The five minute CIO: Niall Kelly

22 Jun 2012

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Niall Kelly, chief technical officer of Netwatch

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The latest in a series of exclusive interviews on Siliconrepublic.com, where IT leaders share their thoughts on technology trends and strategy. This week, we talk to Niall Kelly, chief technical officer of Netwatch.

Kelly co-founded the Carlow-based security company in 2003 with David Walsh and last week was named 2012 CIO of the Year by the Boston Business Journal and Mass High Tech. In his role he also oversees the company’s R&D efforts.

Can you give some sense of the scale of the IT operations you look after?

We’ve four geographical offices – Middle East, USA, UK and Ireland. And then we also have our own mini data centre here in a VMware environment. We’ve 2,200 connections to customer sites, monitoring about 20,000 cameras. We obviously have to be self-sufficient in terms of redundancy and backup. It’s a critical network.

As well as being CIO, you’re also responsible for the research and development department of Netwatch – which role takes up more of your time?

As we mature as a company, research and development has become extremely important to us. Having a strong, effective R&D department is a service both to the company and to our clients. It’s to help us scale and it’s probably 40pc of what I do at the moment.

Moving to a virtual (VMware) environment has changed things for us here in terms of redundancy and in terms of uptime. As that area has improved, and as advancements have come along, certainly its allowed me to be more strategic and work on projects that make a business difference to clients.

For your CIO duties, do you see your role primarily as a technical one, or a business one?

My background is electrical engineering, and then I moved into IT. I’m lucky in that respect; I have a hardware and software aspect. I’ve since had to learn the sales end of it from working with David (Walsh, Netwatch Group CEO and co-founder).

I think whatever we do from a technological point of view, it has to be outward-facing: how will it affect the bottom line and will it help grow our business? Obviously the ‘housekeeping’ side of IT has to be done right. Certainly, we see in the likes of the States, clients expect you to have highest level of technology and be at the forefront.

What’s the advantage of having IT contribute at the board level instead of reporting through the finance department?

Of course there is an advantage. With every strategic business decision, suddenly there is a discussion in relation to how IT contributes to that strategy. If it’s a decision to offer a new product or service, it’s not taken in isolation. It’s about what’s available now from an IT perspective.

Absolutely, to be there at the top table – and not many IT managers or CIOs have that luxury – is great. Even traditional businesses are now realising that IT has to move up the ladder.

What can IT departments do to get to this level in more organisations?

I’d encourage IT professionals to become better versed in business development, and to interface with aspects of the business such as sales. It’s something IT people tend not to do well. They need to become more rounded.

And that’s not just how they act internally. IT people in general tend to steer clear of the customer and their requirements. The people who work on my team have been out there with the clients, asking what they want next. We would insist on that ourselves.

What’s the benefit of this approach?

It has changed our business. Our investment in research and development has come directly from requirements that our customers have had.

What technology trends are of most interest to you personally and to your own organisation?

I’d say virtualisation has changed our business. I personally am interested in mobile networking (and) whatever’s coming down the tracks to make the implementation of our system easier and better for our clients.

Our research and development is aimed at automatic video processing and video recognition. We’ve brought in talents that have worked not in security but from a pharma background, and they have talents in video processing and machine vision that will make our product better, faster and cheaper for customers.

What’s your opinion of cloud computing?

From our clients’ perspective, if you think about the cloud, when I started looking at video security a server on a client’s side to store a month’s worth of video was probably €7,000 or €8,000. The requirement to store video on the customer’s site now is less and less.

We need to keep our capacity here in our own data centre but we need disaster recovery that is virtual. For things like long-term storage of images, where it can be proven that it can be secure, we’ll look at some cloud services.

Do you anticipate your own role will change if you plan to outsource more IT services to the cloud, and if so, in what way?

I think the challenge for me personally from a strategic decision-making process is to be as knowledgeable as I can and have the information at my fingertips so I can contribute effectively at board level.

Bring your own device to work: a logistical nightmare or a trend to be embraced?

A security nightmare. Given the nature of the data we’re protecting, I could see it as being a problem. I could see that certain roles, for example sales, are very mobile and if people have a preference for using certain types of devices, and if that helps them creatively and helps them achieve more, that would be fine. But in mission-critical roles I would be more cautious about rolling out BYOD and I think clients would be, too.

Given Netwatch’s core business, how important is security in your IT plans – how much of your IT budget is allocated to it?

It obviously is a critical area for us. We run a large network with a lot of tentacles, so to speak. It’s got to be rock solid. Our service really does have to be secure. We probably spend 7-10pc (of our annual IT budget) on security-related hardware, software and services.

We’re currently engaging an external network penetration company to test our systems. Not a lot of companies would be doing that. Given that we’re physically protecting assets and infrastructure, we have to do the same with our IT systems. We need to make sure that all the doors are closed.

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