Eilish O’Connor on Viatel’s global ambition

Podcast Ep 161: Viatel CTO Eilish O’Connor on how Viatel is methodically going from an indigenous player to a global cloud powerhouse.

While most of the tech giants have been shaving headcounts, it has been interesting to watch indigenous firms from Xerotech in Galway to HRLocker in Clare or Tekenable in Dublin create jobs in recent weeks. Among this coterie of expanding Irish tech businesses was Dublin-headquartered Viatel, which recently revealed 50 new jobs after a spree of acquisitions, including Limerick-based ActionPoint.

The new high-end tech roles will bring Viatel’s headcount to more than 350 people.

“Our vision is we want to be the number one digital services provider, not just in Ireland, but we have sights set globally as well”

Viatel is the business that emerged from Colm Piercy of broadband firm Digiweb’s various investments in infrastructure including data centres and fibre networks over the past two decades. It is the quintessential indigenous Irish tech success story and the new roles being created by the latest expansion include software engineers, system developers, network engineers, tech support and sales.

On the cyber front line


Speaking on The ThinkBusiness Podcast, Viatel CTO Eilish O’Connor says this is just the beginning.

Viatel has been methodically honing its edge, especially for opportunities in an area of tech called software-defined networks.

“Our vision is we want to be the number one digital services provider, not just in Ireland, but we have sights set globally as well.

“Our roots and our heart is still in the connectivity, in the voice space, not just for businesses but also in the residential space too. We have our own private cloud infrastructure and over the past five years we’ve really gone on a journey.”

The Tipperary native had previously worked with Viatel before and in recent years was convinced to rejoin by Paul Rellis, the former head of Microsoft in Ireland who had joined the company as CEO.

The clocks were effectively reset when Rellis took the helm. “We took on a new vision and a new direction to first of all grow what we had already been doing but also focus on areas such as cloud and software defined networks and the voice side of things.

“We have had a real focus on organic growth and over the past five years we’ve reported double-digit organic growth as well as making five acquisitions, including businesses like ourselves as well as regional players, including wireless internet service providers. So what we’ve done is we’ve consolidated more of the market place and we have brought some really great people onto the team.”

A particular area of focus is managed IT services and the acquisition of Limerick’s ActionPoint in early 2022. “It has really strengthened our product and services portfolio because now we have the private cloud and all the connectivity to get you to your private cloud as well as offering managed IT services and bespoke software teams. That has really widened out our solutions.

“There are two sides to our growth strategy at the moment: the organic growth, which we are focused on and growing and have achieved double-digit growth; but also on the acquisition side. There are some acquisitions that we’ve walked away from because they are not a fit, but there will be others over the next year and further afield – not only in Ireland but also in the UK and Europe as well.”

Our conversation happens amid the annual International Women’s Day celebrations and O’Connor reflects on her career and the road that has led her to be the CTO of a scaling tech business. “If you said to 17-year-old Eilish that she was going to be a CTO, she wouldn’t have believed you or whether she would have wanted that. I was into maths and physis and went on to study applied physics at UL. As I was studying that I realised that while I liked the technical side of it, there was something missing for me.”

Upon graduation O’Connor was at a crossroads. “I didn’t want to be working in a lab.”

She took a year out and was teaching English in Spain when she realised she had a knack for teaching but also missed the technical side of things. On her return to Ireland she joined Ericsson’s technical training department and soon founder herself jetting off to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. “I loved the part of bringing the technology and the people together and explaining technology in simple terms that people could understand. That was where I had my strength.”

After Ericsson she founder herself working at Colm Piercy’s Digiweb in the network engineering department where she excelled in pre-sales. “They didn’t know their luck at the time when they found a network engineer that actually liked talking to customers.”

O’Connor wasn’t aware of it at the time but she had taken her first step to becoming a CTO.

While all of this was happening, the soon-to-be Viatel was acquiring dark fibre networks in Europe, from Amsterdam to Paris and Frankfurt.

After having her first child, O’Connor left Digiweb/Viatel to work in software. She and her husband also decided to move back to Nenagh from where she would work remotely. “We were working with so many different businesses in the pharmaceutical, life sciences and food and beverage spaces and it was a great learning experience. But all the while I was travelling which is tough when you have a baby at home.”

One day, after having her second child, the newly ensconced CEO of Viatel Paul Rellis requested a meeting. “I met him for a coffee down in Limerick and I told him there was no way I was moving back up to Dublin. But he convinced me to meet him anyway.”

O’Connor rejoined Viatel in 2018 to build the solutions architect team of the business. “The vision was we were moving to Viatel 2.0 and with a new focus on cloud software and software-defined networks.”

As CTO she has two focuses: building the solutions and product development teams and working with externally-facing teams that look after customers. I compliment both by what I learned in both of those spaces.”

The pandemic, she says, did a lot to usher in digital transformation and hybrid working.

Now, the number one priority for all businesses she deals with currently and for the foreseeable future will be data security.

“Business owners, head of IT or CIOs are really thinking about how to secure their data. Whether it’s Eilish in Tipperary or my engineers in Dublin, where does my data sit? How secure is my own network? How do I secure my remote workers? How do I do the right things. Because it’s not just the risk of a cyber event happening. There are pressures being piled on if you’re looking for cyber insurance at the moment, which has become a very tricky process. There’s regulatory pressures coming down the road for every industry, in particular the tech industry. And you will either get on board or you’re not going to survive.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.