Sir John McCanny: passion, commitment, determination.

Sir John McCanny has made a major contribution to both academic life and the high-tech industry in Northern Ireland and beyond. Widely published, he is an international authority on special purpose silicon architectures for Digital Signal and Video Processing and Cryptography. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the Irish Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Institute of Physics and Engineers Ireland. He is also a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. His many honours and awards include a CBE, a UK Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal, an IEEE Millennium Medal, the Royal Dublin Society/Irish Times Boyle medal, the IET’s Faraday medal and the Royal Irish Academy’s Cunningham medal. He has co-founded two successful high technology companies, Amphion Semiconductor and Audio Processing Technology Ltd. Sir John was responsible for developing the vision that led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Science Park (now Catalyst Inc.) and its ECIT research flagship. He also led the initiative that in 2009 created Centre for Secure Information Technology, CSIT, now a world-renown Centre for Cybersecurity. He was awarded a Knighthood in the 2017 New Year’s Honours list for services to Higher Education and Economic Development.

John McCanny 2 (1 of 1)Gary: Looking back, John, you’ve got this stellar career in academia and indeed in business. And your academic work has spilled over into the work of business and industry. Looking back, what are you most proud of achieving would you say?

Sir John: Well I suppose it has to be the creation of ECIT research institute and the wider impact on economic development it has had. And that goes back many years ago, many trips to Silicon Valley and trips to south-east Asia. Places like Hsinchu science park where I started to get fascinated by the whole interplay between advanced technology and technology research, and how that can help drive   innovation in business. From that, I guess bringing that back here and getting ECIT established in 2004.

Gary: Sure!

Sir John: When we look back at the late 80s and the 90s, although there was interest in the connection between research and business innovation, there was an awful lot of skepticism about what might be realistic within Northern Ireland. But now I think we have 175 companies here [i.e. Catalyst Inc], 2,600 people employed, and about £100 million a year in salaries alone for the local economy. And now  there’s a strong momentum to take this to another level – how could we accelerate this and take things much further, much more quickly? So I guess, that’s one of the things I’m proud of. The other thing I’m glad to have been able to do, was work with younger people and see their careers develop, with them going on to have stellar careers in their own right. So now we’ve now created a whole generation of people who think much more like the way folks think at Stanford by comparison with the traditional academic mode. Many of these people have gone on to build their own successful startup companies, or become CEOs of tech companies both here and around the world. So there has been a transformation.

Gary: When you look at your own career, you’ve been successful not only in academia but also in business. And there are companies that you founded and have seen flourish. So you’ve straddled those two worlds of academia and business – and you’re saying you sought to instill that sort of approach with other people coming through?

John: Looking back over the years, there has been something of a sea change at the national level. Traditionally it was research, writing papers and then moving on – and of course that discovery-based research is really, really important – but we now see more and more emphasis given to translation. So for example, the UK’s industrial strategy has just been published and you see much more emphasis on that; and you’re thinking, we were trying to do this 20-30 years ago! Perhaps in those days that wasn’t really seen as important to the extent that it is today. That’s good.

Gary: Yes. So thinking about that sort of academic approach, and the translation into business and so on – you are probably somewhat of a pioneer, looking back 20 or more years now. What drove you to do that, when maybe some of your colleagues were more interested in simply writing the journal papers and so on? And what sort of qualities do you think you need to be able to do that?

microprocessorSir John: What drove it initially was being at the lab I worked in before I came here. My background was a physics Ph.D., but I ended up working in a completely different area, digital signal processing. In those days, everything was analog, and digital was really just an aspiration. Anyway, the problem we had was that although micro processers were developing, when we did the sums we realized that these were still orders of magnitude too slow for most real-time digital signal processing. A colleague (Professor John McWhirter) and I, we were able to invent new computational methods that were up to a thousand times higher in performance, and that led to important breakthroughs. This research was undertaken at a government research lab, and there was a need to try to transfer this into industry.  We were able to be successful in that. So, I suppose that was a part of where I got the bug. The other bug was visiting places like Stanford and MIT, and just getting that whole ethos of how, particularly in the area of advanced technology electronics, you could do research and it would make a big difference economically and societally.

I suppose in those days, I thought every academic in California was a budding entrepreneur, but I later discovered that there was only a relatively small number of them. The other influence back then was going to Taiwan with IDB [the forerunner to hinschuInvest NI] just after Taiwan had opened up internationally, and visiting the Hsinchu science park. I remember us driving on what were small country roads, then turning a corner and all of a sudden, it just looks like Silicon Valley. An important aspect of that Science Park was the presence of two universities on that site. I remember remarking to the guys that were with me about the way small indigenous companies sited there were working closely with the universities, and I said, “Why can’t we do that?” Two of those “small companies” were TSMC and UMC, which are now amongst the biggest silicon microelectronics companies in the world. So, it was a case of bringing that back and discussing it with people and trying to see how we could do something, at a sensible scale, here in Belfast.

And I have to pay tribute, first of all, to Gordon Beveridge who was the vice chancellor here at that time. Gordon was an engineer; he got it and was interested. George Bain was next, and he came from the London Business School, and was very encouraging and supportive. As were subsequent VCs like Peter Grigson and particularly Paddy Johnson, who was really an inspirational person and a good friend. So to answer your question, it was a whole combination of things.  It really was a question of saying, “I’ve got this idea that I want to take out of the ivory tower and create what in those days I called a research and enterprise park.” Which I still think is a much better description than “Science Park” – the strong interplay between business and research. Needless to say, there was a degree of concern and indeed skepticism, but, we worked hard, and one thing has led to another.

Gary: So when you say that there was considerable skepticism and so on along the way, in terms of what you’ve done and achieved here, John, that required a lot of leadership qualities presumably?

TalentandpassionSir John: Just commitment, determination to do it! But you don’t do these things without a really, really strong group of people who are all pumped up and motivated to do it. And, as I said to those people, look, don’t worry about it – we’ll get knocked back, but every time you come up against an obstacle, you can either go over it or find a way around it. If you’re passionate about what you think is the right thing to do, you find a way to do it.

Gary: So that’s one of the qualities of a good leader? Passion?

Sir John: Well, I think that you have to have that. A, you need the vision; B, you need the passion, the drive, determination; and C, most importantly, is that you actually deliver on that. It is not just pie-in-the-sky, it’s connecting the practical down-to-earth implementation of the bigger ideas and having the vision to go with that.

Gary: As you look around Northern Ireland, John, at the technology companies, life sciences, software, whatever, do you see a lot of that good leadership?

Sir John: I think it is something that we probably don’t sell hard enough, or appreciate; but it’s really interesting to see it through the eyes of the foreign direct investment community that has come in. You know, if you talk to them, they will reflect on the qualities we have, those qualities of loyalty and professionalism and also the quality of education. And it is interesting also to see that there is a new generation coming through who have much more awareness of entrepreneurial activities and high-tech activities than in my day. Then it was really all about having a job for life.

catalystWe’re seeing a lot of the younger engineers and commercial people now creating and leading their own companies. So, I think there’s a lot to be proud of – although there’s still a long way to go on a world stage. But Steve [Orr, of Catalyst Inc.] and his colleagues now do an annual analysis, and this tries to measure the depth of what’s going on, the rate of change of activity, and it shows that we are number two in the UK with respect to that, and have been consistently for a number of years.

In absolute terms, we still have a fair way to go, but in terms of our rate of advance, it’s pretty much been consistently at number one or two. I think it is not only just what’s in Catalyst Inc. but it is the whole interaction and engagement which takes place and which Steve has helped facilitate.

Gary: So, as you look around here and elsewhere, obviously there’s been a sea change from 25 years ago and the amount of innovation and entrepreneurship that has taken place is very heartening. What could we be doing better do you think? How do we make it even better?

Sir John: At ECIT and Catalyst, we have been working with Belfast City Council, which is developing a so-called “City Deal”. That’s something that is still at an early stage, but it is being worked on and developed. Within government circles, there is also strong encouragement along the lines of “it is great what has been achieved to date; now how do we accelerate that?” There are exciting plans to develop things here at Catalyst Inc., with several new buildings being planned. We have also been discussing with them the possibilities of bringing other themes down here. At ECIT, our strengths are obviously electronics, communication, ICT, cyber, but we’re also trying to link those things up, with things like health analytics for example.

I mean there’s a Fintech sector here, and again there are overlaps, possible engagements that are still very much in the early stages. We did the original ECIT and the Science Park and it was a case of “build it and they will come.” You do have to have a certain degree of, you know, desire in order to do that. It seemed difficult to communicate what we wanted to do 20 odd years ago, but actually the response we get these days is very much the opposite, it’s very enthusiastic. And people are asking that question; this is great – how do we take this to another level? And the more we have younger people coming through with their own expertise, they create their own aspirations, their own vision. And there’s acres of space round here as well.

Gary: And so obviously, infrastructure is one thing. The other thing that’s needed to fuel all of this is people.

John McCanny 1 (1 of 1)Sir John: With regard to infrastructure, if you talk to Norman Apsley [CEO of Catalyst Inc], he’ll tell you we need £50 million straightaway for core infrastructure before new buildings and facilities here can be further developed, but in terms of people, that’s always a challenge.

Of course, at every juncture people tend to say that, but the more we can grow clusters and themes, then the more that attracts people. So you don’t necessarily have to recruit all your people straight out of university here – we can do our best to do that – but equally if there are the right attractive jobs, those attract people from all over. So, it’s a combination of things. Skills is an important thing, though, and I think we do need proper coordinated thinking on that – it’s not just skills at the university level, but also in Further Education Colleges and so on. What would be useful is a more coherent approach. People like David Crozier here at ECIT, as you know, is involved with various Departments in the Executive to stimulate the whole cyber activity, and again the skills issue is one that has clearly been identified. So, there is an exciting strategic plan. However, I think coherence, rather than fragmentation in these things is always very important for success.

Gary: John – thanks very much.





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Mark Dowds: Bringing Silicon Valley to Belfast

Mark Dowds is a serial high tech entrepreneur, who has founded companies in the United States and Canada. Originally from Comber, he has recently returned to Northern Ireland from Silicon Valley as co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Trov, a successful InsureTech company. Not content with starting and running new companies, Mark is also a seasoned ultra-mountain biker, racing up and down mountains across California, Oregon and Colorado.

I caught up with Mark in the newly refurbished Ormeau Baths, Mark’s passion project which is creating a hub in downtown Belfast for high tech start-ups.

Trov – transforming InsureTech

Gary: Mark, aside from family, your primary role is with Trov, a company you co-founded and is based on the West Coast of the US. Tell us, first of all what Trov is and what it does.

As the Chief Strategy Officer for Trov, I’m accountable for the revenue of the company, thinking through how we grow, scale, and expand into international markets or within existing territories. Trov is bang in the middle of InsureTech. When we originally started the company, InsureTech, as a sector, did not exist.  After I had just sold my last company, Scott, our CEO, sat me down and said, “Mark, what if we could create the world’s largest database about the things that people own?” So that was the seed of the idea. And then we thought, if we knew who owned what and we knew the value of those things, what industries could it disrupt? Scott has this great saying, “assume success for a moment…” So, imagine you have a company as big as Google, and you had all this data around what people owned and who they were, how could we serve that customer better and what industries could we disrupt?

We investigated that for a while, and it didn’t take long before we ended up in the insurance world. When we talked to insurance companies, we asked them, “how well do you know what people own?” They had a reasonable understanding of bricks and mortar buildings, but the things that were inside or the things that people brought with them on a day-to-day basis were unknown and just guess-work.

Long story short – we discovered that the millennials, the under 35s, were significantly under insured. The least insured generation since the 2nd World War. People older than 35 – 89% have contents insurance, since they own a home. But younger people – especially those living in London, Sydney, San Francisco, they can’t afford to do anything but rent. And only about 13% of them take out contents insurance. So, we realized there was a nice gap in the market we could target – the untethered – those people who move around, living a different lifestyle and taking things with them

Used to be, you go on holiday, you bring your trunks and towel; now you bring your laptop, tablet, phone and so on, You’ve got thousands of pounds in your bag. So how do we effectively cover those people on the go?

So we’ve developed the world’s first micro-moment insurance platform, which powers multiple insurance experiences for that generation. We help people protect the things they care about and are also venturing into on-demand car insurance. We found that the insurance world is legacy bound. These old systems are holding insurers back from delivering the products that a new generation need. On our journey we built a virtual insurance company in the cloud that deploy almost any type of insurance product internationally.

Gary: Where in the world is Trov working?

Mark: We started in Australia, then we launched in the UK and we are just deploying in the US. The US is more complex.  You’ve got one regulator in Australia and one in the UK, but you’ve got 51 different jurisdictions in the US, so it’s like launching in 51 countries at once. And there are some states that mandate that you need to use paper and the mail – so there are some states in which we will not launch – they need to keep up with the times!

Gary: And you’ve been pretty successful so far, Mark. The company hasn’t been going that long, but you’ve had a significant amount of investment, and you’ve started to work with some very large insurance companies?

Mark: Yes, we’ve been very fortunate. We are partnered with Suncorp in Australia. And in the UK we partner with AXA, and then there’s Munich Re, the large re-insurer for the US, and there’s SOMPO for Japan. And we are finalizing some agreements for Canada as well. So we have a licence to operate anywhere in the world at the moment. We feel very thankful.

And then from a capitalization perspective, we have raised just shy of $95m since we started 5 years ago. We find ourselves in the midst of a hot environment from a VC perspective but we now have the insurers themselves financing us, backing us. Having the strategic partners beginning to play is a nice sign of our future.

Gary: You’re the chief strategy officer of this successful company based in California, and here you are based on a small island on the edge of Europe. How does that work?

Mark: There are days it’s a challenge! We have a five-person executive. So I spend at least one week a month in head office in California. But we’re also working in Australia, so I send time there. And a lot of the innovation, disruption in the insurance world is in London and Germany. So being close by that helps. There is at least one insurance tech gathering a week in London. Plus Munich Re and Axa, our partners, are based in London. So it’s quite helpful to be close to that.

But some days it’s tough and I miss not being in head office.

Silicon Valley’s Energy & Drive

Gary: So how did a young guy from Comber end up setting up a successful high tech business in the US?

Mark: I’ll try to keep a long story short! When I was here I worked in a family business and I then became a youth worker. I had a flair for technology at school – it was probably the only thing in school I had an interest in! After getting married I moved to Vancouver and found a need to help students help through their path out into the world and that led me to set up a centre to help students find their way – almost a career path. Before long it was a co-working facility, with about 30 people, and we had people like Josh, a biology student, who came to me one day and said he wanted to set up an ideas factory. So, I helped him think through what it would mean practically to set something up to make ideas a reality. In doing that, I accidently set up Canada’s first start-up accelerator. And that taught me what it took to set up and develop a company in North America.

I then went and set up a bigger facility in Toronto and we helped connect people with ideas to venture capital, and I did whatever I could to try and make those companies successful. I had a couple of successes of my own at that time and then I started another company which got funded out of Silicon Valley. The board then wanted to have a presence there; I was getting tired of the Toronto winters and decided that some sunshine wouldn’t be a bad thing, so we went there.

And over time I got embedded in the Silicon Valley system and network, started a couple of companies, sold them, and then on the back of selling the last company to, Scott Walchek approached me to start Trov with him. Scott had been my first investor about 18 years ago when I was in Vancouver. He was the one that really helped me to think through what an entrepreneur is and shaped me. Scott has built many successful companies, and was a founding board member of Baidu, the Google of China – he knows what he’s doing and he’s kept my feet on the ground.

Gary: You talked about the Silicon Valley environment. How would you describe that? It’s a very expensive place to start up a business and skilled technology resources are highly in demand and scarce for a new organization, so what’s the benefit of being there?

Mark: When I was in Toronto, it was around the time of the emergence of Web 2.0, and I remember one of my friends ran a start-up camp and we had about 80-100 people in the room, maybe 30 start-ups. And then I heard about start-up camp in San Francisco, so I thought I would go and check it out.

I went to the Moscone Center in San Francisco and there were at least 1,000 start-ups in the room and several thousand people, and I’d never seen anything like that energy and drive.

Gary: So the scale, the dynamic, the environment fosters that?

Mark: Yes. They had a panel of specialists that evening and someone –  I think he was from New York – asked, “if you’ve a great idea and you’re not in Silicon Valley, what would you do?” And it was a resounding, “Move!” Which I felt was Silicon Valley arrogance. Which it does have. One side is arrogance, but the other side is confidence. And some of that confidence is due, because of the eco-system and the history it has.

Now I don’t know what that guy did, but I took the advice, and thought, if I genuinely want to become a strong entrepreneur and the best in my game, Silicon Valley is where it’s at. The history that grew out of Stanford, all the venture capital, everywhere you go, every coffee shop you go into, the people you meet – it’s not like any other place in the world.

There’s a downside. It can be a bubble, it’s expensive, finding and hiring people can be tough, but there is the ability to go for it and if you fail, it’s part of earning your stripes of being an entrepreneur.

On Being An Entrepreneur

Gary: Mark, after all you’ve done, what would you say you are really good at, and how did you get good at it?

Mark: I’m good at bringing ideas to reality. Listening to an idea and knowing the building blocks to make that happen. And that’s because I’ve done it so many times. I’m good at helping things get capitalized because I’ve got to know people over 20 years. I’m resilient, I don’t give up – that’s very key. I’ve failed more than once, but I haven’t let that hold me down.

Gary: You’ve failed and presumably had other disappointments – how do you cope with disappointment and frustration?

Mark: The first loss – I lost everything the day my first child was born. Coping comes through meaning, drive and passion. If I have a vision for something, if there’s a problem that need solved, and if I fail at it the first time, it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t need solved. It’s just that my strategy needs to change.

Gary: You can’t go at it the same way again and again. Like Einstein says…

Mark: Yes. I recognize that someone will change it and it might as well be me. I’m driven by meaning and social change. If it’s just a random idea, it doesn’t move me. But being able to keep getting up and going again is because I find meaning in what I do.

Northern Ireland’s Technology Scene

Gary: You lived and worked in Canada and the United States for many years, Mark. What differences did you notice in coming back to Northern Ireland?

Mark: The positive of Northern Ireland – there’s a quite grounded nature. It’s not as driven, and there’s a strong commitment to relationships. Not just to an idea, not just to the company, but to the people involved. So that aspect of community is good. Another thing is it’s a very small world; in some bigger place, like Silicon Valley, say, it can take you longer to find out that someone’s a shark. Whereas in Northern Ireland, if you’re dishonest, people will find out really quickly. So I think that tight community is really good for accountability.

The downside is that there is still a small mindedness. We are part of an interconnected world, but people sometimes still think about it as just Northern Ireland! The great connections, telecommunications we have here – we forget about that sometimes. But we can innovate here just as well as anywhere else. It may be tougher here to raise capital, because we don’t yet have the eco-system, but then what Catalyst and Ormeau Business Park are doing to bring that together is strong. It’s certainly getting better. But sometimes we forget how big the world is and the opportunity that exists.

Gary: Are you encouraged by what you see in the technology scene here?

Mark: When I left I didn’t really think there was a technology scene! When I look back I was a dreamer with lots of ambition and Northern Ireland didn’t seem to have much to offer. But going away and getting the stuffing kicked out of me a few times, getting seasoned, allows me to come back and do something. It feels like Northern Ireland is ripe for growth right now.

It is really encouraging because there are lots of start-ups, lots of ideas. I think there’s a lot of wisdom needed to shape these ideas, but at least people are surfacing. They’re coming out of school and university wanting to do something other than become a banker or doctor. There’s now an avenue and a belief that you can do new things here.

Gary: What do we need to be doing better? What would help us make a step change in terms of success as a high tech region?

Mark: the next big step is learning what it would mean to scale the companies that are coming through. We’re getting better at seed financing some companies and leading them towards early Series A stage capital, getting the £1m-£2m of investment. That might sound like a lot of money, but with a technology company when you’ve got to scale it, there’s a lot of work upfront. A couple of million is enough to get a proof of concept and get something that is viable in the market. But to really grow it to the next level, we need to have the next tier of financing where someone can raise £3-£7m. That’s a gap in our market. Once you get past that there is other money from other places that can start to play.

But there’s a middle tier that’s lacking at the moment. So we’ve got Techstart that is doing a phenomenal job at the early stage, but it’s the next level – whether that’s bridging to an ecosystem in London or Silicon Valley –  that we need.

Gary: And what about skilled technology resources? Are we OK with that, or is it challenging?

Mark: It is beginning to get challenging. There are new tech companies coming from the US and the UK and are sucking up some of the development talent. Then those entrepreneurs who need those resources – they can’t compete on salary against those coming in from the outside, so yes, that is a challenge. We lack the development resources, and we lack the product design skillset as well. There is good design thinking around, but not enough yet of strong product leadership.

Advice for Entrepreneurs

Gary: For technology entrepreneurs, as someone who’s been there and done that – what advice would you give people starting out in a new business venture?

Mark: First, surround yourself with people who are really bought in to what you’re doing. You need to believe in yourself and believe you can do it. But then you need to get others who are willing to buy in just as much as you. People who are willing to take a risk, whether that is early stage finance, or finding a co-founder, or someone who will join your executive with you. Before you raise capital, you probably want to find those people.

The hardest thing in building a business is finding the people. The capital can come if the idea is right, but finding the talent is the hardest piece.

Gary: And what about personal attributes, or outlook or approach…?

Mark: Definitely resilience is number one, the ability to keep going, no matter what. It can be a tough slog. I’ve never done a start-up that was easy. In fact, the only people I’ve ever met that have done one that was easy are people I don’t want to be around, because they thought it was all about them. There’s a little bit of timing and fortune in the midst of it all as well.

Gary: So if it’s so hard along the way, what is the benefit of doing it?

Mark: Social change.

Gary: It’s not about making a fortune?

Mark: No. The moment an entrepreneur focuses on money, it’ll all go south. I’ve met entrepreneurs that are focused on money, but they are people I’d never want to work with. That’s not to say you ignore money, but it’s secondary. But money follows good ideas. I think there needs to be a mission behind a company that’s genuine and real – whether that’s connecting people, enhancing communications, solving homelessness and so on – the good entrepreneurs I know are problem solvers. They’ve looked at the world, they’ve seen something wrong and they’re moved by it. And then they’re motivated by change.

A lot of people do that charitably, but I think we can do good in the world and make money at the same time. The benefit of making money is that you can do it again.

Bringing Silicon Valley to Belfast

Gary: We’re sitting here in the old Ormeau Baths, which have been completely refurbished as office accommodation. Tell us about what’s going on here and what you’re hoping to achieve.

Mark: In some ways I wanted to bring a little bit of Silicon Valley to Belfast. The city centre core needs a hub. To bring vibrancy and life and a community to those that do want to take a risk. So that they don’t feel alone, but they can be in an environment where they see other people doing the same thing, taking the same risk, having that support around them. Other people who have done it before and others who are in the trenches with them.

So it’s a creative environment to work in, but it’s also a community of support. It’s a central hub that brings the community together to support the start-ups and those folks who could change our economy – that’s why we’ve done it.

Dr. Gary Burnett is an IT professional and writer. He runs a boutique consultancy company which helps technology companies change and grow.

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Ampliphae’s Trevor Graham: “Make sure it’s as good as it can be.”

Trevor Graham, CEO, Ampliphae

Trevor Graham, CEO, Ampliphae

Gary: Trevor, tell us a little bit about Ampliphae and what it does.

Trevor: Ampliphae is a start-up software company that’s in the Cloud networking space. What we do is to help enterprises make the transition from a world where their applications lived on-premise to one where those applications have moved to the Cloud. We’re in the middle of this massive shift in IT infrastructure – Amazon and Google’s Cloud offerings are allowing companies to run the workloads that their businesses depend upon out on the Internet, at much lower cost and much more flexibly. They can scale up, or scale down, whatever they need.

In this new world, what we do is give the IT guys a set of tools that help them understand their network connectivity up into the Cloud and help them to optimize the network to better suit the needs of their applications.

Gary: So in this new Cloud world, what are the problems of the IT team and how exactly does Ampliphae help?

Trevor: If you look at what has happened to the job of the IT person over the past few years, their focus of concern has had to shift. The process of bringing a new application into the enterprise used to be quite lengthy – the IT department got involved very early on, they helped assess the applications available on the market, they selected one, they designed the infrastructure upon which to run that application, they got servers and storage organized, and then they installed the application and supported it over time. This process has changed quite markedly.

saasMore and more we’re seeing companies use what is known as Software as a Service (SaaS) – applications that are run by a provider and offered on a pay-per-use basis. As these SaaS offerings have appeared, the IT department no longer has to put in place infrastructure, and it often has no say in selecting the application, but it may still have responsibility for business continuity and security and the quality of experience of the end users. The problem is they don’t really have the tools in this SaaS-ified world that they need to keep the business running – and really put some governance and control around things.

So, effectively what we’re doing is using the network as a source of information that allows the IT team to understand a whole range of issues – what applications are being used inside the company, even when they are being delivered entirely over the web; are those the right applications, where is my data, what country does my data sit in? What we’re doing is using the network as a source of information to help the IT team get an understanding of what is happening inside the enterprise. Get their arms around it and exert some control again. You could really call it SaaS governance.

We’re a networking company, and our software runs at the network layer, it inspects the packets of information that flow across the network, but the implications are much wider than just networking – it’s really looking at the whole IT infrastructure of your stack and how the IT team gets some control back around that.

cloudGary: That all sounds very logical. You’ve got the Cloud and the new context for IT, you’ve got the need for exercising some level of control – this all seems very necessary – are there not lots of other companies doing what you’re doing?

Trevor: There are some companies addressing some aspects of the problem. The Cloud providers themselves recognize the fact that network connectivity into their  Cloud is a big issue. So they offer larger enterprises the opportunity to connect their networks directly to their Cloud and thus take away some of the issues around network connectivity. But in terms of discovering what SaaS tools are on your network and helping with IT governance around SaaS, there are remarkably few companies addressing that problem directly.

And part of the reason for this is that there are a couple of quite difficult problems. And we’ve invested a lot of time and resource in trying to solve these. The first of those problems is that because SaaS tools tend to be delivered from a small number of hyper-scaled data centres – Amazon, Google, Microsoft – using the destination of the traffic is no longer a good mechanism for figuring out what type of data it is. It could be anything, it could be Netflix, it could be finance software like Sage, or anything else. So the traditional tools that a network engineer would have used to figure out what’s going on are really not that useful.

dataThe other aspect of the Cloud is that we live in a world that is much more security conscious and encryption is becoming more and more prevalent. So virtually every SaaS service requires encryption. And then it becomes very difficult to figure out what’s going on inside the network communications – it’s all encrypted, it all looks like noise. So how do you figure out what’s going on? – is this a voice call, or a video conference, or someone watching Coronation Street on ITV Player? It could be any of those things. What we’ve been developing is some data science methods to look at the pattern of packets as they pass across the network, put them all into a massive data store, run some very clever data science algorithms and use that to develop, effectively, fingerprints for the different types of network traffic.

So without cracking into those data packets, without any snooping into anybody’s data, we can tell what the data is – voice, video, web browsing, a CRM tool.  And then we can put that evidence together with lots of other data we collect both from the public Internet and the customer’s network and give a high probabilistic view of exactly what the traffic is, what it’s being used for and, importantly, whether it is business critical or not.

Because this is really what the business wants to know. Is this traffic which is passing across my network and using up a third of my bandwidth important to the business? If it is, you want to wrap some governance around it, assure it, make sure it keeps running, maybe plan an uplift to your network to cater for future growth and so on.

Gary: So, understanding what’s happening on the network is the first step for organizations in making sure their networks run in an optimal fashion?

Trevor: Yes, and our system really helps with this. There are so many Cloud-delivered applications out there these days – thousands of them – that keeping up with what’s out there and understanding whether the data on my network is really a business tool or not, is a major challenge. The investigative work involved in this is massive. So what we’re building in to our product is effectively a library of SaaS applications. We’re doing the legwork for our customers. It’s a little bit like an anti-virus product in this respect. And we have some machine learning tools to help streamline this work for us. So we are able to give the IT people an insight into what is this particular application, what is it used for, is it a business tool, and also what are the implications of having this running on your network.

bandwidth-805x452Some SaaS tools may require a lot of bandwidth, or low-latency bandwidth – two way voice communication will have very specific requirements in the network, whereas someone simply interacting with a web form will have a completely different pattern of usage. So what we can do is give the IT team insights into how a given application might make demands on their infrastructure and help the IT team to adapt their processes and effectively get some service assurance around that application.

Even though it’s a SaaS tool, they now still have the ability to make sure that the path between the user and that service is preserved and optimized. Customers may want to route the traffic differently, depending on whether it’s business critical or not. Depending on how business-critical the traffic is, we can either send it out over the Internet, or we can send it over a direct connection to Amazon’s Cloud, so it never touches the public Internet, and it has the best, premium path to get there which is secure and uninterrupted.

So those are the kinds of tools we are giving the IT team. We can understand, we can identify and classify, we can optimize their infrastructure.

Gary: So, clearly there are benefits in what you have to offer. But if a CFO is sitting looking at a purchase order for Ampliphae’s products, are there financial benefits for his or her organization in using your products and services?

Trevor: Yes, absolutely. The most obvious one is that you can keep a handle on the ever increasing bandwidth used inside the organization. The classic networking approach to a problem is to go and buy more bandwidth. And that’s not always the right solution. Sometimes there’s a point at which you can’t physically add more bandwidth. But adding more bandwidth might not solve your problem. The application might be performing badly because you’re not routing the traffic the right way, perhaps it’s not be the right application, or it’s hosted in some really distant part of the world and the laws of physics are against you. So by giving the IT team some tools to understand what’s going on, you can avoid some network costs.

software-applicationThe other thing is, that the IT team used to have a really good set of IT service management tools to manage the infrastructure upon which the applications ran. These allowed the IT team to keep the servers up and running, keep all the data backed up, make it all resilient, make sure the applications didn’t go down. In the new world where those tools are off-site and owned by someone completely different, maybe in a different jurisdiction, the risk of downtime, of losing access to an application because you haven’t got the right network configuration is high. And for many organizations where the applications directly impact the revenue flow, losing access to an application can have a major impact on the business. So from the CFO’s point of view there is a risk-cost avoidance issue here as well.

Gary: So who would your typical customers be? Would they be larger enterprises or SMEs?

managedpageTrevor: There are really two types of organization interested in our software. The primary one right now is the managed service provider. Typically most smaller or medium sized companies will outsource the job of providing network connectivity to their potentially far flung set of branch offices. So they will ask a managed service provider to take over and do that. A managed service provider does a number of things – they will stitch together connectivity from a number of different telecoms providers, possibly putting in some connectivity of their own; they will run a core network that connects together all of those sites; and they will provide connectivity on out of that network into the Cloud and into the Internet. So by delivering our software to the managed software provider’s network, all the SMEs and enterprises that use that managed service provider get access to the capabilities that we offer, and get the advantage and the value-add of being able to inspect and control their network. The managed service provider gets a benefit because it makes their service more valuable to the end customer. And then at the higher end, where you are into larger global enterprises who have the resources to manage their own networks, they would be a direct consumer of our product.

Gary: So it sounds like those customers are going to be outside of Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland. How easy or otherwise, is it for a company based in Belfast doing business on that sort of global scale?

novoscoTrevor: Well, it can certainly be a challenge. But thankfully some of our customers here in Northern Ireland themselves address a wider market beyond this island. For example, one of our customers is Novosco, a major managed services and Cloud provider which does a lot of business throughout Ireland and in Great Britain. So this allows us to address a wider market through them. Outside of the UK, it can be challenging to scale up a direct sales team to address the market. To date we’ve been doing the leg work ourselves, attending conferences throughout Europe on a regular basis, and we do some work with telcos across Europe. In the future as we expand, we will need to build our sales capacity outside the UK and develop other channel partnerships that will allow us to go to market on a global scale.

Gary: You’ve been going, now, about 2 years. What have been the major challenges for you during that time?

Trevor: Just about everything! You need to go and raise the capital needed to build up the team, you need to build your product, go and find customers. But the most important thing is building your team – both the founding team and the first set of hires. It’s critical. But Northern Ireland has a rich base of talent. We’re in a good position now that because we’ve had a lot of FDI coming into Northern Ireland over the past twenty years or so in the software and telco space, so we’ve built up a community of expertise. There are a lot of people here who have worked for successful American companies which have established here – they’ve got good expertise, and as a start-up, the ability to attract those people is key to our success.

Gary: And in fact you’re an example of that yourself, Trevor, of someone who worked for a US company that set up here and has gone on to establish a new company.

Trevor with Tim Croy

Trevor with Tim Croy

Trevor: I started out in BT a long time ago before moving to Nortel Networks and effectively building the devices and physical network technology on which the telcos operated. I then went from Nortel to a small company, Intelliden, based in Colorado Springs, but which had come to Northern Ireland to set up a development team, and which supplied network management solutions for telcos. That business was acquired by IBM, and after that I had the opportunity to help establish another FDI company in Northern Ireland. That company, Vello Systems, from California, was an early pioneer in the Software Defined Networking space. So I’ve seen all aspects of the networking industry; after Vello, I and my co-founder, Tim Croy, decided to establish our own company rather than just build something up for someone else – that was the start of Ampliphae.

Gary: You’re the CEO of the company, Trevor. From what you’ve described, you’ve a very technical background. Is that advantageous in the particular business that you’re in, as opposed to just having a more general management background? How does your in-depth knowledge of the technology help?

Trevor: In our space this is important. Software, networking and Cloud is a very fast-moving business. Technology is moving all the time and a good technical knowledge is important, not just for me, but for executives in companies at any level these days. But I’m an engineer by background, I like to build things, and at its core a technology company is all about building something. You need to put your heart and soul into it and make sure its as good as it can possibly be. And what we’ve found is that the market we’re addressing – we’re talking to IT teams inside large organizations, or service providers, typically it’s a very technical conversation – there are hard problems to solve, there are big technical challenges and being able to discuss things properly on a technical level is very important. If I couldn’t go to a CIO and discuss in detail how we can solve his or her problems, then the conversation won’t go very far.

Gary: What are your ambitions for the company, Trevor?

Trevor: Well we’re still at an early stage. Our near term ambitions are to continue to roll out our product – we’re effectively in early production at the moment. We need to add features to the product, make it even better. And then, of course, get this out into a wider market, and scale things out.

Gary: What have you enjoyed about being involved in a start-up?

decisionTrevor: For me, having come up through American corporate culture, the level of independence and speed of decision making that we have as a small company is great. In a large corporate there are always great ideas bubbling up, but getting decisions made and getting those ideas to market can be very difficult. In a small company we can be very fleet of foot, we can make decisions, change direction, build a new product, do something new. Having the shackles taken off is a great benefit!

Gary: So what is it that Trevor Graham is really good at and how did you get good at it?

Trevor: Well, we were just talking about how understanding technology is a really important part of my job. Over years in the telco industry, I really understand that industry from top to bottom and I understand the technology at a deep level, and that’s what I bring to the table with Ampliphae.  And having seen the needs of people trying to apply telecoms technology to their business and understand how that technology can be used to make their business more efficient – giving them new revenue streams and new ways of going to market and solving those problems for them with our technology, is I really enjoy doing, and that’s what I’m good at!

Gary: Thank you Trevor.

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Greg Wilson’s formula for success: work hard, believe in yourself, be determined.

Seopa's Greg Wilson

Seopa’s Greg Wilson

Gary: Okay. So Greg, tell us about what Seopa is and does.

Greg: Seopa actually started as a search engine optimization company which is where we get the S-E-O in SEOPA from. We started off doing SEO in the insurance and finance space. But as the years progressed we moved into insurance and financial comparison technology and that’s our current main focus.

Gary: Where does most of your business come from?


Greg: We’re based in Northern Island but actually we operate mostly in Great Britain. So we’ve got two main brands, we’ve got which is our “whole of UK” price comparison engine and we’ve got which is our Northern Ireland price comparison engine. Over 90% of our current visitors would be from mainland UK.

Gary: For people who don’t know, you’re a bit like some of the big TV advertisers like Compare the Market, Go Compare. That’s the same sort of business that you’re in.

Greg: That’s very similar. With most of our car, van, bike and home insurance comparisons, we operate a pretty similar model the companies you’ve mentioned.

Gary: Right. So you’ve been working on in this market for what, six years? Something like that?

compareniGreg: We actually started back in 2004 so we’ve been in it longer than some of our competitors. We launched the UK’s first UK van insurance comparison system, for example. So we’ve got quite a lot of expertise in this industry. The main difference between us and ones you may have seen on UK television is exactly that – they’ve spent a lot of money on television advertising.

Gary: A big thing in your business, Greg, obviously is traffic, people coming on and getting quotations and so on. How do you get that when you’re not advertising on TV?

Greg: We started off with a budget of a few pounds to buy and host our first website. We’ve always tried to self-fund our growth where possible rather than having to give up a large part of the company to someone else. Because of that, we’ve had to grow fairly organically. That meant that we had to find ways to market that we could measure and that would give us a fast return on investment.

Because we started off in search engine optimization, that was one area of expertise that we had, and we were able to use that to promote the website – and we continue to do this. But we also have developed a number of other ways we bring our product to market using online methods. We do everything from SEO through Pay per Click through to referrals from other websites, and for a select number of companies we have entered into some arrangements where they can direct their customers to a co-branded version of our websites in order to get quotes.

Gary: Very good. So really you’ve been using smart online means of marketing.

Search-Engine-MarketingGreg: Yeah. We’ve didn’t have the luxury of having big pockets, certainly in the early days, to just throw money at something and see if it works. So we took a more measured and calculated approach. We found that the online market was the easiest way we could do that. My brother Ian and I basically run the company. We’re both engineers and we’ve always taken a mathematical and “engineering” approach to things such as marketing. Marketing doesn’t have to be a hit and miss thing.

Gary: Okay. What has that resulted in, then, in terms of your company growth – in terms of the volume of business you’re doing, in terms of the number of site visitors, or the volume of quotes that you provide?  Has this approach been successful for you?

Greg: It’s worked very well for us. We find that, because at the moment, the majority of our customers come from an online source, they tend to be a different pool of people than those that may be visiting our competitors’ sites. Typically people go there because they have been taken there by their above-the-line television advertising. But we get a lot of customers that come to us who don’t go to the other comparison sites as much. So we get a fairly healthy conversion rate on those who come and get a quote from us.

Gary: So the result is that you’ve seen very healthy growth, Greg, particularly over the last four years or so. How big is Seopa in terms of employees for example?

Growth_ChartGreg: Well, we started off with just a couple of people working from home. Since then we’ve set up a European IT facility in Romania and our office in Belfast city centre. So we’ve now grown to be around 30 people in Romania and just under 30 here in Belfast. Our turnover’s taken a similar growth. When we formed a limited company I think our turnover was between three and four hundred thousand a year. Our most recent year’s turnover is about ten million. So we’ve come on quite considerably over the short history of the company.

Gary: I see from the display on the wall, Greg, that you’ve been a Deloitte Fast 50 company over the last three years.

Fast-50-winnerGreg: Yeah, we got a Deloitte Technology Fast 50 three years in a row – it’s been very good in helping us gain business partners and for the staff it’s been a sort of external pat on the back to show how well we’ve done. Actually this year we also won a Deloitte EMEA Fast 500 award, which placed us in the Top 500 technology companies in the EMEA region in terms of turnover growth which was a very pleasant surprise for us.

Gary: You’ve alluded to your own story here, Greg, which I think is very interesting because here you are running a company of around 60 people and you recently won a Young Business Person of the Year award in Belfast. You’ve built this company from scratch, from the ground up. Tell us just a little bit about deciding that you were going to do something like this.

Greg: Well, I won a scholarship to university to study Mechanical Engineering, and as part of that I worked for Shorts, as it was then, or Bombardier now, for my sandwich year. And as well my four year MEng degree course had summer placements. That gave me a good feel for business and particularly manufacturing. I particularly liked the sort of practical or applied aspects of the university course – it wasn’t just theoretical. It was something that you could bring into real life.

So when I left university, I began working as a stress engineer for Bombardier and while it was a good place to work and I enjoyed it, I began to realize that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. So I started to think of ways that to make a few extra pounds in my spare time, and I realized then that – this was back in early 2000s – the internet might be worth a look. What I liked about it was that it was relatively free to use. The only thing that would stop me from doing something there would be how many hours that I could put into it.

Gary: So tell us something more of your own story.

httpGreg: So at first I started using my father’s computer at weekends and I taught myself how to make web pages. I then realized that I needed to find a way to get a variety of people to visit my websites, not just the young computer “nerds”. So I then started reading up on Search Engine Optimization and eventually I found ways to get more people to come to my websites. And then on those websites I put adverts or banners for insurance brokers who were willing to pay me for sending them leads.

Basically that worked and I earned a few pounds in my first few months. But after a short time, I was making a lot more at home at the weekends than I was in my full time job. So I began thinking about leaving my job to work for myself, but I was a bit worried that the bubble might burst. It took me quite a long time to the courage and, I suppose, enough money to fall back on, to move and try this as a proper business. That didn’t happen until I’d worked for around three and a half years, so it was around mid-2003 that I left Shorts.

Gary: When people talk about technology companies, startups in Northern Island, one of the things people talk about is funding and how to fund a business and so on. Has that been an issue for you?

ideaguyGreg: It hasn’t really been an issue for me. If I was going to start a shop where someone had to walk through the door then I’d need a way to get access to money for property. but because the internet area opens so many virtual doors, you don’t really need a lot of money – you just need an idea and hard work –that’s really what got us going.

And we’ve been lucky enough over the years to get some support from InvestNI who helped us to accelerate our growth, but we ultimately are still in the fortunate position where I’m the 100% shareholder and have the power to make the decisions that I think are fit for the business, which lets us move and react, perhaps more quickly than some other companies would be able to.

Gary: With the fast growth that you’ve had over the last few years, presumably the operation of the company is very different from what you were doing in the very early days when there were two or three of you. What has that transition been like, and what are the challenges you faced in running a fast-growing technology company?

management-word-cloud-19209387Greg: As I said earlier, I came from an engineering background and so I didn’t really have any business training other than some small parts of my degree course. In the early days it was all hands on deck, get stuck in, get everything done. Pretty soon, you come to realize that there are only so many hours in a day for each person, so we had to take on more people – that was the first major challenge. Things like how do you identify the right people at interview was a bit of a learning process for us, but we got the company to a point where we had good people in place and were able to delegate work. That brought its own challenges – with so many other people now doing things, how do you manage that and make what is being done is of the right quality? So we’ve learned by doing and we’ve had to continually reinvent ourselves over the past few years. We’ve moved from being a micro-company towards having more business processes in place. But always, we want to maintain our agility.

Gary: Greg, what are the main challenges that managers, people running a business, face? What are things that really challenge you and your management team?

Greg: One of the main challenges, I suppose, is that you just can’t do everything yourself. So you need the right people working with you. And finding the right people can be very difficult and that’s certainly been something that we’ve learned a lot about along the way.

And once you’ve got the right people, you need to manage them, get the right reporting processes in place and make sure that you give people an appropriate level of responsibility in order to grow. But you’ve got to go on and work out how you can make your company an effective and efficient operation, but at the same time – and this is very important – not stifle innovation. Our main challenges along the way have been in those areas.

We have another unique challenge, in that our teams are not only on three different floors in one building in Belfast, but also in two countries. So we’ve had to continually reevaluate and adapt how we work together with our colleagues several hundred miles away.

Gary: Greg, you’ve got a fairly young team here. A lot of the people that you’ve hired have been graduates fresh out of university. Tell us a bit about your team and the characteristics of people that work here and the culture that you have in the company.

enthusiasmGreg: My view was that I was able to start a company with no particular business training and got it to work because I thought I could do it and I believed in myself. That’s the sort of people we look for. When we look for people to join the company, I’d much rather they were capable , enthusiastic and intelligent even if they don’t have lots of experience – people like that can learn, innovate and grow with us whereas having 10 years’ experience in a role doesn’t necessarily mean you are good at it.  That’s been our approach largely, so you’ll find that most of the people that work for us fit that bill. They’re energetic. They care about the company. They work very hard. Nothing’s ever too much of a challenge for them and they solve problems. It’s that attitude that lets us continue to grow and work hard together and succeed.

Gary: You’ve reached the point where you’re a significant player in the UK market in the business you’re in. Do you have plans for the future of the company from here on?

Greg: Yeah. We’ve always got very big plans. We’ve never got to a point where we didn’t know what to do next. Our challenge has always been “How can we get it done as fast as we can?” Looking forward, we’ve got a very good set of technology, we’ve got more systems and more of a product range than perhaps any of our rivals. So our two challenges really are “How do we get as many people in the UK as possible to use these systems and benefit from them?” and, “How do we take this system on to a global marketplace?” Those are the two primary aims in terms of a business expansion over the next few years.

Gary: Let me ask you something slightly different Greg. What is Greg Wilson really good at? How did you get good at it?

determinationGreg: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at any one thing but I’ve always been very determined. If something doesn’t work, I’m not happy to just let it sit. I will keep at it or get other people involved or do whatever is necessary until we can get it to work. And I think because of that, that’s how our company works – people know that it’s not okay to give up, and when they start something they have to keep at it until they get it to work. So really, I think if I had to pick one thing it would just be determination.

Gary: Very good. And if you were giving some advice to another person, a young person, who’s working in a bigger company at the moment and he or she’s thinking “I really would like to start my own business”, what sort of advice would you give to them?

Greg: I think the thing that worked for me well was having the confidence that I knew I could get something to work. You don’t need money. You just need to be willing to take some of your free time and use that time to try something. I think, learn as much as you can about what it is you’re trying to do and give it a try. But you’ve got to stick with it if it’s going to work. It won’t just happen overnight unless you’re very lucky. It’ll have to be something that you really do put your heart and soul into in order to get it to take off.

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Novosco’s Patrick McAliskey – Never stop looking to improve.

patrick-mcaliskey-novoscoGary: Patrick, just to get us started, just tell us a bit about Novosco.

Patrick: Novosco is actually two Latin words joined together – Novus and Agnosco, which means “new understanding.” That was the idea, when we formed, back in 2007. What happened was John Lennon was running a company called 4Sol and I was running a company called Real Time Systems, and I approached him one day and said, “John, I think we could do more together than competing,” and so we did. That was just over six years ago. At that time, Gary, we had about 30 staff and a turnover of about £4.5m between the two companies. Over the last six years, based on the strong partnerships we have with our major partners like EMC and VMWare, and Citrix, we’ve grown significantly. This year to we’re hoping to do somewhere in the region of about £20m, with around about 90 staff between Belfast, Dublin, and Birmingham.

Gary: So what is it you actually do?

Patrick: I jokingly tell people well we don’t sell PCs and we don’t do websites, but we do a big lump of things in between! It’s what’s called systems integration. This is really the building blocks of IT. So first of all every IT system needs storage, that’s the foundation – a really a big part of it. We design and install  storage systems on behalf of EMC in the UK and Ireland.

Then what you need on top of that is computing capability and we typically partner with Cisco for that.  About three years ago Cisco brought out their own blade servers to compete head on with Dell and others. And then you need a virtualization layer and we work with VMware on that.

novosco-logo-colour-rgbSo we work with each of these three organizations together, VMWare, Cisco and EMC – and also there is an organization joined called VCE that represents them, which provides a sort of  Intel mainframe, which is referred to as a Vblock. So we sell the Vblock, but we also sell the individual components and do our own build, based on the three companies’ products.

So, partly in jest, but in all seriousness, we call it the plumbing of IT because the stuff we deal with is what you don’t see, but if it’s not there, you won’t get a response to your key strokes, your finance application won’t work, your e-mail won’t work, and so on.

It’s all about virtualization today. And what happens is when you start in the virtual world, you may have 100 physical servers, but then all of a sudden you go to 200 virtual servers because it’s so easy to create new environments, to just throw one up for testing a new application or whatever. So you get all this multiplicity of servers, and it’s very easy to create them and manage them.

If you remember the days when you needed a new physical server for something, it could have taken you weeks or months to get it up and running. It takes very little effort to provision a virtual server today. You go, “There’s the memory. There’s the storage I need. There’s how many virtual CPUs I need. Please create. Here’s the login.” It’s really very easy.

Gary: So are most of your customers larger organizations that consume a lot of computing power?

nhsPatrick: We have a lot like that. I mean, that is our sweet spot and many of our customers are in the NHS. We have worked with three Trusts here in Northern Ireland, but now that we’ve expanded into Great Britain, there is a lot of scope for us – there are about 500 Trusts in GB. We’re now doing business with about 12 of those, and they have huge requirements for hundreds of virtual servers.

But we also work with Local Government, Central Government, and Higher Education establishments – for example, we work with Queens in Belfast and Trinity College Dublin, as well as number of Universities in GB. We have around 40 customers in the NI Top 100 list including Moy Park, Tayto, Wrightbus, Foyle Food Group and Grafton.

We also have a lot of customers who, I suppose, have maybe got less of a requirement, but nevertheless their IT is critical to run their business. If an organization values its IT and wants to  invest in it being properly managed and resourced, they’re a good fit for us. We work best with  people who value their IT.

Gary: So, it’s just been in the last couple of years that you’ve made that leap across the water, after having been very successful here in Northern Ireland. So, tell us about that. How does a company from Northern Ireland make that sort of leap into a different, unknown geographic market?

Patrick: I think that’s a really good question Gary because, you know, when you’re thinking of doing that, it’s a bit scary. You have a geography which is right beside us, it’s got the same currency, it’s got a huge, massive opportunity, but how do you get into that market successfully in a managed, controlled way?

ukSo, we thought about the really strong, great culture we have in Novosco. We didn’t want to just go and hire people somewhere in England and say, “Would you now represent Novosco?” So what we did to see if any of our people based here wanted to expand their career and move to GB.

Initially we got a senior salesperson and an engineer who wanted to relocate. So those two guys went, relocated over there, and started to help to build the business and recruit new engineers and new sales staff there.

But we also have some people here who are very senior pre-sales and account managers. They commute two to three days a week. So with people relocating, people commuting, and then hiring, I think we were able from the start to keep the core Novosco DNA and the ethos in our GB business. And we chose Birmingham because we didn’t want to be in the hotspots of Liverpool, Manchester or London. We didn’t see as many competitors in that area, so we put that down as our first location.

And it’s been great. We grew in our first year from 2011-2012 tenfold by turnover. And in 2012-2013 we think we’re going to double again. So that’s twenty times in the two years by turnover from when we started in 2011 till 2013. It’s been one of the best things that we’ve ever done. It was the right thing to do.

I suppose you always look back on it and go, “We should have done it earlier.” But we were going through an evolving business. We created a new stream of our business back in 2009 called Cloud Stream, which was all about cloud services and offering network connectivity and all that. So it took us a couple of years for it to get going and then the GB market was the next big thing for us. And we think that in the next two years we will become significantly bigger in GB and will have many more enterprise customers.

red-business-graphBut in the same way, we’ve doubled the size of our business this year in Dublin. We’ve gone from a €3-4m turnover to €7m this year. That’s been based on landing some really big customers in the EMC business area and in financial services.

Although we’re expanding into GB,  having the business in Ireland is fundamental to us because all of our managed services and support is here. Novosco is going to continue being an indigenous company. We have great engineers here, but at the same time, we’ve created engineers who are happy to travel if needs be. So we intend to grow all three office locations.

Gary: Now you’ve mentioned the Cloud. There’s been a lot of talk about that and a bit of hype as well. What’s your experience out in the market; is that whole approach to computing being taken up by many organizations? What’s your experience been?

Patrick: I suppose I have a mixed opinion of it. It’s been the most overused, overhyped word for a long time in IT. It almost brings you back to the dot com bubble of early 2000s, where Cloud seems to be everything to everybody, and it becomes quite frustrating for people here in the IT field trying to sell solutions.

cloudQuite often the Cloud is presented as this new, cheaper way of doing things, and more often than not, it’s not a cheaper way of doing it! If you’re taking somebody’s IT from a broom cupboard and putting in that in a tier three data center, there’s no way that it’s ever going to be cheaper. But some people think you can just do that.

What the Cloud does is it allows you to move from IT systems on your own premises to probably a much more mature model where the IT is being hosted by somebody. And if you think of what these large scale data centres are like, the investment that goes in, some of these data centers are worth tens of millions of pounds. And  they’ve got back-up UPS, they’ve got back-up diesel generators, they’ve got 24/7 security, they’ve got CCTV everywhere, you’re not allowed in unless you’re escorted, you’ve got card controls. That’s just a massive step up from what you would have typically had with your own IT.

But there are huge benefits to it  – if I was in an SME business in Northern Ireland today and I was thinking, could I protect myself, my IT, by having a data centre that’s got all those capabilities? That would make sense from a business continuity or insurance or an auditor’s view of the world. So I think it’s definitely a leap forward, but people shouldn’t get confused that it’s a cheap way of getting your IT because quite often it’s not.

Gary: And the other technology that is important in terms of what you do, presumably, is big data – another hyped term. You hear all these statistics about the growth of data in the world over the last few years. And so, big data is much touted, much hyped. You’re in the storage business, so presumably, you’re seeing what’s really happening on the ground. What’s your view on all that?

Patrick: Here in Northern Ireland we don’t have many requirements for big data. But is it more common elsewhere? Absolutely.

big dataI was recently talking about this at the Sales Institute in Dublin, with another colleague from EMC. And in the presentation I was saying that there’s somewhere around a few billion sensors that are collecting data on a 24/7 basis – and when I talk about sensors, I’m talking about, for example, chips now going into cars which will collect every single location that car ever was in, plus what speed it was doing and so on. And this sort of data helps insurance companies figure out, for example, whether this 17 or 18 year old was actually driving in a pattern that we’re happy about an as insurance risk. If every car ends up with that and every insurance company is using that as a tool to ask “what’s the median, what’s the average, what’s the worst case here,” they can start to make business decisions about their business and whether it’s a good risk to renew that person for the following year.

And other examples that we’re seeing is that there’s far more video being collected than ever before. You go into the City centre, you’re caught in 40 or 50 CCTV cameras every couple of minutes. Then the medical field is huge. I mean, if you think of all the images that are being captured and the amount of data that’s being held on a person, be it images, be it all the medication and drugs you’ve ever had in your life, be it anything that you’ve ever suffered from. All of this is now being put into larger data sets and it can be used to help make better decisions.

The big examples that you see globally for data are with Twitter and Facebook, where you get tens of millions of transactions in minutes.

The data growth at the moment for an average organization is about 50 percent per year, but once they start to make use of these sensors and more data collection, that’s going to increase significantly. And before long people are going to  think that Terabyte is out of date, and Petabyte and Exabyte will be much more commonly used.  We’ll have that amount of storage even in our own homes.

Gary: All of which is good news for –

Patrick: A storage company!

Gary: A company like yours!

Patrick: Absolutely. This explosion of data is great news for people like us who in a position to be able to provide customers with a solution to their  increasing storage requirements.

Gary: Patrick, as you look around the rest of the IT industry here in Northern Ireland – are you encouraged at what’s happening here and at the growth of the sector and the degree of innovation and the growth of companies? What’s your view as you look around?

Patrick: I’ve never been more optimistic about the future for us at Novosco, but also for the whole sector in Northern Ireland. I mean, look at some of the things that have happened recently – the recent digital summit in Stormont and some of the forecasts that have been made in terms of the number of jobs being created.

innovation centreThere’s over a hundred technology companies in this location here in the Science Park area. Five years ago, you wouldn’t have dreamt you would have that scale, and this seems to be only the start of it. Quite often I talk to students about careers in ICT. I say to them this is a great time to be seriously considering a career in IT, because the salaries are on the increase, the opportunities are there, and no matter what skills you develop, you can carry them with you – you can go to any other country in the world and use them, and so it’s a fantastic time.

I think we will continue to see growth. There are great examples of brilliant organizations and companies in the Science Park and all over Belfast and Northern Ireland. And there’s no reason why these companies can’t expand internationally, globally. If you’re hiring the right people, if you’re growing and developing the skills of your people, then you can become an international business.

For a software company starting in Northern Ireland, I think their first thing should be to go international. They need to get outside of Northern Ireland and get that market coverage because our population isn’t big enough to create the success.

And I think there’s a willingness on the part of senior people within the IT sector to be help the smaller companies by peer meetings and reviews, and encouragement, and doing whatever we can. I regularly meet with people from software companies here in the Science Park and if there’s any opportunity for us to partner with them, we will definitely do it. Or if we find out some market knowledge, I’ll pass it on.

Gary: So what do you think are the major challenges facing IT companies here? Is it – particularly the smaller, indigenous ones – is it people, is it sales and marketing, is it innovation? What do you think are the main challenges?

peoplePatrick: I would say there is always the challenge of getting the right people. We have been fortunate that we have been able to hire some of the best engineers in the country, and that’s great, and that’s helped develop our business. And, to get to the next level, of course, you need to develop the people you’ve got. But actually finding new, really, really great salespeople is one thing that we always find a challenge.

The sales team we have here in Novosco is fantastic because they are all technically capable, so that when we go to a presentation or a meeting, they can answer 90% of the questions – they don’t have to go consult with a pre-sales engineer.

And finding new people who are capable of doing that is quite hard. In Northern Ireland, although we’re not naturally born salespeople, we can become really good salespeople. But  there’s still a wee bit of this – you know, whenever you talk to somebody who is younger and ask them if they would consider becoming a  salesperson when they graduate – it’s like, “What?” But the fact is that salespeople can be the most rewarded people in the industry.

So for me, if you are an IT graduate and you’ve got a few years technical experience, a great transition is to move into the sales area. This can be a real limiting factor for some companies –  not having  really strong technical salespeople.

investmentWhat else is limiting? I suppose for many start-up companies funding  can be a bit of a drawback. In Northern Ireland, we maybe don’t have as many ways to get hold of funding.

But if you look at some of the recent initiatives and you look at what NISP are doing and you look at what other VC companies and funding organizations are doing, it’s definitely getting better. But we need to have a bigger choice. So funding and people are both challenges.

And also I think sometimes we are limited by our own aspirations. I think sometimes we’re maybe a wee bit too grounded, you know, we need to dream a bit more. We should have far more publicly listed organizations coming out of Northern Ireland which could create a thousand or 2,000 or 5,000 jobs. That’s what we need – more companies like that.

Look at First Derivatives, look at Andor, look at Almac – we want people, organizations, like that who can consume huge amounts of graduates, and be able to give them great careers. So it would be great to see more of that happening and more dreamers, more people who’ve got massive aspirations for growing their businesses.

Gary: You’ve obviously got some of that for sure. How do you communicate that vision and make sure everybody in your organization buys into it?

Patrick: It’s actually a really good question, Gary, because it’s something that at board meetings recently we’ve been talking about – and it’s about our culture. So part of our culture here is to be very, very open, and one of the things we did recently was to get our staff to participate in what’s called the Sunday Times’ Best Small Companies to Work For.

BEST SME COMPANIES 2013 LOGO RGBAnd everybody gets surveyed in lots of different areas, and they come back and say, “here’s the things that we really like and here’s some of the things that we think you could do better.” And one of those was about communicating the overall strategy to our people. So we’ve really focused on that. What we do now is have quarterly company meetings where we stand up and give the previous quarter’s figures and share with everybody where we’re doing well and where we’re profitable. We talk about all the HR initiatives in the company.

And we try to go the extra mile with our staff. We provide fruit twice a week in the office, so if anybody hasn’t brought their lunch in, they can go and grab whatever they want. We have good quality coffee on tap permanently. We actually have free massages every Friday, so if you come in here on a Friday morning, you get a 20 minute session, you just book it and away you go!

We also have a well-being campaign – recently we said we wanted all the employees to help us run 60 kilometers on a treadmill and we’d give whatever money we raise that day to bowel cancer UK, which is one of our sponsor charities.

We actually had 30 people who either got on and ran or who just did a few kilometers walk. And we managed to raise £2,000 for Bowel Cancer UK. So we focus on well-being, we focus on communication. We want everybody to be bought into the culture and the ethos of the business. And I think the main point out of all of it is we never stop looking to improve. It’s always about not resting on your laurels, rather, thinking about what’s the next thing that we should be obsessing about? 


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Tim Brundle, University of Ulster Director of Innovation: Build a team bigger than the problem

UU's Director of Innovation, Tim Brundle

UU’s Director of Innovation, Tim Brundle

Gary: Tim – you’re Director of Innovation at the University of Ulster, but you have a number of other roles as well?

Tim: I have two roles through the University of Ulster. The first is, as Director of Innovation, I lead the commercial interests of the university. That involves us making sure the economy gets the support it needs to develop. I lead a team that ensures that we identify intellectual assets within the research base and see if we can invest in those to bring them to business, so that they can have an impact, both on the economy and in society more widely. We also make sure there is good dialogue between the university and industry.

I’m also the Chief Executive of Innovation Ulster Limited, which is the university’s wholly owned technology venturing company. This is an investment vehicle for our spin-outs and it has helped co-invest in many of the fledgling high tech companies in Northern Ireland that are beginning to draw down venture capital from around the world.

innovation ulsterIt’s very integrated to the university, because we want to make sure that there is rapid flow through from the laboratory into businesses. We are the largest university on the island of Ireland and we have a healthy flow of ideas and technology from across the university. But the university’s research areas are very broad, so Innovation Ulster is not just helping patent-based companies get off the ground, but also high growth businesses from the digital sector including those from our work in art and design.

So over the last 6 years, we’ve started 36 companies, we’ve raised £21m of venture capital and we’ve created employment for 163 people working with high tech, knowledge-based companies.

Gary: That’s very impressive. The figures speak for themselves.

uulogoTim: This is something that we could shout about a little louder. When you look at the 200 or so universities within the UK, both Ulster and Queens are in the top 15% of providers of knowledge into the economy – whether you look at the number of interventions into industry (over the past 6 years, we’ve had over 5,000 projects with industry), or the licence of technology (we’ve licensed out or created companies with some 40). So in UK terms, the University of Ulster sits very high in the league table. And this is in part due to the support we’ve had from the Department for Employment and Learning and Invest NI.

Gary: Talking of Invest NI, you’ve been a board member there for some time?

Tim: Yes, for five and a half years. And that has been a very rewarding period. It’s been a very difficult period for the NI economy, and the shape of the economy has changed quite significantly in that period. If you look at the technology sector here, I can remember bringing together chief executives of NI software companies to a meeting 12 years ago, where we could all sit in the one room quite happily – whereas today, you couldn’t do that.

So there has been a huge growth in knowledge based, technology based, software based companies and one of the things I’ve tried to promote is that the requirements that very high growth companies have are very different from other parts of the economy and we need to make sure we can support those entrepreneurs, and those firms, to make sure they can achieve an international presence as quickly as they can.

Gary: So what are the characteristics of those sort of companies?

technologyTim: The characteristics can be quiet complex. The underpinning asset – the technology – is subject to very rapid change. And so there is a requirement to continually keep abreast of change. Also, the domestic market is not sufficient for anything beyond the very first step for these companies. They need to be thinking globally from day one, if they are to achieve  sustainability, growth, profitability. So a rapid step into the global market, rapid R&D, the need to be aware of all the changes that are going on around so that you can hold on to your competitive advantage, yield the benefits from your intellectual property and bring the skills in to be able to manage all of this – these are all the characteristics and challenges of this sector.

In addition, there are subtleties around the sales and marketing activities – at start-up stage it is rare to find a technology company with a product that is ready out of the box. So the sales and marketing effort is much more subtle, in that people are marketing a product or technology into a market that isn’t quite ready for it, and marketing a product that isn’t quite ready itself. So you are providing an intersection to a point in the future – that might be 3 months time, or in the case of pharmaceuticals, 10 years time – so that adds a layer of complexity to the regular business basics that all companies need to pay attention to.

Gary: And how well do entrepreneurs who are starting new companies understand this complexity. Sales and marketing is a challenge, full stop, but this adds a new level to it.

Tim: In any region there will be good examples and we do have good examples. I think, for any company anywhere in the world – companies that are founded by engineers, tend to underestimate the amount of investment that is required in market development. And this is something we try and impress on our own companies. But that marketing effort needs to be equal to, or greater than, the engineering and R&D effort that goes into a company.

Gary: So let’s think about this word innovation, which is bandied about a lot. Hearing the numbers you’ve just quoted, clearly there’s a fair amount of this going on in University of Ulster. As you look round Northern Ireland generally, in your role in Invest and so on, do you have the sense that there is a lot of innovation going on?

innovationTim: Yes indeed. Innovation is difficult to define and therefore difficult to measure. If you look at things like business expenditure on research and development – this is increasing. And the number of companies engaged are increasing, as is the overall value of the R&D activity. We still have a fairly immature market for intellectual property, in that the number of patents being filed in NI is lower that we’d like them to be. But what we are seeing is very definite growth in our digital media sector, in digital content. That is growing very rapidly. Now if you were an economist, it is difficult to measure the intellectual asset base of the digital sector, whereas, in the pharmaceutical sector, it’s much easier to tot up the number of patents.  But yes, we are seeing a lot of companies starting and growing in the digital content area, we are seeing growth in business expenditure in R&D, and we’re seeing people engaging in innovation programmes at Ulster or through Invest NI. So the number of companies that we are working with is increasing at about 20% a year – which is very positive and healthy.

NISP_Logo1I remember as a postgraduate student, some 14 years ago, my first job was carrying the bag of the first Chairman of the Northern Ireland Science Park, and in helping define what the Science Park could be about, and we spent time in other regions that had begun to see benefits from investment in technology – South of France to Helsinki to Silicon Valley to Boston – the start-up hubs. Helsinki was one of the most interesting, because it had gone from a fairly cold start and innovation was an important economic policy priority. But innovation for them was a very wide idea of activities – not just encouraging R&D, turning R&D into product, products into companies and money, but also the changes that were being made in indigenous firms to increase their competitiveness. So you had that flow through, which is what many of us think of when we talk about innovation.

For them, though, it was also about incubation, and it was about creating an eco-system for innovation, it was about ensuring that you had the right attributes in the company, the availability of skills, the flexible work space, fast broadband, availability of seed capital – you made sure you had all of those elements so that people who had good ideas had a launch pad for them. And then innovation also involved helping companies identify best practice, so they could replicate it and maybe move it on a notch.

So those early thoughts have stayed with me and it’s what we try and replicate from a university perspective. It’s not just finding those things within research which can have impact on the economy and on society, but it’s also helping people identify where best practice is in every sector and make sure that Northern Ireland can exploit that sort of experience.

UU labGary: So what is the process within the university – if there is some research that is identified as having commercial potential and the people who have been involved in that are involved in helping bring that to market, that’s a whole new world for some of them who will not have had the skills or experience in sales, marketing, the business processes needed. So how do you get round that?

Teamwork and team spiritTim: One of the important things never to lose sight of in technology commercialization – is that this endeavour is principally about people and not technology. And it’s a team activity. So the challenge for us in the university is to ensure that we build teams that are bigger than the challenges – which means bringing researchers, entrepreneurs, business people, the professional services into projects early. It’s about people more than technology, it’s about building teams that are bigger than the challenges.

But it’s also about getting a balance between vision and pragmatism.  I had a couple of students in the office recently who told me they wanted to build the next Nintendo – having that kind of vision, that excitement, but balancing that kind of raw vision with, you know, how are the cornflakes going to be bought this week, how is the electricity going to be paid for. It’s getting that balance throughout this process.

Gary: So, for innovation to happen, you need the right education and skills to be available. And there has been somewhat of a gap at various times over the past number of years – particularly in the ICT sector, which has expanded enormously over the past 10 years or so. There’s a gap between the availability of skills and the needs of the technology and scientific industries. You’re right at that interface – are we getting it right at the education level, or how much more work is there for us to do?

globalTim: I think there’s a lot more work to be done. Certainly within my lifetime, there have been two points at which there has been a deficiency of the right type of knowledge worker to give our economy competitive advantage. Today this is truly a global phenomenon. For the Northern Ireland Executive the challenge, in terms of economic policy, is to understand that the regions that get this right are the regions that are going to thrive. It’s a global battle for skills. But it’s not just availability, it’s the specificity of those skills, the depth and breadth of knowledge as well.

I’ve just returned from Lithuania, where I was giving the government there some advice on innovation policy. They have close to 100%, full employment, in software, which probably wasn’t the case maybe just a year ago, so we see the requirements of the global industry are soaking up that skills base. So, what can Northern Ireland do about this?

teamThere is a systemic support system that needs to be developed – you need to start with parents who guide their children through the education system, you need to work with the primary school system, post primary, and the further and higher education sectors. And you need to work beyond that. And you need an alignment between the future requirements of industry and the skills base.

One of things I didn’t appreciate until I joined the university sector is how efficient the market becomes and how quickly. Students who follow their degrees into a career path – that market tends to adapt to the availability of skills.  When you see that your classmate, friend or person you lived with at university has just gone into their first job with a software company earning £50,000, and you are spending a year job hunting – that advises the market and drives interest in certain directions.

computer scienceAnd so we’re seeing an uplift in interest in being a computer scientist, where starting salaries are high and continue to rise. We saw only a few weeks ago the highest salary for a software developer in Belfast at £127,000 – advertised locally and working locally. And the person needed just four years’ experience. This message does get through, but the thing is, to prepare people to go down that pathway, we need to make sure that Maths in particular is taught well and broadly within post primary education. We need to make sure that parents can see this as well as the students.  And we need to make sure that post university, there is the support there to develop the skills. One of the employers mentioned to me a few weeks ago that one of the things they need is helping prepare graduates for working in what are complex organizations – customer oriented, matrix managed. That tends to be how software companies operate. And we need to provide help for the technology start-ups. Because many young businesses do not yet have the experience of developing skills within their own organizations. 

So there is support we can provide there. But the one thing we are sure of, if we can get this right, if we can get this working better, then there is competitive advantage for Northern Ireland. But to get that we need an alignment not only between industry, academia and government, but also with the parents. Work of course is under way on this, but that can always go faster, go bigger.

Gary: Tim, what you do is clearly very varied and exciting – what is it you really love about what you do?

Tim: Let me mention a few things. I’ve now spent the majority of my career in the technology sector. And the great thing about the university sector is that someone will put something interesting on your desk every single day. And that is enormously valuable and stimulating, and the excitement that that can bring you is not to be undervalued.

The other thing I like is that people in the technology sector are typically very passionate, driven people, and they all engage in philanthropy in some way. Those who succeed typically give back, in terms of their time and expertise. And the values of that community are something that should never be underestimated.

legoAnd the third thing – actually being able to build things is something which unites people in the technology sector: building businesses, building technology, building employment. I’ve been involved in helping build over 20 technology companies personally – once you’re in that world, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything else!

Gary: Final question – if you had some advice for, say, a researcher in the university who has some technology that they think has some commercial application and they’re thinking about a business start-up – what would that be?

Tim: The important thing is to know that this is about people. Bringing the technology through, building anything, it’s about people. And you need to put around you the people who are going to be bigger than the challenges you are going to face. Build teams bigger than the problems!

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Rob McConnell, Chairman of Momentum – 20,000 new IT jobs

Rob MomentumGary: Rob, you’re the chair of Momentum. What exactly is Momentum?

Rob: Momentum is a long standing a trade association that represents organisations and individuals operating within the digital sector in Northern Ireland. We represent a large range of companies, some very small and others very large, either indigenous or Foreign Direct Investors. Momentum is a member organization and as such our members expect us to represent them in terms of industry specific issues that they face. These issues vary widely in nature but fall into areas such as taxation, skills, funding, business development opportunities and procurement.

We’ve recently re-positioned ourselves as an organisation, after putting ourselves firmly under the microscope.  We asked ourselves what the sector really needs, what it will take to get there and how we as an industry representative body can support this process. We’ve altered our tag line to “the voice of the digital sector” in Northern Ireland as we represent a broad church. And we’ve set out our stall with a new manifesto which focuses on 3 specific areas – skills, markets and funding.

Gary: So, what sort of companies are members and how representative is Momentum of the industry?

momentumRob:  I should draw a differentiation here in terms of representation. Our role is to work in the best interests of the sector as a whole which equates to an estimated 28,000 individuals which is different to the number of paying members we have.  Many of the companies in Northern Ireland are small businesses and our sector is no different; but we also represent large organizations, including the FDIs such as Citi and Liberty IT, organizations which employ in the hundreds, if not thousands of people. So, for example, we have John Healey, Head of Technology at Citi, which has over 800 people, on our board. So we like to think that we represent a broad selection of the type of companies that are operating in the sector, and that face the same type of challenges. Of course an FDI company faces different challenges than a small 3 or 4 man band organization. Skills may not be an issue for this sort of small organization – funding  or trying to do more business locally or in export markets may be more their priority. Whereas for a Citi, their primary concern is getting the quality of people at the right price.

Gary: But Momentum is interested in all of these companies?

Rob: Absolutely, we are hugely inclusive in trying to represent the sector. That presents its own challenges and our board meetings are typically focused on trying to discuss issues that affect the industry in general..

Gary: Presumably a company has to pay to be a member of Momentum? What do they get for their money? Let’s say it is a small company – and every penny counts these days for everybody – what do they get for their money?

businessRob: There are a range of things a member can draw upon. It ranges from being able to attend knowledge events, events that allow them to develop a deeper understanding of a particular issue or technology; it might be support in terms of training or mentoring from our executive team; it might be signposting for the right grant or pot of money to help them move their business faster; it could also be lobbying on their behalf with government, to try and effect broader policy issues. We even offer our members free help with their PR if they are launching a new product or making an announcement, as our independent consultant Barry Turley has recently helped Kainos, Automated Intelligence and Allstate with recent announcements.

We typically have very close, personal relationships with industry. Our team is open to being contacted, they’re happy to meet companies on specific issues. Another area is around business and trade – where we try and help take local organizations into new markets, in terms of trade expos, or with organizations like InterTradeIreland, where we can look at cross-border initiatives, or where we can look at bringing academia and industry together to further innovation and research. So that really falls into 4 main areas – innovation, which is at the heart of our industry, and then the three areas which our new manifesto focuses on – opening up new markets, opening up new funding opportunities and developing new skills and talent..

Gary: Rob, presumably there are some companies in the technology industry which are not currently members of Momentum, but given the advantages you’ve just mentioned, they might want to. How can they go about that?

Rob: It’s very simple. We’ve an online presence – and we’re easily contactable. In the first instance people can contact our membership secretary, Sharon Moody to understand the process for enrolling, which is very simple. The cost is not very high at all for a company to come into the fold and support us to enable us to continue to work on behalf of the sector.

Gary: You’ve mentioned the Momentum Manifesto. A manifesto for a political party is where it puts out its ideas, sets out its stall, says what its vision is, what it’s going to do. Is that what Momentum’s manifesto is all about?

manifesto-definition-purpleRob:  Our manifesto is all about some headline themes. At the top is our vision to support the creation of 20,00 new jobs within the next 5 years. The industry currently sits at 28,000 people. We expect that to go to over 50,000, if we can get the climate right. It’s down to the basics of supply and demand. We really need to make sure the supply is there and to make sure that the demand is sustained.  The Manifesto is just the first step in a process to ultimately drive an overarching ‘strategic action plan’ for the sector which is supported by government, the education system and the industry itself.

Gary: 20,000 new jobs over 5 years. Does that not sound very ambitious? Here we are in pretty tough economic times, there may be another recession and you’re suggesting this industry is going to create 20,000 new jobs over a short period of time?

Rob: Our industry is pivotal for the economy here. Like the agri-food sector, we’re a very significant employer, but we’re also an industry which is bucking the economic trend. And that’s globally, not just in Northern Ireland. If you look at statistics from neighbouring regions like Scotland and England, Scotland is predicting 10,000 new IT jobs a year, the Republic of Ireland up to 5,000 new jobs. So when you look at our prediction of 4,000 new jobs a year, it’s not outlandish by any means.

Gary: Yes, but it’s still nearly doubling the size of the current industry.

Digital-RevolutionRob: Yes. But we are in the middle of a digital revolution. We’ve seen the proliferation of things like mobile, cloud computing, open source, big data, social networks and whether you’re in the insurance sector, or investment banking or pharmaceuticals or whatever, these new technologies and delivery mechanisms are being embraced and it’s driving a lot of demand for new products, new technologies, replacement of legacy systems. You’ve got to remember that IT is a business enabler, it’s all about improving the business and making it more competitive. It’s about driving business change, and global companies know they can leverage technology to drive their business. There are huge IT budgets being spent out there.

Take India – as a region, it knows it has the potential for 20% loss of current GDP which comes through its IT outsourcing services because of Cloud computing. So they have put in a programme around Cloud computing to make sure they can replace that 20% and then build on it. For any region, it’s all about being ready for the new trends that are happening. We haven’t missed the boat by any means here in Northern Ireland – we’ve a very vibrant, innovative technology and software products and services sector. We’ve had a lot of global organizations which have come in and set up their technology centres here and are servicing their global operations. So the demand, globally, is definitely there.

Gary: So the demand can fuel this large number of 20,000. But that begs the question – 4,000 jobs a year extra, and the people required are highly skilled, highly educated – can our education system support producing another 4,000 people a year with the appropriate education and skills? That seems like a tall order.

university-graduates-007Rob: Although the education system is improving and is outputting more IT graduates than it previously was, we only produce around 1,000 IT graduates a year. So that leaves a significant gap. So at Momentum we know we need to look to other avenues and think outside the box. This is not going to be a single recipe. It has to be as multi-pronged approach. So we want to leverage the ICT Skills Action Plan developed in association with DEL and draw on the success of things like the Software Test Academy, where we’ve taken non-IT graduates and accelerated them through training. We need to have more focus on re-skilling, looking at sectors that are in decline and looking at how we move people from those sectors into our knowledge economy.

So, yes there is a gap here, and we need a joined up approach with government to make sure that gap is filled. The education system needs to be up to speed and we need to work together with the universities and the colleges to make sure we can succeed.

Gary: That sounds like a tall order Rob. You’re saying that we have this great opportunity but there’s this large number of people that need to be produced, and you’re talking about the need for new approaches to education and training, you’re talking about other sectors providing people – that all sounds like a huge job and probably one that Momentum can’t do on its own. What sort of buy in are you getting from other parties?

Rob: We’ve had very good buy-in and support from government departments such as DEL, DETI, Invest NI. We’ve had ministerial support and key figures like Stephen Farry, Arlene Foster and Phil Flanagan, publically supporting the launch of the manifesto at Stormont, and we now need to move to the next stage which is about the detailed plans for action, for projects, a joined-up approach which will lead to the successful match up of supply and demand. So we plan to have a Digital Summit, which is a meeting of key and influential stakeholders in Northern Ireland, both in the sector and in government and education to look at what needs to happen and to put the detail, funding and strategic action plan in place. The manifesto is a roadmap, a set of ideas but there needs to be a very detailed set of initiatives.

Gary: So, to look forward beyond the 20,000 new jobs, you’ve another couple of aims within the manifesto?

expand-rapidly-into-new-marketsRob: Yes, we want to open up new markets, new business opportunities for our indigenous sector. There is not as much inter-trade between companies in our sector as there might be. We would like to encourage our sector and industry to “buy local;” but we also want to help our companies promote their products and services on a global scale. Because we can’t grow with just local business, we need to have an export stream. And that needs to be supported in the right way by the likes of Invest NI – who already do a good job in this space, but it’s about how we, as an industry body, can help identify the right type of companies to take to the right markets.

Gary: That’s gotta be worth the price of membership for a small company alone!

Rob: I think so. No matter what strand of the manifesto you look at, the industry has got to work together. We’ve all got to put some skin in the game. We’ve all got to engage and if you want to take advantage of the things we’re looking at here in terms of skills, funding and markets, then you’ve got to work as one unit. But our service at Momentum has got to be much more personalized – it’s got to be about us going out and understanding the specific needs of individual members and try to bring that back and formulate our ideas and plans and initiatives around the feedback we get.

Gary: And the third leg of the manifesto?

FundingRob: Is all about funding – new and innovative funding mechanisms. Last year we had the Creative Industry Fund (CIF), which funded over 50 tech projects. We hear on a daily basis that our members are struggling to get grants, or make claims for grants, or to get the banks to lend them money, struggling to get the banks to give them the working capital to survive long enough to make their great ideas a success. So, really, what other type of funding models can we, as a trade association, establish for our sector. We need to try and stop our technology entrepreneurs and innovators having to focus on operational and financial issues – they should be focusing on what they do best, which is technology innovation. As an organization we want to see what can be done to make all this easier for our members.

Gary: So you’ve got this grand vision, where you’re going to create thousands of new jobs, help the indigenous companies be more successful in global markets and enable them to do that by having the streams of funding they need. Let’s say you were successful, that you managed to pull various people together and you were the glue in the whole thing and made it happen – what would that mean for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s economy?

high_tech_hubRob: The impact could be fantastic and hugely significant. We could be looking at one in twenty of the working population being in our sector; we would be a global technology hub, a centre of excellence; if we sort out the skills gap, then we could end up servicing other regions with skills. We need to think big!

Gary: So in your mind, these ambitious goals – you’re going to succeed?

Rob: I will do my very best to direct and drive the board of Momentum and the organization to the point where we give ourselves every possible chance of succeeding in meeting these goals. That’s my role as Chairman of Momentum. The stakes are high and the rewards huge, but there’s no reason we can’t succeed.

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Liberty IT’s William Hamilton – Grab every opportunity with both hands!

Willie pic - Welcome noteGary: Willie, tell us a bit about Liberty in Northern Ireland.

William: Liberty IT is based here in Belfast and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance.  Liberty IT is 15 years young and I joined the company in the first cohort of recruits. The company has grown dramatically from those early days. The original intent was to grow to 126 people over 5 or 6 years but before we reached that, Liberty Mutual was so impressed with what we were doing that they wanted us to grow the company further. So we’ve seen reasonably rapid growth over the company’s lifespan and now employ over 340 talented IT professionals.  Though we like to think of ourselves as taking a careful approach, focusing on ensuring we get the right type of people to fit with our organisation, and then ensuring we attain the right sort of work for our people.

LMI_Masterbrand_H_RGB_2ColorGary: For those who don’t know what Liberty is, Willie…

William:  Our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance, is one of the world’s largest property and casualty insurance companies. While the majority of their business is in the US, a very significant portion is also worldwide. And the insurance business is no different from any other – it requires significant computing resources and skills. Liberty Mutual employs around 4,500 IT people; with teams of specialists working within a range of areas from infrastructure, software engineering and architecture design to information management and verification.  We work across the whole Liberty Mutual organization – the personal insurance business unit, which sells car and home insurance; the commercial insurance business unit, which sells to businesses; and for the global specialty business unit, which includes all sorts of specialist insurance products for different sectors – such as the building trade for example. So we have people working for parts of the business as far away as Australia.

Here in Northern Ireland, we’re focused on software development and engineering and for the first 10-12 years that was the key thing we did – now we have teams carrying out great work in other areas too.  Shortly after we started the software operation, we started growing an automated testing group and have grown that in parallel with the software group.

Gary: So does that undertake a testing function not only for here, but for other parts of the Liberty organization?

testingWilliam: The team provide specialist testing services for other parts of the organization more often than for ourselves actually. So they will develop test strategies and test models for some of the large strategic software initiatives, and here in Belfast we will develop parts of those systems. So we do get benefit from our verification team but the benefit is broader than what is delivered locally. Importantly, this team is seen as providing thought leadership in this area to the whole group.

Gary: There has been a lot more emphasis put on quality assurance and software testing in recent years. It used to be that software testers were not perhaps the primary candidates for software development. Has the professionalism that has come into the area of software testing changed that?

William: Absolutely. Our testers do not do manual testing or write test scripts. They develop test frameworks and test strategies. So we’re increasingly seeing a need here for classical software development skills in that group. At the moment we have a couple of vacancies in this group and we’re looking for people who are fundamentally software engineers. The skill set required to put together appropriate test environments for modern day systems has moved very much towards the software development sphere. That doesn’t mean you don’t need classical testing engineers – it’s just that there is an increasing continuum of skills required.

Gary: So are you looking at testing across the whole life cycle?

man computerWilliam: Our verification team considers testing that is performed towards the end of the lifecycle but the software development model here at Liberty IT is all about integrating testing right through the lifecycle. So even before code is complete we’d have a strong emphasis on peer reviews and then supplement that with developer-led testing, unit testing. So we’re seeing quality processes and aspects of testing and reviewing applied earlier and earlier in the development lifecycle. That’s something that we as a company have believed in from day zero and now we’re seen as leaders in this domain within the wider group.

Gary: So the quality of software coming out of this operation here in Belfast is recognized by the company as being very high?

William: We get significant recognition for the engineering skills we’ve brought to the company. This is not just in terms of the quality of the product and lack of defects, but also in regards to the integrity of the architecture, its scalability, maintainability and extensibility and we are highly regarded for that.

Gary: And is the growth you’ve seen likely to continue? You said you now employ about 340 people?

William: Yes. We had a major recruitment campaign that recently came to a close where we were advertising for people to join us across multiple disciplines. But the recruitment continues past that specific campaign. As a company we’re always looking for people with a broad range of skills – it’s not just software engineers or testers – we’re looking for information management experts, business analysts, project managers, project leads etc.  Also, we don’t always go external; we have some fantastic talent coming up through the ranks so we do a lot of internal promotions too.  There is a lot of scope for career development within our company.

Gary: Do you tend to take experienced people or graduates and then train them? Some software companies will take good quality graduates who are not computer science graduates and train them – do you take that approach?

young recruitsWilliam: We take a mix of mostly experienced individuals and graduates and we like to grow from the bottom where we can – every year, we bring in around 20 graduates. We also bring in about 17 placement students every year, of which approximately 80% return to us as graduates.  We’ve actually just been nominated as a finalist of the University of Ulster Placement Employer of the Year Awards which we are obviously very proud of as it demonstrates the significant investment we put into developing our placement students.  Working with and engaging with these young minds are imperative – after all, they are our talent pool for the future.

So, most of these people will come from the software engineering and software development courses, and typically from the two local universities. We do however take on people with other skills. So, for example, the QA Academy which takes existing graduates and retains them in software testing – we were one of the primary instigators of this initiative. Also, DEL has just launched and supported a new apprenticeship programme for IT and we’ve taken 2 people through that scheme, both of whom have non-IT backgrounds.  So far this programme is working really well for the company and the apprentices are coming on well.

stemOver the past 5 years, we’ve also taken on some great employees from a STEM background – mathematicians, engineers, physicists and so on. This ethos also extends to our parent company, Liberty Mutual Insurance.  In fact, it has very recently been recognized by the Museum of Science, Boston as one of the 2013 Stars of STEM for the difference it has made to the lives of others through its commitment to innovation and STEM education.

So in answer to your question, while the universities’ computer science degrees suit us very well, we do like to make our industry attractive to people from outside that space.  Basically we’re just looking for smart people who will fit in well with our organizational culture and work ethic.

Gary: The IT industry in Northern Ireland has been burgeoning over the last 10, 15 years. There are a lot of new companies around. Invest NI continues to be successful in bringing in new technology investments – that all puts demands on the market and over the last few years a lot of companies have found it more difficult to recruit. What’s your view as to where we are right now and how well are we coping with the demand?

up graphWilliam: This is not just a Northern Ireland problem or an Invest NI problem – it’s a global problem. I guess companies come here believing that there is some available talent and the fact that they come and grow shows that there is. Without demand, you don’t get supply. To some extent the industry exists and is the size it is because of the new entrants that have come in. However, as we’re seeing elsewhere in the world, it is becoming harder to get skilled software engineers and I believe this is a trend that will continue for several years until the benefits of the various education initiatives flow through into the business.

Gary: Willie – what does a career in software development offer? What would you say to a young person thinking about what career they want to follow about the potential in our industry?

William: For starters, I’d tell them that they would be entering into an industry that is crying out for their skills which is always good to know! There are great technological opportunities out there and things are so fast moving so they’ll certainly never get bored.  In terms of the types of work, it’s likely to be quite varied from company to company but will almost certainly encourage them to be creative and innovative.  Ultimately, I’d say to young people to grab every opportunity with both hands, challenging themselves along the way.

Gary: Why would people choose a career within Liberty IT as opposed to other similar companies?

appreciateWilliam: I think the thing that sets us apart is our genuine appreciation of our people.  We are aware that we wouldn’t have the success we do without their hard work, commitment and brilliant minds! I think what also sets us apart from others is that our company Vision – being innovative, bold and courageous – is not just words on a page; instead we strive to implement our values into our everyday work.  Demonstrating our excellence is obviously a key concern but we don’t take ourselves too seriously and pride ourselves on having a fun and relaxed culture.  Every Friday we have dressed down days and every month, our social committee organizes events for all employees whether it be a comedy show, rugby matches, or weekends away.  Any excuse to socialize really!

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Bill McCluggage Part II: “Being risk averse is not really my style”

Bill McCluggage, EMC

Bill McCluggage, EMC

Gary: So a huge skill that you’ve developed over the years is this ability to work with a range of people with a range of views, some who are more risk-averse than others and so on, and manoeuvering your ideas, strategy, whatever, through that whole morass of different approaches, getting people on board or successfully moving around them – what’s the secret to be able to do that successfully?

Bill: The secret is to understand clearly what you want to achieve, know what your strategy is – what is the vision, the objectives and actions required, and from that, what teams, what resources, what barriers are you going to face. Of course it’s important not just to doggedly stick to it at all costs, because life is full of compromises (I’m not particularly good at compromises, by the way! A sentence that has often come up in my annual appraisals is “does not suffer fools gladly!”)

Gary: But you must have had some “fools” along the way who were in positions where you couldn’t just “not suffer them gladly”, where you had to deal with them in some way?

Bill: You sort of identify that as a barrier – everybody’s got their own skills, they’re in a position because of their strengths – so they’re certainly not fools! But most of the time they’re people you need to bring with you. So to influence them, you can try to convince their team , or superiors, but the thing that works best is to identify what their issues are and work with them to build some resolution points into the solution.

strategyIt’s very difficult to get a disparate group of stakeholders together who all agree the actions and “own” the outcomes. In terms of implementing the Government’s ICT strategy, we were able to build a really strong base  – my  Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, my previous boss, myself and my team along with the CIO Delivery Board consisting of the six major departmental CIOs all worked together.  Now I have to admit, the approach did manage to alienate a number of CIOs of smaller government organizations, because they felt they hadn’t been brought into the overall decision making – but I believe using this sort of 80/20 rule was needed in order to get immediate traction and progress..

Now that I am working for EMC my role has changed. As Chief Technologist, Public Sector, a key function of my role is to demonstrate why EMC, as a hugely successful global technology company, should be recognised as highly relevant to C [Chief] level executives during a period of radical change across the public sector. The three key themes of my role are IT Transformation through the introduction of Cloud computing, the new opportunities to exploit Big Data, and the requirement to underpin new online services within a Trust environment. 

In terms of IT Transformation and cloud computing, a good example would be Vivek Kundra when he became Federal Government CIO under Obama’s first administration.  He introduced the concept of “Cloud first” which meant you had to consider the use of public Cloud as your first option in any new IT project. And so in the US Federal Government if you wanted funding approval, the business case needed to demonstrate that it had considered Cloud as an option.

emcThe UK is another excellent example and is probably leading Europe in terms of its Government Cloud program. Unfortunately I don’t see this progress mirrored in Northern Ireland.  Many of my previous colleagues in Northern Ireland will remember that I was quite vocal about Northern Ireland’s opportunity with Cloud computing and the need to attract some credible data centre space, in terms of international credibility. Where you have these engines of IT you get a clustering of companies, of professional capability, of new talent and opportunities for new applications.. They are the powerhouses of the modern IT environment.  They store and process the new oil of the information age – data!  If you just give up on that and let others provide these engines of progress it significantly limits your scope. Cloud was a fundamental part of what I talked about very vocally in Northern Ireland, saying, this could be a real opportunity for us.

But, things have moved on very quickly and I believe Northern Ireland is close to losing any real opportunity it could have had from leading in the exploitation of Cloud computing. In terms of public sector services, it’ll now be a follower into Cloud rather than a leader. That’s OK if you are risk averse but it’s not really my style!

So what’s the next opportunity for Northern Ireland – where is the next fertile ground?

big dataThere’s a number of new areas.  Probably the most talked about is ‘Big Data’ and the whole area of data analytics. I also see opportunity for Northern Ireland in the developing concept of the software defined data centres, software defined networks and software defined storage.

We’re now moving towards a new genre of IT, a new environment of an application-driven world, where platforms and applications are the direction of the future. And you can see it in the consumer market place – growing in the service provision marketplace, with the likes of Amazon, Rackspace, Google, eBay – they have access to performance and capacity that they can turn on and turn off with peaks and troughs in their business and it doesn’t cost them a fortune. We’re moving away from defining IT projects in terms of ‘cost to acquire’ into a new model based on ‘cost to consume’. That’s where the new world of IT is going. That’s what excites me!

You see I’ve picked up the whole energy in my voice at this point, when I’m talking about the new developments that are coming!

Gary: Yes, I was going to ask you – you’ve been involved for quite a long time in thinking about what’s coming down the track, where do we need to go to, what’s the new technology vision need to be – so what the secret to being a leader in the technology business and bringing people along with you? And making sure that everybody buys into that vision?

Bill: I think leadership in that environment is about understanding the “why.” Why would you do it? Why should someone bother about, say Big Data? Why is online security important? What does it do for me or my customers or users? Why should I take on the pain of doing something else in an already busy day?  As a senior manager am I going to get a significant return from the investment of my time?

Well, this might just wash over you, if you’re not careful. You need to understand it and address it, even if you decide not to accept all of the new developments 100%. You do need to understand the direction of travel and how it might benefit your business.

mobileWould you have believed 5 years ago that we would be in a totally mobile environment? I had a conversation from a car park using 3G with my daughter using Facetime on my mobile telephone to her flat in England. It’s fantastic – and that’s a totally mobile experience. And it was done by me handing my iPhone to my wife so we could both have a conversation with our daughter who showed my wife her newnail polish design she’d done that day. That’s all about experience – could we have done that 3-4 years ago? Of course not, and the pace of technology-enabled change continues to accelerate.

In just over a couple of years we’ve gone through 3 iterations of iPad, iPhone 5 will soon be old hat, we’ve got Android and windows mobile, we’ve highly virtualized data centre environments capable of spinning up virtual machines for application development in minutes not days or even months, we can consume service in a totally and we don’t pay extra for them.  In fact we pay a quantum step less. Gone are the days when you have to think about having to engineer any of this – IT is becoming a utility and it’s there at the press of a button almost.

So it’s making that experience relevant to a business, to a customer getting them to buy into that vision and its benefit to them.  For instance, do they have a big strategy?  Let me give an example. You’re a retailer in the high street in Europe and your customer has signed up with you so you can push out to them vouchers on their mobile phone. So the company is now tracking your mobile phone, it knows where you are, it knows about your personal preferences, in terms of your purchasing habits, and it can link into a number of transport feeds – so it knows if you’re on a bus or a train or walking by and so it can then send you a voucher to go to its store, rather than a competitor down the street, and it says, “we know you’ve had a bad morning, your train has been late or whatever – and here’s a voucher for a coffee or some deal for something in the store to help you feel a bit better, let’s brighten your day.”

injectionAnd there’s a lot of this beginning to happen, through Big Data analytics. And that’s happening in the private sector. But let’s try and put that in a public sector space. Suppose I’m coming out of work between  5 and 6 o’clock in the evening and it’s Autumn and I’ve just signed up to a public health initiative. So my GP, a local health provider, sends me a message with a voucher or something related to well-being. Let’s say my doctor’s surgery or my pharmacy has got a spare ‘flu jab slot – what stops them sending that as an offer to me coming out of work saying, “on your way home from work, why don’t you pop in and get a flu jab?” We’ve an appointment at 5.45pm and we know you pass this way anyway so why don’t you pop in because you just happen to be in the middle of a risk zone – you’re at age X or this or that factor.

Now that’s not breaching privacy – you’ve signed up to that service – so how do we move public services into a much more modern environment? A new mechanism of delivering these services which is technology empowered and suits the way we now work and live.

Getting that vision into the mind of the policy maker, the deliverer, who begins to think – mmm, we could do that, why don’t we run a pilot? Start small and scale rapidly if it works. Let a few ideas grow. Don’t waste public money. But because it’s Cloud based, you can consume the service at a price point that is radically different than building a vertical silo where you have to have all the technology in place, and spend it with a big company who has the knowledge needed. Now you can go out and get it from a Cloud store, a piece of infrastructure that you can consume for a month, two months, turn it off if it fails, expand it rapidly if it’s a success.

Technology never stops evolving and if you track it and find out what relates to a business challenge and how it can be solved, then you’re onto something real, tangible and an opportunity..

Gary: So you remain, clearly Bill, very intrigued and engaged with the development of technology and the potential ways it can be used. Looking forward and considering all you’ve done and achieved, what are the challenges remaining for you personally?

causewayBill: Well, at the moment, I spend a couple of days a week working from my home in Northern Ireland and the rest of the time travelling all round the UK. So, actually, at some point I’d like to be able to return to Northern Ireland and find something where I can bring value to various projects back here. I really do believe that we are in danger of squandering an opportunity with our young people to move them into a new set of careers. The skills sets that are needed for a modern, information-age economy need to continue to develop.

One of the growing opportunity areas is data science. I’m talking here about developing skills similar to way that scientists think – in a different way, an exploratory way, hypothesizing and testing those hypotheses. When you’re doing data science and big data analytics, you’re looking at different hypotheses of why these different trends in the data may be occurring. We have the opportunity to make Europe and the UK and Ireland a real powerhouse behind this new move into data analytics, be that business or public sector or advanced cyber analytics. But perhaps if we look ahead, a lot of the data analytics will be automated and done by software programmes and algorithms already built in. So should we be investing in university areas for research and development into how do you do automated big data analytics?

Gary: So you see this as an opportunity for us? What are the major opportunities for Northern Ireland?

health informaticsBill:  I think the main opportunity is around the size and scale of Northern Ireland. It’s scalable but on the other hand it’s not too big. So when we look at the area of health informatics, NI is a big enough place to test new approaches and make meaningful judgment calls, but small enough to be very proactive and agile and quick. To be able to use it as a foundation to do health analytics would be fantastic. And we’ve got an education system which  is one of the best in Europe; and this has got to be able to stimulate and drive future directions of a new  workforce of young people equipped for a truly information powered environment.

hackingAnd then of course online security is very important for us. How do we protect the individual, how do we make Northern Ireland situate itself at the forefront of cyber analytics? Do we produce enough technical brainpower? Can we make people understand that there are some really strong opportunities in mathematics, in software coding, in understanding the power of data analytics, and in the technology layer that underpins applications.. So there are lots of excellent opportunities for us and, in particular, our young people – who, after all, are our future.  

The key element for us is to keep the business in Northern Ireland. Yes, we need to grow internationally, but it needs to be headquartered in Northern Ireland so we can retain the wealth and the jobs and the intellectual property.

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EMC’s Bill McCluggage: Life is an adventure!

Part 1 of 2

Bill McCluggage, EMC

Bill McCluggage, EMC

Gary: Bill – tell us a bit about your career so far.

Bill: Well, by background I’m an electronics engineer. I did my degree at Queens and spent 3 years of my life in the Ashby Institute there. And then I went into the Air Force, so I was an Air Force engineering officer for quite a long time and ended up being Technical Director at one of the agencies. This was in a production plant, where I had about 250 people working for me. I brought in a big IT project to modernize the whole production process and that’s what introduced me to the IT world.

I then applied for the role of IT Director at Harland and Wolff. They’d decided they wanted a board member to help modernize the shipyard and consolidate their IT systems. That was around 1999. My wife is from Limavady and we decided we’d move back to Northern Ireland. After a few months at H&W, I soon got to grips with the fact that there was a big opportunity to turn the IT department from a cost centre into a profit centre, supplying managed services to the whole Fred Olsen Energy (FOE) Group. So we agreed with our FOE masters  to spin out the IT department as a small IT company and started to grow that.  One of our first external customers was W5 in the Odyssey complex, just on our doorstep at the top of Queens Road.

h&wUnfortunately, Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries, still our main customer, self-imploded before we managed to grow sufficient external sales.  Although we’d got to positive EBITD [Earnings Before Interest, Tax & Depreciation] and a positive P&L, some 3 months ahead of our business plan, we suddenly hit a cliff wall. It was at that stage that I sought pastures new and left to take on some personal consultancy work.

Gary: Well let me ask you, Bill – you’d actually spent a long time in the services, hadn’t you? So what did it feel like moving out into a private sector organization? Was the culture very different?

Bill: Yes, that was one of the reasons why I did it. I wanted to hone my commercial skills. I had a lot of management, business, technical skills, but I didn’t have the commercial skills to go along with them. When you’re in a cost centre within the business, as I was in Harland and Wolff,  you’ve got to focus on operational capability and the availability of systems and so on, and I learned at that stage what I call the “thirds” rule – a third of IT is about hardware, a third is about software and a third is about people. So with all these factors – how do you manage costs, how do you manage delivery of services and the complexity of what was a big manufacturing operation?

shipThe shipyard fixated a lot on manpower costs. But if you looked at the cost of building a ship – 60% was in materials, so material handling and supply chain management was critical. I remember working with business analysts, looking at the cost of the new drill ships, and the sheer complexity of that sort of ship. A ship has just as many parts as a 747 and yet it’s designed and built in 20% of the time it takes to design and build a new aircraft. So although the time-scale is collapsed, the complexity is all there. And managing the cost implications is a big job. To do that effectively we needed to consolidate our systems, bringing something like 200 systems down to around 30 or 40. That was a really exciting time in my career.

Following my role as MD of the IT spin out from H&W, I left that to become a private consultant. Because I knew the Queens Island site and what is now the Titanic Quarter quite well, I got involved in helping Professor Norman Apsely and Michael Graham with the Northern Ireland Science Park. So I was one of the technical design guys nispwho helped at the early stage of the Science Park. Norman told me that they’d got this modern shell building going up, the Innovation Centre, but that they wanted to make it the most modern centre for innovation in Europe – can you help us, he said? So that was quite an interesting challenge – we wanted it to be open, in terms of wireless, so you could move from one unit to another. It was probably one of the first centres in Europe at that stage to have seamless, transit wireless – that was in the early days 802.11 A and B  [a set of standards for implementing wireless local area network (WLAN)]. We had to think about how you avoid interference, separate accounts and so on. So a lot of the design went into some quite novel logon procedures that the end user doesn’t really notice but are in the background. So 2003 was quite a stunning year for me.

And then, with a colleague, I set up a business based in Lisburn. One Sunday afternoon we were sitting eating pizza and we both had the same idea, so we said, why don’t we work together and set up this heating engineering company. So that’s what we did! We took on a few members of staff & set up a small unit in the Lisburn Business Park and I did a year of that as well. I recall that during the year following my departure from H&W, I took one day off on holiday – not to be recommended to anyone!

Gary: So how does someone who has worked quite a few years in the context of rigid structures in the services and then in what is, in Northern Ireland terms, a reasonably large entity – how do you get to the point where you are being very entrepreneurial, you’ve just done a year as a self-employed consultant and now you’re starting a new business, – how does that happen?

jumpBill: It’s almost like being unshackled. If you’re in a military or service environment for the length of time I was, where there’s a lot of bureaucracy and process, and then you get this freedom – you go out and experiment! And I’ve never been one not to face a challenge! I do, however, look at my life in the military as being entrepreneurial in a management sense. I then was a consultant and ran this small business, both entrepreneurial in their own right – and after that I joined the civil service, and brought what I considered to be a public sector entrepreneurial spirit to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Now there are not very many of those around in the civil service! But I believe I brought that to the Director of E-Government role in Northern Ireland and then the CIO role, when I moved across into the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Gary: You’d think that a lot of the things you’ve just mentioned there about process and bureaucracy and so on – for some people it would just stifle any entrepreneurial spirit they ever had.

emcBill: Exactly. It can weigh down on you. And some people are content and comfortable with a structured environment – nothing wrong with that – but I’ve always worked on the basis that life is an adventure and I’ve been lucky enough to have career opportunities that have taken me from a degree in engineering now to being a chief technologist with a large American corporate.

Gary: When you were with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the impression that one had from the outside was that you were always doing things a little bit differently, trying to move things along, trying to bring some change. That was the impression people had – how did that go down within the bureaucracy of the civil service?

Bill: There are certainly many tradionally risk averse people in a civil service  environment. But many of the people I worked with were the type of person who joins the civil service with a public service ethos, who wanted to deliver very good services, the best they can deliver because they’ve got a social conscience. The teams that I worked with were superb. I worked in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister with a small team and then moved out into DFP where we set up the Delivery and Innovation Division and that grew with the shared services agenda to just over 250. The key element I found was that the great bunch of people who worked with me in a team environment, pretty much all wanted their spirits to be opened, to have the fairy dustopportunity to be able to flourish in their work environment. I call it sprinkling fairy dust! You sprinkle some fairy dust and give people the authority to go out and accomplish things.

The problem is, the thing you can’t do in the public sector is fail. So how do you manage when things don’t go right? Because if you’re taking some risks, then there will be times when things don’t work out. I used to call it skating along the edge of the precipice. When you’re introducing innovation in the public sector, you’ve got to be aware that the system is out to get you. It will try and reign you in – and quite rightly, in many ways, because we’re talking about spending public money.

skatingBut there is always a need to try and modernize, to try and challenge the status quo. When you do that, you’re skating along the edge of the precipice. But I always had good staff around me. Whenever I went out into thin air – they were able to pull me back! So sometimes the people that you knew and trusted would send you signals and say, oh maybe that’s going a bit too far, Bill.  Come back to safer ground!

So you’re constantly striving to challenge, to maybe come up with some novel idea that really makes a difference. I remember doing one project when I was the Director for eGovernment and we were looking at whether we could help people more readily get online terms of digital inclusion – as I recall, this was in the Carrickfergus area – by giving them laptops with WI-FI (this was before widespread broadband). We wanted to help people start to experiment with this new online environment. So we put a small pilot project together, but the group we were dealing with were scared that the laptops would end up at Nutts Corner market or something!  The alternative suggestion was a community garden and my response was ‘you’ve lost the plot here’ – no pun intended!

Sadly that digital inclusion project never went ahead. That was one example where I believe we failed, not only from a project perspective but also delivery of an improved citizen outcome. Your failures are probably the harshest points in your life, but you can learn from those. Your successes are great, but you learn more from your failures.

Gary: So that was an occasion when the risk averse element won the day?

niBill: Yes, and there’s another one to mention. We put in a kiosk project across Northern Ireland as a pilot. A lot of people were saying at the time that kiosks had had their day, but actually inside the kiosk was a PC and WiFi and we knew that people could use the platform to realize benefit across the whole of Northern Ireland. And it was working exceptionally well, but the failure occurred because we ran into a financial wall because there was no money to carry the thing from pilot into full implementation.

Gary: So when you moved to the Cabinet Office, how did that public sector environment compare to that in Northern Ireland?

dark sideBill: Let me give you the rationale for why I left Northern Ireland. I worked in the Northern Ireland Civil Service from 2003 until 2009 when the whole of the dark side of the Civil Service began to close in on me. The risk aversion was growing, there was no money, some of the other innovators I worked with were moving on to other roles and the system was very risk averse. And that stifled my spirit. As it happened, I then saw the job come up in the Cabinet Office, the Director of IT Strategy & Policy and Deputy Government CIO, which is all around new strategies, development, looking after UK government IT strategies. So I put my hat in the ring and eventually was successful, and started the job in September 2009. So it was quite a jolt to go into a national level job, interacting with ministers at a very senior level. We got the new strategy published by January and once again, it was the calibre of the team that worked with me that I would always applaud. They were fantastic. The key to working in Whitehall is to make sure that nobody says no, because you can’t get everybody to say yes!

So whenever you want to make progress, you plan out where you want to go, you get some supporters, you convince a few people to champion it and then you make sure the people who might say no, don’t!

Gary: It sounds like that people element of the “thirds” is becoming more like 70%!

Bill: Yes. Central government is not homogeneous and all the departments are different, have different drivers – and you have to work with people to understand what will be beneficial for them individually and departmentally.

cloudThere are a lot of constraints that you work with. We were at the cusp of the new iteration of services in government, so Cloud was on the horizon. This was 2009 – but it’s taken 3, 4 years for the idea of Cloud to be consumed by the public sector, mainly because, with long contracts, there is no commercial incentive for the incumbent supplier to change anything post the half way mark in a programme or contract. After that the suppliers are thinking about re-engineering and re-competing, so why would you plan for an in-contract design change that drastically reduces revenue flow and suddenly cut your throat so to speak, and go into a Cloud environment? These are some of the things you have to contend with.

Gary: You were involved in developing two strategies, one for the final stages of the Labour government and then one for the new Coalition government. What did the change feel like? Was there a different attitude?

Bill: It felt like a liberating experience. The end of the Labour administration was largely a  “more of the same” feeling. The earlier previous strategy, launched in the 2005 timeframe, had three strands – citizen centricity, shared services and professionalization of IT – and the new strategy became much more of a technology-led approach. It was all about Cloud, where we were going with end-user devices, how we would do public network services and so on. And the strategy that came out of the coalition was an evolution of that – if you know where technology is going, then how can you ensure that what you do helps tackle the deficit? So that all comes down to re-use, to the fact that you have millions of pieces of technology  sitting around central and local government – how do you make sure you re-use them, how do you make sure you have a common infrastructure in place, how do you exploit Cloud and provide a platform that underpins the delivery of new, more modern digital services?

thoughtNow my Northern Ireland experience was pivotal in all this – because when you look at what we did in the mid-2000s – Network NI, HR Connect, Account NI, Records NI – those were all common infrastructure services that do back-office support services and now are being consolidated under the Enterprise Shared Services Environment. I can trace a lot of the thought processes I went through in Northern Ireland in the 2000s to the current IT strategy for the UK government because a central part of that is about common infrastructure, it’s a public services network. It’s just Network NI/RecordsNI/IT Assist on a far bigger scale!

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