Leaders’ Insights: Donal Byrne, Corvil

4 Feb 2016

Donal Byrne has been the CEO of Corvil since 2002.

Corvil is a real-time analytics company built for monitoring and safeguarding the world’s electronic trading networks.

A University College Dublin graduate, the Corvil CEO has more than 25 years’ experience in the fields of high-performance computer systems, network communications and real-time data analytics.

Prior to joining Corvil, which he first joined as a non-executive chairman in 2000, Byrne was the chief marketing officer of FirstMark Communications, an alternate broadband service provider in Europe. In 1996, Donal co-founded Berkeley Networks in Silicon Valley, which was acquired in 1998 by Fore Systems, a leader in internet switching.

Byrne is also a frequent speaker at industry events and he has numerous publications and patents in the field of high-performance computing and low-latency communication systems.

Describe your role and what you do.

My role is one of helping our team achieve our mission and vision by: making sure it is clear where we are headed; explaining what we need to do to get there, and ensuring that everyone is aligned to the mission.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I tend not to separate out work life from all other life activities. I don’t think of my work as work; I see it as a fascinating puzzle and I get excitement from working with like-minded people who are obsessed about the achievement of audacious goals and dreams. I tend not to unplug; I am always on. However, I do take care of my health. I work out at 6.30am each morning and will not deviate from the schedule irrespective of what happens in work. I find that life in Corvil is a “marathon of sprints”. You need to be disciplined and in good shape to maintain the intensity and pace required. Equally, the role requires high levels of agility, multitasking and responsiveness. There is no set routine and no set plan survives the day-to-day happenings of running and driving the business. With that said, I always have a prioritised list of things that need to be done each day and each week. My week is generally oriented around making sure these tasks are done and minimizing the amount of “unplanned” work and “friction” work.

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

Scaling the company. Our goal is to profitably grow the company each year. This means that you have to acquire new talent, build new products and enter new markets.

One needs to do these things, while making sure you keep the main business operating efficiently. The key to this is continuous innovation and a passion to be better. We are a technology company: if you are not innovating and looking to bring exciting new products and new capabilities to the market, then you are dying. You may not know it, because the numbers might still be good but, trust me, you are dying.

‘I don’t think of my work as work; I see it as a fascinating puzzle’

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

There are two major industry trends that we are capitalising on: big data analytics and algorithmic business.

Much has been written about these topics individually but few understand or have focused on the challenge of applying big data analytics to algorithmic business. Corvil has been working at the forefront of algorithmic business over the past several years and is the industry leader for the monitoring and analysis of algorithmic trading. Application of big data analytics to algorithmic businesses will be a critical requirement and opportunity going forward. Algorithmic business operates at “machine-time” i.e. actions and decisions are made by software running on powerful computers in the time frames of milliseconds and microseconds. Corvil is in a unique position as we have built the first machine-time big data analytics platform for continuous analysis of the applications and services used to deliver algorithmic business over modern digital infrastructure. This fulfills our vision for creating a safe and secure algorithmic business world. In this world, we see Corvil as “the machine that watches over the machines”.

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

In 2007, we received a call from the London Stock Exchange highlighting its urgent need for new technology that would help it monitor and assure the low-latency performance of its new electronic trading platform. This was when we were introduced to the fascinating new world of algorithmic business. The world of financial markets was being disrupted as businesses moved from traditional human-executed trading on the floors of large exchanges to algorithmic trading executed at high-frequency on super-fast computers. Today, the vast majority of trades are executed algorithmically. Recently, we estimated that Corvil monitors more than 90pc of the world’s exchange-traded instruments. The top 10 banks, as ranked by global trading revenue, all use Corvil.

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

My biggest mistake was hiring people who were the wrong cultural fit for our company and failing to correct it quickly. I made this mistake once with a senior hire. The person in question was a very strong and capable executive. However, they were a bad fit culturally and created major friction points throughout the company. I quickly learned that culture rules everything and you better have a clear understanding of what it is and what it means to every employee in the company. We realised this late in our development and today our culture is something we care about, protect and evolve purposefully. By communicating clearly to all what we believe, how we act, and what we believe to be important, you can greatly reduce the risk of hiring people who would be a poor match for Corvil.

‘My biggest mistake was hiring people who were the wrong cultural fit for our company and failing to correct it quickly’

How do you get the best out of your team?

This is something that I am always trying to improve. I have an important philosophy that helps us achieve this. I believe that we hire very smart, trustworthy people. Therefore, I should trust them with the same level of information that I possess in relation to our business. If they are smart and possess the same data that I have, one of two things happen: they will either come to the same conclusions that I have reached in relation to key decisions and strategy and it will be so much easier to get everyone on the same page and move quickly, or they will come to a different conclusion, in which case they may have discovered something I missed. That is even more valuable.

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?

This is a problem that is improving but there is still a long way to go. The problem is that we still don’t see the diversity in the student population of college STEM courses. When I did electronic engineering in UCD, less than 10pc of the students were female. While the situation has improved since, we continue to see STEM student populations dominated by males. In the tech sector, which I am more familiar with, we have many examples of exceptional female entrepreneurs and leaders but the numbers are low relative to the overall population. While I am sure there are things that can be improved at a board level, I believe the real answer lies in our education system, where we need to promote and make it more attractive for females to pursue a career in a STEM industry. I see initiatives like the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition as being a good example of things we need to promote more widely.

‘I believe the real answer lies in our education system, where we need to promote and make it more attractive for females to pursue a career in a STEM industry’

Who is your business hero and why?

I don’t really have a hero, per se. I have many people that I admire, respect, and draw inspiration from. I would highlight Ben Horowitz, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. They all have lived through the “struggle” and figured out a way to achieve success. They all have passion, and they all have inspirational perspectives and learnings.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

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