Leaders’ Insights: Pat Lucey, Aspira

7 Apr 2016

Pat Lucey, CEO, Aspira

Pat Lucey is the CEO and co-founder of enterprise IT firm Aspira.

Pat Lucey and his co-founder Colum Horgan set up Aspira (then called AspiraCon) in 2007, after they were made redundant, in the midst of the global recession.

With its head office in Cork, as well as an office in Dublin, Aspira’s software has been sold in the US, UK, Germany, France and Switzerland, and the firm is currently working on a project aimed at the Japanese market.

In February this year, the company announced that it was expanding with the creation of 50 new jobs.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role varies a lot from day-to-day because Aspira delivers a wide range of services, our end-to-end IT services mean that we provide our clients with everything from the computer hardware to providing managed IT services, project management consultancy, business analysis training and software development. This means that not only are no two consecutive days the same, but often no two consecutive hours are the same! As the company has grown I have had to take a slightly different approach and delegate a lot of the day-to-day project deliverables so that I can concentrate on our strategic outlook, although the control freak in me still wishes to be involved in every project.

My main focus is on growing the range of services that Aspira delivers to multinationals, government and semi-state bodies. At a strategic level, I have completed an acquisition of an IT services company this year and I am concentrating on developing further master service agreement partnerships with enterprise organisations.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I sometimes struggle to prioritise the important over the urgent, so have had to learn to be disciplined. One technique that I find very useful is the 80/20 rule. This means that you get 80pc of the results from just completing 20pc of the actions. So, if I have too much on my plate on any day, I try to make sure that I get at least those 20pc of things done that will accomplish the most. It doesn’t mean you always pick the right 20pc, but it prevents you feeling you have to get every single thing done – that will just never happen.

Effective delegation also helps, as not only can you achieve more through delegation but you also give other people an opportunity to take on more responsibility and develop new skills.

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

One of the big challenges for any IT business now in Ireland is acquiring and retaining the best staff, as there are so many opportunities for them to go abroad and Irish graduates are always in demand. We find that our position as thought leaders in areas like project management and cloud computing puts us in touch with a lot of excellent people working in these areas, which makes it easier to attract top talent.

In order to retain people, we have found that not only do you need to offer a competitive package, but that you really need to ensure people have interesting work. Some of the projects we work on are highly innovative and require that we figure out solutions to very difficult problems, which means that the work is never boring or repetitive and is very rewarding.

For graduates, going into large multinationals is not always the best move. I think that graduates will learn a lot more from working in smaller organisations where they get the opportunity to work on a variety of projects in a variety of roles – this will accelerate their learning and improve their career options.

One of the challenges I face personally is taking time to celebrate our successes. I find that I tend to focus on the next challenge, the next problem, the next goal to be achieved, rather than step back to celebrate what we have achieved. It is only when people say “it must be great to have built up a company” that I stop to think actually, yes, it has been pretty great.

‘One of the big challenges for any IT business now in Ireland is acquiring and retaining the best staff’

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

There is a lot of opportunity in the tech industry at the moment for strategic acquisitions. In the past few months, Aspira acquired B-TEC Solutions, which has allowed us to expand our range of offerings. We are now providing a complete, end-to-end IT service that includes the supply and installation of IT hardware, in addition to the services we have always offered of design and implementation of bespoke IT solutions, expert consultancy, project management and enterprise IT services support.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

When I’m asked questions like this, I like to say that I’m an accidental entrepreneur! I didn’t think I would ever have the courage to go from working for a multinational company to taking the risk of starting my own company. But when I was made redundant in 2007 and I was cleaning out my desk, I came across the CV I had used to apply for that job 17 years earlier and I had said that one day I wanted to own my own tech business. So, I guess there was always a big part of me that wanted this.

But it was no accident that I ended up in the tech industry, it was always something I wanted to do. I loved maths and computers so I did a Master’s in Electronic Engineering in UL in the early ‘90s and from there I went straight to work for Siemens Telecoms in Munich.

I returned to Ireland as a software engineer for Motorola and worked my way up through the ranks to head up its global division. When the recession hit and I was laid off, like so many others, I made the nerve-racking decision to start up Aspira. I might not have always known that I wanted to own my own business, but I always knew I would work in tech.

‘One of the challenges I face personally is taking time to celebrate our successes’

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

Our biggest mistake was back in 2007/08 to not pay enough attention to market research when we developed our first product. We took a “build it and they will come” approach, and were very much focused on building a very innovative product using cool technology. Then we realised we didn’t know who would buy it. We were blinded by the technology and didn’t take a long hard look at the market for the product. We were lucky in that the technology was so new we had become industry leaders in that area, and were able to sell that expertise.

That lesson was one that we really took on board, so for any new products we design now, we work carefully with our clients to ensure that the solution will be fit for purpose and we involve our clients every step of the way. For new product ideas we use Agile methods to build an early prototype, and we get vital customer feedback early on, through review of that prototype.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I often find that managers and leaders don’t realise how crucial it is to lead by example. If you want your team to have a positive, can-do attitude, to be enthusiastic and to work to a high standard – you have to demonstrate all of these things every day and allow these attitudes and this style of work to permeate your team.

When you’re in charge of a team, the culture will be set by the worst behavior you are willing to tolerate. If you know someone on the team is not contributing fully and you do nothing about it, then others will think it’s okay to behave that way too.

Also, don’t be overly negative about people’s work, you should always find something positive they have done that you can commend them on. Irish people are not the best at giving praise and congratulating someone on a job well done, but we all appreciate when we are given positive feedback and we respond well to this.

At Aspira, I am really lucky that I have a great team to lead. We have some exceptionally talented people who are also team players and are not prima donnas. I feel huge loyalty to that team who have worked so hard to help us be successful.

‘I might not have always known that I wanted to own my own business, but I always knew I would work in tech’

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

There is no inherent reason why STEM sectors should have an uneven gender balance, however, there are some traditional factors. Back in my school days, two girls from the neighbouring girls school joined my class in our all-male school to study honours maths and physics. This made them very popular members of the class, but it is ridiculous to believe that only two students in the school had the capability.

Thankfully, this level of gender inequality is no longer acceptable in our schools, but I still think we need to end this “unicorn effect” mindset where we treat a girl who is talented at maths, technology or engineering as being in some way unique or different to the mainstream. I think girls should be encouraged to look at a career in technology as being as attainable or as ‘usual’ as a traditional career in, for example, teaching. This mindset needs to be nurtured in our schools and the same normal level of expectation should be on girls as on boys to study the STEM subjects at Leaving Cert and in third level.

On a positive level, if you look at the area of project management, while it is not at 50/50, Ireland does have the highest percentage of female project managers in Europe.

Who is your business hero and why?

I have two business heroes, my mum and my dad. After emigrating to England, they returned to buy a shop, and set up a petrol station and a café in Patrickswell, Limerick, in the 1960s, where they were the first to have an ice-cream cone machine. They were selling whipped cones before anyone else and had customers travelling for miles to get a 99. They taught me to innovate and they also taught me the importance of customer service. And this is something that is a huge part of Aspira today. We are very client-centric and we don’t make promises that we can’t keep. We will go over and above to look at solving a client’s problem from every angle possible, but we will never take on a project unless we know we can deliver for them. This ethos has really stood to us over the years, 95pc of our customers are repeat customers, and this was the ethos that my parents instilled in me.

‘Girls should be encouraged to look at a career in technology as being as attainable or as ‘usual’ as a traditional career in, for example, teaching’

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have recently read Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh. It is a factual retelling of the story of a math proof that was scribbled down by a French mathematician in the 1600s that everyone could see was true but no-one could prove until 1997. The eventual proof required use of all kinds of complex maths and computers that certainly had not been invented in the 1600s, which leaves many unanswered questions. The book is a great read – a weird mixture of mathematics, history and ‘whodunnit’ thriller!

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

There are a couple of software applications that I rely on – Microsoft Project is essential to stay in control of multiple projects and I find SharePoint to be an excellent collaboration tool, allowing our teams to work together regardless of where each person is based.

Of course, my iPhone is surgically attached to me at this stage. I keep it with me at all times, except when I’m in the shower (and I take quick showers!).

I’m also a big Netflix fan – a binge viewing of a TV series is a great way to unwind… it’s surprising how much leadership inspiration you can get from Walter White in Breaking Bad!