Martin Murphy interview: Second level has to give skills needed to start work
THE technology sector can be a strange one to say the least. If you asked the man on the street who employed more people in Ireland, many would probably say a company like Facebook had far more staff here than Hewlett Packard.
They would be wrong of course. Very wrong. With offices in Kildare, Galway and Belfast, HP employs more than 4,000 people on this island.
And Martin Murphy is the man in charge.
The 50-year-old took over the top job more than 11 years ago, and now runs a firm that is one of the biggest employers in the country.
It isn't all plain sailing, however. HP has, like most computer firms, been caught by huge change, much of which couldn't be foreseen even five or six years ago.
As users migrate from desktop PCs to mobile devices and cloud computing, and companies cut costs in the downturn, HP's business model has been upended, and Mr Murphy is tasked with getting the Irish business through and out the other side.
HP has five main divisions in Ireland: sales & services, multilingual customer support across Europe, the business also has a financial services operation, and unlike many IT firms that have been here for many years – HP arrived in the 60s – still has a manufacturing division here. Crucially, the company also has a substantial research arm, looking at the likes of cloud computing and mobile products.
"It's about getting the combinations right for the market you're in," says Mr Murphy.
"Ireland tends to be a services driven market and has been for some time. That means that we are engaging with customers and their issues and at the back of that there may be a product that is needed, but primarily it is a services and consulting driven approach first," he claims.
The recession has hit HP, Mr Murphy admits, but is quick to point out that it hasn't all been bad news.
"The downturn has seen a lot of companies roll back their IT spend – there is no doubt about that and the market in Ireland has contracted accordingly, but there are opportunities for growth, especially in the public sector.
"IT services have always become more popular when money is tight because of the efficiencies they bring. If you take the public sector, for example, in the next three to five years we will be delivering better quality services to more people because of digital inputs.
"Think about getting a passport or driver's licence. You go in, fill in a form, supply photos, send it off and wait for how ever long but there are gaps in the process that can be improved by technology. That can be extended throughout the public sector.
"Elsewhere, look at financial services. The increased regulation that we are seeing in Ireland and elsewhere, especially when it comes to data management and data storage, will require more investment in technology."
The biggest development in recent years for companies like HP however, has been the explosion in mobile technology and cloud services that are supplying that market.
The growth of smartphones and tablets have had a huge effect on PC sales, which are plunging. For Mr Murphy and HP, it has been a trying time but one that the company is on top of, he believes.
"Cloud computing brings us down to the whole area of innovation, and there are two levels to that.
"There are the incremental changes, and then there is the huge breakthrough which gives us first mover advantage. We have been doing that at our Galway facility and the big thing for smaller firms especially is the economies of scale the cloud can bring.
"It negates the need for an SME in particular to spend huge amounts in IT services," he adds.
"Having said that, I'm not sure there will be a huge jump to the cloud immediately. As companies upgrade their systems they will migrate across but a firm that only upgraded its servers a year or two ago is unlikely to junk that this year to move across," he claims.
That widespread availability of cloud services has had a knock on effect in boosting the use of mobile devices. Despite the exploding growth in smartphones and tablets though, Mr Murphy believes the rumours of the PC's demise have been somewhat exaggerated.
"Tablets are at the absolute cutting edge of consumer technology, there is no doubt about that. But they are a different strength to what PCs bring in the business world.
"HP has a very strong offering of tablets, we believe, but in terms of 'creating', I'm not sure the tablet market as a whole is there yet. For someone working on a big project or something similar, they still need the input of the keyboard and that, so the PC market has a bit of life in it yet, I reckon.
"The other big thing of course is security. That is the elephant in the room in a lot of cases.
"It is an absolutely huge issue and with the 'bring your own device' culture, it is here into the future.
"The employees' relationship with their work and employer has fundamentally changed. Four or five years ago they were given the phone and laptop by their employer and took it from there. Now, they may prefer to use their own devices, but you have to manage the security issue. Can the device be wiped remotely? What happens if you leave it on a train? These are all questions that companies have to think about."
Mr Murphy is more than just the head of Hewlett-Packard in Ireland. As a "captain of industry" he has played a part in several public bodies. His latest is helping to run JobBridge – the government backed internship programme. It has been lambasted by some as a path to cheap labour for companies, but Mr Murphy isn't having any of it.
"How do you get people into the workplace and get them skills that they might not access otherwise – you do it with this scheme.
"There is a huge resource pool called the live register and we have to tap that.
"There are plenty of skilled workers there who are willing to retrain and the fact that 60pc of those who have taken part in the scheme are now in full time employment shows how successful it has been."
In the IT sector and elsewhere, the idea of the "skills gap" has become something we are all aware of, but little action seems to be taken. For Mr Murphy, the secondary education system has to be reformed to give students what he sees as the necessary tools to succeed in the modern world.
"We should definitely look at redesigning Transition Year, and putting a much greater emphasis on entrepreneurship.
"One of the problems in Irish education is that those coming out of school go straight to university and almost see it as the only option. We should be training them that setting up their own business is an equally good way to go, and transition year gives us the scope to do something like that.
"We also need to drive language proficiencies. You need at least one foreign language in the modern world, ideally two. That is just a fact, and there is nothing to stop us at the very least getting Chinese on to the curriculum for transition year and beyond.
"Finally one of the sciences should be compulsory for leaving cert. If we are going to prepare young people for the modern economy, these are the skills they need."
HP has been struggling in recent years but Mr Murphy is convinced that new chief executive Meg Whitman has brought innovation back to front and centre in the company. After more than a decade at the helm in Ireland, it is up to him to bring things on once again.