The five minute CIO: David Miller

26 Oct 2012

David Miller, chief operations officer, TERMINALFOUR

TERMINALFOUR’s chief operations officer gives his perspective on technology changes and how they help Irish software companies to build business faster while keeping sight of what customers want from their systems.

Describe your role as COO?

Basically I’m more of a general manager, responsible for product management, product development, product support and project delivery – all of the day-to-day activity. It’s the engine room, if you like. And, IT reports in to me so it incorporates a kind of CIO role, too.

How does technology help you in that role?

Technology is core to everything we do given the nature of the company and we’re always looking at ways to improve that, especially as we go through global expansion: things like giving clients access to support systems remotely.

Behind it all are the processes to be able to manage it right.

Were you involved in putting some of those systems in place, and how has technology helped in developing those processes?

I would have been involved but there was a whole management team we built up over the last year that have a lot of expertise in that area, as well.

Certainly technology has helped. There’s a lot of hype around ‘everything must be cloud or SaaS’ [software as a service]. At the end of the day, you’re just looking for more efficient ways of implementing the processes you’ve got.

For communications, that might mean using tools like Skype. Fundamentally, it’s about running efficiently.

You’ve been in a number of technology roles, from ICL and Iona through to Sepro and now TERMINALFOUR, so that must bring perspective on many of the technology trends we’re seeing now: what’s hype and what’s real, in your opinion?

You can certainly see value in a number of things; mobility is probably the obvious one. Assuming that everything will be cloud is hype, but there’s absolutely real value, too; sometimes it moves from hype to reality, like the old Gartner curve.

The key thing is to bring it back to what the company does in terms of services. Everything we do is remote, and a number of our staff work remotely, so we’re more likely to embrace technology. Certainly we’d be aware of trends and trying them out with clients. It’s the nature of IT industry that we’d be the first ones to try things out.

Your own background is technology but you’re very much in a strategic business role now. How do you bridge those two worlds?

I think a lot of people start off on the technology side and will focus on the mechanics, but as soon as you get into client implementations, you get into the reality of what the client sees. That brings you into what the client finds valuable, and that brings you into sales and business. It’s really a natural progression.

All the same, did you have to train to bring your business skills in line with your technical background?

I think most people will have gone through some form of training and courses. I did a number of courses through the various jobs I have had and I also studied at Stanford [the executive management programme at the Stanford Graduate School of Business].

It all comes back to people [from a technical discipline] recognising that there’s a different world to the world they’re in. The best people are the ones who combine the two [business and IT]. Our CEO Piero [Tintori] is one of those.

Has technology changed how Irish software companies grow and scale internationally?

At all the companies I’d have worked with over the years, you would make, say, your first quarter of a million-pound deals and spend thousands then flying the consultants in to implement them!

In TERMINALFOUR, the model we have is the bulk of our selling and implementation is done remotely and the challenge is to grow that team, especially in North America, which is where the bulk of our business is coming from.

Technology fits into all of that. We’re quite fortunate in the nature of the way the business is now – not having to have lots of people in offices all around the world where our customers are.

Are there particular technologies to help that?

We do a lot of on-premise work and cloud work, and the number of clients that have gone for a hosted cloud model is up massively on last year. As other things come up around communications, we’ll certainly try them out.

There are lots and lots of companies offering small add-ons that you can bolt in to help with your marketing or lead generation, or social media connectivity, and keeping an eye on those is quite useful.

It depends on the phase of the company. If you’re a start-up, the choice of things you can try at low cost is a lot more than it used to be. The problem then becomes as you grow, they become more expensive for you. 

Over time, do you see the same challenges that you would have faced in the Iona days, or has everything changed?

Because of the nature of the market and the last couple of years, we’ve focused on having clear value on any project we’re working on from a financial or delivery perspective. Back in the old days, you had million-dollar implementations and the project might never deliver anything.

Now, people are really bringing it back to where the value is in the business. Technologies are really tied in with business measurement – which is only a good thing: getting back to the core of the business organisation.

How much of the growth in the business has resulted from TERMINALFOUR’s decision to invest in developing the product at a time when the downturn was starting to hit?

At the time we could see where the market was going and we had to have an offering at a very good price point and good value for that. That’s actually worked out for us because we’ve actually grown 35pc year-on-year compound during the downturn.

I think there are lessons there, to look at particular opportunities based on where the trends are and where the spend is. We look at it as helping people to spend less but get more value from it.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic