Learning by doing has given Vision-net.ie’s IT and development manager Richard Mangan a greater understanding of the business and where IT can innovate for the company’s customers. He explains why he sees only benefits from moving to the public cloud and outlines his outsourcing as an SME.
Can you describe your own day-to-day role with Vision-net?
My day begins before I even get out of bed. I quickly review our monitoring systems on my smartphone to make sure that no errors have happened overnight. Once I’m in the office, our IT team shares the task of checking that all of our daily data imports have worked successfully, rectifying any issues as required. Once that is completed, I check with the developers to see how they are getting on with their current tasks, and assist and advise as required.
Software development is the main part of what we do: there are four developers so it’s a pretty small team overall. We’re mostly developers but we do a bit of work on the servers and keeping things running.
After that, the day can vary widely. It can include anything from high-level planning with the managing director [Christine Cullen], designing new features and services for our websites, code reviews, discussions with external partners, or implementing special once-off tasks for customers. I even manage to do a little bit of coding myself every so often, which I enjoy.
So you’re clearly from the technical side but you’re also very involved at a senior business level. How have you found bridging those two disciplines?
It’s a good point to focus on. It’s important these days, and IT managers have to be part of that. A lot of new product and service features we develop come from ideas from the IT department. The managing director might have goals and we come up with some ideas to help customers get more insight into the information they want to buy.
How important is IT to Vision-net – is it just the thing that keeps the lights on, or is there an appreciation that it can do a lot more than that?
Our business is 100pc IT focused. If our systems went down, there would be no income: it’s as simple as that. Thousands of users log in every day, and for many of them, using our website for KYC [know your customer, the due diligence process for financial institutions] and other checks is a core part of their day. Without a solid IT department and quality developers, we can’t continue to innovate and meet our customer expectations.
How would you describe the IT infrastructure at Vision-net: have you got it to the level you think it needs to be, or if there’s room for improvement, where will that come from?
I would describe our current infrastructure as solid. We currently have a private cloud for our server infrastructure. Each and every part has been built with failover in mind. However, I believe we could achieve more if we used a public cloud provider. The reliability and planning which you get out-of-the-box from the large cloud providers would take an SME months to develop themselves.
Do you handle all IT internally or do you work with external partners?
We manage all of our internal servers ourselves, and do all of our development in-house. We use external partners to help us with areas that require specific expertise.
How do you decide what stays in-house and what gets outsourced?
I think the benefit of outsourcing is when you don’t have the expertise in house and for things like patching and managing servers, or Linux and so on, there are better specialists than ourselves trying to learn it from scratch. We outsource to Version 1.
Security is the exact same reason: we wouldn’t have the specialist knowledge that an outsider would have. My belief is that’s the best reason to outsource: not for money but speciality knowledge … it is all about improving your expertise without having to hire tons of people.
How would you describe your approach to IT: is it just a cost to be managed sensibly, or can it deliver real value and innovation to the business?
IT is intrinsic to our business. It’s what we are about, so it must be embraced and constantly focused to get the most from it.
Where is that focus aimed: what are the big challenges in your business and how is IT helping to address them?
One of the main business challenges is staying ahead of the curve and trying to meet customer needs at all time. Lately, we have more competitors in the market so we have to focus on innovating and trying to come out with better features than they can. We’ve no income if our websites aren’t up and running and being used by people. Without IT, the business basically doesn’t exist.
I guess the biggest challenge to our business is to keep ahead of the curve in anticipating our market demands and providing customer-focused solutions. That in itself comes back to IT, as in order to continue to deliver reports and analytics we need to be aware of what tools are out there and be early adopters of new technology. We operate in what has become a very discerning market; we find you have to not only meet customer demands but you need to continually exceed them.
The role of IT manager/CIO is changing from a pure technical focus to being more commercially savvy – how have you found this working in practice?
It’s a very true statement. As time goes by, customers begin to expect more from our services. In these times the customer is king, and we have to endeavour to provide all of the services they require. So the IT manager needs to help find the most suitable solutions so that we can add new features, fast.
For example, if the MD has a business intelligence question which we can answer, then we aim to provide the answer, plus some extra information to help guide her decisions. We know the database, and the MD knows the business. Over time, we learn what is important to the business so that we can suggest improvements to the MD. We can sometimes see potential links between new data sources which could help to expand and improve a credit report.
Is your IT budget larger, smaller, or the same as last year, and how is that affecting your priorities?
We’re an SME, [so] financial constraints on the IT department can be tight. But we have managed to increase our budget to expand our team, and increase our expertise.
Are there any major business and IT projects that you’re planning, and what impact are they expected to have?
We are about to begin detailed planning and consultation for a move from private cloud to public cloud. This should allow us to see increased resilience, higher performance and quicker scalability.
We’re never short of ideas: the challenge can sometimes be prioritising them. But being an SME means we can quickly change priorities based on commercial need.
There’s still a lot of scepticism around public cloud right now, for a variety of reasons. Yet you seem to be pushing towards it when a lot of IT professionals are resisting the idea. Why do you think that is?
Maybe I haven’t put my toe in the water deep enough to find out! Version 1 has recommended we move to public cloud … The main thing that’s driving my thinking is that building reliable infrastructure from scratch yourself to the quality that you can achieve out of the box from Amazon AWS takes a lot of effort. These guys are bigger than us, have more expertise in house and can build large-scale reliable infrastructure.
Much of your business is based around information: is big data an area you’re looking at closely, or do you think it’s still very much at the hype stage?
I wouldn’t go as far as calling it hype, but big data has its place. VisionNet currently combines data from about 30 different sources, intelligently links it together and displays this information in one portal for our customers. Our relational database easily has the capacity to handle these types of queries on 530,000 companies.
We have just released a Save-To-Cloud feature so that customers can save credit reports which they have purchased, and view them at a later date. This gives them more insight into changes which have occurred over time. This is our first use of a big data-capable NoSQL database and it looks promising. It’s just a matter of time before new solutions are developed using these technologies – not just in our business.
What’s your view of some of the other main technology trends right now, such as cloud computing or ‘bring your own device’?
In my opinion, the goals of cloud computing are reliability and performance. You get immediate benefits of a well thought-out data centre, with all of the built-in failover systems without having to develop them yourself. If you can manage to drive down the cost then that is a nice side benefit, but it should not necessarily be the goal.
Bring your own device is not something of huge concern to ourselves. Our employees are mostly based in the office, with their own desk and PC. Our CRM system is web-based, meaning it can already be accessed from any modern device, which is important when the sales team is on the road. In fact, we don’t have any applications which tie us to the office.
Given the often sensitive nature of financial information you deal with, how big a concern is data security for you – how much of your IT budget gets allocated to it?
Our customers’ information is of paramount importance to us. We use an external security specialist to help with our security systems. We have so much code developed in-house, [so] peer code reviews are part and parcel of our developers’ day.