‘You need to stay ahead of trends – without bringing the risk of tech hype to clients’

25 Feb 2020

Michael Cronin. Image: OpenSky

OpenSky’s Michael Cronin discusses opportunities for the digitisation of government and dealing with competition in the tech industry.

Michael Cronin is the managing director and co-founder of gov-tech firm OpenSky. He worked in a variety of government and private-sector organisations before co-founding the Kildare-based company with William Flanagan in 2004. Cronin has a degree in electronic engineering from the Waterford Institute of Technology.

OpenSky provides technology and digital services for some of the biggest government agencies in Ireland and the UK, with customised CRM solutions, platform modernisation and robotic process automation. Last year, OpenSky announced plans to create 80 jobs on the back of a €2.5 million investment, doubling its Irish headcount by 2021.

‘While many government services are already online, in my opinion, digital transformation in this area is in its infancy’

Describe your role and what you do.

As the strategic leader of a scaling, growing company that delivers innovation to government agencies in Ireland and overseas, my role is varied. As well as leading the charge for continuous improvement in how we deliver our services and building our team with the right people, I ensure that we are delivering outstanding customer service and enabling innovation within the sector.

Most importantly, I put time aside to work on the overall company strategy, which helps us drive future success and expansion.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am a great believer in being organised from the get-go. I usually start at 6am and find exercise useful for clearing the mind and preparing for the day ahead. For me, the morning is when I’m most productive and a time when I like to plan everything out. Usually by 9.30am, my emails are taken care of and the remainder of the day can then be dedicated to the internal team.

It’s easy to get pulled into daily challenges and spend all your time dealing with the here and now, which is why I think it’s very important to have time to think ahead and, for that, you need some space.

We have a great management team at OpenSky and their strength in managing their departments allows me to invest more time in the next challenge or the next innovation, and how we can continually improve what we do for our customer base.

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

There are many challenges in the technology sector and, when it gets tough, I usually lean on the adage: “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

The biggest challenge is the global, competitive nature of the technology service industry, which means we find ourselves competing with Irish, UK and Indian companies on a regular basis. Focusing in on our key sector and building an understanding of these businesses, as well as the challenges they face, is therefore vital to our success – after all, we are not delivering a solution to a technology problem, we are delivering a solution to a business problem.

Another challenge is the high cost involved in recruiting and retaining top talent. For us, it’s all about people and we need the best individuals who will build the business knowledge around the technology. This process is twofold: not only do you need to be creative and hire globally, you also need to build a great internal process and knowledge management practice so everyone understands the objectives and can get up to speed quickly.

In addition, since technology changes so rapidly, the best solution for a customer yesterday could be legacy tomorrow. You need to stay ahead of the trends, but not so far ahead that you are bringing the risk of technology hype to your clients. We invest over 10pc of revenue in research and development, proving our technology advancements before bringing new solutions to clients.

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

There is a huge opportunity in the digitisation of government and while many government services are already online, in my opinion, digital transformation in this area is in its infancy. The world is constantly changing and technology is underpinning much of this change.

Furthermore, as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more widely adopted, the people currently involved in routine administrative tasks will turn their focus to more complex problemsolving in the future. Building end-to-end citizen self-service is not just providing an online version of a form; true digital government transformation requires efficient processing, intelligent information management and integrated systems across multiple agencies.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is another area of expected growth, as the technology automates workplace processes and completes menial tasks faster and with far greater accuracy. RPA streamlines how people work, while boosting staff productivity. It frees up time for staff to work on less mundane and repetitive tasks, allowing them to work on what they have been trained to do – increasing both job satisfaction and retention rates in organisations.

RPA enables organisations to enhance customer service and support company growth by providing faster and more accurate responses every time – it is a central and key technology as businesses look to innovate both for employees and customers.

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

From a young age, I was always inclined to be independent. When everyone was turning left, I liked to see what happened when I turned right. That independence, combined with having a singular focus (which can be a disadvantage from time to time), kept me going during the ongoing process of building a business when it would have been easier to give up.

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

A life without mistakes is no life at all in my view. It’s true to say that one only learns from mistakes, but it’s also very true that if you keep making the same mistake over and over, you need to change something. One thing I’ve learned is that you need to be aware of your weaknesses. We all have them and that’s why the team around you is crucial – by acknowledging your weaknesses, you can hire people who have these as their strengths.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Believe in them, let them get things wrong, give them encouragement where you can and do not forget to celebrate successes before moving onto the next thing. Finally, remember they have a whole life outside work that they are trying to balance and their sole focus in life is not just to make you look good!

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I was brought up to never judge people by the way they look, but instead judge them based on their actions. In a perfect world, everyone would do the same and maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t need to spend so much time worrying about diversity. However, we don’t live in that world yet and lots of leaders hire people who they feel resemble themselves.

It’s important to train your management to be inclusive by operating an environment where everyone has a voice and everyone is treated equally. It’s not enough to simply talk about it, companies need to act on it. Remember, most of all, to judge people by what they do and how they contribute and perform, as often the best teams are a medley of different people with different backgrounds, opinions and experiences.

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

When I was 17 years old, finishing my first year in college, I was unable to pay my fees for the year and faced the difficult likelihood of not completing my third-level education. A neighbour and family friend stepped in to cover the cost with no agenda other than kindness. That was pretty pivotal, as without my education I would have a different career today for certain.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Between reading the news and documents in work, I honestly can’t recall a book that stands out for me. I actually prefer to get information and learn from people, projects and life experiences.

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

I like to keep physically fit through a mixture of weights, running and self-defence. This helps me maintain high energy levels and stay mentally sharp. I like to de-stress by getting outdoors as much as possible and believe that working with your hands is good for the soul and keeps you grounded.

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