Data Edge’s Paul Phelan explains how he worked his way up from engineering student to CEO, developing people management skills and tinkering with Lego along the way.
Paul Phelan is the CEO of Data Edge, a network and application performance management company based in Wicklow. The expanding Irish business delivers tailored network management services to telecom companies, enterprises and government bodies, specialising in timing and synchronisation services.
Phelan has spent the majority of his career with Data Edge, originally joining as a development engineer in 1994 after graduating from DIT Kevin Street. In his 28-year tenure with the company, he has acted as director and CTO, before taking the position of CEO following an internal management buyout in 2019.
‘Funnily enough, the biggest risk I ever took was staying with Data Edge’
– PAUL PHELAN
What does your current role involve?
I have been the CEO of Data Edge for the last three years. I started off as a development engineer before progressing to CTO in 2004. Today my role still has a strong technical focus, but increasingly I’ve been sharing much of the technical and project management tasks with our growing team of excellent young engineers and project managers.
In my current role, I am now focused more on strategic business activities such as developing partnerships with some of the most innovative companies in our sector and positioning Data Edge as a leader in timing and synchronisation, not just in Ireland but also on a global scale.
What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?
Given the fast-evolving nature of the IT landscape, keeping pace with developing technologies is certainly a challenge – but one that we relish. For Data Edge, we need to stay ahead of the curve in order to advise and guide our diverse base of stakeholders, including telcos, network equipment manufacturers, enterprise customers and government agencies.
Recruiting staff is also a challenge at present as there’s a major skills shortage across the entire technology sector. As our business expands, we will be looking to add to our sales and engineering teams and will expect that having the opportunity to work on some really exciting projects is key to helping us land the best talent.
What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?
We are leveraging our elevated partnerships with our suppliers such as Spirent, Calnex, Anritsu and Microchip, which are global leaders in our space. They spend upwards of 20pc of their profits on product development and commit to investing, influencing and contributing to telecom standards bodies, which in turn allows us to bring the most innovative and cutting-edge technologies to our growing customer base.
Our expertise for timing and network synchronisation services – which are absolutely essential for the roll-out and performance of modern telecommunications networks – ensure our services are always in demand in Ireland. We will continue to invest in our people, partnerships and platforms so that we can compete strongly at a global level too.
What set you on the road to where you are now?
I have a scientific brain and have always been interested in engineering and mechanics. When I finished school, I decided to do a degree in general engineering before deciding which area I would specialise in.
From there, I took a post-graduate position with Data Edge straight out of college in 1994 – my first ‘real job’. Little did I know at the time that 28 years later I would be leading the company as owner and CEO.
Today, I am still as excited about the mechanical world as I was in 1994, whether it be testing telecom circuits to very precise telecommunication standards, tinkering with my sailing dinghy, or building the new Lego set that my children invariably give me every Christmas.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Funnily enough, the biggest risk I ever took was staying with Data Edge. At the age of 25, I was offered what seemed to be the ‘golden’ job from one of Data Edge’s suppliers and I was certainly very tempted.
However, instead of jumping ship, I approached my then bosses to get more involved in the company. They believed in me and offered me 10pc of the company, which changed my career.
In the end, the competitor offering the golden job subsequently disappeared within 12 months!
What one work skill do you wish you had?
Managing people never came easy to me. As mentioned before, I have a very scientific brain and I have always been very technically focused. This is something I have worked hard on over the years as my role in Data Edge progressed in seniority.
I am glad to say that this is a skill I have been able to improve on thanks to the great team I have working with me in Data Edge and the great mentorship I received early in my career. Any skill can be developed if you set your mind to it!
How do you get the best out of your team?
We are lucky enough to have brilliant people working at Data Edge, which makes the processes of managing a team a lot easier. Over the years I have learned that the best way to operate as a manager is to lead by example and trust in your team.
I also try my best to create a positive and enjoyable working environment where we can all work collaboratively towards a common goal of delivering the best service to our customers. All our employees are really passionate about the work we do and are highly skilled professionals.
Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?
It’s widely recognised that there is a diversity problem in the tech sector, which has historically been seen as a male-dominated industry. However, it is really positive to see that the sector has acknowledged this issue and many organisations are playing their part to create opportunities for more diverse groups of people.
I think more work needs to be done to promote STEM subjects to girls in schools to spark their interest in tech from a young age and ensure that they are educated on the types of career paths available to them.
In general, individual companies must look internally and assess the diversity of their workforce. It’s only when individual employers take notice and create a positive workspace that we can drive change across the sector.
Although we have a small team at Data Edge, we are proud to say that we have a diverse team, which definitely gives us a well-rounded skillset and broader outlook.
What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
Get your basic degree first and you can specialise afterwards.
When I finished my Leaving Cert, I was offered four courses: ship design in Southampton, aeronautical engineering in Bristol, electronic engineering in Trinity, and engineering in DIT Kevin Street.
I did my research and talked to the heads of the departments at each of the colleges. All pitched well, but Dr Jonathan Fisher of DIT (who sadly died in January 2021) advised me to go for the general degree as a starting point and it got me to where I am today.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
At Data Edge, we work with some of the most exciting and innovative technologies on a daily basis, but I still have some staples. Microsoft Office is an application I couldn’t live without, as well as GoldMine CRM and of course my iPhone and MacBook.
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