Meet the Patrons Q&A with Chief Product Officer at ETU Dr. Conor Gaffney

Q&A with Dr. Conor Gaffney

Posted by Learnovate

Reading time: approx 10 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Dr. Conor Gaffney, Chief Product Officer at ETU, an Irish technology firm specializing in immersive learning and simulation-based training for companies in the professional services, tech, finance, and life sciences sectors.

The company was founded in 2010 by a group of medical and engineering researchers on the campus of Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Simulations delivered via ETU’s award-winning Learning Simulation Platform provide immersive learning and simulation-based training to deliver breakthrough improvements in the human skills that underpin business performance. ETU solutions help businesses to upskill at scale and gain insights into their employees with comprehensive data analytics.

ETU has grown rapidly over the last 12 months, with the company’s workforce increasing four-fold to 60 staff with employees based in Ireland, Europe, and the United States. In August, ETU announced that it had secured significant investment that will continue to support its accelerated growth.

Conor has been with ETU since its earliest days and, as part of his computer science Ph.D., worked on the research that underpins ETU’s SaaS platform. Starting in software development and quickly moving into services Conor later became Vice President of Solutions and Applied Science before taking on the role of Chief Product Officer (CPO). His role as CPO sees him collaborate closely with the Chief Operations Officer and Chief Technical Officer, as well as the Services, Sales, and Marketing teams. As CPO, Conor is responsible for developing ETU’s product strategy and roadmaps. He also manages the development of immersive learning solution architectures and off-the-shelf simulations that showcase the features and functionality of the ETU platform. Conor is also responsible for managing the technical side of data analysis and developing data productization features and functionality. Skill application data, and the insights it affords to clients, is ETU’s unique selling point distinguishing it from other vendors in the industry.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Working with customers was an eye-opener for me. Coming from a tech background, I suddenly found myself having to engage with big companies from a services point of view. I needed to understand the challenges they had as well as the requirements around delivering high-profile projects to a really high spec.

In terms of ETU, one of the biggest learnings was the importance of having a really good team around you. That means having people you can collaborate and work well with, who all have different inputs and points of view – a diverse set of perspectives. If you look at how we’ve grown and where we’re at now, it’s a testament to the quality of people we have. It’s brilliant.

What was the best advice you ever received?

It’s the same advice I give people when they come to ETU and start developing simulations: check, check and check again – and keep running tests. That’s the advice I was given at the very beginning of my computer science career. If you’re writing code, it needs to be unbreakable. If you’re writing a document or script for a customer, it needs to be flawless. If you’re creating content, it needs to be perfect. That needs to be your mindset for everything you do.

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

I’ve definitely become more confident in myself and my abilities. In the beginning, you’re just trying to figure yourself out and overcome the challenges. But over time you get to the point where you realize that you’re very good at your job. When you’re starting out, you might have some doubts but at some point – you don’t even realize when it’s happened – you just know that you’ve got this. It’s not necessarily a style, it’s more about your view of yourself.

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

When you’re working for a start-up, you have to be really adaptable. The growth we have experienced in recent years has seen more and more people coming in, meaning it’s more important for us to understand what a team needs, when to make yourself available and how to adjust to different people and their needs. ETU is generally very good at that.

There’s a lot of work involved in managing teams and leadership but one of the advantages of the work we do is that we’re involved in the development of leadership training with big corporations. That gives us access to subject matter experts in these really important areas. Naturally, you learn from these people and the content you’re developing with them.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

Google suite. It’s nice to have all your resources – documents, email, and calendar – all in one place and working together. I’m also using LinkedIn a lot more than I ever did previously. I’m on the platform trying to connect with people on a daily basis. It’s interesting to see what people are posting. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening in the industry when you simply don’t have time for conferences and events. LinkedIn gives you an idea of the latest trends within the industry and what is front of mind for people. It’s a tool I’ve got great value from recently.

In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish and Northern Irish companies?

One area of growth ETU has identified is leaning into HR more broadly rather than just Learning & Development (L&D). Within L&D, across different industries, we’re applicable and usable. We’re very much a training and assessment platform but with the data we generate there are opportunities in talent management. If you think about an employee’s lifecycle with a company, they might engage with ETU right at the beginning through one of our simulations. And that may happen again and again throughout their career with a company so we’re gathering longitudinal data.

For example, as part of a broader picture, maybe ETU could be used to identify high performers within an organization and fast-track their promotion. If a company needs to bring in more people into a particular department, maybe we can identify who is the best fit based on the data we have gathered.

We could become more embedded with companies in terms of employee lifecycle as opposed to just points in a learner journey. That’s something we’re definitely looking at in terms of growth.

There are so many more uses for the data we’re gathering. It helps us to understand the gaps with employees, where future issues might arise, and maybe when companies need to start hiring. That’s something that ETU could be really good at.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

ETU is always looking to innovate. We are constantly working with our partners and customers to develop new features and products. Coming from a research hub in Trinity, we understand how critical R&D is to understand the impact of these new features on learners and what features may be required in the future. Ultimately, it’s about understanding the possibilities because the customer obviously has a voice in what we do but sometimes they don’t know what they want until we present what is possible and how it can help them. R&D is vital in that respect.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning? 

Personalization and adaptivity, which formed part of my past research, have become bigger in recent years. There are a number of big benefits from a learning and development point of view. For instance, you might have 20,000 learners going through the exact same content but not all of them need to. If you have adaptivity and personalization, half of them could test out of different areas and topics. They won’t have to go through that content which saves a lot of time.

How should we prepare for the future of work? 

Remote working is now something that a lot of companies need to reckon with. Whether the model is remote or hybrid in the future, training needs to accommodate that. When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, there was an immediate need to switch from face-to-face instructor-led training to a digital offering. Employees, users, and learners quickly became very frustrated with the rapidly developed standard online eLearning. Now people are expecting higher quality in terms of the learner experience. Simulations, which are more engaging and interactive, are a great fit – or maybe part of a blended solution.

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Multimedia for Learning by Stephen Alessi and Stanley Trollope. It’s the book I’ve always come back to. They wrote a really good chapter on training-based simulations; definitions, outlining the different categories, important considerations, and so on. That has always been our reference point. It’s a standout publication for me.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

We recently conducted a research study with Learnovate and found it very helpful in terms of having a different perspective and reference points..

We don’t always have the bandwidth to do this type of work ourselves, so it’s helpful to be able to engage an outside resource like Learnovate. As we grow, Learnovate is definitely a partner we want to engage with further.

The annual summit, Learnovation, was last October in Croke Park. It was great to see what other companies are doing in terms of research, as well as the trends they’re noticing.

What does Learnovate do well?

Learnovate is good at engaging with us to try to understand what we are seeing and what challenges we’re having in terms of R&D. As a client that has big customers, we can coordinate and collaborate with Learnovate with what we’re seeing in different industries and L&D more broadly. Subsequently, then, they can draw on the work of other companies and share that information as well. We’re associated with a lot of different learning bodies, but Learnovate has that sense of independence because they are coming at things from a research point of view.

What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?

Internally, we were already set up for remote working. There was an adjustment on a personal level because I would have been in the office every day, but broadly it was a straightforward transition.

For customers, the outbreak of the pandemic was the switch they needed to make their face-to-face instructor-led training go digital. ETU was well-positioned to provide customers with what they needed. We could provide the tools and platform to allow them to develop the simulations rapidly and at scale.

What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?

ETU has a great culture. Working at maintaining that while we all moved to be 100% remote has some challenges, but ETU has adapted really well.

In April last year, we hosted a company event in Rome. It was a great opportunity for everyone at ETU to come together and meet in person. We had hired so many people – our workforce more than doubled in the space of a year – that it was the first time everyone met face to face. From an internal perspective, being able to maintain the company culture has been really heartening.

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