Ex-Iona men take the plunge

24 Jul 2003

For someone who has just founded a technology company in the midst of the worst downturn the sector has known, Malcolm Sparks (pictured) seems remarkably laid back. But then again he’s hardly a total rookie.

Jcoverage was co-founded in April this year by Sparks and another English software engineer, Peter Morgan. Their association is lengthy in tech sector terms – a full six years. They jointly owned a London-based middleware company, EJB Home, which was bought by Iona Technologies at the end of 1998 for US$1.6m in cash plus share options. They then worked together in Iona for four years where they headed up the 80-strong team that developed Iona’s J2EE application server before resigning earlier this year to launch their new venture.

Sparks describes as “difficult” the months preceding his departure from Ireland’s best-known software company. Having embarked on an ambitious expansion strategy under the stewardship of Barry Morris, Iona was not making the sales needed to support it, and was forced to change tack. This involved cutting back on expensive product development and concentrating on the core Corba business. Sparks, who describes himself as an innovator, found his job had radically changed overnight. “I thought the scope for innovation was going to be more and more limited until they got their house in order. I’d been there for four years and, although it was not the easiest time to leave, I felt I would really like to be out on my own again and having the freedom to innovate.”

Assessing the latest twist in the Iona story, Sparks blames no one individual for the quandary the company now faces. It had adopted an ambitious but high-risk expansion strategy that, if successful, could have catapulted it to leadership in the middleware market, he feels. The downturn went on for longer than expected, orders never materialised and redundancies followed. “They took a gamble and if it had paid off everyone would have been congratulating the management for taking the risk. It’s easy to see it in hindsight but nobody could have predicted what was going to happen,” he says with a shrug.

Sparks feels that Iona now faces an uphill battle but what could help it survive are the millions it has in the bank and the pool of very talented engineers it has managed to retain.

For Sparks, Iona has been a positive experience, not least because, through its acquisition of his earlier business, it has provided the financial platform to launch the new company.

Jcoverage Ltd is not a competitor of Iona. Its focus is on building testing tools and technologies for better quality software. Just three months after it was established, the firm has launched its first product suite, also called jcoverage, which analyses software as it’s being tested and pinpoints the blocks of code that haven’t run. A subsidiary product set, jcoverage+, is built on the jcoverage product and provides a comprehensive testing infrastructure enabling developers to quickly develop and debug software.

As with any new product launch, one of the immediate questions that come to mind is: is there a market for it? Sparks is very confident of the offer. The fact that the boom days are over and companies have cut spending on IT is a positive point rather than a negative one, he argues. During the heyday, he notes, customers spent millions on buggy software and, rather than junk such technology now, they would be better off spending a little more on cutting-edge testing tools that would allow them to correct the deficiencies and get some value from their investment.

Sparks uses the metaphor of scaffolding to describe the role of the testing tools. “Rather like scaffolding to stop an old building falling down, we put a test framework in place which allows you to fix whatever problems exist and do a complete renovation job.”

Testing, however, is something that the software industry has traditionally been poor at and a role that many software programmers look down upon. Sparks believes this culture has to change. “Developers who are writing new code are finding that testing is actually part of their job and something that they’re responsible for as much as the QA [quality assurance] department. And the only way to write reliable software is to test at the beginning of the cycle and not at the end.”

Sparks is under no illusions about the challenge of selling a new product from a new company into a cash-strapped market and so expects that consultancy services – installing and managing the testing process for companies – and training will be important sources of revenue for the company while its products are getting established.

Apart from software development, there are all the usual aspects of running a business to contend with, which include finding a financial backer, preferably a business angel, who will both invest in the company and get involved on the commercial side. “But first we’re going to have to sell some product and show investors there’s a market out there,” says Sparks. “Investors these days aren’t going to give up money for a dot-com idea.”

By Brian Skelly