Welcome to the latest in a series of exclusive interviews on Siliconrepublic.com, where IT leaders share their thoughts on technology trends and strategy. This week, we talk to Conor Toomey, co-founder and CIO of Fastcom Telecom.
Having started in 2004 selling broadband primarily in the north-west of Ireland, the independently owned ISP now provides voice and data services to more than 3,000 business and residential customers. It recently made a €1m investment in its network and has begun providing a range of cloud-based services.
You’re in a fairly unusual position of being both a company founder as well as the person in charge of IT. Does that give you a different perspective on the CIO role?
A lot of the way we’re growing the company would determine what we need from our own systems. I look at it from a business-development perspective. We’re always looking at things as strategically as we can: for example, what we are going to have to do to offer more hosted applications? I foresee customers spending more on bandwidth. It means they spend less on hardware which gives them more money to spend on services.
But given the nature of your business, you’re still in charge of a lot of hardware then?
I suppose I am from the perspective of our own broadband infrastructure. We’ve built our own network pretty much completely.
In our own internal systems we’ve tried to look at more hosted applications. We have Salesforce.com, because two years ago we knew we needed better customer relationship management systems. The choice was, do we put in a big box or do we move to the cloud? It isn’t a cheap product to use but it certainly delivered good value for the company.
We’re trying to do a lot of what we’re trying to sell to customers. If we’re talking about hosted CRM or hosted Exchange, or using hosted VoIP instead of phone systems, that’s what we’re using ourselves.
Are you still a very hands-on IT leader, or do you focus on the strategy and leave the ‘plumbing’ to your team?
I definitely am less hands-on than I was two years ago, but I still keep a close eye. The only way Fastcom is going to grow is if the likes of me, Ross and others on the management team effectively delegate our work. My role, for sure, would be to oversee the IT and to look at the more strategic elements.
How would you describe your own approach to IT – are you in the ‘do more with less’ camp or do you see technology as a way to innovate and enhance what you offer to customers?
I like technology and I like using it but reality is, its got to provide value for money. I would try use technology as much as we can to innovate, but (also) trying to keep down the capital costs as much as we can.
The whole cloud trend has really helped with that; you don’t have to spend nearly as much capital. You can try it, see if it works and then increase your investment. Technology has got to deliver something at the end of the day.
What has been the hardest technical challenge since you started?
The hardest thing has been building a network that is as close to 100pc resilient as you can make it. The whole idea of zero tolerance on downtime from customers has been the hardest technical challenge.
As we built up and focused on business-grade services, we had to focus on 100pc uptime. The way I measure that is my levels of sleep at night – and I’m getting the full seven or eight hours!
What’s the achievement you’re most proud of in your career?
I remember being at the technology park in Strandhill on the outskirts of Sligo town in 2005 and there was no broadband. Setting up that infrastructure, really from nothing, to me is an achievement I will remember. It also helped bring on other broadband services in the area.
What technology trends are of most interest to you personally and to Fastcom?
The word ‘cloud’ is just a vast area. The areas we’re interested in is looking at ways where a company can virtualise their office to a large extent, so they don’t have to spend as much on having hardware in-house and they can use their broadband service to deliver those other services. I’m thinking of phone systems, online backup – that kind of thing where traditionally there’s been a lot of hardware put into a company.
That’s strategic for our business because we’re all about selling managed broadband services and as more people move to cloud, they will need higher-grade and dedicated bandwidth.
Do you think the logical conclusion for the cloud trend is that many businesses won’t have an IT department in-house anymore but will outsource to external service providers, and IT will become like electricity or water: there whenever you need it?
I’ve always been a believer that certainly a broadband service can, in a lot of ways, be a utility. That’s certainly the expectation now.
I think the IT role will be slightly different. I think the IT manager role will become more of an internal business development role – requiring a mix of technical skills and business skills. IT managers will become more business-facing.
I think the traditional role of the IT manager will need to change and maybe the education system in colleges will need to put a little more focus on business skills in computer science courses.
Have you any plans to add to your own skills this year and if so, in what area?
Fastcom is going through a pretty steep growth period at the moment, so an awful lot of my time is spent in developing and growing the business. Another area is my knowledge of IP version 6 and what that will mean for our own business. For most end customers it won’t be of interest but it is for my role.