Master of Management Studies alumnus now Director of Digital Business at Barclays

20 August 2019

By catching onto the internet early, Adrian Smith, an alumnus of the University of Waikato and current Director of Digital Business at Barclays Bank in the UK, has built a breadth of knowledge and experience in the digital sector both in New Zealand and the UK.

“When I started at Waikato in 1993, I had the incredibly good fortune that when I got to my final year of undergrad study, it was about the same time that the internet was born.

“I thought this new internet thing was quite interesting. Going through school, we were taught that knowledge is power and that we should try to be as knowledgeable as possible. All of a sudden, it became quite evident to me that the whole sum of human knowledge was available at your fingertips on the internet,” says Adrian.

This realization spurred him to enrol in a Master of Management Studies at Waikato, studying electronic commerce in a New Zealand context. He wanted to research how, if you were a small to medium business, you could access the internet to share your products on a worldwide scale.

What he also learnt by undertaking his Masters, were concepts around strategy, frameworks and micro and macroeconomics.

“About five years into my career, I found that suddenly I was dealing with these same concepts of organizational strategy, and designing a vision for an organization. My Masters gave me a massive leg up on the rest of my peer group who hadn’t studied these concepts, whereas I could work with senior leadership to weigh up options using things like PEST analysis,” says Adrian.

After returning to New Zealand after his OE, Adrian worked in a law firm and at the University of Auckland, where he worked on digitizing the Centre for Continued Education.

“I built a major online payment system there, plumbing it into the central financials of the organization, and digitizing the courses and material. I was also lucky enough to be sent to San Francisco, where I visited Google and fiddled with them on algorithms in a beta context.

“I think the smartest move for me, after my Masters, was enrolling in a ‘how to build a website’ course. I learnt code, which became one of the biggest foundation blocks for my whole career. Once you understand the language of code, it makes it really easy to read between the lines to see what works and what doesn’t,” says Adrian.

He then moved to the UK, working up to his current Directorship which he considers one of his biggest career accomplishments.

“To be a director in a company of 64,000 across 35 countries worldwide, you’re in the top 1%. I’m proud of that, as to get there I had to get past tropes of ‘Adrian’s a bit too honest, too direct’, and adapt how I interacted in the British workplace. This meant I could share my point of view in a way that could be understood.”

Last year Adrian hosted a group of MBA students from the University of Waikato in London, inviting them into Barclays for the day.

“At the time I was leading the drive at Barclays to bring in a new innovations approach to ‘jobs to be done’. I briefed the students on the fundamentals of this, brought in facilitators and experts and gave them a case study so they could build an answer to the problem.

“When it came time to present at the end of the day, the top person at Barclays came in and was incredibly impressed – they’d been trying to crack the problem for 6 months! It was a testament to the quality of students that Waikato produces.”

While visiting New Zealand this winter Adrian will be presenting to a range of student levels, sharing his experience in the digital space both internationally and in the execution space. He intends to challenge their thinking and get them to critically assess the world they’re in, going from abstract concepts to what it looks like in real life.

“For me, I’m incredibly grateful as what I do today wouldn’t be possible without the Waikato Management School. One of the things you learn in tertiary education is a toolset, that allows you to analyse a complex problem, deconstruct it, then generate recommendations for how to solve it,” says Adrian.

“My greatest strength I gained from Waikato is the ability to solve problems and create meaningful solutions. It’s now what I’m famous for – when the problem seems impossible they wheel me out.”

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