As 2011 gives way to our hopes for 2012, it’s time to briefly review the interviews we did last year, which attracted over 11,000 visitors. We published 12 interviews with Northern Ireland’s technology leaders over the past 9 months, getting a unique insight into their careers and their business experience. In the process, we’ve learned, if we didn’t already know it, that the ICT industry in Northern Ireland is in rude health and that we have world-class leaders, capable of making an enormous impact worldwide.
As Ian Graham, Chief Executive of Momentum, the industry’s membership organization, said, “The ICT industry is hugely significant for the overall economy in Northern Ireland, 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.”
Skills: Business leader after business leaders pointed to the major strength we have in the quality and capability of the people that come through our education system. All good, except for what Ian Graham called a “skills crisis”, where there simply are not enough skilled people coming through the education system to match the demands of the industry. Almost all our CEOs mentioned how difficult this is making life for their business growth plans. Bro McFerran of Allstate suggested that his 2,000 strong workforce might conceivably have been double that, had the numbers of skilled people been available.
The difficulty is felt at all levels – Aidan McGrath, CEO of Aetopia told us, “Another big challenge for us is getting staff in Northern Ireland – there’s a shortage of skilled Java programmers. They are being eaten up by some of the large IT companies. There is no doubt there is severe pressure on skills at the moment. And this brings with it pressure on salary levels which makes it very difficult for small companies to compete.”
Given what our companies are achieving at the moment, and the potential that they have to do even better – constrained only by having access to people with the right education and skills – the onus is on the Northern Ireland Assembly and the various relevant government departments and bodies – notably the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning, and Invest NI – to come up with a strategy along with Momentum to maximize the economic contribution of the ICT industry to Northern Ireland. We have done well over the past 15 years with inward investment and wealth creation through local companies – but we can do much, much better. And the first job is to fix the education system which is at present failing our industry. Radical action needs to be taken to create a cohesive system where every public body which can contribute to creating large numbers of people with the right education and skills works in tandem with the others towards a common goal.
At present, we see little joined-up action and even less joined-up thinking. As Bro McFerran said, “if we want to grow this economy the way we want to grow it, all of our educational output should be focused.” Is there a champion, someone of vision in the Assembly who will work with the industry to help the industry realize a vision, not just for itself, but for the benefit of the whole Northern Ireland economy?
Business Leadership: We had some great insights into business leadership from last year’s interviewees. Peter Shields of Etain, told us to be prepared to forget the business plans and be prepared to wing it at times, going with a gut feel for what is right. Most of our leaders pointed to the need for a steady customer focus above all else as the key to success. Noel Brady of NB1 suggested that respect was a key element in customer relationships while Relay’s Alastair Bell pointed to the need for exceptional customer service, which, he said, required his staff to really understand not only their own software products, but the customer’s business.
A common thread throughout many of the interviews was the need to surround yourself with and trust a good team of people. Core Systems’ Patricia O’Hagan of said, “you need to create the right environment so [that your staff] 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.” Sound advice.
Which Rob McConnell of SQS agreed with, “In terms of managing technology people, you need to give them space to be creative; you also need to support them in terms of training and development – especially in today’s very competitive environment, to retain technical people, you need to give people some space.” On a similar theme, Replify’s Brian Baird said, “listening, understanding before you make decisions, being empathetic and collegiate and taking good opinion into play is important before you take any action.”
Noel Brady pointed to the clear need for technology companies to be able to sell competently – even doing basic things well, like translating features into benefits for the customer and knowing how to close. Brian Baird felt that, with regards to sales and marketing, we just need to believe in ourselves a bit more. Peter Shields, as well as Noel Brady, pointed to the need for and the value of networking as a means of business development. Several people, like Rob McConnell, talked about always being on the lookout for how you can improve your business – how to make it more profitable, more efficient. Always being on your toes, looking for the next opportunity, spotting the new wave – to coin Denis Murphy’s phrase – was a key ingredient of success, according to our CEOs.
Denis Murphy was one of many who mentioned funding as a key ingredient in the future success of our ICT companies. Making sure you’re in the right technology space at any given time and having a credible management team are, he said, critical in attracting funding.
Joanne Stuart pointed out that financing for growth was difficult in Northern Ireland, with the banks – with their traditionally hyper-conservative approach – funding most of this, whereas companies like Andor and First Derivatives modelled a different approach.
Des Speed, now building another technology company after the success of Lagan Technologies, also highlighted good levels of funding as crucial to a technology business that has global aspirations. That, and “having a product that is strong and differentiated in the market”.
The final thread we might point to is the sense of vision that each of our CEOs exhibited. Des Speed talked about setting a clear vision about where you want to get to and being able to get everybody in the organization bought into that. A sense of vision was definitely true with respect to each of our CEOs companies, but most of them were very aware of the broad implications of their business with respect to Northern Ireland.
Joanne Stuart, until recently the Chair of the Institute of Directors locally, said that she saw a lot of business leadership in Northern Ireland, with many business leaders willing to help and mentor newer entrepreneurs. The combination of this focus on one’s own business with an interest in the wider economy and a willingness to help other organizations contribute and share in the success, is I think a wonderful characteristic of the ICT industry in Northern Ireland and augurs well for its future.
Perhaps, we’ll leave the last word from last year – which really looks to the future – to Brian Baird:
“I would love to see the Northern Ireland ICT industry getting recognized as having flair and capability. Northern Ireland, Ireland being a world-class innovation and development environment for networked and software products. I do think if we concentrated on that we could get a reputation here. There are some fantastic initiatives happening…there are good mature mentors around and so on. But there needs to be a real will to get there. And what I would love to see is Northern Ireland gaining that reputation. We do have the potential of being very successful.”