‘Since Covid-19 hit, remote learning has taken centre stage’

4 Aug 2020

Martin McKay. Image: Texthelp

Texthelp’s Martin McKay discusses why he got interested in edtech, how his company is adapting in a Covid world, and what he does to make time for himself every day.

Martin McKay is CEO elect at Belfast-based education technology company Texthelp. He was one of the founding members of business, which was set up in 1996 to help people with communication difficulties. Now, its literacy, accessibility and dyslexia software products are used in both the education and corporate sectors by nearly 30m people around the world.

McKay has served on the board of the Assistive Technology Industry Association and is an adviser in the area of learning and literacy tools.

‘Distance and blended learning is going to be a long-term feature of education, and we have an opportunity to help deliver that’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m a founder of Texthelp. I held the role of CTO for the first 20 years, before recently being appointed interim CEO. To date, I have been responsible for building the product roadmap and developing the technology. From September, I’m going to be transitioning into the CEO role full-time.

My focus at the moment is to develop the strategic growth plan in conjunction with the senior management team and the board. We want to expand in all of our markets, firstly through user growth of our existing products and secondly by adding additional high-value products for our customers.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I truly believe that before you lead other people, you have to lead yourself. For me, that means being a bit selfish and setting time aside to look after your own physical and mental needs.

I’m an early riser and my alarm goes off pretty early. I spend the first hour doing exercise and some mindfulness practise. I dedicate the next hour to preparing for my workday and set objectives. I make sure that my plan for the day is set before I start interacting with other people.  

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

Since Covid-19 hit, remote learning has taken centre stage. The education side of business has seen a huge increase in demand as distance learning becomes a must for schools across the world. A lot of our customers are uncomfortable about this transition and the pace at which it’s happening.

This new environment of remote learning has created new demand for many of our products. Our EquatIO product, which was originally conceived to allow people to deliver maths instructions digitally, has taken off in the past few months. I think the Covid crisis has really shone a light on the market need for that particular product.

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

Throughout the next academic year, I expect we’re going to see lots of sporadic localised lockdowns, forcing teachers and students to work remotely. Distance and blended learning is going to be a long-term feature of education, and we have an opportunity to help deliver that, and make both the transition and the experience better for all.

I think one of our main challenges is helping customers transition to distance learning in a way that works for them and doesn’t feel forced.

Generally speaking, marketing and business development in this environment is completely different as well. Before the pandemic, a lot of our marketing was face-to-face. We’d go and meet prospective customers and spend time with them, and we can’t do that any more.

We’re unable to travel to meet customers, and conferences and exhibitions and events are all on hold until the pandemic has passed. We have had to pivot even more towards digital marketing, which even for a tech company like ours has been difficult. But the team has risen to the challenge!

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

The Texthelp products are classed as ‘assistive technologies’. I first became interested in the field after realising that assistive technologies were, at the time, pretty terrible. A family member has a disability, and their experience opened my eyes to how poor the existing solutions were.

I felt that better assistive technology could be made, and so we set about making it. 25 years later, Texthelp is a market leader because we understand the importance of having a personal connection to someone who has real difficulty in communicating and understanding.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Teams work well when there is regular cadence – it’s one of the things that makes our team strong. I make sure that I’m respectful of their time, show up for meetings on time, pay attention and be present for them.

Once you put the strategic plan in place and you’ve delegated to the right people, the rest of it is all about execution.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

We recruit a lot of software engineers, and unfortunately there is a significant gender imbalance in the sector. This problem starts in schools, with subjects such as science, technology and engineering seeing limited take-up amongst female students. If we could employ more female developers we absolutely would, but the recruitment pool is not there.

This is slowly changing, however. In the last five years, we have been able to recruit more women onto the testing team and it’s now 50pc women, which is a positive change for us.

We all have a role to play in challenging the stereotypes about certain fields being ‘for women’ or ‘for men’. If the profiles of the people who create products like ours don’t match the society that they serve, then they won’t deliver products that meet their needs.

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

After 25 years of working in edtech, I’ve had lots of mentors and couldn’t possibly single one out!

I had a really good piece of advice from an employee who was with us for a long time, and told me not to let current resources hold back bigger future plans. If he reads this, he’ll know who he is!

What books have you read that you would recommend

I’ve got three books. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which speaks to me because I’m a very data-oriented person. I think we can all use data to help make good business decisions and forecast the future.

Another excellent read is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, who’s famous for predicting the results of the US elections.

Away from work, data and human psychology, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is just a great human history book and is definitely worth a read.

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

Technology has changed our lives in so many ways, but I still use a bullet journal to make notes. It helps to keep you focused on priority actions.

I think remote working is probably going to be more prevalent than remote learning because in the knowledge economy, lots of people can work remotely easily. Thankfully at Texthelp, we’ve been set up for remote working for a long time, productivity is up, and there’s no reason for us to rush back to the office.

I couldn’t be without the Google Meet and Chat tools at the moment!

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.