Ward Solutions’ Pat Larkin discusses the challenges faced by the infosec industry and how we can create greater diversity in STEM.
Pat Larkin is co-founder and co-owner of the Ward Solutions business.
Larkin has more than 17 years’ experience in the IT industry, the last 10 of which have been involved in commercial IT management. He has worked closely with Oyster Technology Investments, chaired by Bill McCabe, in both assessing products and technology for investment, and in leading the development of FirstAsk.
Prior to his commercial involvement, Larkin was an officer in the Irish Defence Forces, serving in both a line role and as IT operations manager of the Defence Forces Communication and Information Services Corps.
‘It is quite a challenge to divorce yourself from the day-to-day operational activities in the business as there is always something to be done’
Describe your role and what you do.
At the moment, I wear two hats; the first of which is chief executive of Ward Solutions. In this role, I am responsible for leading Ireland’s foremost information security businesses and helping organisations to secure their information, brand, revenue and reputation. On a day-to-day basis, this means managing the strategic direction of the business and providing leadership and guidance to our management teams and staff, to enable them to help Ward Solutions achieve its strategic objectives.
The second hat that I’m currently wearing is that of sales and business development manager, which means that I am also responsible for the sales and marketing strategy of the business. Going forward, given the scale of the business, it will no longer be possible to reconcile both roles and so, we are currently looking to take on an experienced sales and marketing leader. Once this role is filled, it will leave me with significantly more time to focus on my role as CEO.
How do you prioritise and organise your working life?
Quite a while ago, I realised that, as a leader, you are much more productive working ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ the business. It is quite a challenge to divorce yourself from the day-to-day operational activities in the business as there is always something to be done.
However, if you have a good team, then the best thing you can do is provide guidance, leadership, and establish a culture of enablement to allow that team to achieve your combined mission and objectives. So, with that in mind, I spend time trying to find ways to allow all of our team to increase their contribution to our business at an operational or a strategic level.
Recently, we established two initiatives – ‘own our values’ and ‘own our strategy’ – both aimed at allowing every staff member to shape our values and our strategy from 2018 to 2021. At least once a week, you need to pause and step back to take a 10,000ft view of the business and where it is going, to assess what the business is doing and what you are doing, and adjust accordingly. For me, the constant battle is to remove myself from ‘in’ and get working ‘on’ the business.
What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?
There are a number of things that will have a dramatic impact on the infosec industry in the near future. For example, I expect to see much more overt nation-state involvement using cyber as a highly effective tool for both benign and malevolent foreign policy. We will also see a significant increase in the use of cognitive and AI solutions, particularly in threat detection.
There will be much greater C-level engagement on cybersecurity, given the threat that it now poses to organisations and the sanctions that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation will impose.
Finally, the shortage in availability of cyber skills and the increasing complexity of solutions will lead to much more cybersecurity outsourcing.
What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?
Helping our clients to achieve compliance with the GDPR – due to come into force on 25 May next year – is a real opportunity for us. We’ve invested €300,000 to launch a new GDPR consultancy service designed to enable organisations around Ireland achieve and demonstrate compliance to the regulation, helping them to avoid potential fines of up to €20m, or 4pc of global turnover.
What set you on the road to where you are now?
Originally, I joined the Defence Forces as a cadet and was commissioned into a line artillery role. The Defence Forces were in the process of establishing a greenfield IT function and asked me and a number of my cadet classmates to study computer application in Dublin City University, and to move into a nascent IT function, which we did. It was fantastic at the time – as relatively young graduates, we were given a huge opportunity, along with the requisite resources and responsibilities, to roll out an ICT strategy and plan across the Defence Forces.
Given the experience we obtained in doing this, when the general IT market got very hot from dot-com and Y2K, myself and a number of my colleagues spotted an opportunity to establish a number of businesses to service a number of needs in IT integration, infosec and e-learning. Since then, we haven’t looked back.
Today, Ward Solutions is our core focus and we are constantly looking at ways to grow the business in our home and international markets.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake is probably not scaling the business earlier and addressing any constraints related to scaling. Scaling is really only something that we first looked to in 2008 and hence, we may have lost time where we could be at a significantly different scale point now, both nationally and internationally. But it’s better late than never.
How do you get the best out of your team?
I’m a big fan of General George S Patton’s philosophy and one particular quote of his comes into mind: “Never tell people how to do things – tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” So, we have spent time giving people the tools and skills to enable them to achieve their mission and objectives.
Simultaneously, we have been gradually changing the culture to ensure that all levels of the management team delegate responsibility to team members to improve their workplace, to make it more efficient, eliminate bottlenecks etc – and get the job done.
‘I think we need to take the testosterone out of the historically male-dominated technology sector, and be creative and facilitative to making the work environment more equality-friendly and enabled’
STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?
I think there is a lot of diversity in the sector in terms of ethnicity and LGBTQ etc. I think where we suffer an obvious lack of diversity is when it comes to the participation of females and people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. I think that, in order to bring about change, we need to do a couple of things.
The first is to start really early – the positioning of career opportunities in STEM sectors needs to be done better at primary and secondary level – as the sector doesn’t just suffer from lack of diversity, it also suffers from a shortage of candidates generally. As an industry, we are not doing enough to educate all prospective third-level students, graduates and apprentices of the attractions and opportunities of a career in technology. I think the industry hasn’t properly marketed how essential technology skills are to businesses that are now highly digitally dependent at their core.
I think it then follows that we need to take the testosterone out of the historically male-dominated technology sector, and be creative and facilitative to making the work environment and work terms more equality-friendly and enabled. As always, more female participation at higher management and board levels in any organisation should naturally help create this environment over time, and this is a leap that organisations should make now in order for immediate and future business and participation benefits.
Finally, I think we need to look at streams for candidates other than third level. I think there is a pool of untapped talent accessible and convertible to technology through apprenticeship-type programmes, which would make more talent generally available to the industry – and hopefully, a lot of this talent would also be female.
Who is your role model and why?
Definitely my parents, who were both entrepreneurs at a time when the word didn’t really exist in Ireland, setting up and running a very successful butcher’s and property business in our hometown from zero, and providing a very good living for themselves and their family. They taught me everything that I know about commerce and hard work. It’s only now that I fully appreciate the risks that they took and the hard work that was required every day to maintain the excellence in the product and service that they were known for throughout the life of their business. They did this without any of the more entrepreneur-friendly supports that we benefit from in the modern Irish economy. To this day, my mother continues to be an entrepreneur.
What books have you read that you would recommend?
I’m reading a book at the moment called Easter Widows by Sinéad McCoole, which tells the story of women living in the shadow of the Rising. It ticks all my boxes; it covers my strong interest in history, particularly around the period of the Rising, the war of independence and the civil war. It offers a completely different insight into the lives of some really remarkable women of the period. It tells their stories in an unusual and refreshing way, focusing on their collective romances, marriage, the parting. It’s well worth a read.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
There are a number of things that I find critical to a productive week. Team huddles (from our Lean Six Sigma programme) are one, so that you get a sense of everyone’s performance and issues at least weekly – this is more efficient than individual one-on-ones, and less expensive and rigorous than a formal team meeting. They are done standing up around a whiteboard (prepared in advance) and you are only allowed to talk or contribute if you hold the football – a token that is thrown from person to person, controlling who speaks and when.
One of the principles of Lean is the gemba walk, ie walking around each physical section of the business to review their performance boards and talk to employees. This gives me a chance to understand what they are doing, what their challenges are, what their successes are etc.
I also have an old-fashioned to-do list – it puts structure on my week and priorities. There is no greater pleasure than striking out an action on a to-do list. I went to the trouble of taking this offline to a pad, just to get the pleasure of drawing a line through the item once it’s complete.
Two to three hours of headspace per week – an opportunity to get away from the operations and the busy nature of the business, and sit, think and reflect on the business at a much higher and more strategic level.
The normal communication tools: phone, email, collaboration and, most importantly, shoe leather.
And finally, coffee – but more decaf as I get older!
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