‘Digital transformation is a buzzword – but we see huge growth in this area’

8 Sep 2022

Neil Phelan. Image: HCS

HCS boss Neil Phelan discusses the challenges in the IT services sector right now and how moving to Waterford led to a major career development.

Neil Phelan is the CEO of HCS, a Waterford-headquartered IT, security and telecoms company with bases in Dublin and Cork. Earlier this year, it announced plans to invest €3.2m in the business and double its workforce in response to increased customer demand.

Phelan joined HCS in 2003 and one year later became an owner and director of the company. His background is in software development, systems analysis and enterprise resource planning, and prior to HCS he held senior management roles at a number of national and international organisations.

As CEO, he works with all teams in the business across sales, finance, operations, technical and productivity. He supports them in driving the business forward and enabling customers to maximise their business performance through professionally managed and secure ICT services.

‘The hiring and retention of experienced IT experts is a major challenge that shows no sign of relenting’

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

There are lots of challenges facing our sector at present, but three stand out in particular.

The first is IT security: protecting our customers’ systems and data is a real challenge in the SMB sector in the face of modern cybersecurity threats. The depths that businesses need to go to in order to protect themselves is often overwhelming and costly – and while some businesses have embraced it, others still need some convincing.

Additionally, broken supply chains are a worldwide issue, which our business is hugely affected by. The availability of hardware components is having a stifling effect on our projects and our ability to turn orders into invoices. Orders that once took days or weeks have turned into months. This said, we do see some light at the end of the tunnel as lead times are starting to get shorter.

Finally, the hiring and retention of experienced IT experts is a major challenge that shows no sign of relenting. While Covid saw hybrid working introduced by default, it opened the doors for a lot of people to seek employment outside of their region. This is evident in the fact that you can now live in Waterford and work for a Dublin company and have no expectation to be in the office other than once or twice a month. Salary differences between Dublin and the regions have levelled off.

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

IT security is a huge growth area and will continue to be a growth area for our sector for many years to come as every business will need to get to a certain level and maintain it. At HCS, our simple goal is to protect customers and their businesses, and we build security into everything we manage.

As fibre broadband is rolled out through the country, the old copper phone lines are disappearing fast and hosted telephony is growing at a rapid rate. HCS has transitioned thousands of users to modern cloud-hosted solutions, which capitalise on the broadband infrastructure now available. Our modern telecom and VoIP solutions enable more flexible working, better team-working and lower calling costs for users.

Digital transformation is a buzzword in our industry, which is being used to describe the transformation of existing or aged business processes and experiences to a modern solution that is more efficient, productive and suited to the evolving needs of customers. HCS is digitally transforming processes for customers on a daily basis and we see huge growth in this part of our business over the next number of years.

We are always adding new products to stay one step ahead and drive better business performance for our customers.

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

Leaving Dublin nearly 20 years ago. My wife Mary and I wanted to live in the country, so we moved back to Waterford. I joined HCS as a technical consultant, in a role which you could say was undefined. But I didn’t care as I was achieving my goal of leaving Dublin before I was 30.

Little did I know that I’d be here 20 years later, own a third of the business with my fellow directors Dan and Sean Hegarty, and have three teenagers who are now getting their wings and setting out on their own roads.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

I am not a risk taker in business. My programmer brain means that I am very logical. I always look for a well-thought-out plan that will cater for most scenarios that might play out.

What one work skill do you wish you had?

Maybe I should be more of a risk taker!

How do you get the best out of your team?

There’s no ‘I’ in team, so ensuring you work with each individual in your team to support them to achieve more and empower them to be the best they can be is critical to every team’s success.

Show leadership, make decisions, stay in control and roll with both the good and the bad days. Set your teams challenges and goals that are achievable.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

One thing I would like to see is a narrowing of the gender divide in the IT industry. It’s still very male-orientated and in the IT services business we would love to see more female engineers and technical consultants.

HCS’s focus is always on the person and whether they have the skills and the passion to provide our customers with innovative and secure services.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

“Always forward and never stand still.” An old boss of mine said this to me when I was leaving and I frequently think about it if I feel I am going backwards or staying stagnant.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t read books! I read technology articles and IT industry blogs to keep up to date on what’s emerging and am constantly looking out for what’s next.

The latest video I watched was Microsoft’s Satya Nadella discussing how our economy and society is undergoing a sea change of digitisation. He spoke about emerging technology trends and innovations across Microsoft that will transform every business and industry going forward. It’s fascinating if that’s your area of interest.

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

Every hour, day or week in our industry can throw anything at you, especially in an era where we are under constant cyberthreat. To get through these episodes and make it to Friday, I need a support network around me that extends beyond my work colleagues to my family.

Microsoft workplace tools such as Office, Teams, To-Do, SharePoint, Power BI, Dynamics and Business Central are tools I use on a daily basis, and without them it would not be possible to function each day.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.