The five minute CIO: Dara Keher, Version 1

8 Aug 2014

Dara Keher, group IT manager, Version 1

“It’s about listening to the business and aligning IT with what it needs to do,” says Dara Keher, group IT manager for fast-growing Irish IT services company Version 1.

Version 1 is one of the jewels in Ireland’s indigenous IT industry crown and has set an ambitious target for itself of becoming a €1bn revenue company within the next 10 years through a combined strategy of organic growth and acquisition.

Last week, we reported Version 1 is to create 100 new jobs in Dublin after becoming the first company to receive funding in the region of €8m from the €75m BDO Development Capital Fund.

Justin Keatinge founded the company in 1996. Version 1 now has operations in Ireland and the UK.

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

The days of the traditional infrastructure are numbered. A comms room full of servers no longer effectively serve the needs of the business. Over the last two years, in particular, we have seen a massive shift in the way our consultants work, how they engage with development environments, and of course interaction with our customers.

The challenge we must meet is the provision of a fully functional and rapidly scalable infrastructure that allows our consultants to work as they need while also allowing the business to grow.

What are the main points of your companys IT strategy?

When I joined Version 1 in late 2011 I was afforded (maybe uniquely so!) the opportunity to gain a thorough understanding of Version 1’s business prior to taking operational responsibility. In the first month alone I attended over 50 meetings with key people throughout the organisation to get their view of the world and the strategic direction the company was taking.

Our IT strategy centres around a balanced approach in three key areas: enable, protect and support of Version 1’s business.

Everything we do, from an internal IT department’s perspective, will fall under one of these headings. To do this effectively it is imperative we retain an intimate understanding of our users’ needs and business objectives.

In such a fast-paced and ever-changing environment, we must be closely aligned with the business and be flexible enough to change in response to new organisational circumstances, business priorities and new technologies.

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

Version 1 has ambitious growth plans. Prior to embarking on this journey, we identified the need for investment in a robust and scalable infrastructure to support this growth.

Aligning with the business and subsequent “pre-growth” planning has served us well; over the last two years we have grown, in terms of infrastructure, from a single comms room serving 250 users to an organisation with four comms rooms running highly available systems, three redundant data centres, production systems running on two leading cloud providers serving over 550 users across seven offices with remote consultants working from all four continents … and the IT team has grown by one!

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

Managing budgets during phases of rapid growth can be a very challenging task. The natural inclination can be to “throw money” at tactical issues rather than focus the strategic needs of the business.

Conversely, managing budgets in tougher times presents another set of unique challenges – the natural inclination being to spend as little as possible.

In my opinion, they key to effectively managing an IT budget is to ensure budgets are fully aligned with business priorities, the business understands the IT budget and that budgets are managed very closely. Every euro saved goes straight to the bottom line, however, that should not mean CIOs/heads of technology should be “Scrooge incarnate”.

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

As group IT manager of an IT company like Version 1, we have a distinct advantage of having a wide variety of experts available to our team when specific skills are required. Before embarking on our growth plan, my team engaged with some internal consultants and together we agreed to the design of an infrastructure to support our planned growth.

One key part of this design is our standard “reference architecture” that we deploy to satellite offices. This is a standard and repeatable infrastructure that enables our “Martini Office” concept, where consultants can work “any time, any place, anywhere” (only older readers will get the link!).

Another area that has enabled us to simplify our infrastructure is the use of cloud technologies – we have been very active in this space over the last number of years. We have deployed a number of critical business systems and development platforms to cloud platforms, as well as using Office 365 for email and collaboration.

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

Being a technology company comes with certain advantages – not least, access to a huge breath of technologies, experience and expertise internally. Our in-house team is hugely knowledgeable and experienced in a wide variety of technologies but given the range technologies involved we engage in internal outsourcing for certain areas of support.

In general terms, I believe it is not always practical or possible to build the full breadth of experience needed internally so I would certainly look at outsourcing strategic and new technology areas to companies who have that deep experience.

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?

Very little of my time is spent on deep technical issues. As I have mentioned, I have an excellent team working with me – some of the best technical talent I have worked with. I have a strong understanding of the technologies but have complete trust in the team to implement, manage and maintain the relevant systems and technologies.

A large part of my role is engaging with the business, understanding and translating their needs into technical solutions. I see my role as a key supplier – supplying an infrastructure that adds value to the business.

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

Most of our demand in our infrastructure consulting division is related to adoption of cloud technologies – we’re no different but are ahead of the curve, putting key parts of our production systems in the cloud three years ago. However, the pace at which these technologies are developing is both exciting and frightening at the same time. Keeping pace with developments, matching business requirements and convincing business owners to get comfortable with cloud technologies can be a challenge.

Simplifying collaboration and encouraging adoption of collaboration technologies as a result can also be a challenge. At Version 1, we use Microsoft Lync extensively for collaboration activities – with over 500 employees working around the world it is an invaluable tool. Despite launching the Lync over 18 months ago, we are still seeing a near exponential rise in its use for instant messaging, group audio/videoconferencing and application sharing.

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

We engage with the standard measurements around systems availability, capacity management, service request monitoring, etc, as you would expect. Being an ISO 20000-accredited organisation demands we maintain a high standard of service.

Some more general points:

  • I believe budget performance is a key metric – a well-managed budget underpins good performance.
  • Ensuring our infrastructure is not a blocker to the scaling of our business.
  • Talent acquisition is a battlefield at present and Version 1 needs to attract the best consultants from around the globe – we must have an infrastructure that ensures we can hire/acquire talent globally … “The Martini Office.”

Are there any areas youve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

EVERYTHING can always be improved! This is where you might expect the old “poor broadband” nugget to be thrown out but I am going to baulk the trend and say in general the broadband services in Ireland (and I know there are exceptions!) are far superior in my experiences to those in the UK in terms of service delivery, speed and costs.

Our “reference architecture” is based heavily on robust comms being available at our offices and to date our experiences procuring suitable broadband services has been a woeful experience.

Collaboration is key – particularly for growing companies. Collaboration technologies must be simpler and more intuitive to encourage adoption.

Good quality Wi-Fi should be universally available free of charge (don’t ask me who should pay for it!). We are nearly a connected nation!

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

Our current focus is supporting our growth plans and all that entails. One key area for further development is facilitating effective collaboration between teams working across different offices saving on travel time, improving the end users’ experiences, and increasing productivity.

Version 1 is a Silicon Republic Featured Employer, a selected top tech company that’s hiring now.

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