‘I didn’t want to build a Dublin-centric team with everybody coming to the office’

10 Sep 2021

Keith Lynch. Image: Red Hat/Yevhenii/Stock.adobe.com

Red Hat Ireland lead Keith Lynch is a remote working advocate, but not at the cost of building intimate business relationships.

“We sell support for technology,” said Keith Lynch of open-source enterprise software company Red Hat. “Technologists using technology,” he said. “That’s always where Red Hat’s customers are going to be.”

Lynch was appointed to lead Red Hat’s business in Ireland when it broke away from being led out of the multinational’s UK base in 2019. Talk of Ireland getting its own leadership team had been on the table at Red Hat for some time and this discussion turned into a decision right around the time Brexit was in the works. While Lynch said the UK’s EU exit both “did and didn’t” influence the change-up, for him it fortunately came about right when he was looking for a career move.

And so with this serendipitous opportunity, Lynch returned to home turf after about two decades away. He had spent eight of those years working at Red Hat in London and while he knew his own Irish clients well, he admittedly needed help in regaining his bearings back home.

“I’ve leaned into my team a lot because a lot of the team I recruited here, they knew the market way better than I did,” he said. “I didn’t really have the level of intimacy that the team that I’ve hired have.”

‘Like house prices, the price of people is probably always going to keep on going up’

In all, Red Hat has been involved in the Irish market for about 15 years. It employs close to 400 people across Cork, Waterford and Dublin. Lynch explained that the Cork stronghold is mostly finance focused with a team of around 150. The Waterford team stems from Red Hat’s €63.5m acquisition of WIT spin-out FeedHenry back in 2014. And the Dublin office operates out of WeWork as a central node for a distributed team.

Retaining and growing this workforce presents certain challenges for the Ireland country manager. About one-third of Red Hat’s team in Ireland are in engineering and technical roles, which these days means you are in competition with Silicon Valley for top talent. This is a hurdle Lynch believes Irish tech recruiters are not quite prepared to overcome. By his estimation, some US tech firms are used to paying salaries of up to $250,000 for senior engineering talent. “It’s a lot of money,” said Lynch. “And I think some of the local Irish companies aren’t used to paying that kind of money for that kind of talent.”

But when asked if this creates an unsustainable market, Lynch is pragmatic about the broader economic context. “It’s like house prices, I think. They always go up! And the price of people is probably always going to keep on going up as well. It’s an economics problem.”

Indeed, the rising cost of living in Ireland is only serving to justify the inflation of competitive job salaries. Though Lynch believes the new-found acceptance of remote working as a feasible working model can help tackle this.

“That’s going to allow people to employ people in various different parts of Ireland where it is going to be naturally less expensive,” he said. “It’s less expensive to hire someone in Tralee, for example, than it would be in Dublin because their cost of living is just so much less. I mean, yes, house prices there have gone up too, but not to the same extent as they have here in Dublin. And so it’s a different order of magnitude problem.”

Remote work and reconnecting

The team Lynch recently recruited as he entered his new role is focused on business development. It is a relatively new presence in Ireland, and has tripled in size since being established two years ago to 12 people dotted around the country.

Lynch has been an advocate of a location-agnostic approach to work since before it was cool. Pre-pandemic, he was always afforded the opportunity to live and work from wherever he wanted, as long as his duties were covered.

“That kind of mechanism is coming here to Ireland through the pandemic. It shook people into that remote working mode. And, actually, it works,” said Lynch.

When it came to building his team in Ireland from the ground up, Lynch knew from the start that he wanted a distributed workforce. Outside of the core team in Dublin, he has reps in Kiltimagh, Tralee, Mallow, Letterkenny and Waterford.

“I didn’t want to build a Dublin-centric team with everybody coming to the office. That was a pretty key design point.”

This ‘design’ is all about maintaining close relationships with partners that are local and personal. “Relationships are what business development is built on,” Lynch affirmed.

But that’s not to say the pandemic-driven shift to remote working was business as usual for Lynch and his team. He believes relationships are better built through presence and so face-to-face meetings and events are highly important. And these are things even he believes can’t be satisfactorily replicated through Zoom calls.

“What’s killed us is not seeing each other,” he said. Even as a distributed team, Lynch explained, a week wouldn’t go by without seeing another person. Between regular in-office workdays and drop-ins, and meetings with customers, in-person touchpoints were still a common, and crucial, element of working life at Red Hat.

“That social fabric has kind of disappeared, and it’s hard to recreate,” Lynch lamented.

‘A different kind of growth’

But when it came to pandemic preparedness, a distributed team with advanced tech knowledge in-house certainly stood a better chance than most to hit the ground running, and so Red Hat did.

“Technology companies have done relatively well off the back of the pandemic, for better or worse,” he said.

“The pandemic has accelerated companies’ investment into digital transformation, or whatever you want to call it – their investment within technology has increased as a result of the pandemic. That has been a tailwind for all technology companies, Red Hat included.”

‘Once people know their grannies and their loved ones are safe, they will feel a lot more comfortable about meeting face to face’

This has meant growth for the business as well as the team, and Lynch said Red Hat is seeing particularly strong signals with public sector clients. But, he qualified, “it’s a different kind of growth”. Because, while Red Hat has seen good performance under the circumstances, his belief is that it could be doing even better back in its regular environment. Which is why Lynch is looking forward to reopening – safely, that is.

“If we’ve come in to a high 90pc of people vaccinated, there should be no reason why people can’t meet face to face,” he said. “Once people know their grannies and their loved ones and people who are at risk are safe, and that they’re safe [themselves] and that they can reduce transmission, people will feel a lot more comfortable about meeting face to face again.”

After a successful two years in his new role, Lynch wants to keep the momentum going. And breaking out of trance-inducing video calls and getting back in the room is key. That’s why an important – but necessarily shifting – date in his calendar will be a Red Hat event to be hosted in Dublin later this year. Ireland’s Red Hat Summit: Connect event is currently tabled for November, though it will be invite-only to ensure full compliance with Covid regulations. And Lynch and his team are looking forward to getting real-life face time with customers and partners again.

“It’s off the back of things like that, where you create more relationships,” said Lynch. “People see your customers speaking about what they’re doing and how they’re being successful. And that generally helps drive more interest and engagement.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.