Fenergo’s Niall Twomey: ‘How often does IT have to say no?’

2 Jun 2017

Fenergo CTO Niall Twomey. Image: Fenergo

For our five-minute CIO series, we talked to Fenergo’s Niall Twomey about matching IT with the fast-growing Irish tech company’s momentum.

As chief technology officer for Fenergo, Twomey has responsibility for technical strategy, design and architecture.

Prior to working with Fenergo, Niall spent more than 10 years with leading IT and consulting houses, in financial services, product development and system integration roles at Barclays Capital, Fidelity Investments and Accenture.

Future Human

He holds an honours MBA from Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, University College Dublin and an honours degree in business information systems from University College Cork.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

As a tech company, software development is what we do, so our IT solutions are at the core of our business. Our IT infrastructure needs to be able to rapidly scale as we engage with more clients and grow our highly distributed global workforce. On the back-end, we run a highly virtualised, hybrid cloud environment. This gives us the flexibility to scale up and back down fluidly as projects develop and branch. It allows us to provide services with a minimum lead time to our project and sales teams, which is critical.

We’re very quick to adopt new technologies such as cloud infrastructure and cloud-based collaborative tools. We believe in providing users with the best tools for the job – be it software or performant hardware – to ensure they can work effectively.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

In IT, our focus is on supporting collaboration amongst a growing, global and functionally diverse workforce, and providing the scalability to enable our new hires and projects to commence with minimal delay. We look to adopt the latest software developments and application life-cycle management practices, and need an IT infrastructure that enables this adoption. This includes simulating client infrastructure for scalability and high-availability tests.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We currently have large, on-premise, physical and virtualised server deployments, and multiple Microsoft Azure tenancies across the globe. We’re approaching 300 operational instances.

To support our users, we utilise various hosted services such as Microsoft Office365, Jive, NetSuite and LearnUpon. We host a variety of software development, source control, build and deployment, and automated testing services.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Choose the right tool for the job. Locking yourself in to a restrictive, stagnant solution, or forcing a new requirement into an existing solution just because it’s there, can tie your hands later as needs change.

The current IT market is full of innovation and rapidly evolving products that are meeting needs no one knew they had a few years ago. We are lucky that we operate in a nimble environment where we can adopt the latest best practice. For companies that operate in more restricted environments, they may need to consider a bi-model IT infrastructure to allow innovative groups to operate with less restrictions, while continuing to protect and control the core business operations.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

As we’ve grown quite quickly, we have some very dense infrastructure that is coming close to its scalability limits. We’ve solved this problem by introducing new infrastructure that has much greater growth potential, and we are branching out into the cloud to alleviate these limitations. We’ve also brought in better management and automation processes to maintain our rapidly expanding estate.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a strong core IT team that looks after our infrastructure, a DevOps team to keep our development environments in order, and a growing internal help desk to keep our users serviced.

We try to grow and upskill internally for all our critical core solutions, so that the people who know our needs best provide the solutions we need most. We outsource for highly specialised knowledge that’s only needed for one-off engagements.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I spend quite a lot of time working closely with our customers and consultants to see how they want to use Fenergo, and take these leanings back to direct our research and development team to build on and improve our core offering. This is the most technically interesting part of the role.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Fenergo is a leader in solving big regulatory, operational and data management challenges for our customers. Our own challenges aren’t sector-specific, but those of any global company looking to work across multiple time zones and locations. We’re addressing this through collaboration technologies such as Jive, and using the flexibility of the cloud to deploy development environments where we need them.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

Given how fast we’ve grown over the last five years (more than 100pc year-on-year), this is genuinely difficult. The metrics we had from the last year or two are almost irrelevant given the evolution of the current landscape. The most valid way we have of gauging IT performance is to ask:

  • Can it stay ahead of the pace and needs of the business?
  • Does IT have a viable solution ready to go, and deployed before the business realises it has a major need in the area?
  • How often does IT have to say, ‘No, we can’t solve that’?
Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

As we grow, globalise and evolve, new challenges have come to the fore, such as: how do we support a project team working directly with the customer on the other side of the globe?

We utilise the cloud in these instances, from soft solutions such as Jive, which allows efficient natural sharing of information; to pseudo-hard solutions such as Microsoft Azure data centres, which allow us to deploy development and proof-of-concept machines as close to the customer as needed on short notice.

We’re reviewing our existing systems and processes to improve scalability and global availability.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

We’re currently expanding our on-premise virtual infrastructure with some new hardware to support planned future projects.

We’re evaluating our existing solutions for code repositories, DevOps, remote access and telecommunications, with a more global scope to provide the best service to our users, regardless from where they’re working.

Lastly, we are in a hiring growth stage in a competitive market right now, so we have decided to partner with Harvey Nash to deliver a more strategic recruitment process to ensure we meet our headcount needs by 2018.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years