Leaders’ Insights: Dermot Costello, Qualtrics

14 Jan 2016

Dermot Costello is the managing director of Qualtrics Ireland.

Qualtrics is one of the world’s leading insight technology providers, serving more than 8,000 customers across more than 90 countries, and it has its EMEA headquarters in Dublin.

The Qualtrics platform is used by enterprises, academic institutions and government agencies to collect, analyse and act on feedback from customers.

With clients in the telecoms, healthcare, financial services, retail, travel, consumer goods, technology and manufacturing industries, Qualtrics has 1bn surveys distributed annually.

The company, which was founded in Utah in 2002, is one of the fastest-growing tech companies in the US. Counted among its clients are Kellogg’s, Stanford University, Yankee Candle, HP and Cisco.

Last year, it announced that it was planning to create 100 new jobs at its Dublin office by the end of 2016, an increase that would see the number of staff based in its Dublin office jump to 250.

Prior to taking up his role at Qualtrics, Costello held senior positions at Idera Software and BMC Software.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role focuses on building Qualtrics’ business across Europe by ensuring our customers and prospects continue to get valuable and actionable insights when they use our platform. This involves bringing Qualtrics’ insight technology to the European market. We are an authority in the field of online research and we have a range of exciting, game-changing solutions for businesses looking for a better way to obtain and analyse customer, market and employee insights.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I try to not get caught up in non-productive work, like email. I check my email twice a day, so I can minimise distractions.

As managing director of Qualtrics in Ireland I have two areas that I prioritise: firstly, I want to ensure that our existing customers are driving great value from our enterprise survey platform and, secondly, that that we acquire new customers throughout Europe. My ability to do this is possible because I have a fantastic team working with me who are really customer dedicated, so I can focus on helping them and our customers.

We also use a balance scorecard, a widely-used strategic planning and management system, to get the customer perspective on our business. This helps us to organise our business around the customer’s needs. When we have lots of new enthusiastic customers we know we are going in the right direction.

‘I check my email twice a day, so I can minimise distractions’

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Qualtrics is a company experiencing hyper-growth and this can create challenges – challenges that every company wants! In the space of two years, we have gone from four to 140 staff at our EU headquarters in Dublin. This creates some challenges, for example, trying to maintain our company culture as we scale at pace. Furthermore, as there is somewhat of a talent war for the best and brightest in tech in Ireland at the moment, for us, getting the culture of the organisation right has played a big part in our ability to recruit the best in the industry.

What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?

There are lots of opportunities, but for us the key opportunities lie in three main areas: understanding our customers better, engaging our employees and investing in fast data rather than big data.

To understand our customers better we run an internal customer experience programme. This is done using our voice-of-the-customer technology called Vocalise. This product gives us the information needed to make smarter decisions, engage our customers and, most importantly, keep them happy.

Employee engagement is not a new idea – we’ve all seen a suggestion box somewhere at one stage or another – but what has changed is the introduction of technology and how this information is gathered and analysed; sometimes in real time. At Qualtrics, we believe in leading by example, so we involve our staff in the company’s future by running ongoing employee engagement programmes. We run these programmes using Qualtrics’ employee insight and 360 products. Essentially, we allow for full feedback from everyone and, most importantly, we take action based on that feedback.

We have found synergies and fantastic business opportunities when we connect our customer experience and employee engagement programmes.

As a company, we capitalise on fast and relevant data, rather than big data. Businesses have been collecting data from customers for years but many are unsure how they should unlock the value of that data, and by the time they figure it out the data is old and less relevant. We look at providing fast data that our customers use to make better business decisions in a more timely manner.

‘Getting the culture of the organisation right has played a big part in our ability to recruit the best in the industry’

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

As a company, our founder Scott Smith, an academic researcher, was looking for a robust online market research solution, but when he couldn’t find anything good enough he created Qualtrics. Then together with his son they took Qualtrics to the academic market. The company developed over time to the point where 99 out of the top 100 business schools in the US are now using Qualtrics.

As regards my own personal journey, I have worked in the tech industry since 1988. I started at the bottom and worked my way up, through logistics, marketing and sales. If I was to go back even further I would have to credit my first interest in tech to a micro computer from Texas Instruments that I owned in 1982. Using it I learned to program in Basic and this really opened my eyes to what technology can do and how it can transform things.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I left school and went straight to work. I then spent 10 years studying at night and building up my qualifications, which was tough on my family.

So, my advice would be to get the degree first and then get a job. Don’t be in a rush. However, having said that, I got more value from the business course I was studying because I had that real-life experience behind me.

How do you get the best out of your team?

We work in a knowledge economy, so rather than telling people what to think we remove obstacles and let people tackle difficult challenges themselves. An important part of this is mentoring and development. As a leadership team we use our own employee 360 software to manage and develop Qualtrics staff, so we work in a highly transparent environment where everyone, including our managers, set their goals for the week ahead and anyone in the company can see what those goals are and how things are progressing; they can suggest a better approach to a business problem and offer to help a colleague if they feel they can add value.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

An interest in science and maths takes time to cultivate. I believe that the problem starts at second level, where there is not enough emphasis on diversity of gender and ability. If students fall behind even for a short period these subjects become daunting and the knowledge gap widens.

For this reason, I, personally, spend a lot of time with my kids working on maths and science, to give them a good start and solid foundation in these subjects. I believe that parents should encourage their children in these areas and where possible instil a love of STEM subjects in them.

‘My advice would be to get the degree first and then get a job’

Who is your business hero and why?

My business hero is not a business hero in the conventional sense because it’s actually the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton. For me, what Shackleton did as leader of the Endurance team was inspirational. Considering all the challenges they faced and overcame, to bring the team home with no losses was an incredible achievement.

Shackleton managed this because he had the right mix of deeply caring for people and the prowess to lead and stay focused on the mission at hand.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

A favourite of mine is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The message is that if you know the ‘what’ then the ‘how’ is easy. Viktor developed logotherapy, man’s search for meaning, which is an alternative to psychotherapy. Essentially, when we find true meaning we are happier and more fulfilled.

Other great reads that I would recommend include:

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

My mobile phone, Google calendar and a notebook.

I am a firm believer in not being a slave to email. As mentioned, I restrict checking my inbox to twice a day. I also do not use a desk phone as I am on the move all day.

Reading is an important resource and, when I’m at home, I like to take the time to relax with a good book or interesting article.

How you use your downtime is also important to getting the most from your working week. My passion is out on the open sea: I am a keen sailor and a photography enthusiast.