Citi’s John Healy – we’ve a fantastic opportunity to grow the technology sector in the Northern Ireland economy significantly.


John Healy

Gary: So John, tell us a bit about Citi operations in Northern Ireland.

John: Citi has been in Belfast now for just over seven years. The idea was it would be a  technology centre with 375 people. Now, in the event, Citi were hugely successful in finding the right type of talent, and very quickly we went back and revised the business plan and said we would grow to be 560. Now, as we sit here today, we are over 700 on the technology front, and alongside this we have 350 users of our software here in Belfast. And on the ground floor of this building there is a legal and compliance function with over 100 people. So we’ve grown from nothing in 2005 to  a delivery centre with over 1200 people here, Citi has had phenomenal success in Belfast.

Gary: On the IT front, what sort of work are you doing?

CitiJohn: We service the institutional clients group, which is the investment banking side of Citi. And the type of work we do is that we work predominantly for the Capital Markets business – that’s the equities, the rates business, and the foreign exchange side of the business. And the guys here are writing the software that is used in the trading, settling, confirming of trades around our global network. And as well as that we have a sizable group in our Citi transaction services business and also a sizable chunk of roles in infrastructure as well – the SAs and the DBAs, who make sure the applications are up and available.

The centre in Belfast is part of a network of delivery centres – so Citi operates in over 100 countries and we’re in 12 from a technology perspective. There are four of these centres in EMEA – Belfast,  and there are centres in Warsaw, Dublin and Budapest. And we in Europe sit alongside our colleagues in North and South America and Asia.

Gary: So what has Citi liked about Belfast, John?

talented-peopleJohn: What works for us here is four-fold. First it’s the ability to find the right kind of talented people. We now have a very successful entry-level programme and we find that the calibre of talent coming out from the local universities is first rate. Secondly it’s about the cost of the resources – there’s no getting away from it, we are cheaper than corresponding resource in New York, or London, and that is  attractive. Many of the other foreign investors here find that very attractive too. Coupled with that we’ve got the geographic proximity – from here to London is a very easy trip for people here to go and visit their clients, or indeed, for clients to come here. So there’s the geographical proximity, but as well as that there is cultural proximity – we all speak English. and on top of that, there is the risk management element, by having this network of centres. And it really came into its own with the recent hurricane Sandy passing through New York. New York was knocked out but centres like Belfast were up and available and were able to take work on. So  that diversification very much works, in terms of managing the risk profile of the business.

Gary: When you mention taking on recent graduates – is that restricted to IT related degrees?

John: No. When we were out recruiting – and we’re just about to start recruitment for 2013 – yes, we’re very interested in the students with computer science degrees, but we also recruit very heavily across Maths, Physics, Engineering and other numerate disciplines. It’s the numeracy that is the key success factor for our technologists. We bring these recruits through our Citi Technology Academy. We give them a week long bankinginduction on how to be successful at Citi and a lot of team building exercises. We follow that up with two weeks of financial markets and banking training – because there’s no real culture of investment banking in Northern Ireland  – and then we have nine weeks of technology training, where we take them through the operating system, database technology and programming languages that we use. So we put them through a pretty intensive set of training, and at the start, you can see that the guys with computer science have an advantage, but by the end of the training you can see the guys from other disciplines are really coming through just as strongly. And once they’ve finished that programme, they get out into the businesses and start their career at Citi proper.

Gary: So what have been the main challenges in building what clearly has been a success story for Citi? And what are the challenges as you go forward?

John: Well, the challenges – number one is resources. We take on a significant number of graduates every year. We could take on more if there were more out there at the level at which we are recruiting. Also, there’s the challenge of market knowledge – there isn’t that heritage of capital markets here and so when we recruit further up, we have to spend a lot of time getting people trained for our particular sector.

The other critical success factors are around the relationships with universities, the very good working relationship with local government and the Assembly, and the very strong working relationships between the companies around this agenda of skills, is hugely  positive.

Gary: So tell us about your own role in the company, John.

technologyJohn: I am the head of the technology group and head of the site. So as well as my responsibilities directly for the technology side of the business, I also look after the governance for the site as a whole. And a large part of my role is around communications – communications with the employees and back into London and  New York, the different groups and stakeholders who use the services from Belfast. So a large part of what I do would be working with teams elsewhere to understand the demand for the centre and how to match that up with the supply of skills we have already and what we need to recruit.

Gary: How did you get to where you are now, John?

John: I graduated from Queens University in 1992. I’d done an engineering degree and then I did an MSc conversion course into computer science. At that time, after graduating, you either got a job with BT or  you headed off to start your career elsewhere. So I went off to London and joined an investment bank called J P Morgan. I had a very good career with those guys and got to work with a lot of exciting technologies. And I got to work in New York and Tokyo. But then Northern Ireland drew me back! So I came back to bring up my family in Belfast. I then had a spell with Liberty and was the CIO for the Grafton Group in Belfast. But I came back into the corporate world with Citi in 2007, two years after Citi had begun their operations here.

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

communicateJohn: Well, what I do is really all about communication. It’s about being able to talk to your colleagues in the business and really understand what’s going on, and then being able to talk to the customers – our internal clients – to be able to understand what it is they’re looking for, so that you can put the two bits together. And something I learned very early in my career, is that to be good at technology doesn’t mean you have to be a programmer. It’s very much around how technology can be used to solve business problems. So that’s really what I do – I communicate about how we use technology to solve some of the problems of the business.

Gary: This is a perception a lot of people have about the technology industry – you’re going to be sitting at a screen all day, tapping away. But that may not be the case?

John: That is absolutely not the case. You will always have that very strong core of pure technologists, but you have a very full  array of different disciplines and functions within technology that are needed to support the business – business analysis, quality and testing, support services, project management – all absolutely critical to the delivery of a quality software product.

Vision Road Sign with dramatic blue sky and clouds.Gary: Let me ask you about motivation in a place like Citi. You can imagine in a small technology company, where everybody has a sense of shared purpose, perhaps they’re bringing some new technology to the market – in a bigger company, clearly the dynamic is different. How do you get people to buy in, to feel a sense of vision?

John: Citi is a huge company – 270,000 people around the globe. But when you take it all the way back, each of us is working in a team. And it’s at that level that people get motivated – that teamwork. You need to know what your role is, no matter if you’re working in a big company or a small one – then you’re able to deliver. And it comes back to this thing about communication – what part of the business are you servicing, what is the delivery about, and ultimately what is the goal for this team?

Gary: So what sort of qualities do your team leaders at various levels need to have in this business?

John: We always say that we take the academic side as given – good degrees – but it’s other skills that can be the differentiator. You need people who can function within a team in our environment. So we spend a long time in the recruitment process in looking at the non-technical side of people, at the competencies that will drive the delivery from within the team.  Also our company culture, the way we do business, is very important for us. We want new people to have the same sort of outlook and values.

Gary: Do you think really good people managers can be trained, or is it built in?

careerJohn: Within technology, there’s a history of people coming through who are good at technology and technology delivery, who then suddenly find themselves looking after teams, where they may not have the desire or the ability to move into people management. Technology companies often match success with managing people. But that’s not the way it should be. Some people are good at managing people, some would much rather work with the software and the technology. We will promote and drive both types of people. So we give opportunities for people who want their career to move along the technology front and for those who are more interested in people management.

Gary: You said earlier that you have  quite a bit of contact with other technology companies. As you look around Northern Ireland – we’ve done pretty well in the last 10-15 years in growing the sector – what do you think we have going for us and where do you think we could take the technology sector?

John: I think we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to grow the technology sector in the Northern Ireland economy significantly. There’s a huge global demand for technologists and for the services we offer here in Belfast, because we are recognised as being good at delivering software and technology. So the prize is very sizable.

NorthernIrelandUlster_PHOTOSHOT_510x286Now what we have going for us is that we are a pretty compact unit where we’ve got successful businesses lined up with government who want us to be successful, and a university and college infrastructure which is there to support us and help us build the skills within the economy. So if we can see that there is that big prize to go for, I think we have the three pillars of education, government and  business itself to really push and grow the sector. That’s a huge bonus and something that we have here in a very co-ordinated way that other parts of the UK or Europe just don’t have.

Gary: So do you see the inter-relationships and the co-ordination between these “pillars”, these organizations that is required – do you think that is there?

John: I do indeed. I see great leadership being shown across all three pillars. There has been some super work been done by the Department for Employment and Learning – e.g. Minister Farry and his working group on ICT. You look at the universities and through their industrial liaison boards, they are working very closely to see what the requirements of industry are. And then at the sector level, the businesses are working very closely together to see what they can do. While they’re all competing for the talent, they all understand their joint responsibility to help grow the sector.

Gary: Last question, John, if you had to  give one piece of advice to a young person coming into the industry here, what would you say to them?

Oil_Drop_4C300_1John: Firstly, I’d say, that it’s a very exciting time to be in technology. In the 20 years I’ve been in this industry, there’s been a complete transformation. So there are great opportunities. And so my advice would be – strive everyday to be as good as you possibly can be; get out there, do your job & enjoy it and take all the challenges as they come your way.

Gary: John, thank you.

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Sixteen South’s Colin Williams: If it’s only about how rich you can get, then you’ve missed it completely

Colin Williams, Sixteen South

Gary: Sixteen South is one of Northern Ireland’s best success stories, but a lot of people are probably unaware of it. So tell us a bit about what you do, Colin.

Colin: Sixteen South is a children’s TV production company. We create and produce kids’ TV for broadcasters all over the world. We don’t work for local broadcasters – simply because none of them buy kids’ TV, so we sell our shows to the leading networks across the world.

We don’t make documentaries or anything at all for adults. Kids’ TV is our focus and we try our best to make great shows that kids love. If you spread yourself across lots of different genres, I don’t believe you can be brilliant across all of them, unless you’re a massive company.

Gary: You’ve been responsible for some pretty big shows haven’t you?

Colin: The company is under 5 years’ old and in that time, we’ve been very fortunate to have been so busy and to have been trusted with major projects – and to work in partnership with people we’ve really looked up to. We work in puppetry, live action and lately in animation, but we would be known throughout the world as only one of maybe 5 companies that make puppet shows. To partner with Sesame Workshop on our first show, ‘Sesame Tree’ was incredible. To win the gig was brilliant, but to actually work with them and learn from them was just fantastic.

We’ve just finished production on our fourth show, ‘Pajanimals’ – a bedtime show for 2-3 year olds with the Jim Henson company in LA, and that was a three way partnership between Henson, ourselves and the broadcaster, Sprout.  I produced it, but I worked really closely with Lisa Henson, who is Jim’s daughter, and now runs the company. But it was made here – proudly made here – in Belfast.  And it’s a show which is going out into 250 million homes in the US, Australia and across Europe. It broadcasts on Sprout, which is a 24 hr kids channel in the States, and every Saturday morning on NBC.

It’s a great channel – and we love their ethos.  They run a campaign called “kindness counts” and they’ve a ‘kindness counter’, which encourages kids to do acts of kindness…very, very positive family values and a strong sense community.. These are things that are important to us as a company and me as a person, so to work with them was wonderful. And working with the Henson family was incredible too – the guys who created the Muppets!  They’re great partners and friends.

Gary: So these major TV shows that you’ve produced; you’ve won a number of major awards that recognizes the quality of your work?

Colin:  We’ve won 13 awards to date. On an Irish level, we won the IFTA (Irish Television and Film Award) for the Best Children’s show for ‘Big City Park’ in 2011.  That was lovely; it was very much a show from Northern Ireland.  We’ve proud of who we are and where we’re from and we don’t shy away from that. Winning that was wonderful, but then to win a BAFTA last year for the same show was amazing.  We’ve won lots of international awards – Hugos and Golden Eagles – and that’s really helped to raise our profile in the industry. Because we are a creative business, it’s important for our creativity to be recognised – but as a ‘Creative Business’, the other side matters too – the business.  We won Best Creative Business in the Belfast Business Awards and the Rising Star in the Deloitte Fast 50 awards last year, which is great, because it recognises our success as a business.

We’ve just heard that we’re finalists in three categories in this year’s Belfast Business Awards – ‘Best Creative Business’. ‘Best International Trade’ and ‘Best Business Innovation’.  I’ve also been nominated as ‘Business person of the year’ too.

Gary: That’s an enormous amount of success and recognition in a very short space of time. How’d you manage to do that?

Colin: I feel that people buy into us as a group of people. And things that are important to me in life are also important in business.  We’re genuinely passionate about what we do. When we go and we pitch, people see that. Passion is something you either have or you don’t – you can’t pretend to have it.  We want to treat people right, with respect, and we want to see the creative industries grow because I believe that it will continue to transform our city.

I recognized a long time ago that I can’t do everything or be amazing at everything – so I surround myself with people who are great at what they do. I believe strongly in working as a team and listening to everyone. When you invest in people and you trust people, they give their best.

Gary: So what is it that drives you, Colin?

Colin: Many businesses are driven by the desire to get richer – but that’s not my driver. The company is financially very strong, but what it’s actually about is using your talents to make a difference in the world. It’s not about money.  We’re setting up a not-for-profit foundation to produce some work through.

I graduated as a designer and worked commercially for 13 years – but I really wanted to use my abilities to do some good.. Kids watch a lot of TV, they learn from it, and as children’s producers, we have an incredible opportunity to positively impact on the lives of children who watch our shows.  We’re going into production on our first animated show in April, and that show will cover a whole range of things that children experience – celebrating life and death, themes and topics that are not often covered in TV.  It’s about trying to help kids be better people.

Gary: Sometimes people are passionate about a business, growing that business, and a vision for success at almost any cost, whether it’s people that work with you, for you, customers, family, whatever. That doesn’t sound like the business you are trying to build?

Colin: No. It feels like a family in here. We couldn’t do what we do if we were to run this business in a cold and callous way. That wouldn’t work.

Gary: Does this go beyond your particular business in children’s TV? Could you apply what you’re saying to any business? The values you’ve talked about of mutual respect, of growing people, of everybody being passionate – is that only in this creative space or is it applicable more generally?

Colin: It’s across the board. You have to look beyond the balance sheet. We’re all on this earth for a fixed amount of time. If it’s only about how rich you can get, then you’ve missed completely what life is about. If you can run a business, add quality to people’s lives, bring people with you and have fun doing it – is that not better?

Gary: Colin, you’re the founder of this company. So how did that come about? Did you have a background in puppetry and children’s TV, did this seem like a natural thing to do?

Colin: No – this is actually the second business I started. The first company was called ‘Inferno’, a commercial production company and it was very successful. It was born out of my frustration in working for “the man” and a desire to work for myself.  I had to remortgage my house to raise the money to start it. Inferno made TV ads, promos, and did a lot of work for a lot of large companies. That taught me a lot about business.

But I wanted to something that really would be more life-affirming.

My daughter was a toddler at the time and we were watching a show called ‘Bear in the Big Blue House’ and she loved it. And so did I.  I began to think that I’d really like to make a show that is not only beautiful, but is iconic, like this one. And the shows I loves growing up – Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, I wondered: could I ever get involved in something like that?

A local broadcaster told me that it would be too hard to break into, but eventually I found myself pitching for a new version of Sesame Street to be made here called Sesame Tree. Somehow, we won it and Sixteen South was born. I ran both companies together for a period until I realized where my heart really lay – it was making these children’s shows. So I took a brave decision to pull the shutters down on Inferno – a company that was still making money.

So my route into this was really a desire to use my abilities and talents in a different way, to do something that was worthwhile and to reach a bigger audience.

Gary: A great deal of what you do is selling. In that you are pitching ideas, new concepts for a new programme and so on, to some major players. And you’ve been very successful. What are the key skills and attributes you need for that?

Colin:  Creativity is still the biggest part of my job, but because I run the company, I need to have a handle on everything that goes on – everything from signing off on scripts to what the music sounds like, as well as the management of the company.  Selling is a big part of what I do too. People buy two things – you have to have something that’s good enough that people want to buy – but also, people buy people. And people buy into people’s visions. If people see you have passion and that they can trust you to do the job, that’s a major part of it.

Gary: So people need to recognize your passion, your integrity, your ability to deliver the idea.

Colin: Yes, all of those. Broadcasters have very few slots to fill and therefore they need to know that the show they’re buying will draw an audience. So there is huge pressure – not just in selling the show, but then to make a show that people are going to watch!

Gary: Colin, you were a speaker at a recent TEDx event and your theme was fear. And you talked about how crippling it can be in a business setting or in other areas of life. And you said you thought that was particularly a characteristic of Northern Ireland – could you say something about that?

Colin: I’ve worked in the creative industries since 1995 and in that time I’ve worked in advertising, in Internet-land, in commercial production and now in TV production. In each of those areas, I got to know my peers – the competitors. And in each of these areas – and I would guess throughout the rest of business in Northern Ireland – people play their cards very close to their chest. It’s like being in an exam where you keep your arm around your work. Where you feel that if people see what you’ve got, you’re going to lose it.

In Northern Ireland we’re the only dedicated children’s TV producer and we have a few neighbours that do some work in this genre too.  These aren’t our competitors, though – our competitors are ALL of the companies from around the world who are at the markets with us – pitching for those few valuable slots with the broadcasters. We compete with the world’s best.

What we’ve found is that there is more to gain than there is to lose in building a relationship. We are best friends with many of our competitors and congratulate them when they win a piece of business we were also pitching for. But the culture in Northern Ireland is that you don’t collaborate and you don’t share. People are too busy watching their own backs to realise that don’t realize that if you collaborate you can achieve way more.

We were asked by NI Screen to host an event promoting children’s TV in the QFT. We agreed.  We brought the children’s commissioners from CBBC, RTE and CITV, and other industry experts – and the theatre was filled. People warned me that I was being crazy – that I was giving away all of our secrets! That summed up where we are in Northern Ireland.

Was I afraid of people taking away the relationships I had?  No. We had much more to gain than to lose. When we share what we have, we don’t ever lose it. When you share your knowledge, you still have it, but then others benefit from it too.

On that day there was a pitching session and we opened up the opportunity for our peers and local neighbours to pitch to broadcasters,. That was good.  From that, we are in active discussions with some of our neighbours in Northern Ireland about potential collaboration projects. It has broken those barriers, and shown the rest of the industry that we have nothing to lose by working together. We’ve had a lot of people get in touch with us since about new ideas, new projects which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done that. So sometimes you do need to take a chance.

Gary: Colin – thanks very much.

Colin Williams speaks about “Fear” at TedxBelfast

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Consilium’s Colin Reid: Dolphins, football and fast-moving technology!

Consilium CEO, Colin Reid

Gary: So Colin, tell us a bit about Consilium

Colin: The business used to be Task Software and focused very much on the local government market, originally in Northern Ireland and then into GB, supplying finance systems, works order management systems, for local authorities. We took on VC investment a number of years ago, changed the name to Consilium Technologies and we started doing some broader stuff, we offered our solutions ASP hosted. I suppose you’d call it Cloud now!

But over the last few years we’ve morphed into a mobile company. So when we were looking at workforce management, we saw that there were devices and technologies around that can be put into the hands of the maintenance workers to make them more efficient. We  decided to do it as a bigger thing, rather than just a bolt-on to our existing product. If you look at a large local authority, there are lots of areas where there is scope for mobile workers – from social workers to maintenance workers to environmental health inspectors. So the brief was – can we come up with one product out of the box that was enterprise wide and can be configured to give a solution for all those different areas? And that’s what we did.

And we’ve been in the mobile space, mainly, for the last few years. Still doing our finance systems and so on. But the new business and the growth is all from the mobile side.

When we first did it, Windows Mobile was the only game in town, but if you look over the last year or two, with Apple and Android and RIM (albeit they seem to be on a downward slide), it’s all much more complex. So just this year we brought out Total Mobile 5 which is multi-platform and provides a native experience on every different device. And we’re getting really good traction with that now.

I think we were probably very early into the market – a few years too early – we could see the potential and the opportunity but customers have been slow to embrace that

Gary: But I guess that’s now starting to pay dividends?

It is. Of course it was good that we were early, because we got a lead on the competition. But it’s as if mobile has only existed since Apple came to the market. Which is funny, because our CTO has been running around with a Tablet for years – you remember Microsoft had a Tablet PC, but it never really took off?  People think this industry has been invented by Apple, because they’ve done such a phenomenally good job in their marketing.

And the key difference is the speed of change with mobile. Mobile has been in the industry for a long time but it’s is the first technology where the consumer is driving the enterprise. Think back to the days when the first PCs came out – they came into business first and then eventually reached the home. With the mobile stuff over the past 2, 3 years, it’s been the opposite. It’s consumers that have been running around with their iPhones, Android phones, Tablets and so on. And it’s only now that the enterprise is trying to catch up. And now we’re seeing organizations saying to their people – bring your own device. So it’s no longer the company providing and mandating your Blackberry – people are saying, no, I want to use the device I like using and companies are having to face up to that.

Gary: How does that sit with the public sector with their security requirements and so on?

Colin: Badly! They are still very focused on security and of course that is very important. But I think they are starting to take a more risk-based approach. To date, certainly in Northern Ireland, it’s been “Blackberry or nothing” or a locked-down laptop, but, it’s like King Canute and the tide – this stuff’s not going away, you’ve got to embrace it. And to be honest, the Apple stuff is secure, the data can be locked down. Android – there can be issues, but there are tools out there to make it secure and manage that.

Gary: So when you’re going to a new organization, you’re approaching them as an enterprise mobile supplier?

Colin: Well, on some occasions we’re going in with a point solution, so it all depends. We still do all the local government stuff, but health is now a big focus for us. We did our first piece of work with a local Trust and we have some good stuff going on in health in GB too.

Gary: Presumably that’s a slow market to try and get into?

Colin: It is, but our timing I think is very good, because the National Project [NHS National Programme for IT] has now been killed off. Over the last number of years, that was the only show in town and even though people knew it wasn’t delivering, there was no other option. But now it’s down to Trusts to sort out their own issues.

But when we go to an organization, it’s all about delivering return on investment. In all my years in the industry, this is the first technology where you can actually see clear return on investment, and very quickly. We always said that the back-office systems we sold in the past would give you benefits, but it was always very hard to really quantify that. So for example, we put Total Mobile into Aberdeen City Council, into their maintenance department, 250 operatives, and they saved £1.5m per annum. Because the guys don’t have to come into the depot to get their instructions, they stay out there, they get more jobs done, it’s just all more productive.

Gary: So that starts to make your sales proposition very compelling.

Colin: It does. You have that business case. And then, in certain areas, compliance can be very important, so again, with the mobile technology, you can have it set up so that when the employee says “I’ve arrived”, it takes the GPS co-ordinates, date and time, so you know they were there. They can take photographs. You’ve got proof points to show that people have done what they said they would do and the organization can show compliance.

Gary: And you’re working across the UK. Have you any other territories for your business?

Massachusetts Convention Centre.

Colin: Yes, we do some stuff in the US as well. We’ve a small office in Boston and we’ve a number of customers at the State local government level. From a mobile flu’ clinic to public safety at the Massachusetts Convention Centre.

Gary: That could be a massive market for you. Are you putting a lot of effort into developing that market?

Colin: It is a massive market, and that’s the challenge. Because it’s so big – for a small company, where do you focus? Do you focus on a particular vertical or solution, or on a particular geography? And each State is different. So  you’ve got to pick your market niches. We’re also cultivating some partners in the States – we’re working with AT&T, we’re doing some stuff with CGI and a couple of smaller, regional partners. And we see that as an important way forward for us.

We made our first foray into Europe recently, so we now have a partner in the Netherlands who are reselling Total Mobile there. Again they are focused on Local Government, Healthcare and Utilities.

Gary: So where are the major opportunities for Consilium – is it developing these other geographies, is it developing the product further, or developing you own customer base?

Colin: All of those. But we do see Health as a big opportunity so we’re putting a lot of resource behind that. Also we’ve been starting to do some stuff in the private sector, mainly around  the Facilities Management and Compliance areas, e.g. Health & Safety. FM companies have a lot of compliance issues, so we can help them with that and give them productivity benefits.

Gary: So, what are the big challenges for you. Is it competitors, or is it getting the right people to grow the organization or….?

Colin: The skills challenge in Northern Ireland is certainly there – getting really good developers is increasingly tough. That’s something we have to be mindful of. But also, growing the sales and marketing is a challenge. We have a world-class product in Total Mobile 5, it’s ahead of the competition, but what we really need to do is execute on the sales and marketing. We’re trying to grow our partner base – we’re now working with partners like BT, Capita, Fujitsu,  Vodafone and Serco. And we need to get new sales people out in the market to help us grow our market share in new sectors like health.

Gary: How do you find getting the right sales people?

Colin: Sales people are tough to get. I always think – if somebody’s being a very successful sales person, why would they leave their own organization? I always think – are all the salespeople on the market those who haven’t cut it for some reason? And if you’re selling at an enterprise level and you get guys in from the bigger companies, then there’s the culture problem of them fitting in at a smaller company.

So yes, it’s difficult to get sales people. And the sales cycles can be relatively long, so even when you get somebody, it can be 6, 9 months before you know whether it’s working out or not. And there’s a big cost if it doesn’t.

And over the years, there’s always been good assistance from Invest NI for marketing – but never sales. And yet sales is always more important than marketing! But if you could get, say, 50% assistance so that you could take on two guys instead of one, you could have some resilience if one of them failed.

Gary: Back in the good old days, when you and I started out, you had big companies like IBM and ICL with 2 year programmes to turn out professional sales people, who got experience and then who moved on to small companies with that solid experience. Even the big companies aren’t doing that now…

Colin: That’s right – if you look at people in the industry like Brian Baird or Bro McFerran, some of the major players – all these people were once with big companies. One of our guys was able to get on an ICL sales course years ago and we still use their methodology for strategic selling. But since those big companies stopped doing that, it’s become more difficult.

Gary: Colin, tell us a bit about your own career, Colin. Your role and job has changed a great deal, presumably, over the years as the company has changed. You were one of the founders of the original company?

Colin: I’m a Business Studies graduate, so I’m not a technical person and I started my career in local government as a finance manager and I had responsibility also for IT. And I did some lecturing and consultancy and got involved with the guys when they were setting up Task Software, initially part-time. But then I came aboard as Commercial Director and became Chief Executive in the late ‘90s. At that stage we were neither lifestyle nor growth as a company – probably the worst place to be. So we decided to go for growth and get some funding. And since then, we’ve been growing the business. And as you take on people, you get various break points – when you’ve just 10 people, you don’t have to worry about communications, because everybody heard every phone call! And then you get to 20, 50, then over a hundred  – and you have got to get the right people to manage the right areas.

Gary: So you have a vision for where you want to take the company. How do you make sure you get everybody on-board with that?

Colin: You make sure you’ve got good people around you. And communication. We put a lot of effort into this – we have staff meetings to let people know what’s going on in the company, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the importance. That’s particularly important in our area, the mobile space, because it’s moving at such speed. We’ve changed how we do things, the markets we’re in, even how we do our development – for the last few years we’ve been into Agile development, so communication is important.

And we all make mistakes – no doubt I’ve made every mistake that’s ever been made! It’s the speed at which you learn that’s important. If you try something that’s not working, then change it. That’s the key.

Gary: Technology is moving so fast, you’ve got to continually develop your products. How do you keep make sure you’re keeping the company moving forward in such a fast moving space?

Colin: It’s engagement external to the organization. On the one level you’re plugged into your customers and you need to know their market, what are the drivers. So, for example with health – they’ve got to make $20bn efficiency savings by 2015. There’s compliance issues, you’re looking at what are the main drivers – there’s a reorganisation coming. So we’re saying, how can we help them with this, how can our products help them better meet their business objectives? But then on the other hand, you’re looking at all the technology trends – looking at the blogs, the magazines, going to events, talking to other companies.

Gary: Is that more important for you to do than it ever was before?

Colin: Yes, because the pace of change is so great. A little over a year ago, I went to Blackberry World in Orlando, the pace was buzzing. RIM had 50% of the Enterprise mobility market in the US. Fast forward one year. 68% of those who gone a year previously didn’t bother going to Blackberry World this time round. Two years ago the iPad didn’t exist, or 5 years ago the  iPhone. When the iPad first came out people said – who needs that, what will we use it for? It’s just phenomenal, the pace of change.

The mobile stuff is moving at fashion speed. Before you got an iteration of a technology which lasted a few years and you could have planned a bit more. But things have changed. And this is the norm, it’s not a blip. There are big challenges – a shorter product life means a shorter period in which to get your return. So from a sales & marketing point of view, how do you get your technology out there very, very quickly to get that return.

Gary: So what is it that keeps it fresh for you, Colin? Is it the continual challenge you’ve highlighted of the pace of change, how you respond to it?

Colin: It’s that and seeing the people in your organization grow and seeing the other things you’ve achieved – delivering for customers, getting into a new market. I remember the first time we got a customer outside of Northern Ireland – that was a big deal for us. And then when a major company wants to be a partner – somebody like Capita or Fujitsu – who wants to ditch their own product and take on yours. Or you go to the US and win business. It’s not just the technology, it’s the things the business has achieved and how it’s adapted and grown.

Gary: So what are you really good at and how did you get good at it?

Colin: Better to ask other people! I think maybe what I’m good at is seeing the bigger picture, not getting bogged down in the detail. And it’s partly because I’m not a techie. I’m always looking at “what can this do for the customer?” And I can quickly understand technology and trends from a high level point of view. And then acting on it. So seeing the bigger picture so you can make the right sort of decision. It is critical to be decisive, make quick decisions rather than waiting for more analysis. You will never have enough information. And being prepared to change. If you’ve gone wrong – change quickly, don’t get hung up on an ego or be afraid to admit mistakes.

Gary: How does that work for smaller companies, which can be very focused on just getting in the revenue, paying the salaries, all hands to the pump. It can be very difficult for the management in a small company to take a step back and think – what’s the big picture, where do we want to go. They’re just so caught up in the day to day. Is that OK at that stage, or do you still need to be paying attention to the bigger picture?

Colin: It’s a balance. At the start you’ve got to have a niche focus and be able to deliver what’s required. You can’t afford to look at things from too high a level. It’s a bit like a dolphin – you dive in to the detail for a while and then come back above the surface for air and see around you. You can’t be always at the high level or always at the detail level. It’s getting that balance. The more high tech your business is, where there’s a great pace of change, the more important it is to keep looking outward and see what’s happening in the wider technology world.

Gary: Colin, sounds like you’ve a best selling business book there – the Dolphin Model!

Colin: I have another idea actually! The business as a football club! So the strikers are your sales guys, they bring in the orders, they can win you the game. Your defence can’t win you the game, but they can lose it for you – the business defence is your support capability, your after-sales service. And then the mid-field is the product development guys, linking the two.  And of course, when you’re defending a corner, the strikers gotta be back in the box – you got some customer issues, then sales guys, you got to be back in there sorting that out, even though your main role is up front.

And then with a football team, at each stage of your progress – Championship to Premier League to Europe, you’ve got to make sure you have the right team for each stage. Same in a business – you might need some different “players” to help you once you qualify for Europe, so to speak, or start doing business internationally.

You see Gary, you shouldn’t have got me started on football. At least we didn’t get on to Manchester United or we really would have been here all day …

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Aurion’s Dr Maureen Murphy at TEDxBelfast

Last year CEO-NI interviews Dr Maureen Murphy of Aurion. Here she is presenting at the TEDxBelfast event held in the Titanic Building in Belfast

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Sophia’s Dave Patterson – Nothing beats selling to customers

Sophia CEO Dave Patterson

Gary: So, Dave, tell us a bit about Sophia.

Dave: The technology behind Sophia was developed jointly at the University of Ulster, where I was a researcher heading up an AI lab and at the St Petersburg State University, Russia where Vladimir Dobrynin, Sophia co-founder, was based. We were focused on search-related problems, so we started the company based on the premise that we would develop technology to solve key problems in the search arena. Now, unlike Google, which is primarily Internet search, we were focused on organizational, enterprise search. So we were looking at unstructured content within organizations – pdf files, Word files, html files and so on.

Now whilst Google has done a great job with Internet search, search within the enterprise has typically been done very badly. And people are very frustrated with their enterprise search tools and capabilities. So that was our initial target space.

Because Sophia is a semantic technology it is very different from conventional search provided by Google, Lucene or Fast, e.g. These are all based on Boolean searches where you put in a key word and then you get presented with all the documents that contain all those key words. But in a semantic search, you say what you’re looking for and the system understands your meaning, and brings you back documents that may not even contain that term but contain similar concepts to it. So it’s a much more powerful search approach.

So that’s the approach Sophia took. But it was also about the context of the search – so that if I search for “java”, I want information on the island in Indonesia, and not on coffee or computer programming. So it’s all about understanding the user’s context and the meaning behind what they’re searching on. So that makes the search more specific and reduces the amount of information the user has to sift through.

Gary: And this can go across a whole raft of applications and datasets within the enterprise?

Dave: Absolutely. And then the other thing is that we didn’t think search should just be about the recovery of information explicitly asked for by the user, but it should be about the discovery of new information that the user is unaware of or hasn’t thought to look for.

Gary: Give us an example of how that works in practice.

Dave: Well, the user may set off looking for one specific thing, but there may be other information that is related to that which the user is unaware of. One of the datasets we indexed with Sophia was news stories that happened before the end of 2007.We were showing someone working for a pharmaceutical company, who was interested in Alzheimer’s,this data indexed by Sophia and discovered that Alzheimer’s was related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The interesting thing is that this relationship was unknown until 2009 – there were no scientific publications showing such a link before this date. But Sophia automatically discovered the correlation and that knowledge through its understanding of content that finished in 2007!

So this shows the very powerful discovery aspect to the Sophia technology that directly impacts on innovation and creativity in organisations. So Sophia does both recovery and discovery.

Gary:  So currently, are you selling a software product or a whole service round a technology?

Dave: It’s a product. But we can also build a Sophia index for a very large dataset – like say, Medline, the big medical abstracts library – and make that available to researchers and drugs companies. But equally we can sell the technology for installation behind the firewall so they can work on their own datasets. We offer both, depending on what the customer wants. And, also we can offer the technology from the Cloud – that’s the way Random House, the publisher, uses Sophia. So we’re versatile in the way in which we can engage with customers.

Gary: So that’s what you’re doing now. How did things develop along the way?

Dave: Well, as I said we started out focusing on search. But things change – and this is important, I’d say, for anyone else building a new technology company – you can’t be too fixed in terms of how you’re going to deploy your technology and who your customers are and where your niche is. You’ve got to pay attention and learn from every sales pitch you do. Listen to the feedback from customers – positive and negative – and learn from it. Be open to change. Where you start off and where you think you’re going will, in all likelihood change somewhere along the way. So you’ve got to be flexible and willing to change your perspective.

We learned that search wasn’t our sweet spot right now. We learned that customers, while they loved the technology, were reluctant to hand over the responsibility of search within their organizations to a small start-up from Belfast. And it took quite a while to see that this was a problem as companies were not up front about telling us this – or maybe we just weren’t asking for feedback directly enough!

So we decided to make a change in the business and we changed focus. So instead of Sophia being the search tool of choice within the organization, all that clever knowledge that we discover & extract from documents, we now package up and make it available to the organization’s existing search tools, to make them smarter.We call this new product the Digital Librarian. So if they’re using Google, or Fast or Lucene, we add the powerful functionality of the Sophia Digital Librarian to it. This adds a semantic dimension and a discovery dimension to these other products.

Gary: Does that allow you then to develop business relationships with these other suppliers?

Dave: It moves us from the front line of support, so they are not relying on a small company in Belfast. It means we’re not competing against established players in the marketplace, but we’re complementing and adding value to an organization’s existing investments. It’s a much easier sell; it’s a much lower risk proposition for the customer.

Gary: So does that give you an opportunity to sell on the back of those other companies through partnerships?

Dave: Yes, there are a lot of companies out there which are resellers of these products. So we are in the process of building relationships with some of them so that the Digital Librarian becomes integrated with theirs, so that when they make a sale, they can offer Sophia as well.

Gary: So what markets are you targeting, then? You’ve mention pharmaceuticals and medical research – anything else?

Dave: Well the publishing industry has become every excited about our technology. We demo’ed the Digital Librarian for the first time last September to publishers and we had our first sale within three weeks! What we now have to offer is so much more compelling for them than simply search. Publishers like the Digital Librarian because it creates this extra meta-data that describes their content. Their problem is to try and compete online and generate revenue from that, rather than just in print. So they have to be able to leverage their content more intelligently – and that’s what we do, by making their content more “findable” when people are searching. One of the things that our technology can do is to, say, look at a web page someone is browsing, understand what the content is about and then recommend books related to the subject matter.

Gary: So this starts to be a commercial tool for these companies to sell their wares. It becomes a very targeted marketing tool.

Dave: It’s all about contextualized advertising and recommendation. What is the most relevant indication of what someone is interested in at any moment in time? – the content they are reading online. And if you can understand what they are reading and then come back with relevant recommendations, it’s very powerful for the publishers.

Gary: So, although the technology is quite generic, you’re focused at the moment on pharma and publishers?

Dave: Yes, you’ve got to have a clear focus – if not you’ll not achieve anything.

Gary: How long has Sophia been going?

Dave: The company was established in late 2007 and we spent about 2 years making a product out of the prototype system we spun out from the University. The University invested in the company at this early stage,and then we got a round of angel investment in summer 2010 – the largest ever private investment round, via Angel investors, in Northern Ireland history. So that helped us through the process of commercialization where we realized that search wasn’t the right direction. So now that we’re sure of the tack we’re taking, we’ve got significant traction in the marketplace.

Gary: So when did you actually start selling?

Dave: Just after last summer. And since then sales have really taken off!

Gary: And you opened a US office?

Dave: We decided at the beginning of last year, that we needed to be looking to the US market and building a customer base over there. And mixing with other tech companies and investors and people in Silicon Valley. We decided we really needed not to take the traditional approach of building up your home market before looking to the States – so we jumped into the US market. This combined with our belief that people here are much more conservative in their adoption of new technologies. Whereas the Americans love new technology and to say you are a start-up over there is a positive – here when you say that to prospects, they lose interest. And it really was a shock for me when I found I could talk freely about where we were as a company. Over there, people want new technology, want to trial it, test it and are prepared to pay for it.

Start-ups are where real innovation comes from in the States – not the large companies, it’s the small start-ups who do the innovation, so people equate innovation to small companies. When they hear you’re a start-up they automatically assume you have something really cool to offer.

Also in the recession, the conservative approach to business is much worse over here. So we decided to jump over to the US and it’s been a brilliant decision.

Gary: So how did you do that? How does a Belfast company get going in Silicon Valley?

Dave: Well our chairman, Chris Horn, has a lot of experience in the Valley and he knows a lot of people. And through his network we were able to find a great sales guy to head up our sales operations. He’s got 25 years experience in the Silicon Valley software industry and he understands the challenge of bringing new technology to market. I’ve learned a lot from him.Also Invest NI were really supportive and their office over in San Jose is really keen to help any Northern Ireland company. And so they helped with networking and introductions to companies and so on. Things just grew from there.

And then I just had to spend a lot of time with our sales guy out there, and we knocked on a lot of doors, did a lot of calls and built things one step at a time.

For example, on one of the first calls we were on together, he started telling the customer that we were a start-up with brand new technology. And I was thinking – no, no, don’t tell them that! But actually out there, people love that.

But even when I’m not in the US, I’m focused on that market.After a day’s work here there’s an evening to be spent with phone calls to the US, and emails – to whatever time it takes. So it’s a long day, but when you see progress and things moving forward, it’s worthwhile.

Gary: So most of your customers are in the States?

Dave: They are. We do have some here, but most of our focus is on the US. And interestingly, because the publishing industry is big for us, these companies are mostly around New York. So we’re in the situation of being a Belfast company, with a base in San Francisco and our customer base is in between. And then of course, there are the Russian R&D guys – we have a research base in St Petersburg headed up by Vladimir, who is now our Chief Scientific Officer. It’s very cost effective and we’ve a great working relationship, so it works well. So, although we’re small, we kind of span the globe!

Gary: Over 5 years, what you’re doing and your life has changed enormously. It’s a big change from being a researcher in a University, in a big, secure environment with, possibly not too much pressure.  But now suddenly you live or die by the decisions you’re making, you’ve people depending on you for the payroll and so on – that’s a very different set of  circumstances for you. So how has that change felt – have you loved it or did it seem daunting at times?

Dave: Definitely daunting at times – but at the same time, it’s really exciting. It can be depressing, it can be really uplifting – it depends on what time of the day you talk to me! Each day is so different, you never know what’s going to happen.

It was never something I set out to do, I never thought – I really want to run my own company and be CEO. I loved my job at the University. We happened to do this research that had commercial potential and I had the opportunity to start a company and it just seemed the right thing to do at that point. It’s not every day you get that type of exciting opportunity. So we started the company, we got funding and at that stage, when we had investors, I felt we were doing it for them as much as for myself and for our employees. I feel a real sense of responsibility for the people who have invested, that we deliver for them and succeed.

As well as that, I want to do the right thing by the guys in the company too. They work really, really hard and they put in a lot of time and effort. It’s a matter of not wanting to let anyone down.Not least of all my family – they put up with me being away a lot.

So it’s been great, really enjoyable…and who knows what the future holds. It’s looking really exciting at the minute, but you take a day at a time.

Gary: So what gives you the greatest buzz now?

Dave: The same thing as right at the start – through having a sense of pride that people are getting value from using something I helped develop. Whenever I show the technology to people and they go, “Wow, that’s so cool”, that gives you a real high. And then you invoice them and they send you money!

When we first started with the research, that’s what it was – it was never intended to be commercial and to think what has happened through wining the 25k Award, the All Ireland Seedcorn competition, a in the UK, partnering with IBM and all the investment rounds – that’s all been really satisfying, but nothing beats selling to customers.

Gary: What’s the future, then?

Dave: We’re now looking for engineers here in Belfast, we’re looking for sales and bus dev people in the US. We’ve a great sales pipeline and we need more engineers to help support that business. So if anyone fancies a challenge, or is looking to be a part of something really exciting in Northern Ireland & gets a buzz from doing things differently – get in touch!

Gary: So you’ve all the organizational challenges ahead!

Dave: Mmm. Not looking forward to that!

Gary: What advice would you give to anybody thinking of starting a new technology business?

Dave: It’s not for everybody. If uncertainty’s not something you’re comfortable with, you don’t want to be doing this. The biggest thing is – don’t think you can do it alone. You need to build a team. No one person has the skills to do everything. Get a team around you who can add value. That’s what it’s all about – adding value to the company.

But we need to encourage more people to do this. We need to enable more people to try things. We need to remove the stigma from failure – that’s so counterproductive. We have a lot of innovative people in Northern Ireland, if we can just get the support networks right. Early stage funding’s a massive issue – I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s a big challenge. However, that’s as it is, we just gotta get on with things & not make excuses.

Gary: Do what you’ve done, Dave – get on a plane and get over to Silicon Valley and make things happen!

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Ed Vernon: Strategy’s easy; execution’s the key

Entrepreneur Ed Vernon

Gary:  Give us a rundown of your career to date, Ed.

Ed: I started in Queen’s (University Belfast) in electronic design. It was tremendous time, really exciting, working with early microprocessor design and so on. Then the PC came along, and this thing was amazing because it could be a CAD system or it could be a word-processor. And then I had this compelling need to set a business up. And this seemed to be the right thing to base a business on. So we set up BIC Systems and rode the wave of the PC for 20 years!

Gary: So – you started that business right out of university? Because that was pretty unusual at that time.[early 80s] Most people were going to the careers fairs and  getting a job with a big company and trying to get some experience under their belt. It was pretty unusual in those days to go straight out and start a business.

Ed: I never thought of like that! But you’re probably right. For me, it was a need, I just had to do it. And I what you might call confident expectation! But of course later on I found out that businesses can in fact fail, and that that might be pretty negative. And of course, if I’d known at the time all the things that could go wrong, I probably wouldn’t have done it!

Gary: So did you have people saying to you – oh no, don’t be doing that, get yourself a proper job, son?

Ed: No – and I wouldn’t have listened anyway!

Gary: So you started up this business, you were going out into the market to try & sell…nobody had told you how to do that…that must have been…interesting!

Ed: I’ve said many times – I wouldn’t have backed it! No experience, no product, no customers. Just a tiny amount of money from our parents – myself and Desi McGlade. But what that did was to create a focus on the customer which created a culture of innovation – we had to think with our brains, not our cheque-books. And that really stayed with us during the next couple of decades. We never thought that anything was ours by right – the only way to make progress was to look after your customers and bring ideas in that other people weren’t.

Gary: Looking back on those early days, what was the hardest thing about what you did?

Ed: The hardest thing was…everything! You had to take care of everything. I remember one St Patrick’s day, this phone call came in and somebody said, “could I speak to someone about your “bought ledger”. And I didn’t know what a bought ledger was. It was just Desi and me and a part-time person. And then you had to know about technology and how to sell…And for many years at the start I kept thinking “I wish I knew a lot more”. So you had to do things ten times before you did it right. So it was a lot of hard work.

But against that, with our engineering backgrounds, we did know about networks. A lot of PC companies at the time went down the route of accounts systems – we didn’t know it at the time, but we went down the corporate computing route. So we put the first PC network in Northern Ireland into Shorts [now Bombardier]. And so that gave us a bit of a difference in the marketplace.

Gary: And you started doing some business in the south of Ireland at this time too, didn’t you?

Ed: Yes. As well as the PC side of the business was this other mad side, which was about electronic design systems – which was really our background. That was quite lucrative and profitable. It was about in-circuit emulation. Back in those days Ireland was attracting a lot of hardware and electronics companies in as inward investors. So we supplied those companies with systems to de-bug hardware in real-time. But we really kept these two parts of the business quiet separate.

Gary: What did BIC eventually grow to?

Ed: From incorporation in ’84 to exit in 2004 – 20 years – we grew to over £30m turnover and about 180 full-time staff and about 40 contractors. And the business had become very successful. So at that stage we were thinking what do we do, where do we go? And we were thinking about expanding into the south of England, into niche areas.

But BT came in and made an offer. Truth is, given the profitability of the business, it was a good offer, but not as amazing as some people thought. But the shareholders thought it was worth going for.

Gary: So you stayed with BT for a while after that?

Ed:  I stayed for about a year and a half. It was the right thing to do. I said to Alastair Hamilton who was running BT at that time – “I’ll do the best job I can, to help grow the business, but for a limited time”. So I came up with the idea of merging the BT business, both south and north. So Alastair and Bill Murphy, myself and others set about making that happen.

Gary: So after 20 years of running your own business, building it up from scratch, and into – in Northern Ireland terms – a sizable organization, that was your first taste of working in the corporate environment. How did that feel?

Ed: Well, I’d worked with the public sector as a supplier for many years, and with larger entities, so it wasn’t such a cold bath. And, over 20 years at BIC, you were used to dealing with big challenges and you just got on with it. So my attitude was – what can I usefully do here? The thing I really wanted to do was to see if some of the management thinking and systems that we’d developed in BIC would scale into a bigger entity like BT. And as it turned out, they could. So we brought those techniques in about how you develop positive  constructive transformational change.

Gary: So describe these management techniques you felt you had learned and you felt were transferable.

Ed: The big thing is that there are two components in any business. There’s today and the future. Business as usual and change. If you’re looking too much at the future, you run out of money in the present; but if its all live for today and forget about tomorrow, then you limit your growth. So you’ve got to get a balance between these two.

Gary: Should these two things always be present in the thinking of any management team – at all times?

Ed: Yes, they should. You have to do both. Or else you’re sub-optimal or the business fails.

Gary: What I see is, particularly with smaller organizations, that the focus is on the day-to-day stuff and they either don’t think about the future, or else they just do it periodically.

Ed: Well, it took us about 10 years to evolve this. It started with a trip to America where I saw all these Baldrige award winners and their change programmes. But it ended up that in our board meetings we had two sections of the agenda – one was on today, KPIs, margins, costs and so on; the other  was the change programme. And the change programme was there every month.

Gary: So looking back, Ed, what is it that you’ve proved good at along the way?

Ed: Strategy, but above all else, execution. I mean, everybody’s got a strategy. Strategy is easy, but as the old adage says – an OK strategy brilliantly executed wins every time over a brilliant strategy poorly executed. So I’m good at the execution part. ExEx we call it in BIC – excellent execution. So that was our culture – and it came down to the little things – if a meeting was at 1030, it started at 1030, not 1031. And using collective intelligence has been a strength. In any business there are usually a lot of clever people – you just have to give them the opportunity to be involved in the change. And invariably they know a lot more about the business than you do. And in a lot of organizations, the chief exec or the management team feel they have to have all the answers, or else it’s a sign of corporate weakness. The opposite is true, actually – it’s a sign of corporate weakness not to ask people.

Gary: A lot of business have found it really tough recently, Ed – have you any views on what business need to do at this difficult moment?

Ed: I think with what’s happened to the world economy – I think there’ll be a wave of innovation now. The simple thing in a downturn is to cut costs and the accountants take over. And of course that’s the right thing to do – you’ve got to cut once and cut deep – but then eventually there’s nowhere else to cut. And if you’re going to create value, which is usually linked to profit growth, you have to grow the business. So now you have to be innovative about how you grow a business. So I think we’ll see a wave of innovation – in everything from recruitment businesses to telecoms providers.

Gary: So what about innovation and Northern Ireland? Because in these last few years, with being on the Board of Invest NI, you’ve had the chance to look at what’s happening to business and the technology sector in Northern Ireland. Where are we in terms of being innovative?

Ed: Well, firstly, we can’t deny we are a little micro-region. We’re small, on the periphery of everything. Over the past 50 years, all the strategies for the economy here have basically said the same things – we have to move up the value chain, we have to get better skills. The problem is all these strategies didn’t say anything about the execute side of things – how’re we going to do it? Now I think that Invest NI has begun to think seriously about this. First of all they’ve acknowledged that we do have to execute better. And then some of the big things we’ve done recently have widened the customer base significantly and made programmes and support much more easy to access –the ‘Boosting Business’ programme would be an example of this. And suddenly you’ve got some of the highest rates of application for R&D support that Invest NI has ever had, from a much wider base of companies than ever. There are all these brilliant companies out there that people don’t know about and Invest NI is now in a position to help them export. Because of course export is the only way forward.

If we were to do it in the perfect way, you would pick your winners – now of course that’s extremely controversial, because if you’re not one of the winners people aren’t happy. But as a small region we should pick a few areas and say we’re going to be brilliant at these, we’re going to succeed there and put the resources behind them. And we are starting to do that – with some of the financial services, legal services that are coming through. We’re very good at those back office things, because Northern Irish people are very good at making good on what they’ve said they would do.

For me, if I had a magic wand, I would develop Northern Ireland into most responsive and adaptive skills delivery system in Europe – so if an investor comes in we’re able to say – yes you can have 12 of those and 20 of those and 82 of those, no problem. If we could do that, the world would beat a path to our door. The only thing we have is people and the only advantage we can give people is skills.

The Northern Ireland economy is in a difficult spot – it’s in transition. We all understand the over-reliance we have on the public sector. Overall we probably need a 20 year plan – it’s not a 3 year or a 5 year plan. We need a long term plan of renewal. And it’s got to be around the sorts of thing Invest NI talks about – exports and niches. So we’ve got to pick our winners and be response and adaptive.

Gary: To date we’ve had our problems in matching the thinking about the opportunity facing us and what we need to be and do with having the right sorts of skills available. Do you see that changing?

Ed: I think the politicians well  know that bringing together DETI and DEL is the smart thing to do and that’s all caught up in the review of public administration. I think that’ll be settled sooner rather than later. So that’s one good thing. We’ll be basically taking our implementation organization, Invest NI and our skills delivery owner, which is DEL and making those two work much closer together.

But it’s a point of frustration to everyone that in Northern Ireland we have what you might call the cancer of fragmentation. People know this is an issue that stops us from getting things done more quickly. We have a multi-decade legacy with this and we need to continue to work at it.

Gary: So, finally Ed – tell us what you’re up to at the moment.

Ed: Well, I’ve got a very varied portfolio. I’ve a non-exec role BT, which I’m very happy about, because it’s my only connection with technology now. Then I’ve an asset management advisory role with the  Northern Ireland Executive and work  very closely with ministers and senior officials on that. I’ve just been appointed onto the board of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, which I’m very proud to be associated with. And then we have our recruitment business in EastMidlands, and that has gone through the economic cycle, but now is in a very strong position. We were delighted  in February that the Sunday Times announced that we were in their Top 100 small businesses in the UK to work for – actually we were number 7. Macildowie is the name of the business. It’s a specialist recruitment business in finance, HR, Supply Chain and procurement.

And then finally I’m on the Foundation Board at Queens and I led the campaign to raise funds for the new leadership institute at Riddell Hall, and a legacy of that is that I chair the Founders’ Club at Riddell Hall. So it’s very varied, very busy, enjoyable. And of course, you make of it what you can. I’ve just finished six years, two terms on the board of Invest NI and I’ll be sorry not to be associated with Invest NI. And it’s worth just noting that in the last Audit Office report which came out just a couple of weeks ago, Invest NI got what was probably the most positive report since it’s formation 8 years ago.

Ed Vernon has been a major figure in the IT industry in Ireland for many years. He was CEO of BIC Systems for 20 years and recently has served on the boards of a variety of organizations, including Invest NI.

Gary Burnett runs a small consultancy organizations called Fabrio which helps technology companies change and grow.

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CMI’s Ken Roulston: If you’re not enjoying it, stop doing it!

Ken Roulston, MD CMIGary : Tell us a bit about CMI, Ken.

Ken: CMI came into existence in its current form in October 2009, following the merger of two IT companies, SLA networks and Ethos Information Solutions. Stephen Gillespie and I, who had worked together for many years in a previous incarnation of CMI, which latterly became Aurora and then Sx3, and most recently Northgate, decided we’d like to create an organization that had the same culture & ethos of the original CMI, which was one of excellent customer service, partner relationships with our customers and, indeed, with our staff, and to have an environment where people could work hard and play hard, and feel part of an overall team. And we’d both seen that ethos had got lost somewhat in bigger organisations and we felt that we wanted to recreate something more akin to the earlier days where work was a lot more enjoyable and fun.

So we raided our piggy banks, got some investment, acquired the two businesses, merged them together and that gave us a base from which to operate. The company is a provider of infrastructure solutions to the Northern Irish marketplace and to date our markets have been primarily the private and voluntary sector, although we’re now starting to make some inroads into some parts of the public sector. Our solutions vary from very traditional IT infrastructure through to the current flavours of virtualization, and, we’re just now launching our take on the Cloud, which is a big subject currently. We believe that the Cloud has a lot of advantages but it’s not yet fully developed to a point where every organization can necessarily avail of without considerable issues.

So we believe that on-premise – the traditional environment – is going to be around for many years yet. But we do believe that the Cloud will start to have a role for certain functions and the outcome of that over the next numbers of years is that we’ll see an environment of what is termed hybrid IT – linking together on-premise and Cloud offerings, be it private or public Cloud. So that’s very much what we’re seeing now and we see that transition coming about as a result of the technological advances in IT but also because of the economic pressures, where organizations have reduced levels of capital expenditure available to them, because of the credit crunch and the impacts of that.

We currently have around 200 customers here in NI. We have 23 staff and our customers range from relatively small organizations with sub-10 users to customers that have over 200. Through the investment we made in a service management system called Kaseya, which is a market-leading product for managed services providers – we have the ability to reach way beyond the geographic boundaries of NI, so we’re able to support sites the length and breadth of Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and indeed, across continental Europe. We can support customers that are based in NI, but have remote workers or workers in different geographical regions.

Gary: Presumably going outside NI is where the future is for CMI?

Ken: We believe there are still good opportunities within Northern Ireland. The area in which we operate along with our particular blend of skills, services and products is such that we can increase our market share. It’s true that this market isn’t really growing so that market share will come because of competing against our competitors. But of course, we are looking beyond Northern Ireland – through an investment we’re hoping to secure from Invest NI, we can develop a hybrid Cloud offering that will be suitable for communities of interest such as housing associations, charities and so on, and we’re already hooking up with a partner, Montal, in GB, to look at how to roll that hybrid Cloud solution out to their customers. We have an interest in the south of Ireland as well – it’s on our doorstep and there are lots of economic and logistical reasons why it makes sense to look down there. The reality is that it’s going to be better served by finding good people to partner with, rather than trying to establish a position in our own right.

So our way to market, whether locally or externally, is primarily through partnership and alliances, rather than simply doing things in our own right, because that can be highly capital intensive.

Gary: What are the key things you bring to a relationship with a partner?

Ken: What we have in terms of the systems we have developed and customised is the ability for us to manage customers’ IT very proactively, monitor it and deal with issues as they arise. This has tended to be the domain of the large organizations, using very expensive solutions.  But we took the decision when we made this investment that we needed to use state of the art systems and we needed to make a long term commitment to the technology of the future, so we believe that technology gives us a significant advantage over other comparable organisations with similar overheads to ours. That needs to be complemented by a service ethos that is very much about working with the customer in a long term relationship. Now, most organizations will claim that that’s what they do and many do it – so in some ways we’re not unique in that respect – but I think it’s that combination of service culture, a happy workforce and the investment in systems that we’ve made that means we have satisfied customers. And that’s what this business is all about. Because the best way to generate business is through referrals – and if you’ve happy customers, they will do that for you.

Gary: You mentioned about hybrid Cloud solutions – firstly, are you finding that your customers are talking to you about the Cloud, or do you initiate that conversation? What level of interest do you see in the marketplace?

Ken: Cloud as a term has been bandied about for quite a while. Ever since we made the investment in 2009, it’s been on the radar. And increasingly it’s becoming a much hyped subject. And the reality is, it’s like years ago, when people talked about e-this and e-that, and if you go right the way back it’s really bureau IT. However, it is gaining ground because there are a lot of major organizations that are putting a lot of marketing dollars into it – Microsoft, Google, Amazon, HP and so on.  So there is a momentum there which is being driven and which needs to be embraced.

I think it’s not so much being driven by technology per se and the marketing dollars behind it, it’s more about the whole issue of capital expenditure. Organisations are increasingly reluctant to invest large amounts of capital in IT. But if they believe that they can pay on the basis of pay-as-you-go, even if it works out more expensive in the long run, that is very attractive. However, we have found that many organizations have considered it, but once they examine it closely, and look at the communications, security, management and integration issues associated with it, the cost advantage is not as appealing as it first looked.

Now, we are of the view that this is just a stage of maturation that the market is going through at the moment, and in 3-5 years it’ll be significantly further developed. And that’s why we believe that, while there’s a high level of interest in the Cloud, organizations need to really look at their business and all the issues before jumping into some of the public Cloud offerings. So there is a consultation exercise to be gone through with customers to work all this out. But in Northern Ireland, where we operate primarily in the SME sector, and because of the impact of the recession here, it is being discussed more openly than in other parts of the UK, particularly the South East of England.

Gary: So when you talk about these hybrid Cloud solutions, Ken – what are the things that Cloud is particularly suited for?

Ken: Cloud can be very good for providing flexible access to email and products such as Microsoft Office 365. We’ve been very involved in rolling that out for customers. The contract we have with what is the old Nortel Networks organization has about 80 users all around Europe and they are all using Office 365 supplied by ourselves and they find it an ideal way of working. But line of business applications, whether accounting systems, ERP systems – they are much more difficult to put in the Cloud. There tend to be problems with that sort of environment.  So the reality is that those sort of systems really have to remain either on-premise or in some sort of private Cloud environment.

So it depends on security, performance, flexibility as to what works best in a Cloud and what doesn’t. And every organization has different needs.

One thing that we’re seeing is the Cloud is very good for is disaster recovery. It’s a lower cost way of implementing disaster recovery. And we’ve seen a big uptake of this over the last couple of years. For many years, and I never understood why – there seemed to be very little uptake for disaster recovery – when we were going through the worst of the troubles, e.g. Now that that’s hopefully behind us, DR is on the ascendency!  But I think it’s perhaps down to organizations becoming increasingly concerned that they may be exposed in terms of their IT in the event of there being problems, not necessarily as we might traditionally have thought of this, but more in terms of viruses and hacking and internal issues.

Gary:  And companies are more aware than ever that they are very dependent on their IT.

Ken: Yes. And if cap-ex constraints are inhibiting their potential to upgrade to newer, more reliable, more robust solutions, they have to eke out time with older systems. So rather than being totally exposed by one of those systems going down, they’re looking to putting contingency arrangements in place.

I also think there’s a governance issue being driven in the background by the wider market place, whether it’s auditors, insurance organizations, accountants…And also the supply chain is getting tighter and organizations are asking their suppliers – do you have contingency in place, in the event of something going wrong with your IT? So governance, compliance, commercial reasons, all play their part.

Gary: Well, tell us a bit about how you got to where you are right now Ken.

Ken: I started off as an IT engineer, working on calculators that cost £2,500 and had maintenance contracts back in 1979. That was for Burroughs. I then moved to the other end of the spectrum and worked on mainframes and eventually settled on the mini-computer range. And at that point – early 80s – the PC was making its appearance and I moved into a sales-engineer role with Burroughs, which then led to me moving into a break-away company called NIBS, Northern Ireland Business Systems.

We were really the PC reseller for Burroughs and other product offerings like Data General, Onyx and Osborne, which was one of the first portable computer systems. So I was the service engineering manager for that company, which got me involved in many interesting assignments, travelling around Ireland and then ending up in Libya, implementing IT systems in the Sahara desert! This happened about 3 months after Yvonne Fletcher was shot in London, so it was a particularly challenging time to be in that part of the world. In fact I almost got imprisoned in one of Gadhafi’s jails because – very long story – but essentially they stopped me from leaving the country because the IT supplied hadn’t met their requirements. When I eventually did get the chance to leave, Gaddafi closed the airports and I had to spend time in Tripoli with no money and nowhere to stay. He’d closed the airports to keep all the foreigners in the country to help celebrate the anniversary of the green revolution. So it was a scary time!

That company went bust, because it grew too fast and there were issues with the payment from Libya. I then moved into an engineering role in CEM computers before moving into a sales environment in CMI in 1986. I was the first sales person CMI employed. It was an interesting opportunity to take my engineering skill and the time I’d spent with sales people and to try and link the two together and break down the traditional barriers between sales & service. So it was a very services- oriented organization  and thru’ the late 80s we grew primarily organically and then we were acquired by a US organization called Unicomp in the early 90s, which then meant we had the funds to grow by acquisition.

So we grew through the 90s with a number of acquisitions, finally culminating in the acquisition of CEM Computers. And we then created a new identity which was Aurora.  At that stage we had over 230 staff and we were probably the largest independent IT infrastructure provider in the province. That organization was then acquired by Viridian and merged in with its Sx3 business, and having done a brief spell in the telecoms world on behalf of Viridian, I re-joined the business in Sx3 in 2000 and became Business Development Director. And, in a number of different roles there, I operated until 2004, when, because of the big company environment I was no longer enjoying what I was doing and I knew I was going to have to travel round the UK every week, so I decided to leave.

And I ended up becoming a minority shareholder in a business I’d formed a number of years earlier – an Internet business, called Finisco, at that stage. So I did a couple of years in the Internet world, because I felt I’d by-passed that a bit and I wanted to understand more about it. And when I left that, it was to do some consultancy work on behalf of the government, working on the DETI broadband content initiative, reviewing submissions of applications for funding.  That was a very enjoyable period and I worked on that and other IT projects or a couple of years.

And then I got involved running the MS Society in Northern Ireland for 3 months as an interim manager. For many years I’d been a volunteer for Disability Action and was the chairman for 6 years. So when the MS Society ran into governance issues which resulted in the local director being suspended, I was asked to get involved. That was a very interesting and challenging period, though nothing to do with IT at all.

But during that period I was asked if I’d be interested in running Parity in Ireland and I wasn’t sure it was what I really wanted to do – but after a few conversations with the guy I would be working with, who was a Geordie, I could see a lot of synergies. I would be heading up a business in the IT arena, providing SharePoint-based solutions for the public sector and also working in the private sector through its graduate placement programmes and other management consultancy elements. And that blend appealed to me – so I spent a couple of good years there. Unfortunately, Parity hit problems due to the recession and there was a change of priorities in the direction of the organization. And Northern Ireland was subsumed into the GB organisation as opposed to having its own autonomy. At that stage it didn’t make sense to stay – and that’s when I left to form CMI.

Gary: You’ve have a very interesting & varied career, Ken. You’ve got a very unusual combination of experiences and skills – strong in technology, sales, marketing, management, business start-up – that’s all there in what you’ve done. That’s pretty unusual in the IT business, to have all of that in one person. What is it that you’re best at, really good at?

Ken: Maybe it’s for others to say what I’m really good at.What I really enjoy the most is business development and the whole sales process. Sales is a much underrated profession. It’s one of the best professions to be in – it’s all about customer contact, about trying to understand the customer’s needs and then helping them buy a solution from you. I wouldn’t say I’m the world’s best technology person – technology is so fast moving I would always surround myself with people who are stronger than me in that respect. For me, it’s – how do you use technology for business benefit? And that’s more about understanding the requirements of a business, growing revenues, controlling costs or improving service. I’ve spent a lot of time in roles where I’ve been managing reasonable numbers of staff – that’s something which comes with the territory. It’s OK when things are going well but when things are tighter and you’re having to control costs and maybe reduce costs – I would gladly give up man-management because of that aspect of it.

But I’m at my happiest when I’m with a customer and when I’m talking business and how technology fits within that.

Gary: Whenever you and I started out Ken, companies like Burroughs or IBM or ICL all had extended sales training and development programmes. We don’t have that these days. Do you think the sales skills for the IT business are still around?

Ken: I’m often asked where do I see the skills shortages in NI. We’re not a software development house, so that’s not where our problems lie. There are sufficient numbers of people out there for the sort of skills we need – infrastructure engineers and technical architects and so on – but where there is a real shortage is good sales people. Part of the problem is training – like you in the early days I got proper sales training. I don’t think there is the same professionalism today about sales and there’s not the same investment in bringing that talent through. There needs to be a more structured approach, backed by the government that develops the IT sales people/entrepreneurs of the future.

Gary: You said that personnel management is not your favourite job, but you’ve had to do a fair amount of that over the years, Ken. And in leading organisations, you’ve had to create a culture, an environment. What sort of environment makes for a successful organization?

Ken: When you have an open environment where all employees feel they each play an important role – they may be different, I might be MD, someone else is a junior engineer and neither of us could do the other’s job – so we play different roles. So it’s an ethos of all working together, everybody contributing their bit of the equation, everyone being willing and able to work outside their comfort zones on occasion on behalf of the customer. For Stephen and me, that was the norm in days gone by, but what I see now more and more is people wanting to stay within their boundaries. But I believe that good employees are those who are prepared to work outside of those, along with their colleagues, to get the deal done, the job finished, the problem fixed – whatever it takes. The customer comes first. After that it’s up to me and Stephen and the other directors of the business to reward our staff by paying a decent salary and by encouraging them, giving them the training and investment in their careers that they need. So it’s a two way process.

Gary: Ken, as you’ve talked about your career, you clearly haven’t been afraid to make a change, take a risk, start something completely new – that challenge is obviously something you enjoy doing. Is that right and is it the same as you get older?

Ken: I get bored if I’m not continually challenged. I have this feeling that if you’re not going forward you’re moving backwards. People might say I’m a risk taker. Maybe a conservative risk taker – I know my strengths, so I don’t go anywhere unless I know I have the skills to do it. Of course at my age, I’ll probably not be taking too many more leaps! And where I am now, I’ve invested too much time, energy and money in this business to be making any change. So what I want to do is to make CMI a success over the next 5 years and then increasingly take a back-seat role and maybe do a few other things elsewhere.

Gary: If you were to give some advice to a younger person who’s thinking about being an entrepreneur, starting a new business, what would it be?

Ken: They should look at what motivate them, what excites them – you’re always going to be better doing something you enjoy doing. Find out what it is and plot your way forward from there. And seek out people who have achieved what you’re heading towards and try and get yourself involved with those people. Get into an organization where you can learn. Just going out and making a fortune very quickly is very difficult – so learn your trade, build experience and get involved with people who have the expertise you want to build. But also, if you’re doing something and you’re not enjoying it – stop it and change. Don’t be frightened of doing that. Work is too big a part of someone’s life for you not to enjoy it.

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Maureen Murphy, Aurion Learning – show your customers you care.

Dr Maureen Murphy, Chief Executive, Aurion Learning

Gary: Maureen, tell us about Aurion Learning.

Maureen:Aurion Learning is an elearning company made up of a team of learning specialists and application developers. We’re based in Belfast, but we do most of our work in the south of Ireland and Scotland. When we started the business back in 1999, we focused primarily on custom elearning – working with clients who wanted to deliver existing classroom materials online, or indeed had a new training or learning and development need and wanted to support staff by delivering the training online.

Since then we’ve extended our service offering, and we’re now more of a ‘one-stop shop’ in learning technology.

While elearning is still an important core of our business, we also spend a lot of our time working with our clients to advise on how learning technology can be used effectively within their organisation for productivity and skills-development.

Gary: Give us some examples of that.

Maureen: Well the three core parts of our business are elearning design; provision of learning technology; and elearning services.

elearning design probably makes up around 40% of the business. We still provide custom e-learning design for clients but we’ve had to respond to increasing customer demand for ‘off-the-shelf’ learning content. We’ve recently launched the Aurion Learning Academy which is an ‘on-demand’ e-learning service.  It’s a fully hosted platform with hundreds of e-learning programmes covering business skills, health and safety, IT and mental health. Our customers just pick and choose which titles they want. The learning content is suitable for both managers and staff and the learning programmes have very short, sharp learning content. This might be anything from ½ an hour down to 5, 10 minutes. It’s very rapid, just-in-time learning.

In terms of learning technology, we design and build bespoke elearning technology solutions to help organisations manage workplace learning and development. Our products range from online learning portals, CPD, coach and mentoring management tools. We‘ve recently taken on some reseller arrangements for a range of learning management systems that can be used for competency assessments, for pre-induction, recruitment…right through to succession planning. I suppose the main advantage for our customers is that we aren’t tied in to any one product.  We recommend what we think is the best product for the client – and if it doesn’t exist – we build it.

The third part of our business is learning services. Here we work with the client to help them develop an elearning strategy for their organisation and we also work with their L&D team to help them develop elearning skills. For example, we train internal trainers on the basics of instructional design, how to design elearning, how to use elearnng authoring tools and so on. In this way, we’re really helping the organisation build their elearning capabilities.

Gary: So is your ideal client somebody who might take all three of those, where you do a learning strategy for them, help them think about learning and elearning throughout their whole organisation, give them a learning management system and tools to do this, that and the other, and, oh yes, there’s a bit that Aurion Learning can do as well in terms of a specific area of training. Is that your ideal scenario?

Maureen: Yes, absolutely. For us the ideal situation is where we become not exactly an out-sourced elearning services company – but almost that, where we blend into the customer’s L&D team. And we have a number of larger customers where we do provide that sort of service.

Gary: So where do you find the real interest in elearning? Is it more public sector than private sector, or vice versa?

Maureen: When we started the business most of our work came from the public sector, but we’re now finding a lot of interest from the corporate sector too.

Public sector organisations have always had to deliver a lot of mandatory training, policies and guidelines, but increasingly now they are looking at change management and succession planning.  So they are interested in how elearning works in the context of change and how to bring staff along with it.

In terms of the corporate sector, we’ve seen a lot more demand for elearning in the past few years, particaulry in developing internal training staff to recognise where and how eLearning is a viable option, and providing the internal team in developing good quality inhouse themselves.

Gary: So, where are we with elearning versus classroom training? Is elearning taking over, or do organisations need a diversity of approaches? What are the trends?

Maureen: Well, of course you read some of the literature which says, “classroom training is dead”. But that’s terribly naive. From a learning perspective, you need to consider the right approach based on the content of material, the speed of bringing it out to the market and the learning community.

For some clients, we do actually develop a classroom-based programme, or we run facilitated workshops to help learners as they go through the online learning. So there is still a place for classroom-based learning, but for us, it’s all about how we integrate existing classroom based training with the online learning that we develop, so that the overall approach is very cohesive.

Gary: So what about virtual classroom methods of training – where you have training delivered online to remote students, but where it mimics a classroom situation, where the trainer has the ability to present visual material, where everybody can see and talk to everybody else, and so on – is this a valid component in the learning environment?

Maureen: Yes, with the rise of broadband access, a whole range of virtual classroom environments have been developed. The main advantage of virtual classroom technology is that you still have the socialization aspect, the human presence of a real classroom situation just not the physical presence.

And bear in mind we’re not just talking about webcasts here, purely didactic learning. Technologies like virtual break-out rooms, online quizzes and and polling can result in very interactive training sessions.

So whether it’s a live virtual classroom or a virtual forum, this type of technology can be very powerful, especially when combined with offline learning.

By the same token, there are good and bad teaching techniques and a virtual classroom does not stop you from having a poor tutor who manages the teaching delivery or indeed the technology badly.

For virtual classrooms to work, the trainer really needs to know the technology well. As long as you’re a good facilitator, you can manage all the rich features that are available with virtual classrooms to great effect.

Gary: So are organisations in 2012 embracing all this learning technology? Is elearning now widely regarded as less expensive, more productive, more effective and so on?

Maureen: Yes I would say elearning is now mainstream. It’s certainly much more mainstream to have a learning management system in place than when we started in 1999. Then it was the exception. And now we get enquiries from informed buyers. They have a good idea of the specification of what they want and we then work with them to refine that.

There are certainly upfront costs with elearning, and we always work with our clients to look at the return on investment model – to make sure they get the maximum benefit from elearning and evaluate the effectiveness of their learning strategy. Sometimes that’s forgotten when there’s technology involved. The technology is installed and then it’s forgotten about.

Elearning just like any other form of training needs to be carefully managed.

Gary: So tell us a bit about what you did before Aurion, Maureen.

Maureen: I completed a degree in Computing at the University of Ulster, and then went to complete my PhD around adaptive technologies for the web. I was sponsored by a US aerodynamics company to research knowledge based systems for wind tunnel design and missiles. I also studied at Stanford University for a year as a visiting scholar as part of the PhD. Once I got my PhD, I worked at UU as lecturer in database management systems, knowledge-based systems and educational multi-media.

After 5 years I left and started my own business. I began working on a part-time basis for the University on a project called Synergy, for a short period, working with businesses in west Belfast. But at the same time, I won a contract to set up an online distance learning centre for UU – that was back in 1997. Developing the distance learning centre was a great starting point for Aurion as not only did we get to work with academics in designing a whole range of eLearning courses for students in UU, I was also able to make a lot of links with outside organisations and institutes that UU was working with.   As a follow on we were able to secure a number of other contracts, the most important of which was a contract with the health service in the south of Ireland.

Gary: At that stage, did you have other people working with you?

Maureen: Yes, I started with a placement student on a multimedia degree and then I took on an administrator who was working on the healthcare distance learning centre. So it was a small team to start with. For the first couple of years, it was just the three of us but it grew from there to where we are today – with15 full-time staff, – split into eLearning designers and educaitonalists and application developers.  We also have a team of associate project managers, instructional designers, AV crews around Ireland and the UK.

Gary: So how did it feel in those early couple of years? Previous to that, you’d been in a fairly secure university environment and now, here you are, moved away from that, trying to build a small business from scratch. Did that just feel terribly exciting to you, or did you think long and hard about it…

Maureen: It was exciting. I’d really had enough of academia and I’d been pretty business-minded even during that period – I was running Masters’ programmes and European projects. So I just made the decision to go and do it. I have a very positive outlook and I just worked hard, put the head down…and maybe it was luck, being in the right place at the right time…

Gary: Well, you make your own luck.

Maureen: Absolutely. I firmly believe that. So, there was no fear and trepidation – just excitement about the future.

Gary: OK…so you moved out of the University of Ulster, you started a new business, you took on staff, and you started a family – all around 2000? And you’re still sitting here smiling?!

Maureen: Yes!! Well you just need to be organised. And my delegation skills have become much more refined over the years. Some would say they still need to be refined! Because I’m a bit of a perfectionist in my approach. But…people can worry too much at times…you just need to get out there and do it! Reflect on what you could have done better, by all means, but don’t linger on it! Move on. What I’ve found is that if you establish a good relationship with a customer, they’ll keep on coming back. To this point we still have 70% recurring business.

Gary: So what keeps the customer coming back?

Maureen: That you actually care about them. We work as part of their team. We typically go beyond what they expect – maybe it’s carrying out an evaluation study for them because they don’t have the time, but we’ll do that for them, because we know how important it is for them. And – just good quality product that fits their budget. And they’ll keep coming back.

Gary: It’s not rocket science.

Maureen: No, it’s just good business practice.

Gary: So looking back over those early years, what were the biggest challenges to building  a new organisation?

Maureen: The biggest challenge has been getting staff and, looking back, we probably could have got funding to employ more experienced staff which might have helped us. Getting the right staff continues to be a challenge. Whilst we can afford market rates, we just can’t get qualified staff in the elearning field. Our universities do not produce instructional designers – which is a challenge to our growth plans.

Gary: So you really have to grow your own.

Maureen: Very much so, or rely on associate staff in England. Which has worked very well for us. But we could employ five  instructional designers right now if I could find them.

Gary: Let me ask you about business strategy. When you’re growing a new business, typically you have to do everything. It’s all hands to the pump at all times so it can be a challenge to take a step back and think about the strategy, how we take things forward and so on. But presumably you’ve taken the time to do that at various points?

Maureen: Yes. Now, we have a really great team that can work with the client from concept through to delivery and support and I don’t need to get involved so closely in everything that goes on.

Gary: What about managing people in this business. What’s the key to managing people in a technology business?

Maureen: Whether it’s technology or not, having a good understanding of a person, thinking about what makes them tick, is very important. At Aurion Learning, we’re very much into team building , team development, looking at an individual’s skills and where they want to go, rather than trying to just mould them into something that they’re not. So we very much have a team atmosphere – it’s very important. People here are friends, they spend time together outside work. We also do a lot of work in the community. We’re one of the most active Business in the Community companies, even though we’re the smallest organisation. That has been fantastic, whether it’s been working with the MS Society, or working with the youth club beside us, or helping some of the older people’s centres with IT. Everybody in Aurion Learning gets involved in community work.

Gary:  So what benefits do you see as a business, as a result of that?

Maureen: It helps to build the team. It builds the individual and lets them see that Aurion Learning is not just about making money. It’s about giving something back into the community. We’re part of this community, part of Northern Ireland, the world, so it’s our job to give something back. And people really enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. It’s very rewarding.

Gary: Fantastic. So what is it that you are really good at, and how did you get good at it?

Maureen: I’m good at very rapidly understanding someone’s business problem! And getting to the nub of things, getting rid of the chaff around it. Getting to the core issue.

Gary: How did that develop? Was that because of your education or something you’ve learned in business?

Maureen: I suppose I’ve honed it over the years. But I’ve always been able to do this – seeing the light through the fog. And we have such a wide experience in elearning now, in really getting to know the psyche of an organisation…this is quite core.

Gary: What about being a woman in business.  Northern Ireland is very male dominated, even in the IT industry, even though it’s maybe better than some other sectors. Has this ever been a problem for you?

Maureen: Never.  Maybe because I’m quite a strong personality…but I’ve never had any issues being a woman in business.

Gary: Finally, Maureen, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting a new technology business?

Maureen: Look carefully at what your competitors are doing. See what the trends are. Define your niche. That’s why we’re successful – we’re niche. Keep a focus on your niche, make that your differentiator. We play the expertise card very strongly when we’re bidding for business. We really know our market and we have solid experience which we can build on.

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Next up…Dr Maureen Murphy, CEO, Aurion Learning

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Review of 2011: Huge potential for greater success in Northern Ireland

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.

Ian Graham

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.

Aidan McGrath

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.

Bro McFerran

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?

Peter Shields

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.

Alastair Bell

Patricia O'Hagan

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.

Rob McConnell

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

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

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

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

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:

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.”

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