Danú Technologies’ CEO Niall Halpenny cut his teeth at the sharp end of the telecoms industry but he made a conscious decision to move from a technical role to a business-focused one, and has since been involved in the financial modelling and investor management of several major transactions in areas such as outsourcing, business unit disposal and new start-up. He reveals how this has helped shift his thinking.
First of all, can you explain your background – you’re CEO but you have a very strong grounding in technology.
I had personally worked technically, I was working internationally all the time, at Ericsson in the Nineties … If I wanted to go full tilt, I knew I would have to go international or change function. I freelanced and went contract, with the view of getting up the ladder and getting more non-technical. I went up the solution architect role to get more into the business side of things.
I had applied to do an MBA; I was purposely going there. I came back to Ireland, and was doing a product manager technical role and I couldn’t concentrate on the MBA, so I changed role to be with the GSM Association, which could sometimes involve being on a plane twice a week. But it was about working with board-level members making decisions that were moving the needle. And it allowed me to see other functions, such as marketing, which I hadn’t been exposed to before.
The GSMA were very MBA-friendly. They liked the idea that I understood the technology and I was upskilling. In the GSMA, it was normal to have a very short career path there. It was a pseudo-academic institution: you learn a part of the industry and you jump off.
How did you arrive at the decision to study for an MBA?
I saw it from working broadly in Europe and beyond. It might be an Irish thing, but I found there was much more of an expectation of commercial acumen outside Ireland. It’s much more rounded, and it’s a more common path, say, in Sweden. Here, the attitude is more a case of ‘once a bus driver, always a bus driver’.
How big a leap is it to go from technology into learning a completely different subject? Can business acumen be learned, or does it have to be taught?
My view – on a sample of one – is that I would say 75pc of people would talk about it, but at best one in four will actually make the decision and put the necessary graft in there. Obviously, the MBA was a huge financial and time commitment so you wouldn’t just fall into it. Some US companies will sponsor you, and you might have a company that thinks this is what you should do.
The biggest single thing, I would say, is that when you’re dealing with technology, there’s usually a right answer: you have a lot more certainty. I would ask the question: can you take high levels of ambiguity – can you make the decisions where it might not work? Business is all about the uncertainty and there are people who don’t like that uncertainty. It’s a big barrier to moving to commercial roles because there are no guarantees.
Would a grounding in technology give you a different perspective on the CEO role?
I believe it would. Going through my career, I typically would try and build something and connect it to the commercial world. But with the MBA and under courses I’ve taken, where I would be meeting people from, say, an accounting background, you do come to the world with a different view. Accountants tend to be all about cost; the marketing guy is always a visionary …
What do you think is holding back technical people from crossing over?
Several key barriers, I think. You have to make a purposeful decision to go there. It’s not going to be easy. Talking to a customer, you can really develop your soft skills. Some people will be very happy to talk to their PCs and won’t want to hear hard news. You’re putting yourself out there and you have to be prepared not to be liked.
One thing that almost pushes you in the other direction is that you become expert in a system and that then is defunct. What if you want to jump off the treadmill and get on a different role?
Was it a help by going out and talking to customers – seeing what their issues were?
I don’t believe the fastest and most efficient way is just talking to people and customers. I believe you have to go back and learn the basic principles – the basic psychology, the selling skills. When you develop real empathy with a person – if the product doesn’t suit them, it has consequences, and it’s about having empathy.
I think it’s a maturity thing, as well. There’s no point in acquiring academic knowledge in soft skills; you have to practice them.
When you took on the CEO role at Danú, did you come to the job fully formed, or do you think you’re still learning as you go?
I absolutely believe I’m still learning. Around a year and a half into the job, I went on the Enterprise Ireland international selling programme. I had been involved in the sales process before, but it was still very RFQ driven – there was three years’ work in that course.
The software solutions we’re selling are smaller. I’ve had a huge learning curve in how to negotiate with the huge companies as they’re outsourcing. Ever since I’ve joined Danú, the changes in our big customers have been huge.
Your knowledge in the telecoms industry goes stale if you don’t use it all the time.
Where is Danú now, in terms of its development?
Just like every tech company, we’ve tried different things. Technology is about ‘fail fast and often’. We tried broadening our scope beyond telecoms, that didn’t work for us.
Currently, we have two products live with reference customers – these are new products we’ve developed ourselves. We have another product in test, to be signed off shortly. We have one solution now that we think will be the basis of a new product.
We hope to have a new product every 12 to 18 months that would have the potential to scale internationally. That’s one of our metrics: to have new products constantly, because we need them.
There are millions of events on a network every day. Operators didn’t have the ability to know what customer was that impacting and how did it affect them? Our flagship product is SayMetrics and it gives smart feedback: how to capture that information from customers when they contact the call centres, or they’re on the phone, or calling into shops.
Our second product is aimed up at the C-level. Say I’m a network launching a LTE service and my data traffic is doubling – but previously they would have asked 12 guys for answers. This is about getting detailed information and presenting it very simply.
It’s all about actionable data. When you action data, you inherently introduce risk; this is about being able to put a structure about it. If someone’s not going to put an action around it, it’s basically useless information.
The CFO needs to know: ‘am I spending my money and getting the biggest bang for my buck?’ These guys are busy. They need the information at their fingertips and most likely on a small screen these days.
This is probably something a lot of technical people find hard to grasp. They maybe only work on one project at a time. It’s about how that information gets presented: it has to be easy and in a usable format for the audience. A lot of people we speak with have very little technical knowledge. It has to be very intuitive, very fast and it has to be audited. They don’t want big spreadsheets.
Was there any one moment where you got this idea that it was all about the customer, or was it something that developed over time?
I’ll tell you where my ‘hallelujah’ moment was: in the late Nineties I was working in Belgium – Orange was working with KPN. There was a perceived wisdom that there was room for three players in UK [mobile] market. Then they came in and Orange won. When I was doing some implementations in Belgium, I was doing core network design and I met with the marketing people which I had never done before … They said ‘we need to make sure that whoever they talk to speaks French, Dutch, English or German’. That was a lightbulb moment for me.
All I knew was, ‘this is what networks do’. I saw the Orange machine … none of these things [it was doing] were technical innovations but they were really smart. The competitors were going on about ‘99pc coverage’, but they were missing the point: It was about the customer journey, and the technology was there to facilitate the journey.