Ann Riordan showed a woman’s place was at the top

Net Results: Impact of Microsoft leader in shifting mindsets cannot be underestimated

In the mid 1990s, way before the Silicon Docks were a gleam in the Industrial Development Authority's eye, when laptops were huge, heavy slabs and Netscape was still the web browser of choice, I began writing about the young technology industry in Ireland.

It was mostly manufacturing and sales and call centres, dominated by the gigantic presence of Intel making chips, but something was beginning to happen. Multinational companies that were already here were beginning to move jobs up the value chain, as the government jargon went. More companies were arriving. New Irish companies broke ground.

Those of us who covered this growing industry generally fell into one of three camps, just like all other tribes of people interested in computers back then. You were Apple (still clinging to the promise of the 1980s). Or Microsoft (and in the vast majority). Or, if you were particularly geeky (and almost always, male), you might be open source, probably using Linux and needling others to use it, too.

These divisions were deeply felt. Critically, if you were in the smaller Apple or open source camps, you detested Microsoft. To be fair, a lot of people in the Microsoft camp also detested Microsoft, but felt they had little choice but to use its products (think social media giants today).


Though I’d started in the Microsoft trenches, wrestling with typing commands on a black screen, I’d been quickly converted to the friendly visual interface of the Mac in the 1980s, the pioneer of how we work with computers and devices today.


In the mid-1990s, Microsoft was readying its bombastic and celebratory Windows 95 rollout, moving dramatically to its own graphic interface. I was still vehemently anti-Microsoft. And I hadn’t had much contact with the company in Ireland.

But then, along with all the other journalists covering technology here, I got an invitation to the big Windows 95 launch in the RDS. And there I discovered that the head of Microsoft Ireland was a woman. Ann Riordan. A woman. Running Microsoft.

Tech is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry now, but back then a woman in a position of visible power in any technology company, much less in one of the largest in the world, was – well, I was going to say, a rarity. But at that point, even ‘rare’ was too generous. Ann Riordan – who has sadly passed away – was the only woman I had ever seen, in such a senior position in a tech company anywhere, including across Silicon Valley.

In the years since, Ireland has been a groundbreaking country for women to hold tech leadership positions

This was ground-breaking, eye-opening, impressive. And I confess, my feelings toward Microsoft back then shifted. I began to realise that maybe it was time to detach from the operating system religious wars and think about companies more comprehensively.

On a far more serious level, looking back over my own career as a woman covering tech, I recognise that seeing Riordan in that role was a pivotal moment. Tech was so, so male, and Microsoft always had seemed especially so. Geeks meant guys. I interviewed an endless stream of men, men, men back in the day. Women weren’t at the table.

Except, as Riordan showed, she was, and therefore, they could be. As her Irish Times obituary noted, in two decades this phenomenal woman went from having to fight the marriage bar to retain her first job in 1970, to running Microsoft in Ireland.

Shifted mindsets

She steered Microsoft through a fast-changing era that laid the groundwork for continued expansion in Ireland, cementing it in as one of the State’s foundational tech multinationals. In her wake, we knew that in Ireland, a woman’s place definitely could be at the very top of a tech company.

I have absolutely no doubt that Riordan shifted the mindset of many a young woman back then, those working for her in Microsoft, or across the Irish tech sector. I am sure girls considering a career in technology or business generally, saw her and thought, “why not me?”. Her impact cannot be underestimated.

Because it is so true that if you don't see it, you may well never imagine you can be it. And in tech's female vacuum, Riordan was inarguably It – a talented, capable, rigorous, professional woman holding her own in tech's extremely male world. She would go on to hold many other leadership positions in Ireland when she stepped down from Microsoft in 2000, including chairing Science Foundation Ireland.

In the years since, Ireland has been a ground-breaking country for women to hold leadership positions in the technology and communications sectors, in stark contrast to most of the world.

In Ireland, women have been or are currently at the helm or in the very top executive circle of tech and telecoms firms, at companies such as Vodafone, Eircom and O2; at Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, Citrix, Fujitsu, Microsoft (twice), Apple, Google, Intel, LinkedIn and Flextronics, just to touch on some.

I consider those women Riordan’s legacy, each demonstrating ever-so-firmly that, like Ann Riordan, women are tech leaders.