The five minute CIO: Declan McCormack

24 Jan 2014

Declan McCormack, the head of IT at Celtrino

Declan McCormack, the head of IT at supply chain management specialist Celtrino, outlines his approach to managing a team, and the importance of aligning that team’s work to the business goals.

As head of IT, do you oversee delivery of internal services to company staff, as well as product development?

Yes and in addition to that, Celtrino’s primary business is the delivery of hosted supply chain management solutions and so the IT team also looks after the operation and delivery of our 24×7 hosted services platforms, applications and customer support.

Professional services is another important part of our business that the IT team provides, working directly with our customers to help analyse and define processes and architect solutions.

Have you invested in data-centre infrastructure for your hosted services platform?

Absolutely, our infrastructure is located in a state-of-the-art data centre operated by a leading pan-European data centre provider. We also host services in Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. We have invested significantly in this hybrid model, using private and public platforms, as it is critical to our business and provides a range of benefits in terms of standards compliance, high availability and scalable performance and capacity.

We need to compete in an international market, so our platform has to stand up to the best. Having the right platform isn’t a key differentiator – it’s an entry-level requirement for the customers we serve and the market we operate in.

How big is your IT team, and how do you manage it?

The IT team is made up of 28 people – around 80pc of the company, acting across six specialist teams or areas. We have the usual mix of skills for a software house and in this mix we have 11 nationalities from five continents, so there is a fantastic diversity of cultures in the office.

We have great people with pride in what we do. That is critical to my ability to manage. We are a very busy but close-knit operation and as I have an input across the full range of our activities, it is vital to maximise the extent to which each area can manage itself.

Clear objectives and metrics are set for each team to target, set out by the company’s senior management team and designed to meet business objectives. I use a weekly cross-team meeting – with lots of water-cooler chats in between – to work with all the area leads to set the focus, share and exchange views and get a briefing on progress, or issues that arise in efforts to meet the metrics.

We have implemented best-of-breed support systems and processes to help us track, measure and report on our operations and this all feeds into my monthly savaging by – I mean, briefing to – senior management (laughs).

It’s not always easy to move from a technical discipline to one that involves leading a team: did you have to work on your management style?

It’s something I was very conscious of, actually. I moved from being a developer to being the head of a professional services section, which was primarily consultancy, and the project/solutions architecture type of area of the work that we do. At that point, I saw my career path was heading down the management direction. I undertook a master’s in management of IT very much with that in mind.

It was an excellent course and really helped me move forward. It was a great mix of theory and real-world case scenarios. You’re constantly presenting to the board, working with real project deliverables … it was set up as if you were acting within a company.

It took you out of the IT technical world and gave you that focus of why IT is important and addressing the technical questions in managing people. It made me feel credible in the role, that I had that under my belt.

Does Celtrino try to do as much development as possible in-house, or do you look to outsource strategically for certain elements?

The company was founded by software engineers and so it’s in our DNA to build all our solutions in-house and often our own support systems. On the whole we still do this, but the benefits of outsourcing some components of our work have become more apparent in recent times and we have started to work closely with a trusted partner to assist in some product development work.

In times like these, when it is difficult to recruit IT skills, outsourcing can be a great way to expand our production capacity but also presents a new set of challenges from a management perspective. For now, we have chosen a local partner with whom we have had an existing relationship and will assess the results in time.

How aligned is the IT to the business direction at Celtrino: is IT represented on the board and does it have direct input into the business direction of the company?

Because of the nature of what we do, IT has to be very closely aligned to the business direction. I report directly to the managing director but also have day-to-day activity and priority reviews with our sales director.

What are some of the major challenges involved in running the IT for Celtrino?

Managing growth while maintaining agility, bringing new people on board in a fast-paced niche area, resource and capacity planning for peaks and troughs, diversity of application portfolio and lastly, staying focused on the areas that really differentiate us as a business – our services.

How do you measure IT service delivery within the business?

We use ITIL as the primary framework for the delivery and operation of IT. This has worked for us as we have been able to use it incrementally as we have grown.

We use TOGAF to help guide us in building our enterprise architecture and we regularly have informal initiatives, such as away days and internal forums, to encourage input to continuous improvement from throughout the company. I have a very experienced team from varied backgrounds who are constantly pushing and implementing new ideas to improve the way we work.

How close would you say Celtrino is to its ideal state from an IT point of view?

From high availability to virtualisation, to pioneering cloud-based applications, to reorganising our people and processes in line with the ITIL framework, we’ve made huge strides over the last few years in terms of bringing Celtrino’s IT to a best-practice state that delivers a very high standard of technology and services across all areas.

As our business continues to grow, and as our customers grow, an ideal state is always a moving target. We continuously need to review and validate our setup and further advancements are planned over the next six to 12 months and that will position us to leverage our IT assets to support our sales team and grow the business internationally.

What are some of the big milestones planned for 2014 and how will you achieve them?

I’ve been with Celtrino in various IT roles for over 10 years and this is the most exciting time for the business and IT. The last three years have focused on re-organisation, scaling up, and platform and product development, which has already realised great results for the business. We are now in a position to present a whole new generation of services and quality of service to our customers.

The board has targeted growth through a number of business opportunities in the year ahead and IT will be under a lot of pressure to deliver. Key milestones include the release of our new flagship Supply Chain Management Portal service and a new business intelligence service.

A lot of what we do – connecting companies’ supply chains to each other – is under the hood, so a key focus will be to add new presentation layer products that the value of information and patterns that processes through our services ‘bubble up’ to the top and be more visible to our customers.

Has designing the presentation layer now become more important, given that people’s expectations have been set high by technology like smartphones?

I think that’s the new benchmark for approaching any customer. We’ve struggled in the past because the service we delivered didn’t necessarily need a front end, which is fine when you’re working with customers, building up relationships over time.

But, when you’re going in from the cold to open doors with new customers, you really need that impressive user experience to hit them with. That’s the message we’re hearing back from the sales team. There’s a very close connection here between all aspects of the business – especially the sales force. The messages from the market do come back very directly to us.

What are some of the big trends in your sector, and how is your strategy going to help you to address them?

We provide supply chain management and inter-enterprise/ERP-based solutions to clients in the FMCG retail and pharmaceutical sectors. We are seeing a move towards trading partners looking to really tighten up their supply chains, keeping data more closely aligned in real-time as it moves from one player to the next in the chain.

Companies are looking to have greater transparency into their trading partners’ operations to help minimise risk and maximise profit. Mobile and business intelligence are other key areas that are appearing on the agenda more frequently, where the availability of data on the move has meant companies want to put real-time transactions and patterns from that data into the hands of their sales force in the field, so they can add real value to assist their customers increase business.

You’ve spent time in the consulting world – what experience did that give you, and do you still apply some of those lessons to your current role?

Above all, consultancy homes you in on the importance of the customer. Consultancy is great experience for anyone in IT: not always in the comfort zone of techies, but it really helps to develop customer-facing skills, professionalism in terms of presentation, and above all you get the privilege to see a customer’s business from the inside out. Their perspectives and insights to business processes are invaluable to building IT services that matter.

From my point of view, the reason I’ve been appointed to the role is because of that experience that I’ve gained, through working with the business perspective of IT over the years.

It’s worth saying that what we deliver as a business wouldn’t be possible without the gurus behind the scenes, so you need the blend and you need the balance.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic