Strencom’s IT director and NOC manager Ed Ronayne talks about thought leadership and why the ability to identify business needs and translate them into IT projects is an important skill.
Describe your role with Strencom: how much is occupied with day-to-day IT and how much time is given to strategic technology issues?
The majority of it is probably sitting back looking at the bigger picture. IT issues would only take about 10pc of my day. About 35pc of my time would be delivering strategic projects of the business, and 20pc personal projects. The rest is training, meetings, thought leadership and the ‘softer’ side.
What does thought leadership involve?
The senior management team meets monthly more formally, but it’s about getting with other people inside and outside the organisation. Sometimes you just call it shooting the breeze but it’s about finding where we can fit in and where we can improve things.
What does that contribute to the business?
I think it sets a direction. We’re not leaving it to the engineers to come up with things. The market is always going to tell us what it wants. Sometimes it’s the more simple things that get used: SMS would probably be an example.
How do you interact with the senior management team that makes the key decisions?
I mentioned there that the whole management team sit monthly. Each of us have responsibility for our own area of business, but decisions are made on a consensus basis. IT typically touches every part of the business.
I guess my position in Strencom is slightly different: IT develops our products. Basically, our IT and our network is the product that we sell to customers at the end of the day, so IT is probably 80pc of the company. We’re a very IT-driven company because IT is our product.
You started 10 years ago as IT manager, and how you’re IT director: how did you get to your current role?
I did a BSc in computer science and came out with a software development side. I was always more of a technology person than a coder. Ten years ago, Strencom was a young, emerging, entrepreneurial company [and] I was one of the early people in the door. That afforded me the chance to get exposure to the whole of the business and get experience of it from the trenches up.
Education is important, and also cross-functional learning. If you just try and learn the technology stuff it’s a belly rub: everyone needs to put themselves outside their comfort zone to be of value to the organisation.
Has working on technical support desks, as you did in the past, given you a different perspective on how technology is perceived by the people who use it?
Yes. One kind of angle I always take when talking about the guys on my team, is that I try and position something as if I’m trying to explain it to my mum or dad; unless you’re listening to them, you’re always going to be answering the wrong questions.
The market is always going to tell us what they want, rather than us going to the market. It’s our role as leaders to develop what they want but coming from the ground up definitely gives a different angle.
When you’ve experienced a problem with a user and brought them through to resolving it, you’re mindful of what results from the user perspective. When that’s in the fabric of what you do, that ends up in the hands of users.
You’ve had experience in international and indigenous companies. How does Strencom compare from an IT point of view?
I think we’re quite far along the maturity curve. My previous experience was in a US multinational, where IT was seen as an internal cost. The IT guys were seen as the nerds sitting in the corner, telling users why they couldn’t do such a thing.
Now there’s a realisation: IT is there to serve the users and the customers, and everything they need to do has to add value. Strencom wouldn’t survive as a company if we didn’t have that view, because any IT development is really product development.
How have your previous jobs shaped your approach to your current role, for example in terms of methodologies or processes you use?
When I look back over all the previous jobs and the people I’ve worked with and worked for, each of the CIOs or CTOs all share a common trait and that’s the ability to take a technical idea or requirement and demonstrate a value to the business for implementing it – to explain to the business why they need to drive an IT initiative.
And the ultimate skill is taking that the opposite way around – being able to identify the business needs of the organisation and translate them to IT projects and IT initiatives to deliver the business need. I remember being quite green, just out of college and sitting with my boss: his words were ‘it’s not so much what you do but why you do it’.
What are the big challenges in Strencom’s business right now – for example, is it growth, or customer retention, and how are you using IT to address them?
Like most companies in the economic climate, we absolutely have to be concerned with both of them. It’s no good if hundreds of customers are coming in the door but they’re not hanging around, so retention is a key aspect. There’s a key focus to use IT to deliver our services. We’re a sales-led organisation so we need to get our product out quickly and easily.
For example, take our virtual data centre product: we’ve used our IT to let customers rapidly provision a service. We spent a good bit of time last year building an automated platform to deliver a service.
What major IT projects have you planned for this year, and what business benefits are they expected to deliver?
There are two key projects that I have in my annual objectives. The first is delivery of ISO27001 for our virtual data-centre platform. The advantage of executing that project is an independent body’s seal of approval around our business processes and IT services to deliver that. It should garner customer confidence in the product.
The next project is our hosted enterprise Linc platform, a unified communications platform that we’re delivering to our customer base. We use it internally and we’re delivering it to them. It’s the first of its type in Europe – engineered for 10,000 concurrent users. We’ve taken the Microsoft version of Office 365. We can make it available across the customer’s network without breaking out to the internet. We consider it a mission-critical project.
You’ve seen cloud computing from a provider’s point of view: Strencom invested in the technology back in 2010. What have you learned from the experience, and has it shaped or changed how you offer cloud services to your own customers?
It sure has. As cloud probably started internally before 2010. Back in 2006, we built a very large wholesale network for one of the household names in broadband and a lot of the additional services to deliver that, we built on our own virtualisation platform which evolved into the cloud service platform.
The biggest learning we had was to plan for outages: technology will always find unusual ways to fail … If you’re not careful, it’s easy to create unintended interdependencies between workloads. And you could have some business processes sitting on a deck of cards.
We make it easy for clients to deploy into two data centres. We would sit with a customer to find the right kind of technology and we would get them, where appropriate, to deploy in both our Cork and Dublin data centres. The tools are there to do that in the technology products we’ve rolled out.
You need to plan for failure. And failure will happen, it’s not a case of ‘can fail’. The platform needs to account for it. We’ve certainly grown from some of the pain we’ve had in the early days.
Are there any other technology trends that interest you right now, either from a business perspective or from a consumer’s point of view?
Big data, definitely. Modern businesses have generated an amazing ability to generate information and numbers on everything. For example, the sales of heartburn medication in the summer increases and it might correlate with the amount of cider sales. You don’t see that until you start working with big data sets and feeding them into the likes of a Hadoop cluster. It’s a fascinating area at the moment.
How would you apply that in your business?
We apply parts of that in quality control. For example, we see call details of traffic going through our network: if we see a customer made three calls to the same number within a short period, that probably means somebody is having audio difficulties.
Proper analytics will alert you to issues before they’re reported to you. It’s more around the customer retention play: if you’re doing your job with your analytics, it doesn’t make you look good – it’s that you don’t end up looking bad.
Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you work a lot with external technology providers – what’s your preferred approach?
We mix and match it. If there’s no value in doing something internally but it still needs to be done, we’ll welcome someone external wholeheartedly into the organisation to help us.