Meet Spica’s Paul Collins – CTO and Co founder of Spica Technologies

Its not often that you get the chance to tap into the mindset of great business leaders and entrepreneurs, to really understand how they work and the journey that led them to the successes they have experienced throughout their careers.  I’ve taken the opportunity to quiz our very own Chief Technology Officer & Co Founder of Spica Technologies Ltd – Paul Collins, about his career and his passion for tech, along with a few personal insights he has shared with me.

So Paul, can we begin by talking about what led you to found Spica?

“I started my career working for an IBM Business Partner in Manchester called Space Computer Systems … maybe that’s where the space theme for Spica came from! After that I worked for a few years at IBM specialising in Object-Oriented software engineering using Smalltalk, before taking the plunge to start a business with a good friend and colleague of mine, Craig Smith. We had an amazing 15+ years building an IT services/consulting business which ultimately ended up being acquired, which created a whole bunch of new opportunities.

One of the challenges with IT services businesses is that you never really feel like you have the opportunity to own the software you create, and I always wanted to have a go at building a product-focused business. That’s what ultimately led Tim, Ben and I to get together to start Spica.” (Spica was founded by Paul, Tim Streather – CEO, Ben Williams – Chief Engineer)

What changes in technology have you seen since Spica started?

“Well, Spica is only 5 years old and starting from scratch gave us the opportunity to pick and choose from some pretty new technologies, so I’m not sure that things have changed dramatically for us since then.

Operating in what is fundamentally the cloud and mobile solutions space, I do think we can see some things evolving that will continue to impact on us. The investments that the major cloud players like Microsoft and AWS are putting in to cloud computing platform services, and the reduction in cost, means that we are always making “build vs buy” decisions at a components level and working out where we should really be investing our time and money.

At the same time, we have made a ‘product principle’ decision to use open source technologies whenever we can and make sure we aren’t too closely bound to a single vendor. I think people’s perception of open source is changing all of the time and it is good to see organisations like Microsoft increasingly embrace the open source initiative.”

What do you see are the key tech trends we can expect in the next 2 years?

“I think there are loads of interesting things happening, but then there always are! From a Spica perspective, one of the big things we are looking at is AI and Machine Learning, based around all of the complex IOT (and other systems) data that we collect. We are already using those ideas to predict things like the likelihood of a meeting room being available or exploring how people move through their workplace during an event like a fire evacuation test.

The other big trend that will really impact us in the IOT space will be convergence in IOT networks and in particular making more use of 5G and low powered devices on WiFi. We want to do everything we can to reduce the cost of “instrumenting” or “digitising” the workplace and being able to do that without investing in silo’d IOT networks will be a big part of that.”

I’m interested to know, if you realised in your early career that this was where you would be at this point?

“I always knew I wanted to be a software engineer; I remember my Dad coming home from work one day, struggling down the drive carrying a Durango F85 and from that point on I knew that I wanted to get into Computing. I was really lucky, I was accepted at Manchester University to study Computing (even though my A Level results were not as good as I hoped!), and at Manchester I had the opportunity to study with Dr Trevor Hopkins who inspired me to focus on Object-Oriented software engineering.

6 years after graduating (and working in some fantastic businesses including IBM) I decided that ultimately I wanted to run my own business, and that set me on the path to working with some amazing people including Craig Smith, Ben Williams, Tim Streather, Lynda Gillson – Chief Product Officer @Spica, and Paul Jones – Chief Operations Officer @Spica. We’ve known and worked with each other for years and Spica has created the opportunity for Ben, Tim, Lynda, PJ and I to continue to work together to build something fantastic.”

It sounds as if you have gathered a fantastic network of people around you, and a natural step and fortuitous opportunity to work together to achieve something as a collective. Spica is a unique Company in my experience that has seemingly easily nurtured a culture and ethos that make for a very positive workplace experience.  We have such a fantastic mix of talented individuals who are committed to working together to achieve the Spica vision. It really is a privilege to be part of the team.

As someone who took time in my early career to work out what specialism I wanted to work within, I am keen to know if you have you always had an interest in tech and innovation? Was it clear to you from an early stage that this was where you fitted?

“I have always been interested in software, that I could pretty much create anything I wanted given enough time. Spica has given me the opportunity to look at innovation in the hardware space as well as the software space and that gave me an opportunity to learn a bunch of new stuff.

I’m lucky that I still have the job of scanning for (and evaluating) new IOT hardware opportunities and prototyping IOT solutions.”

What are the main challenges you find when working with new tech?

“I don’t think “the tech” itself is really the challenge, not least because there’s generally so much community support for the open source technologies and frameworks that we exploit. Trying out/ testing a new idea or component is way easier (cheaper and less time consuming) that it used to be, and we have such a strong focus on test driven development that we know we can try things and make changes in a safe and controlled way.

I think the bigger challenge is working out what you really want to achieve with the “new tech” in the first place.”

Success never comes easy.  I’m sure you have worked extremely hard to achieve all you have. What would you say, has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career to date?

“We had some pretty hairy moments in our first business where we had a load of people on the bench, and it was touch or go at times. We managed, somehow, to get through that without ever having to lay anyone off, and when I think back on that, that was a pretty big deal! 

I think though, in the long run, that Spica will prove to be my biggest (and fingers crossed, successful) career triumph. We have set out to build great software products, in a pretty competitive space, without taking on a whole load of investment or debt, and we’re doing it with a co-located team and investing in their skills and experience at the same time.” 

Responsibility for a workforce and people’s livelihoods is certainly not to be underestimated; offering secure employment is, in itself it a great achievement.

I know as a Spica Team, we are all hugely motivated to be on the Spica journey with you and help realise its full potential, along with the other Senior Leadership team members.

If you had to give me one word that describes you the best, what would it be?

“I can’t think of one word, but I can think of a phrase which Ben (one of our co-founders) used ages ago – he referred to me as “the best vaguely technical person” he knows. I think (and hope) that what he meant was that I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, which I took to be a compliment.”

You are very modest – I know a lot of the team relish any opportunity to tap into your knowledge and work with you on projects.

If you had to pick, what would you say are your 3 biggest accomplishments?

“Growing my first business to a team of around 70 people. It might not seem like a lot, but we did it without investment and it taught me a lot about growing and managing teams. We must have done something right because a lot of us still get together at least once or twice a year for drinks, a chat, and a game of cricket.

Designing, building, launching and subsequently licensing our first Spica IOT product, which was a huge learning curve on all sides. Fortunately, the business is not reliant on me doing the soldering anymore.

Surviving (ongoing) my two boys’ teenage mood swings.”

Are there any leaders in tech that you are particularly inspired by?

“I don’t think I am inspired by any one “tech leader”, although I do think that Satya Nadella will be recognised as one of the greats for the transformation he has engineered at Microsoft. I am unfortunately old enough to remember what it was like working with Microsoft in the 90’s and 00’s. 

I think I am generally more inspired by the people that I get to meet and work with – that includes the people in Spica. I had the opportunity to be part of the Aston Business Growth programme and met a group of entrepreneurs and business owners from all walks of life. People who are brave enough (and maybe mad enough) to take the big risks to fix a problem that they see, or disrupt an industry, will always be an inspiration, I think.”

I think people are always inspired by those that are willing to go against the tide and shake things up.

We are lucky to have a team of talented folk here at Spica – What do you value most about our culture and vision?

“‘Leadership that serves’, which is something that I learned from Craig Smith. A big part of our job is really to make the other people in the business successful, and to give them the autonomy and support they need to do a great job. In Spica that also means that we shouldn’t ask anyone to do something that we are not prepared to do ourselves. There is a duality with that and our vision as a business – to make the “workplace experience” the best it can be.”

I think that ethos is what makes Spica such a rewarding place to work, it generates a great deal of respect and buy in from the team when the SLT have that attitude.

So now to the nitty gritty, I’m always interested in what it takes to be a great leader. Why some people succeed and some don’t? Senior leaders can often seem out of reach for those starting out in their early career, there is always an element of mystery around what they are really like when they are not in the boardroom.

So to help shed a little light, can you tell me about what you enjoy doing, when you are not at work?

“I run one of the local Scout troops which takes up quite a bit of spare time. When I’m not doing that, I play the piano, although my son is now better than me which is slightly irksome. We are also trying to get into growing our own fruit and vegetables at home, although I don’t think I’m particularly green-fingered. If there’s any time left, I like playing computer games or going out on the bike.”

And finally, why are you passionate about what we do?

“I am a software engineer at heart, and I think most software engineers fundamentally enjoy the creative process. The “how” is as important to me as the “what” when it comes to software product development. Spica is an opportunity for us to decide what we want to build and how we want to go about it.”

I hope you enjoyed reading that snapshot into the journey of a business founder and leader in tech. If you would like to know more about working for Spica Technologies or find out about our current opportunities, please visit our website www.spicatech.co.uk or email me; Gemma.Cottrell@Spicatech.co.uk.