The five minute CIO: Gareth Cummings

8 Nov 2013

Gareth Cummings, service delivery director at Sentenial

Financial technology firm Sentenial’s head of service delivery Gareth Cummings talks about coping with rapid growth and a company culture that puts technical people in front of customers to better understand the business.

Sentenial is a payments solution provider and implementation partner, helping banks and businesses prepare for the switch to the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA).

Your job title is service delivery director – what does the day-to-day role involve?

Essentially, I’m responsible for delivering the service to our customers. That includes technical systems, customer support, and relationship management. It’s a very varied role: it could be deep dive into a technical issue or out meeting clients, or driving programmes of change within the company.

What do programmes of change involve?

We would have different programmes of work – it could be a new product launching or having a new, very large customer coming onto our system. One of the things we did as a company was to adopt ITIL [IT Infrastructure Library] within our processes. That’s one I’ve been involved with in the last 12 months.

Why did you choose ITIL, and did it bring the benefits you had hoped for?

We had grown as a company, from 40 or 50 people to the size we are now, which is 170 [this interview took place before Sentential announced 110 new jobs this week]. Previously, things had worked well but as we got bigger, we had to streamline our processes – it touched a lot of different points, from release management to incident management to change management. It had a deep dive across the whole company.

It wasn’t just the technology area, it was across whole company to make sure we were aligned in our processes. The ITIL framework fitted what we were doing already. It was more a realignment of what we were doing, so it wasn’t a huge change.

How much of your role is purely technically focused, and how much has a business-facing aspect?

We’re a very customer-focused organisation: the customer really drives our business. How that feeds into the technical side is, we see our technical ability as one of the key differentiators. We feel the way we deliver software, technically, is a key advantage.

I think it’s unique enough within companies I’ve worked in. Everybody is very much focused on the customer and is aware of what we’re driving towards and everybody pitches in.

Where does that culture spring from?

In fairness to Sean Fitzgerald, the CEO, it’s driven from the top down. The key thing is, everyone’s involved. It’s not that the technical people are stuck in a room and never get to meet customers: [instead], it gives great context to what they’re doing. They’re very much aware of what’s going on.

Has your own role changed over time in that respect, and do you expect it will in the future?

I think my role, specifically, has always been very customer-focused. You always have to be aware of the business and commercial side. The role I’m in works quite well because I straddle both worlds. It’s not like the business side is asking the technology side to deliver and that message is passed along; it’s that I understand what customers want … When you’re out with a customer, they’re telling you about pain points. You get to grips with how customers use the system. It gives you a real-life focus, and that translates back to when working on the technical issues, and what we’re trying to do.

How will you prepare for that? Have you always had a commercial mindset, or are you having to get to grips with a new side of the job?

It’s interesting, I’ve looked at MBAs previously. It’s a bit of a running joke internally: you get exposed to such a variation of different things in Sentenial that you’re really kind of living it, so to speak.

Sentenial has doubled in size over the past 18 months – is it possible to plan for that kind of aggressive growth from an IT perspective, or do you find yourself having to react to it and solve a lot of problems on the fly?

I suppose it was a mixture of both. It’s always a difficult thing to do. Vendors or partners are always looking for facts, we try to ensure we’re as flexible and reactive as we can.

The key thing for us is to be able to react and grow as the business grows. It’s key with our vendors: we’re always quite open with them – three or six months from now, we might have a different set of issues to work on.

Do you have to choose vendors with that in mind?

Yeah, that’s a massive thing when we look at vendors. We look particularly at guys who are very responsive and reactive, who can turn things around quickly. That’s a key indicator for us in a vendor we want to work with.

How do you test that responsiveness in practice?

The first stage is, we meet them on a regular basis before selecting and get a sense of how quickly they can meet requirements we throw at them – even in terms of pricing and quotes. It gives us an indication of how quickly they can turn around for us. And we talk to the customers, similar to ourselves: have they gone through rapid growth, and has the vendor gone with them?

What keeps you awake at night?

I was going to say my three kids! In terms of big growth, it can be stressful: it’s very busy, but I look at it positively – you could be working at a company that’s static. It can be stressful but it’s rewarding because you’re growing something, it’s unique in the growth we’re going through. And we’re dealing with mission-critical financial payments – the guys take great pride that that’s working.

What kind of pressure is it to know that you have big blue-chip banks and financial institutions relying on your systems?

It’s a unique situation because a lot of banks haven’t gone with a SaaS provider before. The two industries that haven’t really moved [to cloud or as-a-service] are the banking and healthcare industries. We know for a fact that in our case it’s the first time a customer has gone to a SaaS provider and the fact that they’ve gone to ourselves it’s a big thing for us. There are some top banks across world that are selecting us. That’s a big deal and it’s something we take a lot of pride in.

There’s been a big trend towards automation in IT, and making things easier to manage because there’s so much potential for complexity – how true is this for Sentenial’s IT infrastructure?

There’s a thing called DevOps [software development method], all around automation and that’s a big driver for us. We use tools like Puppet and a lot of virtualisation. We’re all about controlling and configuration. We’ve quite a small team for what we do, so wherever we can automate, we do.

How close is Sentenial’s IT to its ideal state, in your opinion, or is that goal a moving target?

Given the growth, it’s always a moving target. We monitor everything and we have KPIs, but technology’s always changing. You always have to be looking at new technologies and new trends, and adapting your infrastructure as needs fit, because it doesn’t stand still.

You’ve obviously embraced the outsourcing model wholeheartedly – what are the benefits of this approach, for you: is it just about improving your cost position, or is flexibility and agility more important?

Look, cost is a factor but it definitely is the flexibility and the agility. They [the outsourcing providers] are kind of an extension of our team. We can rely on Telecity as an extension of our NOC. The fact we can rely on them, and have done for seven or eight years, it’s a model that’s worked very well.

We look to vendors who can work hand in hand and deliver a better service to our customers. I don’t think we could do it all on our own.

What’s your view of IT vendors: is it a case of ‘this guy’s just looking to sell me something’, or have you been able to find true business partners who bring something extra to the table?

My default position is that they’re just trying to sell me something [laughs], but we look to bring our vendors in and we use them as a selling point to our customers. To go back to Telecity, we’ve used them in the past to show how we run our operations.

So it’s not just Sentential but we’re backed by other vendors providing additional firepower or bandwidth in terms of resourcing to ensure we deliver services. It’s been key in convincing customers to use our platform.

Were backed by the likes of Telecity and Dell – we’re backed by some of the bigger players here. We’re backed by Red Hat, in the ISV programme.

What’s next: are there any new projects planned, or with the February 2014 SEPA deadline is it more a case of ‘steady as she goes’?

That’s the funny thing about Sentenial: we’re very ambitious as a company, and we’re already in the phase of planning post-migration so it’s very interesting in that regard.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic