Friday May 29, 2020

The way back: how Ireland‘s tech scene adapted to a new normal

After the shock of sending everyone home, Irish businesses have had to learn how to get back to normal. Emmet Ryan spoke to some of those that have been helping companies get back on track

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent

10th May, 2020
Irish businesses have had to learn how to get back to normal

Paddy Byrne looks ready to make a sale when he answers a Zoom call from his Carlow office. The managing director of the security company Xenon is standing beside a stand with a screen on it that may look unexciting, but which is actually a device that‘s in high demand among clients around the world.

It‘s a fever defence camera that can tell the temperature of anyone entering an office or factory, and it’s something that Byrne started working on in January. To test it, he used a jug of boiling water to warm up his face until the camera detected his temperature going above safe levels.

As a testing regime, it‘s a little unorthodox. “But these are very strange times,” he told Connected, before going on to explain how the device works.

“It has a thermal imaging camera and facial detection camera combined with a display screen,” said Byrne. “When you step in front of the unit it automatically detects someone is there. It then asks you to step into the facial detection zone and carries out a facial temperature scan.”

The impressive demo is how Byrne has been selling the device worldwide to clients who want to be ready to re-open as soon as possible, as well as those who need to be able to monitor the health of staff while they remain operational as restrictions continue.

The device is deliberately not touchscreen-enabled, nor does it connect to the internet in order to protect the personal privacy of those being tested.

“It isn’t a medical device,” Byrne said. “It’s a piece of PPE that is used in combination with the other best practices that are being put in place as we start to see places reopen.”

Online collaboration

While companies await the chance to reopen, they are getting used to the new normal. Plenty of businesses were used to having some people work from home some of the time, but few anticipated a situation where everyone would be at home all of the time.

The result has been a boom period for online collaboration tools, with Zoom, WebEx and Microsoft Teams all exploding in popularity.

“The growth of Teams has been significant. There was one period around the middle of March where 12 million new users came onboard worldwide. More broadly than the video and conferencing capability, it’s the collaboration tools that people are looking for,” said Kieran McCorry, national technology officer with Microsoft.

The rate of growth in video calls alone on the platform was 1,000 per cent in March. It allows some semblance of normality in terms of interpersonal relationships, though McCorry said bosses must recognise that that it isn‘t the same, and act accordingly.

“You can’t completely recreate the working environment you had in the office. There is an intense connection in remote video calls and there’s a tendency for companies to schedule meetings tightly,” he said.

“Be respectful of people’s time. Try not to schedule for 60 minutes, go for 45 minutes so people get breathing space. People need time to think and reflect on what’s happened.”

McCorry is curious as to what will come after the crisis ends and what it will mean for conventional working.

“We’re seeing more people use these tools on mobile, taking calls while going for a walk. You don’t have to be at your desk and it‘s going to be interesting to see if that continues beyond Covid-19,” he said.

Eileen O’Mara, lead in revenue and growth EMEA at Stripe Picture: Conor McCabe

For businesses in retail and manufacturing, there was an extra crisis to deal with – working out how to keep supplies moving. Once the initial shock wore off, the reality of the challenge made finding a way to address logistics a matter of urgency.

“When it all kicked off, it was a novelty. As the weeks have passed, people have realised this is going to go on for some time,” said Jason Ward, general manager Ireland at Dell Technologies.

Ward has seen a lot of demand from clients to get hardware and software out to the homes of staff as they weren’t in a position to enable employees to work remotely. Through that, the supply chain issues facing those businesses also became obvious.

“We’ve got manufacturing facilities globally, so we’ve provided support and advice around that on things like negotiating with vendors about components and how quickly they can be moved. There’s a lot of political navigation with supply chain challenges,” said Ward. “Having routes to enable that supply chain has been critical for a lot of companies.”

Even those businesses without major supply chain concerns have had a lot to cope with over the past two months, with the first fortnight being particularly difficult.

“People realised they had existential issues with their business models,” said John Mitchell, chief executive of Strata3, a web design and development business.

“We’re knee-deep in keeping the lights on for a lot of our clients at the moment. Typically, we had built a normal digital strategy and design into the execution process. Now, there’s no time for that.”

Strata3 had to change its own rollout model to meet the needs of clients that had entered crisis mode.

“We have a process called Ignite, which is a four-week acceleration programme. Fáilte Ireland contacted us needing a communications support hub. They needed to consolidate training, government support and all crisis management into one content hub,” Mitchell said. “We used Ignite to rapidly deploy it in two weeks.”

Mitchell’s business is working with public transport companies to implement tools that will enable management of social distancing as restrictions begin to ease. Staff from the company also volunteered to create a virtual Darkness into Light event for the charity Pieta House.

“We’re seeing activity in the insurance sector as well. Its natural broker model was based around physical interaction. They can all use Zoom and Teams, but they want to reimagine their sales and case management processes, looking at how you can overlay digital tools with that,” said Mitchell.

Keeping the lights on

For some businesses, the sudden jump to having to sell online hasn‘t been particularly comfortable. Eileen O’Mara, lead in revenue and growth EMEA at Stripe, said it was critical that tech companies helped ease the concerns of those making the leap.

“It’s a big change,” she said. “For a lot of them, every day is like Black Friday now. It‘s a new era for them.”

The challenge for most is in just keeping the lights on. But sectors that have seen unexpected explosions in demand also need help to scale up quickly.

“We have a client in Britain, for example, that sells and installs partitions. They never thought they'd be able scale online in the way they have. There’s also a great company call the Flying Elephant which has moved online to do home delivery of desks,” said O’Mara.

John Mitchell, chief executive of Strata3

Education is an area she wants to see more technology businesses embracing.

“We’ve launched guides to help companies move online and to avail of funds, grants and aids, depending on what country they are in. We need to make it as easy as possible for them to engage,” she said.

“I don’t think anyone knows what is around the corner as to how this will evolve, so we’ve moved all our efforts to helping businesses moving online. Some companies have been forced into it sooner than planned, but it can be done.”

When the crisis struck, one business didn’t have to make any changes at all to what its staff used. Shopify, which helps firms create online retail platforms, has 5,000 employees worldwide, with more than 300 in Ireland, and all of them work remotely all of the time.

“We are the largest, by a country mile, pure play remote organisation in Ireland. We‘ve been trying to explain what we do for the last five years, but now people are getting it,” said John Riordan, director of support at Shopify.

Riordan is curious as to what the working environment will look like after the crisis ends.

“Even if 10 per cent less people go back to the office, that’s a massive jump in the number of people that work from home,” he said. “Every company will have to have a contingency plan that has everybody moving out of the office to work from home, just in case. The change that will have for business is massive.”

As the crisis progresses, Riordan expects the face of commerce among small businesses to change radically.

“The pandemic is speeding up the integration of online and retail. Prior to the crisis, 70 per cent of Irish businesses didn’t have an online presence,” he said. “That is going to be very different in the future.”

A delicate balancing act

James Louttit, chief information officer at CPL, had a lot of staff to think about once the lockdown happened. CPL provides recruitment services, particularly in healthcare and outsourcing. It has 1,200 employees, excluding contractors, who had to get used to the new normal in a hurry..

“The biggest changes have been around juggling all the different activities in people’s lives – the squeezing together of work and personal life,” said Louttit. “Our toolset was quite mobile before we started. We use Salesforce as a big part of our recruiting and we also use Microsoft Teams.”

Staff at CPL access its Salesforce tools through a browser, with security systems in place to ensure remote access is limited to those meant to have it. It provides CPL staff with knowledge of what their tasks are at a given time, with them switching into Teams in order to collaborate with co-workers.

“We’re in a good place. There was a two-week period with a lot of calls to the helpdesk to sort out little niggles, but the IT team have been heroes within the organisation because everything worked,” said Loutttit.

Personally, Louttit has had to get used to a big change. Normally he’s particularly hands-on, leaving post-it notes everywhere and meeting with 30 people directly on a typical day.

John Riordan, director of support at Shopify

“It’s an interesting challenge. When I’m on a call, we share screens showing all the activity being done by a team. In a formal setting, with an agenda, it’s working well,” he said.

“The bigger challenge will be with those more creative meetings, where the topic can deliberately go off in other directions. Working out how to do that is much harder, but there are some cool things like the whiteboard function in Teams.”

Raising funds during a pandemic

For start-ups, the challenge of keeping the lights on is tough under normal conditions.In a pandemic, it’s particularly daunting.

“At the best of times, it’s a tough sell for an early stage company to part with money. When that investor is operating within the context of macro turmoil, that sell becomes more difficult,” said Rory O’Malley, partner in McCann FitzGerald

“If these companies needed money five or six weeks ago, they’ll still need it now. A lot of them are pre-revenue, their only money is from investment. Their cash runway is all that stands between them and oblivion.”

O’Malley, who worked on a paper written by McCann FitzGerald about the state of investment in the tech sector during the crisis, believes there may be cause for hope among start-ups.

“A lot of investors are saying they are still open to putting money in. From speaking to some investors here, a lot of their work focusing on the existing portfolios is coming to an end, and the focus will switch to further investment opportunities,” said O’Malley.

Kieran McCorry, national technology officer with Microsoft

“Investors have funds they need to deploy in order to make a return. There is an imperative to keep investing. Start-ups need to make sure their business plan is robust, that it deals with the pandemic. They have to put their best foot forward.”

The team that put the paper together found that prior crises had ended up delivering opportunities for smart start-ups.

“Look at some of the companies that grew out of the recession and became behemoths, educate yourself and avail of whatever supports are available,” said John Neeson, partner in McCann FitzGerald.

“There is definitely still activity in the area. Several clients of ours have just completed rounds of funding. You can get through the choppy waters and complete investments.”

Put privacy first

Among all the challenges in making a business operate soundly while forced to do so remotely, managing privacy can prove a particular headache.

“You have to go back to basics. Use a VPN where possible, don’t store sensitive data on your hard drive, and try not to be Zoom-bombed,” said Emerald de Leeuw, a privacy consultant. “Not everybody in a Zoom call might want their face with their morning head put on social media.”

De Leeuw said businesses should look at making work as painless as possible for staff and not focus too much on monitoring them.

“Don’t create unnecessary stress for the people working for you. There’s a new piece of technology called Sneak, it’s a piece of software that runs in the background and keeps your webcam on to make sure that you are still there and working,” she said.

Paddy Byrne, managing director, Xenon

“That’s full-on dystopia right there. Just because you are working from home doesn’t mean you have no privacy. There is serious case law that means you have privacy at work, be it an office or at home.”

Developments like the fever detection service created by Xenon are a good example of what data should and shouldn‘t be collected.

“You should only ever collect what you need. When you look at Covid-19 specifically, you need to balance privacy with the duty to public health. That’s hard to do,” said De Leeuw.

“A basic thing companies will do is temperature checks. The key with that is if you can do it, you shouldn’t store the data. There’s a difference between checking if somebody is sick, and keeping that information.”