Thursday 25 April 2019

Ireland's tech godfather is building a new empire

Dublin is widely seen as a centre for tech in Europe, Workday's Annrai O'Toole tells Adrian Weckler

Annrai O’Toole pictured at the Workday offices off Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Annrai O’Toole pictured at the Workday offices off Dublin’s Clanbrassil Street. Photo: Frank McGrath
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

THESE days, Irish tech startups making it big is everyday news. Five million euro funding rounds here, €10m acquisitions there. Earnouts, Series-A, seedcorn start-ups: we know the jargon off by heart.

Yet few have come close to matching the feats of Ireland's original breakthrough firm, Iona Technologies. And few have seen the the ebbs and flows of the Irish technology industry like one of its co-founders, Annrai O'Toole.

For the uninitiated, O'Toole helped start a 'middleware' company 20 years ago that went on to become the fifth-highest public flotation on the US Nasdaq Exchange. After that, he co-founded another firm, Cape Clear, which was acquired five years ago by the US-based firm that O'Toole currently helps to run in Europe, Workday.

Though many won't have heard of it, Workday makes business software and has a market cap roughly the same size as Sony's.

How has O'Toole managed to stay on top all this time?

"A lot of leaders in the IT industry come out of Ireland," he said. "There is a very real perception of Dublin as a tech centre with a much stronger ecosystem than elsewhere.

"You'll see Spanish and Italian guys out here on the floor and they're here because they've heard that Dublin is a centre for tech in Europe."

Right now, O'Toole is trying to recruit the brightest and the best for Workday's Dublin office, which he has already grown to 100 people. Ireland's technology godfather – a title he arguably might share with Iona co-founder Chris Horn – is building something large once again. And the influence of the outfit's Irish office is affecting the parent company's culture in more ways than one.

"In the Californian head office, they've all but changed the name of their 'Outstanding Contributor Award' process to the 'Well Done Laddie' awards," he said.

"Being serious, while it's true that we have cultural affinity with US companies and a joint can-do attitude, if that's all we had to our game, we'd be dead. You're not going to win just because you're a nice guy, or because you're funny or because you're good at telling a story.

"The reason that the organisations I've been involved in, such as Iona and Cape Clear, have been successful is because there's real substance there.

"There's intellectual insight, substantial intellectual property and a desire to succeed. It sounds cliched but there genuinely is a drive that we're going to find a way to get problems done."

Hiring people of the calibre O'Toole is looking for – engineers capable of solving complex system usability problems – isn't easy at the best of times.

Right now, it's particularly challenging. One of the reasons for this, says O'Toole, is because the boom-bust cycle over the last decade took IT graduates out of the system.

"I think that the construction boom caused a hiatus in Ireland, which took graduates and money and other things out of the technology equation," he said.

"You had a bunch of kids going into college to do civil engineering or architecture or other construction-related things. It amounted to a whole bunch of money chasing construction projects, rather than investment into tech firms.

"But I think that that has now worked its way out of the system and we're falling back into the trajectory that we used to see in the mid-nineties, where technology is now being pursued more. This is an upward trajectory, in my view."

Nevertheless, it's going to take a while before supply catches up with demand, he said. Even then, some IT roles have an X-factor that is never in plentiful supply.

"While Dublin produces a strong cohort of exceptional developers, there is a category of that I'd call 'product management' that's really rare," he said. "It's the guy in the middle between the sales, developer and customer worlds.

"It's the person who's strong enough to understand the technology but also has the vision to see where the product needs to go. It's a really strong discipline in Silicon Valley and there's loads of those product managers there. It's the classic Steve Jobs role."

For now, both O'Toole and Workday are more concerned with landing top-notch engineers to buttress the architect-designed offices they have off Dublin's Clanbrassil Street. O'Toole knows he's competing with high-class competition from half the large, prestigious web firms in Europe.

Anyone looking at Workday's recent stock market performance might see some additional motivation in joining the company, especially since equity incentives are usually part of a tech firm's package. In the last 12 months, its share price has almost doubled. It now has a market cap ($17.7bn) that puts it ahead of Ryanair ($16.8bn) and only marginally behind Sony ($18.7bn).

O'Toole himself admits to being a "small shareholder" in the company.

Who would bet against him helping to build yet another IT juggernaut?


Why does software giant Workday remain located in Dublin?

Is it tax? Absolutely not, says Mr O’Toole. “I can tell you that there is just no way that companies are coming here for the tax reasons,” he said. “They’re coming here because of the genuine skills base. Genuinely. Yes, the tax stuff has got some advantages and, yes, some people take advantage of it. But in fairness that’s kind of the same in all countries, we just happen to be relatively transparent about how we do it here in Ireland. But really, people are here for the skills, because it’s English-speaking and because it’s part of the euro. It’s an entire package.”

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