction. Two key things that stood out were hosting an entire site-wide company meeting and relaunching volunteering initiatives in our local North Inner City community.

Motivation can also involve removing any obstacles and clearing a path for people to succeed. A leader’s role is to orchestrate, connect people and ensure they have the right context. That gets everyone moving in the same direction to achieve the goal. I’ve learnt that ‘candour and challenge’ are two important things to learn so we can innovate and deliver the best solutions possible for Workday’s customers.

How do you handle adversity?

In the corporate world, I think adversity often arises from crossed wires. Collaboration is essential in the modern age because no one has a monopoly on wisdom. As important as great technology is having great people who can leave their egos at the door and get around a table to collaborate and solve a problem together is crucial. As a leader, you need to help create and nurture that culture of collaboration.

Some of my colleagues describe me as a ‘data obsessive’. I try to ensure all of my decision-making is informed by data. So when adversity hits, I work collaboratively with my team in a data-led manner. Workday is a great environment from that perspective and it means we can adapt easily by reacting quickly to what the data tells us.

How do you relax?

Outside of the day job, I like to cook for friends and family and have spent many years trying to perfect sourdough. I also do some gardening which is great to unwind, but my lawn is not yet at Wimbledon standards. I have an e-bike, which is great for both commuting and pottering around. I also enjoy creating things on my 3D printer. Family-wise, I have two young children who keep me and my wife Elaine busy!

What are your aspirations for the future of the business?

At Workday, I’m focused on the long term; despite economic cycles or other external factors, we will continue to hire and grow here.  Successful technology companies have more than just great ‘code’, they have great people creating and collaborating. So my job is to motivate every person to take ownership and responsibility for what we do, innovating to continually contribute to our global business.

We bucked the trend by locating in Smithfield in 2015 rather than ‘Silicon Docks’. Now, we have committed to a new EMEA HQ at Grangegorman, which will see us develop a 550,000 square foot campus, neighbouring TU Dublin. I think the best is yet to come.


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