David Kelleher, Digital Factory Leader at Braskem, shares his personal career journey and his philosophy on pioneering digital transformation.

Avenue Code: Tell us about your personal career path. How did you become the Digital Factory Leader at Braskem?

David Kelleher: Before coming to Brazil, I worked in operations and technology at Ireland’s biggest bank. Since my wife is Brazilian, we traveled to Brazil regularly for summer holidays and eventually decided to move there. I didn’t have a job lined up, but I knew everything would work out.

Sure enough, a job landed on the table with a Brazilian FinTech startup that implemented the acquiring payments platform in local servers for Transbank, the only acquiring bank in Chile. As the Product Lead, I led developers and teams to deliver a complex application that allowed users to create their own payment application on a proprietary XML database system able to run on any type of payment terminal. This was a very exciting and innovative idea for the payments market, and it showed me how much I loved working with product.

After this, I worked as a Product Manager on a new payment vertical for PagSeguro. This meant relocating to São Paulo, which I can only describe as a new sensory experience. I had to learn a new language and a new city while temporarily relocating without my wife and our young children - so the new job was the easy part! But I loved it.

At this time, I decided to change my LinkedIn profile settings to show that I was open to recruiters. I wasn’t looking for something new, but I wanted to make myself available to grow and find new opportunities. Eventually, I received a call from Braskem about leading their Digital Factory. I met the entire team and had about six interviews over five months - each of them casual and open conversations - before I officially joined the team in March 2019. 

AC: Can you tell us a bit about the role of the Digital Factory team at Braskem?

DK: These days, everyone is transforming digitally, and Braskem is leading the way within the chemical industry. The Digital Factory is responsible for the development of the digital solutions in-house. We're Braskem's Digital muscle, specially focused on machine learning and data science.

AC: Does your team own every aspect of digital transformation, including building, testing, and implementing? 

DK: We have a four-phase methodology: 1) when an idea arises, it goes through a pre-framing process; 2) once approved, it goes to framing, which involves determining which resources are required, hiring vendors, etc.; 3) the digital transformation team builds an MVP; 4) the product proves its value for the business and moves to industrialization. 

For example, one of our bigger projects is to use machine learning to help with the same predictive quality work that’s done in the lab today. There’s a very complex process for creating polymers, and every few hours, our lab team members have to take samples, analyze them, and adjust product specifications to ensure that the quality of our products meets our clients’ needs. During this assessment period, we’re losing money. 

So we implemented a machine learning solution with sensors to collect variables to determine product quality, shortening the period without product quality information from four hours to fifteen minutes. Our product operator can then quickly make adjustments to ensure everything is on spec, thus avoiding waste. This solution is currently an MVP, and we’re deciding how to scale it up.

The Digital Factory team is also responsible for helping to implement new ways of working, like an Agile culture. One of the biggest drivers of digital transformation isn’t tech - it’s how you work and how you treat the people who are doing the work. If your people aren’t comfortable, happy, excited, and motivated, they’re not going to be able to produce quality work. So my team promotes new ways of working and trains other departments in the same mindset. This is also why we have Avenue Code’s scrum masters and support teams helping us with our digital transformation. The good news is that people naturally adapt to these new methods because they reflect a healthier way of working. 

AC: There are a lot of companies trying to develop their own digital factories to promote different ways of thinking and working, but changing culture is often challenging. How do you promote this innovative digital mindset at Braskem?

DK: We work with an Enablement Team, which is responsible for stakeholder engagement, trainings, and workshops, and we host a lot of activities to cast a company-wide vision. As a global company, we have to work hard to ensure that each location has access to the same workshop opportunities. Additionally, we have a Digital Portfolio team and a Change Management team. These are critical, because as much as people may want to change, change is hard and takes time since it mandates a new way of thinking. The Innovation Team is also key in mapping the principle pain points for our business and our clients. They help us to source the greatest and latest in technology and trends to help us do our best work in the creation space. This team is also primarily responsible for mapping vendors like Avenue Code to support us.

Niels Pflaeging says, “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.” As leaders, we have these amazing goals and a vision about how to transform our company, and then we come to work and have lots of emails and many meetings, so we have to think about what’s the smallest step that we can take at any one moment to reach our end goal. It’s not going to happen in a leap; it happens in baby steps. Change is a journey, and over time, the steps we take are cumulative.

AC: What do you think is the next step for innovation and technology that Braskem could take to increase business?

DK: It’s going to be something innovative. The whole goal of digital transformation is to remain competitive and to be a step ahead. Since Braskem is very focused on sustainability (e.g. our I’m Green Polyethylene and our efforts around Circular Economy), I think Braskem’s next step could involve using innovative tech solutions to achieve even greater sustainability. 

For example, last year we partnered with a client to create a monomaterial stand-up pouch packaging solution made with only one type of polymer. Perhaps our next step is helping other clients become more sustainable with their products as well. 

AC: Can you personally help Braskem develop in any of these directions, or is that up to Braskem’s industrial team? 

DK: One unique thing I like about Braskem is that I will meet people who have worked here for 20 years in 15 different roles. If I discovered a new product or a new way of working and was able to prove its value, I could make that product or method my job. By allowing this flexibility, Braskem lets its people maximize the value they bring to the company. 

AC: You have had a lot of global experience. Can you share your thoughts on where you see a culture that enables innovation? How would you compare Europe, Brazil, and America? 

DK: Speaking from personal experience, it really comes down to the people who are involved, because the overall work environment is being redefined right now. People used to talk about working 9am-6pm six days a week, and now they’re talking about how tech might enable more flexibility and reduce work week hours. We’re in a stage of experimentation with culture change and digital transformation because nobody really knows what's going to work and what the future will hold. 

AC: With work environments shifting, what is the key to strong leadership right now, and how do you encourage your people to be self-motivated?

DK: As you know, I’m a parent, and every day I teach my kids about how to recognize and put names to their emotions. Most people never learn this. When they get stressed or angry, there’s an underlying emotion, and they don’t know what it is. 

I don’t really see my own team as different from my kids - on the inside, everyone is a child. I don’t treat them like kids, but I like to interact with the understanding that there is an emotion behind every action, and realizing this makes us more self aware. 

On a fundamental level, this is how I lead my team: they are people first, and work is secondary. What we see in people is their output, or what they produce, but underneath, there is a whole world of complex emotions. If all of the underlying emotions are off balance, we can’t produce anything valuable. It’s always important to remember that people are people. This also means attending to my team members’ goals, so I try to create a culture of continuous professional development. 

We all work for someone, but at the end of the day, as Andy Grove said, “Your career is your business, and you are its CEO.” People say a work-life balance is important. I disagree. I think a life balance is important, and work is part of life. 

AC: Thanks for sharing your insights, David. It’s been a pleasure!


Anna Vander Wall

Anna Vander Wall is a freelance senior editor and writer in the tech industry and beyond. She particularly enjoys collaborating with Avenue Code’s talented Snippets contributors and whitepaper authors.

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