The tools that got tech leaders through 2020

27 Jan 2021

Image: © Tierney/

In an unprecedented year that saw many teams shift to remote working, we asked tech and business leaders to pick their essential tools.

Throughout our Leaders’ Insights series on last year, we asked a host of tech and business leaders from Ireland and further afield to name the essential tools and resources that get them through the working week.

In a year that brought major disruption to most of our working lives, they turned to video conferencing, collaboration software and a whole lot of coffee.

Handy hardware

The move away from offices means many of us are now relying on tech devices for both work and keeping in touch. Seán Keating of Vilicom said his number-one tool is his smartphone. “It’s like the Swiss army knife of business tools. It keeps me on schedule, navigates to meetings, runs all our most important business apps, connects my laptop to our IT cloud, enables our Teams communications and more.”

HP’s Gary Tierney said that his phone and laptop are the “must-have items” for work, but since the arrival of Covid-19 he has been relying more on his laptop. “I’ve found that working from home has put an even greater emphasis on the criticality of my PC as a communication tool and a general workhorse.”

Many people also had to figure out a new at-home work set-up last year. “I recently invested in a 38-inch ultra-wide monitor and it’s been a game changer for me,” Joe Lennon of Workvivo told us over the summer.

Video conferencing

2020 was the year we all became very familiar with Zoom (as well as Zoombombing and Zoom fatigue).

Amy Bunszel of Autodesk said she now spends most of her day on Zoom, and Patrick Horgan of Horizon8 said tools such as Zoom are proving “incredibly helpful” in the work-from-home dynamic.

But there are plenty of other alternatives out there. Microsoft Teams was highlighted as an essential daily tool by plenty of people, including SL Controls’ Keith Moran, CWSI’s Ronan Murphy and Avanade’s Graham Healy.

Martin McKay of Texthelp said he “couldn’t be without the Google Meet and Chat tools” at the moment, and Xilinx’s Brendan Farley said Skype and Webex are other options being used for video calls.

“Online collaboration tools are integral to not just our success but our basic functioning,” added Ogie Sheehy of ViClarity. “Whether it is Zoom or GoToMeeting, Google Chat or Microsoft Teams, these tools are enabling us to continue to work uninterrupted across a global footprint.” 

Software saviours

While Microsoft Teams has seen a sharp rise in users in the past year, many companies have been relying on other products from the Microsoft 365 stack. Ronan Murphy of CWSI said these tools allow his company to “do whatever we need to do from wherever we are”.

SoftwareOne’s Una Keeshan said she uses the focus plan in Microsoft MyAnalytics to set aside time for priority work, while Avanade’s Graham Healy said he uses Microsoft Dynamics for customer relationship management and Power BI for reporting, forecasting and analytics.

With teams dispersed, messaging and collaboration tools such as Slack also came to the fore. “It’s a convenient way to collaborate over projects and to organise ourselves according to different topics and business functions,” said Oz Alashe of CybSafe.

Collaboration tools have always been important for developers. Joe Lennon of Workvivo said GitHub is “fundamental” for his engineering team to manage source code and code reviews, and they regularly use Tuple to do remote pair programming.

Jennifer Sethre of Intry said Intercom and LogRocket are important tools for her HR tech company, and Keith Moran of SL Controls turns to the Frankli platform for engaging with his team.

Lettertec’s Frank Kelly uses Google Keep for “jotting quick notes down as they occur”, while ViClarity’s Ogie Sheehy is a fan of the voice dictation app on his iPhone. “It allows me to be immediately responsive to important emails that come through when I am out and about and away from my desk,” he said.

A good old-fashioned to-do list

While there may be a fancy tech tool for everything, many leaders still rely on a simple to-do list to keep focused. Nessa McEniff of Learnovate said listing her priorities is a key part of the week and she’s “a bit of an obsessive list maker”.

Netsso’s Brian O’Doherty added that a having a clear list keeps him grounded. “I set myself a weekly list and find that it’s a great way of keeping the faith in myself, my work and my ambitions,” he said.

But Liz Cunningham of Google said she is still looking for the “perfect tool” that will manage all her to-do lists across personal and work life to help “keep all the balls in the air”.

PayPal’s Annette Hickey noted that her calendar helps keep her focused throughout the week, and Dell’s Jason Ward said an organised calendar is “key to ensuring I am as productive as possible”.

Keeping the mind clear

The sudden shift to remote working means that many have had to find new ways to focus, while still maintaining a good work-life balance and not overworking now that your kitchen may be your office.

To help with this, Nicole Sahin of Globalization Partners said she keeps Fridays free of Zoom meetings. “It’s like heaven to have that time to think and get things done.”

Similarly, Codema’s Donna Gartland said that, since the shift to working from home, she now blocks time in her calendar each week without meetings to focus and get deep work done. “I use distraction blockers across all my devices,” she added, “such as Stay Focusd on my browser and Focus mode on Pixel.”

Xilinx’s Brendan Farley said he removed the work email app from his phone many years ago, which helps him switch off in the evenings. And Mark Cockerill of ServiceNow suggested having “a great Spotify playlist” on hand.

Getting away from the desk

For minding mental and physical health, many other leaders also suggested getting out and about. SL Controls’ Keith Moran enjoys a good game of squash in the evening, Arkphire’s Paul Nannetti tries to run on the beach a few times a week, and Fenergo’s Louise O’Connell said that yoga or a walk in the fresh air can help to “just clear the mind”.

Una Keeshan of SoftwareOne has recently taken tennis back up as a hobby. “The tennis is not only great exercise,” she said, “but also helps me clear my head from work or the stresses of the day.”

And Autodesk’s Amy Bunszel said that, now she doesn’t have a commute for the time being, it’s a bit easier to make time for exercise every morning and a nice dinner in the evening.

Food certainly plays a key part in the day for many. Horizon8’s Patrick Horgan said the barbecue has “proved an essential tool” for bringing his family together in the current environment.

And one of the essential tools to get Dell’s Jason Ward through the week? “Coffee, coffee and more coffee.”

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic