Momentum’s Ian Graham: The ICT sector offers a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland – but the skills shortage needs to be addressed

Momentum CEO, Ian Graham

Gary: Ian, tell us a bit about your career in the ICT industry.

Ian: I went to Queens to study electrical and electronic engineering, as a Post Office student apprentice. When I graduated I got an ICI post first degree award, so I went to work for ICI in Runcorn, Cheshire. And after a year, they sponsored me to go and do a PhD. Once I had that under my belt, I was appointed as a lecturer in the department of electronic & electrical engineering. I lectured in engineering mathematics & control theory. And I had nine great years there!

But I began to wonder if I was achieving as much as I could; at that time Ford was running their carburettor plant in Finaghy and – this was 1980 – they wanted an IT specialist to come in to write an operating system and to install a client–server minicomputer suite to automatically, in real time, check & calibrate the carburettors that came off the production line, by controlling forty test stands. I had four GA (General Automation)  16440  minicomputers that controlled ten test-stands each, plus a master.

Gary: That sounds like a very ambitious project for its time.

Ian: Yes, it was huge – and it was all written in Assembler. And implemented in 15 months – it was real-time and tested 16,000 carburettors a day. Plus, it would calibrate them – so they were taken from my test stands, bolted on to the engines and the car drove off the production line.

I then decided to put a reporting system in place because we were collecting a lot of data. So we could know how many carburettors were being tested, what had failed, why it had failed and so on. And I remember giving the plant manager, Walter Caruthers, a terminal, and he had no idea what it was! But when I showed him what he could use it for, he thought it was brilliant. So then he brought Sam Toy over from Warley in England and boasted about what we’d done. The result was I was immediately promoted to manager in charge of test and monitoring systems for Ford Europe!

And…I had a great time! I was based in NI, but travelled to Warley in Essex on a Monday morning and then back on a Friday evening. But we travelled throughout Europe, because we did projects in Cologne, Ghent…all over. But after about 9 months, Ford said, it’s about time you moved – we’ll pay for your wife and you to come over for a week to see where you’d like to live. So Katharine and I came over, but after one day I knew it wouldn’t work! We’d a young family and I could see my wife was unhappy. So I decided I’d have to make a move from Ford.

At that time, Gordon Bell was recruiting for Software Ireland. So I joined the company, in Linen hall Street – in exactly the premises that Singularity are now in!

Gary: Software Ireland had come out of ICS?

Ian: Yes, it was a spin-out of ICS – as was Computer Maintenance Ireland. Software Ireland, although it did a lot of services work and had an ambition to become a software product company, selling products into global markets. It was an ambitious, but very challenging vision, created by Tom Winter and Gordon Bell.

Gary: That wasn’t something that was happening in NI at the time, was it?

Ian: No, not at all. And we had the devil’s own job to convince IDB that software was manufacturing, so that we could get support for R&D  and so on. So I put a team together of myself, Shane McMordie, Paul Madden, Colin Chambers and Alan Gilmore. ICS at that time had moved into distributed time-sharing systems, using DEC PDP-11s, using the DIBOL language, the DEC equivalent of COBOL. Now, my team decided we were going to move into the new UNIX operating system. We thought it was better than DOS because it was multi-user, and we saw great opportunities for mid-range systems, as well as lower end systems. This was mid-80s.

So, we thought – there are really no applications available for this new range of UNIX systems. So, if we could produce a DIBOL language complier for UNIX, then the vast range of commercial DEC applications could be made available. Easily – by just re-compilation. So, I bought us all a copy of Dennis Richie’s C programming manual & we all went off and read it. We all considered how you would go about writing a compiler, we learned about all the UNIX utilities…and we wrote SIBOL – Software Ireland’s Business Oriented Language, which was DIBOL compatible. And we sold it all over the States, to Fortune listed companies, and to the huge plethora of young companies that was emerging, based on UNIX, multi-user systems, which were trying to compete with Digital. And we enabled them to do that.

Gary: So this allowed their Digital applications to run on these new UNIX systems?

Ian: Yes, that became our niche. And one of our customers was AT&T, and they said – would you like to develop an IBM System 36 equivalent? We’ve got our new 3B2 Unix product line,  we like your DIBOL product, but we’d love to get after the IBM market. Because that is huge. So they paid us and we did it. And it was no easy task – because this was not just one language, this was Job Control Language, totally different screen processing, message handling, database – all of this… a big job! But we managed and so that became our second product and we sold that to companies like Siemens Nixdorf, NCR, AT&T, and so on.

Gary: So this by now had spun out of Software Ireland?

Ian: No, it stayed Software Ireland, but the products side got much bigger than the services. So the second product, for System 36, became quite successful, and we had a great time along the way! Selling it all over the world. I remember we once had a user conference meeting in Antigua in Guatamala for all our South American distributors and it was fabulous! We had 8 people came – but our American guy, he ended up going to the Antigua in the Caribbean by mistake!

At that time, then, the System 36 was being superseded by the IBM AS 400, so that was our next challenge. And in some respects that was a bridge too far – because it was hugely complex, with a very sophisticated relational database management system. We started the work, kept going, but never actually got it perfect. We did a very big deal with MAAPICS [IBM’s manufacturing application system], but we struggled to deliver what they wanted and they eventually pulled out.

But at this time, we’d been bought over by the Unicomp Group – run by Steve Haffer. Unicomp was our distributer in America, and they decided to buy us from Lamont Holdings who owned us at the time. So he bought us, but in 2000 that was the dot com bust – the market went, there was no money, and Steve had no alternative but to sell. So they sold us to a fly-by-night outfit from California. The dream had disappeared! We did mange to look after everybody in the company, everybody got paid and so on. But, when we were bought from Unicomp, they were more interested in doing development in South America, rather than Belfast.

Nineteen years of my life…so I do know about selling into global markets and the huge challenges that you face doing it. But there’s no question, you need to have a product focus if you’re going to be successful.

Gary: So what came after that, Ian?

Ian: Well, you’d just left Invest NI as their software sector advisor! So I applied for that post and got it.  I joined Invest NI doing the same role as you – going out there, supporting their sales teams in the field, convincing potential investors of the value of coming to Northern Ireland. It was a great job…fabulous…and I learned a lot about the local technology sector, about what companies were doing with technology right across the States.

Gary: So, you’ve seen the job that Invest has been doing, in terms of FDI, from the inside. What do you think of the job they’ve done over the past 15 years or so?

Ian: If you think back to the problems here through the Troubles, if you think back to the fact that we’d no outstanding advantages, other than our skills and capability, we didn’t have low corporation tax – frankly I think Invest NI have done a great job and they continue to do so. They compete very well with other regions and I think it’s a tribute to their capability.

Gary: Ian, you’re the Chief Executive of Momentum, which has a whole range of members – most of your members would be local companies. So what’s your feeling about FDI – one aspect of FDI is that the companies coming in take up resources coming out of the education system, so what’s your view about this, and how beneficial or otherwise is FDI for Northern Ireland?

Ian: The ICT sector offers a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland. But we are nowhere near critical mass yet. There is plenty of room for expansion. I believe our long term aim must be to focus on creating a globally successful indigenous sector, but we need inward investment as well…because that fuels the whole growth of the sector; it creates the high level skills that can then percolate out into the indigenous sector. A balanced combination of FDI & indigenous is what we need. Certainly, at our stage of development, just as it is in the rest of the island of Ireland, FDI is required to accelerate development and growth. So, I accept that some of the larger investments coming in create not just a ripple, but a tsunami, in terms of the impact they can have on existing companies. Because they compete for skills and they can attract existing employees.

But what we should be doing, is ensuring enough people with the right skills are available. We need to create a pool of available skills to address this, which can reduce the impact of FDI on existing companies.

Gary: And do you think this process is working successfully at the moment?

Ian: No, I think that, at the moment we have a skills crisis emerging here. We’re doing some work at the moment to try and assess the scale of this.  The feedback from companies, in the sector – in all ICT positions, not just software development – is that there is a real shortage of skills that needs to be addressed. I’ve got figures from the universities – and now we’re not running any graduate conversion courses at all, like the Software Professional course – and the numbers of graduates in ICT subjects are pretty small. Particularly when you compare them to the projected demand.

Gary: One might argue, that the ICT industry has been doing well for a while, but there are bumps and dips, as we saw in 2000 – so, someone might say, if we put a lot more funding into increasing the pool through the education system, who knows what the future might hold and so are we just storing up trouble for ourselves…it might be all right now, but it may not be all right tomorrow. How do you feel about that argument?

Ian: I can see that, but it’s impossible in this sector to exactly balance supply and demand. Companies have told me that we are losing opportunities through not having readily available skills. They are having to turn away work. If there are the skills available, companies, particularly the inward investors, will be bidding for more work, projects from their parents. And so I think we need to take a positive view on how we can grow the sector – build it and they will come! We need to create that skills resource. Across Europe there is an increasing ICT skills shortage. The Republic of Ireland, for example, reckons it is short by something like 2,500 people.

And of course, they are immediately addressing that. Through conversion courses, through initiatives to encourage more people to take ICT subjects – they are addressing that. We need to do the same. We need to be much more aggressive; if we’re going to build this economy, to  be globally significant and to meet the expectations of our population, then we have to take some risks. It’s just impossible to predict exactly supply and demand of skills, and the problem is, it takes 4-5 years for skills to come through the standard education system. So – let’s go for the optimistic view ofthe growth, rather than the pessimistic view. Forget about trying to balance it – that doesn’t work.

Gary: Ian, In your position as Chief Executive of this membership organization, you believe the ICT industry is potentially significant for the overall economy in Northern Ireland?

Ian: Very much so. And it’s significant not just in terms of what it can do by itself, but how it can enable competitiveness in all other sectors. In areas like Smart Grid, like wind and green technologies, ICT is a key enabler. So this can fuel the whole expansion across many sectors of the economy in Northern Ireland.

Gary: Looking across your members, Ian – what are the key strengths of the industry here?

Ian: This industry is truly a knowledge-based activity. And our strengths are the quality and capability of the people that come through our education system. There’s no question that we generate world-class programmers, world class IT people. And that is our major strength.

Gary: So what could our companies be doing better?

Ian: We need – if we’re going to be successful – we need to look outward, not inward. There’s a big market out there and we need to address it. It’s not easy. It’s no coincidence that all the world-class software companies, bar one, are US based. They have a market of 350 million who speak one language, on their doorstep. So they can afford to build their capability locally before they go globally. The one exception is SAP and the reason they were successful was because Germany had such a huge manufacturing base and they provided a manufacturing ERP solution. 80% of their sales in the early 90s were still in Germany. Then they went global. Now, we haven’t that luxury; we have to go global at a very early stage, which is not easy. But we need to have that vision. Global market development is becoming a key requirement in all that we do in this sector. One great development at Momentum recently has been to welcome the digital content companies on board – and some of them are world class – but again, they have to think globally. So we’re working closely with Invest NI’s trade division and they have had some extremely successful single-sector trade missions to America and other parts of the world.

Gary: So we’ve a positive story to tell about Northern Ireland companies, Northern Ireland skills, the IT industry here in general – it’s in rude health at the moment?

Ian: It is indeed – except for the fact that, at the moment, we have a shortage of skills. That is becoming a major problem that could really upset this projected growth that we’re hoping to achieve.

Gary: So, who needs to do what?

Ian: Well, we need to get government and industry aligned and working together on a series of initiatives that, yes, encourages more people to study computer science, but also look at ways at rapidly increasing the number of people available – through conversion courses, through looking at how we increase the number of students that can be brought into universities – to exceed the MaSN cap, e.g. for subjects like computer science. So we need to agree a range of initiatives with the Department for Employment and Learning, Department of Education, Invest NI, industry…and then we need a plan of action. David Mawhinney is now chairing the employer board, which consists of many of my member companies, and is pursuing a number of these initiatives to try to solve this current situation.

Gary: Looking back on your own career, what would you say was the thing that you’re most proud of?

Ian: I think, the launch, along with AT&T of our System 36 product in Morristown, New Jersey, at their headquarters. That was a proud moment!


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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2 Responses to Momentum’s Ian Graham: The ICT sector offers a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland – but the skills shortage needs to be addressed

  1. franczyza says:

    that is so cool. keep writing.

  2. Thanks for the mention, Ian, and what a pleasure to see you again!


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