‘I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but problem-solving brought me into IT’

2 Mar 2021

Image: Stella Power

Annertech’s Stella Power discusses why she started her digital agency, how she leads a distributed team, and what tech trends she sees coming down the line.

Stella Power is founder and managing director of open-source digital agency Annertech. As a fully distributed company, Annertech has grown over the last 13 years from a start-up specialising in charity websites to developing digital platforms for some of Ireland’s largest organisations.

Power has a background in STEM and started off her career as a programmer. She now leads a team of UX designers, developers and strategists in delivering digital projects across public and private sectors.

‘We noticed, even before the pandemic, that there has been a significant shift towards digital experience platforms’

Describe your role and what you do.

As managing director, I am responsible for a lot of different things, but I guess I see my primary role as ensuring that the company is doing well and thriving, that the staff are happy and are enabled to carry out their roles, and we are delivering solutions that delight our clients.

So my role is multifaceted in nature. I regularly get to meet – even if only virtually – and talk to clients, and to learn more about their businesses and challenges. Occasionally I still manage to get my hands dirty in tech and writing code, but I guess the most enjoyable part is the strategising and planning aspect.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

To-do lists! At the start of the week, I set up a to-do list for things I want to achieve. Sometimes it’s lots of small things, or it might be one really big thing with a handful of smaller tasks – it depends on the week. I then separate out what I need to do today and ignore the rest. Every evening I update it, so I only have to concentrate on one set of achievable tasks each day.

Of course, other things arise during the week such as emails and calls that I need to action, so I make sure to allow time for those too in my weekly planning.

Also, at the moment there’s the dreaded home-schooling that a lot of people are facing, so my working day can be a bit, shall we say, fragmented.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

For many in our sector the biggest challenge in the last year has been the necessity to pivot to solely working online and remotely. We didn’t face that issue as we have always been a fully-distributed team that work from home – save for those of us who are client-facing, or used to be. Saying that, none of our clients have an issue interacting with us online.

One challenge we do face is getting the right people in Ireland with the requisite technical skills and experience. However, as a fully distributed team, we’re able to look further afield in Europe for the right people.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Traditionally, our focus had been on the not-for-profit, higher education and public sectors, but in recent years we have made significant progress in the commercial sector – this is now a big focus for us.

We noticed, even before the pandemic, that there has been a significant shift towards digital experience platforms (DXP). Companies want more than just content-managed websites; they have come to realise that consumers now expect a personalised digital experience across all touchpoints.

So, in the commercial sector, especially in industries like insurance, biotech and e-commerce, the C-suite has begun to grasp that the proper use and interpretation of data lends itself to better outcomes for them and their customers. We’re excited about this and see it as a growth area.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My academic background is in computational physics – that’s what I studied for my undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin. I initially wanted to be an astrophysicist and even did a stint working as an intern in Space Telescope Science Institute with the Hubble Telescope. However, it was really the problem-solving and logic aspect that brought me into tech and that’s when I went into IT.

I was a programmer for a number of years and became interested in open source, and subsequently started to build small, hobbyist websites using Drupal CMS.

Back in 2008, when I attended my first DrupalCon in Hungary, I was inspired by everyone I met. Here were people working with Drupal as part of their job, helping clients achieve their goals, all while doing what they loved and creating fabulous websites. It got me to thinking, ‘Why can’t I do that too?’ And so, I founded Annertech.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I guess for me my biggest mistake would have been not listening to my gut. Early on when trying to grow Annertech, I felt I couldn’t say no to clients and potential leads – even when my gut was telling me that it was the wrong decision. After a few difficult projects, I quickly learned that if something doesn’t feel right, then you should just say no and move on.

How do you get the best out of your team?

We are very lucky that all of our team are seasoned professionals that know how to get things done and always put the customer first – however tight the deadlines are! Being a distributed team, trust is a big thing, but so too is encouragement and exploring new ways to do things.

I also find it’s important to listen to other people. It’s far too easy to go off and say we’re going to do X, but by listening to others you may uncover better solutions. In addition, it empowers the team to know that they will be listened to, and their input is valued.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Coming from a STEM background I have always been in the minority. It has got slightly better, but women still tend to shy away from technical careers. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed when girls are at a young age – maybe more encouragement and work experience in transition year, perhaps?

Thankfully my two young daughters show an aptitude for maths and coding, so I hope to foster that as they get older as there are so many opportunities in tech. In Annertech, we have a strong cohort of female team members who add so much to what we do, and I actively seek out qualified women to join us on our journey.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

I can’t say I’ve had any formal mentorship but there have been multiple people who have inspired me along the way. There is one particular person involved in the same open-source project as I am who was a real inspiration to me early in my career. She demonstrated that there can be women in tech and in leadership roles.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Not long after starting Annertech, I read Good to Great by Jim Collins. I found the advice within that really useful, particularly the part about having the right people on the bus.

Another book I’d recommend for IT organisations is The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, which I’ve actually encouraged my colleagues to read too. It uses a story format to illustrate the importance of completing tasks and focusing on increasing the speed to delivering value from projects while being pragmatic about how this is achieved.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

As I mentioned above, I rely heavily on to-do lists – and if it’s not on the list, it may never get done! I’m a big fan of Trello where I can keep track of everything I need to do, and as a cloud-based system, I can access it on my mobile as well as my computer, so it’s always close to hand.

Similarly, my calendar is also filled with various engagements and keeps me on track and, more importantly, on time for various Zoom or other meetings.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.