Code warrior

15 Dec 2004

When most people in the worlds of politics and business talk about the software sector they usually describe it as a fledgling field of business. It would be a surprise, therefore, to many to realise that some of the longest established players in the Irish software sector have their origins in the Sixties with firms such as System Dynamics, which started life in 1968.

John Sterne is a widely respected journalist who is also regarded as the founding father of technology journalism in
Ireland. Meeting Sterne over the years, I often felt that people’s misconceptions about the software sector and its importance both to the economy as a vibrant field of business and to the academic world in terms of its local stock of intellectual, often exasperated him. On a number of occasions he would recount tales of brilliant minds who kept a low profile locally but would be renowned internationally. He was no doubt inspired and it was only a matter of time before someone with his knowledge would pen a history of the indigenous software sector and the eclectic mix of individuals that nurtured it.

Adventures in Code is the culmination of several year’s worth of interviews with individuals who played a role in building today’s indigenous software sector such as Raomal Perera, Maurice Spillane, Tom Moore and Jim Mountjoy and covers the entire history of the sector to the present day, name-checking companies such as Glockenspiel and present-day players such as Norkom, Iona, Fineos and Qumas.

Instead of writing the book on an interview-by-interview basis, Sterne chose to divide the software sector into five separate generations, resulting in an easy flowing, informative dialogue that takes the reader through a myriad of stories and individuals, and charts the difficulties that software firms faced over the years and still face today. These range from state support and funding to getting products to market and finding talented graduates.

The first generation of the Irish software sector — during the Sixties and early Seventies — revolved around mainframes, computing bureaus and data processing. The first companies on the scene were essentially service providers such as Applied Management Systems, GC McKeown, Chaco and System Dynamics. The second generation of Irish software was shaped by the advent of the mini-computer and saw the indigenous industry make its first real forays into product development. The third generation of Irish software in the early to mid Nineties, instead of being generalists similar to the preceding generation, focused on niches. Companies such as Datalex discovered the travel sector, Eontec (sold this year to Siebel for US$130m) focused on banking, CBT focused on online learning and Quay Software focused on financial trading.

Generation four — which began in May 1995 with CBT floating on the Nasdaq — saw the advent of a brash sector where the leaders of newer software start-ups were wildly ambitious and, from the outset, fixed their sights on the international stock markets. Software workers started asking for higher wages and benefits and technology students left college knowing all about share options. It was, as Sterne describes it, a mindset that not only tolerated greed but in fact
celebrated it. This view of technology as a route to riches came apart with the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2001.
According to Sterne, we are now halfway through generation five, characterised by firms such as Fineos that focus on vertical segments similar to customer relationship management for insurance firms.

Reading Sterne’s book, it becomes clear he is trying to illustrate the idealism that drove many of its founding fathers and you can’t help but feel that a certain purity has been lost in the search for financial gain that has characterised technology over the past decade. Funding, a vital component of any industry’s survival, Sterne believes has been distorted and is acting more for the benefit of investors than of the companies themselves. This, he says, results on an unhealthy emphasis by venture capitalists and state agencies on creating a few large players instead of the model of a vibrant but large pool of smaller software firms that he believes suits Ireland.

“Software development shouldn’t be a big business,” says Sterne. “It is naturally done by small teams. Industries such as software development and arguably digital media are more suited to this country where they can thrive in an environment where there are hundreds of small companies rather than large ones. I don’t think there is recognition out there that this is an industry profile unique to this country that works.”

Sterne’s research has culminated in a detailed read about successive generations of passionate people that have helped forge a sector that has battled its way through a variety of economic cycles.

It is an industry that is still struggling for recognition and understanding — not just by mainstream business but also by successive policy makers and state agencies. He weaves an intricate tale of decision making and manoeuvring that is just as relevant to today’s modern business manager as it is to anyone seeking an insight into the revolutionary changes in the Irish industrial psyche over the past 40 years.

Adventures in Code was published in recent months and will appeal both to people interested in the history of the industry as well as students of business and management who wish to know more about the business models, decisions and management calibre of this important sector.

>Adventures in Code is published by The Liffey Press and is available in most good book shops for €22.95

By John Kennedy