Patricia O’Hagan, Core. Create the right environment so your team can succeed

Patricia O'Hagan, MD, Core Systems

Gary: Patricia, can you tell us a bit about your career to date?

Patricia: Well, I qualified as an engineer from the University of Ulster – electronic and design engineering. In my year out I had worked with Coronary Care Systems, (Temtec), but that showed me that I didn’t want to be an engineer! So I went back and trained in construction as a site supervisor and worked briefly in that industry.

Gary: That’s probably not a path most women choose – is that fair?

Patricia: Yes, there were not many women on my course. But then I changed direction again and did a qualification in application programming – City & Guilds at one of the colleges –  and got started in IT in the shipyard as an analyst-programmer. That was a long time ago! I can remember the machine room and the big disks! But I benefited a lot from my time there – they took a very structured approach and worked to ISO standards and I learned a lot of good practice. And I had the wonderful experience of meeting everybody who worked in the shipyard – as an analyst programmer – you know, walking around and hearing their problems!

Gary: I’m sure that was good crack!

Patricia: Yep – quite an experience. Then I worked for Gardiner-Merchant, part of the Forte Group at that time. They were focused on contract catering and had a lot of contracts in Ireland. I was part of the IT team based in Manchester and was their consultant in Ireland, so I supported the business in Belfast, Dublin, Cork and all the customer sites. I did that for a couple of years. I also got involved in helping out some of the other regions so I ended up travelling not only throughout Ireland, but England and Scotland as well.

Then I went to be the IT Manager at Stockport College, which was quite big at that time with about 15,000 students. I learned a lot here as well – going into the education sector, and we developed an aggressive plan for a big upgrade project for the College systems. They had a lot of disparate systems – Macs, PCs, own-build PCs, different systems acquired by various departments – so we had to rationalize all that and get in proper maintenance and service level agreements in place.

And after that I came back to Northern Ireland and joined CEM for a short time, working as the Support Manager. And then I got the opportunity to join Core. This was around 1999.

At that stage Core was at an early stage – it was a partnership between the two founders. I was the third person to join.

Gary: So from having worked in a big organizations like Harland & Wolff and Gardiner-Merchant and the College – this was a big change for you. What did it feel like to join a small, developing company?

Patricia: It felt great! Liberating! Through my career, I had learned how organizations worked and how to manage & motivate people and get things done, but there were some frustrations – as an individual in a big organization, it can be difficult to bring about change. But going into an early start-up organization is the total opposite. You’ve got to conceive of and make the change happen yourself.

Gary: So what were you brought in to do?

Patricia: Well, first I came in to create a business revenue stream on the training and services side. So I did that, but I also had a lot of project management experience, so I was able to structure bids for large chunks of work, and plan and deliver those.

And Tommy & Edward were not long out of university – but I’d a different skill set. At that stage we were software developers and were doing projects on a contract basis. So we were developing systems to customers’ requirements. We weren’t producing software products at this stage. So we pursued a number of avenues until we established the niche that grew into what the company is now.

Gary: So you got a project in the security field, you did that and as a result of that you felt this was a specialism you could develop and there were other potential customers for this?

Patricia: Yes. We got our first contract with the prison service around 2000 and that gave us the opportunity to work on biometrics and, while we continued to do other things for a number of years – we produced products for the construction and financial sectors – but after assessing things after a while, we realized that what differentiated us was working in biometrics, identification, security  and that that expertise had a much higher value that some of the other areas we were working in.

Gary: So, when did the company start selling to the security industry outside Northern Ireland?

Patricia: Probably about 6, 7 years ago. We targeted first of all the Irish prison service and through our existing customer base, we were able to get connected. I became MD of the company in 2005 and from then we had a strategy for growth, and we started growing at around 20% per annum. We were debated a lot about the future of the company, where we were going and so on, and I then became a director of the company; and we all looked at our individual roles to see what we were best at and the MD role was the one that seemed to suit me best.

Gary: So, what is it that you’re really good at, Patricia, and how did you get good at it?

Patricia: I’m really good at thinking! I’m the strategist, and also I’m good at seeing opportunities and understanding what the market needs and matching the product to that. Edward is a great technologist and he scans the technology market, just as I scan the customer market. I’ve always been good at maths and absorbing and analyzing information – so it’s really just a different application of my engineering skills.

Gary: As things have developed in the company, presumably your MD role has changed over the past 5, 6 years?

Patricia: It’s changed dramatically. I’m learning new things every day! In order to progress the company I have to constantly look ahead and see what’s the next step for us. And then ask –  what skills do I need to bring the company to the next level.

Gary: What about your US operation? For a lot of NI software companies, doing business there is something they’d like to do, but it seems very daunting. The market there is a lot different than it seems on the face of it – there’s a common language, but probably everything else is quite different. So how did Core get in there and how do you find doing business there?

Patricia: Well, we did our market research, which identified the US as our biggest potential market. And we identified to US Corrections market – they’ve got 5,000 facilities and 2m prisons, whereas we’ve three and fifteen hundred prisoners! Even to get a faction of that US market could really develop the company. They call it Corrections, we call it Custodial Services, but essentially it’s the same business and we understood it very well, which gave us a lot of credibility. And we thought carefully about – “what are we to our customers here?” and we said, “we’re very good technically, we understand their business needs, we’re dependable, reliable” – and that’s what we want to be in the American market. So we found out who are the innovators in the market and we sought those people out and found out what their issues were.

And we have a product that we’ve been working on for about five years now, that is very well placed in the US market – it’s just the start of that type of technology coming through. We’re currently working with a number of large States and they’re testing our software at the moment. And of course then there’s a procurement process. That’s where we are at the moment. The lead time in working with a government department is so long – years, not months. We started our US operations about 3 years ago and it’s taken us that length of time to establish the customer relationships, educated them about our product, get some of the products on site, go through the testing process.

Gary: Did you think it would take as long as it has, when you started out?

Patricia: Actually, from our experience with our home market, we knew it would take a long time. In some ways, it’s been quicker in the US! As you form relationships and begin projects, you’re always tempted to think – this’ll happen really quickly – but it always takes longer. And actually, the customers you’re working with often have the idea that it’ll happen quicker too. And then they get bogged down in their own processes.

Gary: So this has taken a considerable amount of investment?

Patricia – yes, both in product development and also in building the relationships, the travel and so on.

Gary: So, do you have American employees?

Patricia: We’ve been able to do most of it from here. We’ve Kathleen based in Boston on our board, and Alex  and Dot, our Corrections industry consultants who work on a contract basis, so that keeps the cost down. We’ve employed one US citizen in a sales role along the way.

Gary: But that has worked OK? You’ve found Americans have accepted you coming in as  a small Northern Ireland company?

Patricia: That’s been easier than I thought. Our customers here are highly respected in that world of Corrections. And that’s helped us a lot. In the US, they’re very interested in our story – which has opened doors for us. I’ve been invited to present to the American Corrections Association, the Corrections Technology Association – they love to hear our story. And, we’ve been able to convince them that technically we’re very good.

Gary: that’s taken a lot of self-belief, belief in the company, belief in the products and courage, too. There are no shortcuts to this process.

Patricia: No, no shortcuts. And, I think, once you’ve committed to it – and obviously there are ups and downs and disappointments – we’ve made such an incredible investment in it, with everybody in the company, that the only direction is forward. And we’ll keep going until  we come out the other end.

Gary: Have you had some support along the way by Invest NI?

Patricia: Yes, they’ve been very helpful. They’ve helped fund the product development, – and also on the marketing side, they’ve helped fund some market research and market visits. We are their tenants too, having recently moved into the Glenbank business park.

Gary: So that relationship with Invest can really help that process of going across the Atlantic for business?

Patricia: Very much so. Actually, without that level of help, it would have been very difficult for us, as a small company, to do that.

Gary: What about competitors? How are you placed against them?

Patricia: We’ve two strata of products. One is the security-identification product and the new product we’ve developed is technology for prisoners – to give them access to information and services. So we’ve developed a secure platform that identifies people and ensures they get the right personal information and controls that. And it can be delivered on a kiosk platform or a PC or handheld devices. People have been using kiosks for a while – like the companies that sell food and they’ve seen the advantage in offering self-service. Kiosks have also been used by companies that provide the law library – legal publishers. So this type of technology is being used. But what we have developed is a platform that manages all of this. So…what we offer is quite different from what others are offering.

Now most of the market isn’t here yet. But the innovators we’re working with realize the complexity of managing a user base of several thousand and the security requirements of that and the level of administration, without proper tools. And the scale, without tools, is huge. But then they’ve now seen what we offer…

Gary: So, as the MD of a software company, what are the key characteristics of being a good manager?

Patricia: Well, in a technology company, typically the products are changing fast and the market’s changing fast so you need to be open, creative, responsive. Also you’ve got the issue of managing a technical team, which is really a creative team. So you need to create the right environment so they can do what they do well. It needs to be a place where they’re happy and comfortable in their relationships and open in their communications and they have multiple channels to input their ideas and see their ideas being developed.

Gary: So it’s the quality of the work and the challenge of the work that is important to a software development team?

Patricia: Everyone who works in the company, if they were to take stock from one year to the next and ask – have I learned anything – they’d say, yes I’ve learned so much. And that’s what helps us be a successful company, a good company. We get people typically who stay a long time with us. Yes, we’ve had a few who’ve discovered very quickly that this isn’t the place for them, but most stay a long time and it keeps a fair amount of stability for us.

Gary: Looking around business in general, but particularly the technology industry, there are not as many women as there should be at all levels, and particularly in the role that you have. So how has it been for you as a woman in the technology business in Northern Ireland?

Patricia: I don’t really feel particularly a woman as opposed to just another business person. In technology, it’s quite easy, compared to other industries I’ve worked in. So I haven’t found this to be an issue at all. The main issue is that we find more women coming into support rather than development. I don’t see as many young women going into development. We’ve a lot more in business development and business support.

Gary: Should that be different? Would it be better if it were different?

Patricia: I find that the women in the company have a perspective that helps develop projects in a way that wouldn’t happen if those people weren’t on the team. They are very good communicators andat being team members – they will encourage others to give their input and ideas. And also, women can be very good in customer-facing roles and in engaging with the customer, understanding the problems and picking up on how the product is used with the customer and bringing that back into the company.

Gary: When I was standing in your foyer, I saw all these awards on the wall – that speaks of a focus on quality in the organisation:

Patricia: Definitely. Our aspiration is to do what we do very well and to give our customers a sense of satisfaction that we’ve exceeded their expectations and I’d say we take great pride in the quality of what we produce. And our customers are prepared to speak on our behalf. We’re very grateful for this and I think we’ve had a very close relationship with our customers over the years. So you develop quite an intimate working relationship where you get to know each other quite well. And so the relationship becomes quiet strong.

Gary: So looking forward, what are the challenges ahead for Core?

Patricia: It’s all about how we support and maintain the new customers thousands of miles away from us. So that’s new for us, and also, working with partners more. That’s already worked very well for us and that’s a strategy we’re going to take forward into the US market. So it’s learning how to build those relationships, facilitate them, and make the partner relationship like our customer relationship, where they rely on us,  know we’ll be there, see us deliver what we say and want to do business with us time and time again.

Gary: So looking back on your career, Patricia, you’ve had a whole variety of roles, you’re now the MD of a successful software company, if you were taking to a young person coming into the industry now, what sort of advice would you give them?

Patricia: I had a hard time myself finding my own niche, so I’d say – have an open mind, try as many things as possible, because it’s easy to get pin-holed into a very specific niche, where your opportunities are limited. But like myself, many of our team here have tried a number of different avenues and have had a very fulfilling career, and they’ve ended up in a role they enjoy but didn’t anticipate at the start.

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About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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