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As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patron series, we speak to Paraic Hegarty, the Chief Technical Officer and co-founder of Akari Software, the largest provider of Higher Education Management Systems outside the United States.
Paraic graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Trinity College Dublin in 1988 before emigrating to London where he began his first job with Expert Edge, a small Irish-owned software company. A period in which he bounced back and forth between Ireland and the UK ended when he was appointed a technology consultant with Deloitte in Dublin in 1995, later going on to become a partner tasked with running the firm’s technology consulting service.
In 2007, Paraic migrated south to Cork where he worked as an independent consultant in areas around strategy and technology commercialisation. A chance meeting with his now-business partner Eoghan O’Leary, an expert in commercialising digital products, led to a request for Paraic to write a business plan for what would become Akari Software. “I liked the idea so much I stayed,” says Paraic who recently celebrated his 10th year with the company.
Akari now employs more than 20 people in Ireland and the same number in areas of the globe as far flung as Malaysia, Bahrain, Fiji and closer to home in Portugal and the UK.
The Dubliner, who already has a post-graduate diploma in Technology Commercialisation, is currently studying for a MSc in Leadership, Innovation and Technology at the Technical University Dublin. The research element of post-graduate study is something he enjoys.
“I’m a big fan of doing evidence-based management,” he says. “Everybody has got an opinion but what supports it? It very much focuses you on finding the supporting evidence for your ideas, on putting your arguments together in a very methodical way.”
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
I had a boss in Deloitte. He had two things he lived by. The first is, ‘You’ve got to be willing to do everything yourself’. The second is, ‘Never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself’. And that’s the culture we have here. Everybody is willing to pitch in. There’s no job too senior that someone can’t get involved in. If something needs to be done, anyone that can do it, will do it.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
Definitely, my style has changed over the years. I used to be very sure and certain. I was always the highest paid person in the room, so I used to find it amazing how all my ideas were considered fantastic… And now, as I go through life, I realise that I actually don’t know everything and it’s really important that if you’re going to hire someone into a role, and they know more about it than you do, take their advice.
And that applies to how I manage people, except I also try to bring people on. In the end, all we really leave behind us is the people that we managed to influence. People usually know what it is that they need to do. When they’re asking questions, they often don’t need to be told the answer. If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s this: Ask the right questions, don’t give what you think is the right answer. I might solve a problem one way but if it’s not how you would do it then it’s probably the wrong answer for you.
In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish companies?
We’ve been looking at areas outside the core of what we do. For instance, there’s a huge issue in Higher Education at the moment around completion rates. People are enrolling in courses and they’re dropping out before they actually graduate. When the funding model was that universities got paid for whoever showed up, whenever they showed up, lots of them factored that into their business model. They were actually expecting to have fewer students in their second year than the first. The State, which is providing the funding for the most part, is naturally concerned about what that means. Officials are asking, ‘What’s the point of paying for someone to be there in first year if they’re not going to be there in second?’
Now, you can get into philosophical debates about the purpose of education, but I think that whole area around enrolling the right people in the right courses and then supporting them so that they can be retained as students until they complete the qualification is untapped. That would a great one to come up with a solution for.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
It’s important to see what happens in the education industry. Technology can help communicate ideas but fundamentally the teaching process hasn’t changed since cavemen were showing each other how to make fire. It’s interesting that we’re still talking about the whole process of ‘I’m showing you, I’m telling you, I’m teaching you…’ – particularly from an undergraduate perspective where it’s more about facts and how to apply them in the real world. That’s much trickier when it gets into the post-graduate area where you need to know certain facts but no-one is asking the question. It’s difficult to see how learning technology can help with that because learning technology can’t get information from my brain into yours. That’s part of the fascination. Teaching is a simple thing. The teacher and the learner and the process all interact with each other, and you can’t reproduce it. A different teacher with a different learner will produce a different outcome. I find that so fascinating.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
I hesitate to talk about learning analytics because that’s what everyone is talking about right now. Still, the people I talk to say they have lots of fantastic analytics but no way to action the insights. We’re all fascinated by how you could change the design of a course or module in order to impact metrics like graduate employability or earning potential. You’re filling skills gaps in the jobs marketplace but how can you actually say, ‘This is how we’re rating a particular programme or institution?’ We’ve got all this data but don’t know how to turn it into actions. There’s a lot of debate over machine learning and artificial intelligence but, in my opinion, that’s almost where you need to go with this stuff. I don’t know if there’s a way to teach undergraduate maths to accountants that makes them better accountants but if we get a big enough dataset together, maybe we can analyse patterns that aren’t obvious to the human eye. Perhaps then you can find a way of doing things differently. But if we can’t impact the metrics by what we’re designing and how we’re implementing it, you might wonder what’s the point in gathering the data in the first place.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
There’s a lot of emphasis now on transversal skills, or transferable skills, and this notion of lifelong learning. The idea that everyone needs to go to university is a fallacy. It used to be that you might get a qualification in a particular area and, after that, wing it for the rest of your career. That’s all gone. We’ll need to be much more flexible as we move forward.
Learning will get chopped up into smaller and smaller chunks and we’ll consume it in a different kind of way. That’s how people will stay ahead because we’ll be the piece of the system – if the system involves people and the technology that supports us – that can adapt quicker. We’ll see what’s working and not working and we can apply ourselves in different ways. There is not going to be so much of an emphasis on your degree, rather it will be your skills and your expertise in a particular area.
If my company needs to be better at managing projects, I could find an event manager who’s really good project manager. The role is called something else but maybe that past experience arms them with a really good transversal skill. In the future we won’t be so caught up in whether a qualification involves a particular phrase.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
It’s comforting to think that it’s an Irish-based research centre for a start. That makes it easier to participate. The community aspect really attracted us. We’re a relatively small outfit and it’s difficult for an SME because we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re not IBM. You throw a stone in IBM and you’ll hit someone who’s an expert in anything you care to mention so we have to network in order to get those resources. Learnovate was a really good way of connecting with people in the research community and in particular in Higher Education, which is our customer base and who we’re selling to all the time. From a commercial perspective, we recognise the other people involved in Learnovate. We come across them all the time because our customers are their customers.
What does Learnovate do well?
The level of engagement from the other members has been fantastic. What is striking is that people who have been involved a long time remain as enthused and engaged as they were in the beginning – which is a really good sign.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology or understanding people?
I’ve actually just finished reading a brilliant book called Are You Listening: Stories From A Coaching Life by Jenny Rogers. She’s the pioneer of executive coaching in the UK but this isn’t a self-help book. It’s a memoir built around stories from her coaching career. It’s such a compassionate, human book that centres the person being coached as the one with the answers and the coach merely as the person who asks the right questions.
What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?
We certainly weathered it as well as other organisations, if not better. We were used to staff being remote. We have almost two dozen people at our base in Cork and others are elsewhere, so it was different to the extent that we went from a few people being able to meet up in person to nobody being able to meet up in person. But I think we had all the tools in place.
Having said all that, it would be easy for us to think that we didn’t lose anything. We’re very clear that we can easily do the work remotely but it’s very difficult to build a culture remotely. Plenty of companies will do remote-only work but even they will get everyone together in one place for a few days a year, not necessarily to work but to build relationships and culture.
You may not need to be in the same room as someone else to write some code but you do need to be in the room to ask them a question you’re embarrassed to ask because you think maybe you should know the answer already. I read a piece of research from Microsoft around their remote-working experience. It said that the people workers were connected to before the pandemic were the people they remained connected to while they worked remotely. And they ended up communicating less often with other groups than when everyone was co-located together. Remote work has actually resulted in more silos than before. You don’t talk to someone in the canteen because there’s no canteen. No-one is popping their head around the door to say hello. If someone rang you out of the blue to say hello, you’d probably think, ‘Really?’ That’s just a flavour of the things we learned.
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