The five minute CIO: Paul Colgan

19 Oct 2012

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Paul Colgan, CTO with The Now Factory

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This week, Paul Colgan, CTO with The Now Factory, talks technology trends, and gives his thoughts on the eternal conflict between IT and business.

The Now Factory provides customer experience solutions to communication service providers in more than 25 countries, serving more than 500m customers. The company opened an Asia Pacific HQ in 2010 and reported record growth in 2011, when it also won the Irish Software Association’s ‘Irish Software Company of the Year’ award.

Describe your own role and responsibilities at The Now Factory?

My role is internal and externally focused. From an external point of view, it’s all around technology vision, and the benefits that The Now Factory can give to customers.

Internally, it’s all around what’s the right technology in order to deliver the product – if the product needs to do X, Y and Z, what is the best way to achieve that? I also run the product management side and technical architecture – both come under my remit.

What do you have to be mindful of when you’re making those technology choices?

Primarily given the current environment it’s around cost efficiency but because of where we work [in the mobile sector], it’s all about data explosion. For example, we had a choice with a piece of hardware between a FPGA [field programmable gate array] from Xilinx and off-the-shelf network processors.

So basically the choice was: I can develop a lot quicker and skills are more readily available for the network processors. FPGA was more expensive, more difficult to develop for and it was hard to get skill set in Ireland but we ended up going that route – and the reason was we knew the product was faster and was going to be able to run quicker so in the end the customer is going to get what they need.

To what extent do you have to balance the technical and business sides of the job?

That’s pretty much the reason why the product management function falls under me, which is pretty unusual. You’re looking at what features customers need, and also what cost and you can calculate the margin.

If my engineer’s hat is on, I’ll say: ‘let’s go there, it’s different and it’s new’. With my customer hat on, [the consideration is] can we get it to them when they want?

Which one tends to win out, in your experience?

Generally, we will always go with what the customer wants – we will choose whichever technology best fits and gives them what they need. With the FPGA solution, it was all about speed.

Other times, we’ve been thinking about something we were going to try and deliver. But the reality is, [that] technology won’t be ready for nine months. At the end of the day, if you’re not delivering what the customer wants, you’re not going to win.

It is a conflict and I did an MBA to try and get the other side of my head to try and think with a customer focus rather than just a technology focus.

We have a new products team and that’s our playground for engineering minds, and we come up with lots of things that end up on a customer’s site. So you still have to innovate and try new things before you decide what’s the best way.

Why did you decide to study for a business qualification?

I knew it was a weakness in my toolkit. I had to think that way because that’s the way my customers think. You also have to go in and pitch to the CEO and talk their language, to position your product in the language they understand.

In my class there were plenty of people with a tech background. Primarily, my focus was to try and understand my customers and put across the benefits of what we do.

So was it a way to change your own perspective and maybe escape the silo mentality that some technology people can fall into?

Definitely, absolutely. I meet a lot of my peers, we talk shop, and it’s a really common problem that you see out there. You can nearly see it from companies looking in – they’re too technology focused.

It depends, I suppose: if you’re talking internally, trying to convince your CEO, and they have a tech background that’s one thing. But if they come from a business background, you just can’t convince them.

A lot of times, you can see the IT guys sit in the corner and they’re largely isolated and it doesn’t being value to themselves or internally to the company. They could do so much more if they could convince stakeholders of what they can bring.

Some technical people seem happy to stay that way …

It can be quite rare to find someone in IT who has an interest, first and foremost, and has taken on that awareness of the business. In many ways because they don’t look at a business, they’re just into doing the IT stuff. Because I think they don’t necessarily look at what’s important to the business, they’re not delivering the value.

They could play such an important role. They could keep the engine going. It can be rare to get a customer-focused IT person – and that can be an internal focus or external focus – and in many ways they do themselves a disservice.

Should third-level computer science courses do more to foster this awareness of business?

Yes, definitely. They do try: I had to do an accountancy module in my degree for a year, and there’s an initiative in DCU and some other places, where they get students from computer applications and business and marketing and they try and set up a little company. I think that’s a great way of doing it because it’s real.

The level of interest in accountancy when studying – it’s something you just have to do to tick a box. But if you bring your IT skills to deliver for a customer, you get a real sense of what’s important.

That’s something that could really take off. It’s more exciting – if you’re running a little company and making a bit of money, it makes a lot more sense to them than six weeks of accountancy.

Returning to technology, what trends are you seeing that you think will make an impact?

Everyone’s going to mention cloud and big data. Cloud enables so many services and will be so handy for everything we do, and once it links back to your mobile, it will explode. It enables you to do so much.

Big data will be interesting – it will depend on whether people do it in-house or the cloud. I see a lot of failure in big data over the next couple of years.

Why?

Everyone is chasing it in exactly the same way, believing the promise of it. I think it’s over-promising and it hasn’t delivered yet. I think if you were to target an area for a disruptive solution, I think big data would be primed for it. It’s all built upon the same technology.

At the moment, everyone promises real-time with the cloud and it’s not going to happen. A lot of the banks in London moved their infrastructure to the cloud and took it back out again months later because of the latency.

Cloud is almost seen as a panacea to all our problems and I don’t think it will be. I think that’s where the learning will come over the next couple of years.

I think you’ll see NFC come through in next couple of years – you see it in France and US already. The mobile phone will become the centre for everything: it’s become a proxy for your identity, it’s going to become your wallet. It’s so rich and it can do so much. It’s going to give so many services and benefits that we haven’t thought about.