“If it’s not going to be adding value then why are we going to be doing this?” That’s the question every CIO and IT director should ask themselves all the time, says Strencom technical director Ed Ronayne.
Strencom is one of Ireland’s fastest growing providers of data networks and private cloud computing services. The company provides innovative data and internet solutions to business customers across Ireland.
Established in 2000, Strencom is ranked in the Deloitte Technology Fast Growth 50 for Ireland and the Deloitte Fast 500 for EMEA and is 100pc privately owned. Strencom manages more than 2,500 sites, collaborating with channel partners and IT resellers in the delivery of cloud and connectivity solutions.
During the summer, Strencom was awarded Irish Microsoft Partner of the Year for Communications.
Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?
Strencom is a managed networking cloud provider so in essence the technology we roll out across the company is our product that the sales team brings to market. We are in the business of creating happy customers.
The technology is there as an enabler for that. The scope of the products reflects the scope of our customers, from high-end pharma household names to the more ordinary retail experience. There’s probably not a day that goes by or even if you bought something in a retail store in Ireland in the last week, there’s a very good chance that your electronic transaction went over Strencom’s technology.
The vast majority of our customers and end users don’t actually get to see the Strencom name. The way we deliver our products through partners and with partners, that can be somewhat disheartening sometimes but I can walk through any shopping centre in the country and I’d be as proud as punch knowing that it’s our servers that are driving these shops to conduct commerce.
What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?
If we have the people in-house to do a great job we will do it in-house. If it’s a job that still needs to be done but we’re not going to be able to do a fantastic job we will bring somebody else to do a fantastic job of it for us.
But we always need to check ourselves on anything we are doing. The guiding principle is this: is it the right thing to be doing for our customer, is it adding value to the business and our proposition of what people are going to see and use from us?
If it’s not going to be adding value then why are we going to be doing this?
Ultimately that is the guiding principle: everything we do must add value both to the business and to our end users.
In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?
IT budgets are always contentious things. Before the emergence of the C-level technology role and the CIO, IT was never very really well represented at board level. It tended to be a cost that sat under an operations people and became a cost centre. When it comes to IT budgets, it’s always the requirement for the CIO or CTO to be able to demonstrate value back for any particular IT initiative that they want to undertake, whether that be P&Ls back to the business on how their initiative is going to pay for itself and get more revenue into the business.
How it’s going to add value, effectively.
There are lots of smart things you can do. IT had been seen as a cost centre but in reality it is not necessarily a cost centre that could build up assets that depreciate. The movement that CIOs are doing that of capital expenditure into operational expense allows them to try out new technologies without necessarily committing but also move it into a scale-out model.
They know their road map on how they are going to scale it out on an infrastructure and cost model.
How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?
It’s quite complex and I think there is always going to be complexity there. IT systems are complex; it is probably the role of the CIO to abstract complexity away from the end user or the business users that need information from IT.
To make an example, a cloud-based service such as Salesforce.com looks relatively non-complex – a web front end, you put your opportunities and convert them into sales which is great for the business user – but when you look at the systems that underpin its database layer, application layer and middleware, it is extremely complex but it is the CIO’s and CTO’s role of any particular product to remove the complexity.
An example of that in-house is our network monitoring tools. We give each of our technology counterparts in our customers a monitoring tool that can give you an amazing amount of detail on what’s going on in one router somewhere but somewhere there’s a much bigger network. But at the end of the day what they are looking for is the cup of coffee view, looking at a big screen with dashboards that are basically traffic lights. Each item is red, amber and hopefully green most of the time.
While the complexity is there, it’s important to abstract it away. Leave it to the technologists to sort out but deliver back a non-complex, abstract view of the business.
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?
I’d love to be able to say I get to roll up my sleeves every day and delve into the tough technical things. But the reality of a CIO role represents a migration from technological responsibilities to more business-led responsibilities. Decisions now aren’t necessarily based around the technology but what’s right for business and how it integrates into business’ bigger plan, the vision for the company and the value to the company it is driven by. In these times it is definitely about spending time in the business-led arena but I’d still try to not lose track of the on-the-ground technology because you can see some interesting, emerging technologies bubbling up if you keep your fingers on the pulse.
What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?
Software defined data centres, almost anything delivered as a service but probably one of the more disturbing trends we need to be cognizant of is cybercrime and data breaches. There have been a lot in the recent past, such as Target, and close to home, LoyaltyBuild. So as data volumes increase and concepts such as big data are more in vogue, the IT organisations have a responsibility to their own organisation and the end customer to keep that customer safe.
In Strencom, we use a combination of process and culture to ingrain that in the IT organisation and the business as a whole. That would come from having a robust framework such as ISO 27001 in place. But while we are gaining that certification we were cognizant of not bundling a bunch of business consultants into a room to come up with a process that was right. We use the people in the team that are doing the work daily to input heavily into the processes we put in place because that makes the process real for those people. Not something that has to be done. It is something that is in the process that needs to be done.
The ideas around data integrity and security are weaved through their day-to-day and I think all CIOs and technical directors need to be cognizant of that and their responsibilities around personal information of end-users.
What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?
The most important one in our organisation is the net promoter score. But unless the end user feels that they are 100pc comfortable and happy, IT has room for improvement.
What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?
Any of our projects need to generate money and deliver money to the company because our IT initiatives are our products that we sell in the market. But we feel some of our products around communication are key.
About two years ago, we launched a Microsoft Lync platform, which basically is a communications enabler in an organisation, delivered as a service.
It is one of the major expansions we are doing in our technology group this year. We are growing it larger and we are building it out across multiple data centres in an attempt to achieve even higher than PSTN level of service around redundancy and robust because I think organisations say that they can live without their communications infrastructure for a short period of time and that may have been true in the past but I don’t think any organisation can survive without real-time and up-to-the-minute communication on what it’s doing and planning on doing.
We see unified communications as a big product this year.