Eamon Leonard serves as standard-bearer for Ireland’s software community

12 Mar 2013

Eamon Leonard, technology entrepreneur and software developer, receives the Irish Internet Association's Net Visionary Award

Talk to anybody in the software industry in Ireland or anywhere else in the technology industry globally and they will tell you that good software developers are as rare as hen’s teeth. In Ireland, there are an estimated 5,000 current vacancies. And already since the start of the year more than 1,400 new technology jobs have been created in companies ranging from FireEye to HubSpot, Facebook and eBay, to name a few.

But if Dublin technology entrepreneur and software developer Eamon Leonard has his way, Ireland could one day be home to one of the most powerful communities of software developers on the planet.

Leonard epitomises not only the kind of success that can be enjoyed by someone who embarks on a career in software, but proves that Ireland as much as anywhere else in the world can produce world-beating software.

Two years ago, San Francisco, California-based cloud software company Engine Yard acquired Orchestra, a company Leonard co-founded with David Coallier and Helgi Þorbjörnsson, for an undisclosed sum. Thousands of companies in more than 40 countries, from explosive-growth web start-ups to Fortune 500 enterprises, rely on Engine Yard for agile technology deployment via the cloud. Orchestra had been in business for only a few months at the time of the acquisition.

Within months of the deal, Engine Yard announced plans to locate 30 core development jobs in Dublin at a 6,000 sq-foot operation.

As the operation serves as an engineering engine for Engine Yard, Leonard is also putting it to good use as a community hub for software experts from around Ireland and Europe to share their knowledge about important software languages, like Node.js, PHP, Python and Ruby on Rails, to name a few. He also runs a Pub Standard event in Dublin, where 160 software experts congregate to geek out.

Lessons from freelance

What astonished many people when Engine Yard bought Orchestra was the fact Orchestra was just a few months old and its founders managed to avoid the endless flow of funding rounds.

“I quit my last real-paying job in 2007 and went freelance,” Leonard recalled. “I had been working for a web agency and didn’t feel fulfilled. I suppose it was because I was also approaching 30 and while I hadn’t exactly wasted my 20s, I didn’t want to feel the same way about my 30s when I hit 40.

“I went freelance and entered a whole world of pain and learning that I wasn’t ready for financially or in terms of the skills I had.”

He soldiered on and about a year and a half into his odyssey as a freelance software developer, a mutual friend on Twitter introduced him to David Coallier, a Canadian who had a romantic notion about living Ireland because his grandparents were Irish, and wanted to live here.

“I met David for a pint and about halfway through our conversation I said, ‘Do you want to start a company?’

“So within weeks David moved to Ireland and began living in Cork and we started up a consultancy called Echolibre. We started off as general web developers for hire and realised very quickly that we only wanted to work exclusively with start-ups and over two and a half years we helped 30 different start-ups in Ireland and abroad. We learned a lot in that process, particularly from the mistakes that these guys were making and we had an opportunity to hone our skills when it came to developing products and turning something from a concept into a reality.”

After two and a half years, Leonard and Coallier were itching to start making products of their own and that’s when Iceland native Helgi Þorbjörnsson came on board.

“We always wanted to do a product but we never had the money to do so and we used consulting as a means to an end – good old-fashioned boostrapping.”

Among the products that came close to being a success was a URL shortener called Short.ie that was quite popular among Ireland’s Twitter community. The team abandoned the product when a US rival called Bitly raised US$2m and they felt they could not compete.

“We went back to consulting and tried a few more ideas out. We realised from our work that with every job we were repeating a lot of the same tasks when it came to infrastructure and maintenance of web and system admin projects. We looked around and saw a couple of companies had found ways of minimising these painful tasks and one of these companies was Engine Yard.

“Engine Yard was using a software language called Ruby to do these tasks and we realised that no one was doing it in the PHP language, which was used in a lot of the projects we were working on and so we spotted a gap in the market.”

The birth of Orchestra

In spotting the gap in the market in early 2011, Orchestra was born. Up until that point the company was totally bootstrapped by freelance jobs and negotiations had begun with venture capital players about potential investment.

But within months of Orchestra being formed, the company became an acquisition target for Engine Yard.

“They came over to us a couple of times and then the CEO came and met me. I got married at the end of July that year and just a week after I came back from honeymoon the deal was signed.”

As far as Leonard is concerned, Orchestra’s rapid success was down to the quality of the team and their ability to spot opportunities and carefully but rapidly plug the gaps.

“The one thing I got out of this is that if I can do this here, there is no reason why another team of smart, passionate geeks from Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland can’t do it, too.

“The reason Engine Yard bought us was they wanted to get into the PHP community that we had built our products for, they wanted to expand into Europe and saw Dublin as an excellent base for that and finally, we’re just a bunch of nice guys so, of course, why wouldn’t they?”

Just two months after Engine Yard acquired Orchestra, Leonard was driving home from Dublin Airport after a long-haul flight from San Francisco. “I heard the news announcer say something about 30 jobs being created by a San Francisco software company and it didn’t dawn on me until the next sentence that she was talking about us. That just blew my mind.”

Leonard says half of the roles announced have so far been filled. “You need to take time to find the right people and that goes hand-in-hand with our growth rates and strategy.”

The start-up ecosystem

I ask Leonard, who now leads the engineering teams at Engine Yard, how he felt about avoiding the endless funding rounds and export strategies that are the bane of most tech start-ups’ existence.

“Every company’s journey is different. The main thing about the start, fail and start-again journey is that even where companies have failed, the employees go on to start new companies that can be a success or failure. But either way the ecosystem is constantly being enriched. If it didn’t happen this way the entire ecosystem wouldn’t work.”

In recent months, Leonard was awarded the Irish Internet Association’s Net Visionary Award for being a ‘standard bearer’ for the software community in Ireland.

I ask him does he think he has blazed a path for a new generation of Irish software start-ups to follow?

“I think it’s important to nurture a community. We use our space at Engine Yard to facilitate at least eight different software meet-ups a month and we give them beer and pizza and introduce them to world experts via video links.

“All of this has an enriching effect on the community. If I have a vision for the Irish software developer community, it is to break down all the different segments into one homogenised community and be the best community of developers in the world.”

He points to a new trend among IDA-backed internet companies coming to Ireland to not just establish business operations in the country but also to bring engineering groups with them.

“I think Facebook and Google are great, but its companies like Dropbox, HubSpot and Engine Yard that are the interesting ones. These are the interesting ones because they want to make Ireland a part of their story.

“Google was already a success before it came to Ireland, and Facebook and Twitter were, too. Whereas the new generation of companies that only recently were start-ups themselves are looking to grow and make Ireland a part of their growth story from a product development perspective and that is compelling to me.”

Leonard says this is not the dark time most Irish people consider it to be.

“There has never been a better time for Ireland from a technology perspective. There has never been a better time to be a company founder, entrepreneur or technical or creative person.

“Yet it breaks my heart to see people having to leave the country at such a pivotal time.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 10 March

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years