Podcast Ep 132: Sidero’s Carmel Owens sees Athlone as a burgeoning tech hub for Ireland and emphasises the importance of fostering a Midlands tech ecosystem.
When people think of Ireland’s centres of tech, they usually mention Dublin, Cork, Limerick or Galway, without often mentioning Athlone, right at the heart of the island.
But in reality, Athlone has been something of a tech location for decades thanks to the presence of tech industry giants like Ericsson not to mention a strong biotech cluster through the likes of Jazz Pharmaceuticals and Alexion, to name a few.
“We are now the largest privately-owned indigenous software business in Ireland, which after all of the consolidation in the industry lately, is hard to believe”
A fast-growing local tech business to watch is Sidero, which currently employs 230 people in the creation of mission-critical cloud software for some of the most successful Irish and global companies. Last year the business, which was founded in Athlone in 2013, revealed plans to create 75 new jobs following an investment of €4.5m.
The company has strong links with local third-level institutions, including the newly opened Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), and has invested more than €1m in the initiative since 2018 through initiatives such as a graduate placement and internship programmes.
One of the ace cards that Sidero holds is its Athlone base continues to offer key advantages for attracting and retaining the highest quality talent with lower cost of living, improved work/life balance and easier commutes.
Making IT in the Midlands
At the helm of Sidero is tech industry veteran and CEO Carmel Owens.
“We were founded in 2013 by a group of engineers. A local lady and five lads. The company’s focus was always on engineering, customer delivery and excellence in that space, and less so about sales and marketing. About two years ago I joined the team and my job really is to focus on growth, on strategy and new customer acquisition.”
Owens explained that to begin with she has been focused on making Sidero more visible in the marketplace. Her efforts were rewarded recently with a Company of the Year win at the Tech Excellence Awards.
“That was a big deal for our whole team because it validates the work that we do for our customers and the success we’ve seen so far.”
Owens began her career at Horizon Open Systems and prior to joining Sidero she was no stranger to Athlone. “I would have been up and down quite a lot to Ericsson, which has been hugely instrumental in building a cluster around software development skills.”
Fostering a Midlands tech ecosystem Owens says is vitally important for the long-term economic prosperity of the region. “We all work very closely with TUS, which is formerly the Athlone Institute of Technology, as well as NUI Galway, the University of Limerick and actually as far over as Dundalk IT. We work hard to promote the fact that there are careers in the Midlands and lots of graduate opportunities, especially for people with families who want to come home or settle here.
“The Midlands is is an important part of our DNA and the Sidero story.”
Owens said a key ingredient in Sidero’s growth story has been the adoption of digital services, otherwise known as digital transformation, by organisations. A report by Sidero last year indicated that Irish enterprises would spend an average of €564,000 on cloud and digital services investments.
“What’s driving our business is the adoption of digital services and companies are seeing this as a way to get an edge on their competitors. We deliver cloud services, we deliver software development and we build applications and systems that run in the cloud and that’s been hugely exciting for us.
“The pandemic, for sure, drove that and you just have to see the growth of the hyperscalers during the pandemic, the increase in remote working and our reliance on systems.”
“When we were kids, my dad grew an acre of strawberries and gave it to us, and each of us had to look after the pickers and bringing the strawberries to the co-op to find buyers. We were probably some of the first kids at the crossroads selling strawberries before we went out on a Saturday night”
She says the €85m Grow Digital Fund created by the Irish Government for SMEs will prove to be vitally important, and not just about building websites.
“During the pandemic there was a big focus on getting online to do a bit of digital promotion, but actually the Grow Digital Fund is around automating processes, it’s around AI and analytics and the newer tech, and to even access even a small part of that can enable some really great results for customers.”
Owens is cognisant of the wider slow-down in the tech market, at least from a hiring perspective. “I think though that overall the demand for skills continues. Our graduate programme is an important part of that, working with the universities, and we’re looking at apprenticeship programmes as well.
“Frankly, we crawl the world looking for talent and we bring in people from all corners of the world and we have developed a hugely diverse workforce with something like 27 different nationalities.
“It’s a double-edge sword because organisations can’t find people or hold onto people, so it drives our growth as well. Hiring really clever graduates and experienced people means you’ve got to keep them interested, you’ve got to look after them and you’ve got to consider their careers and what’s important to them.”
A particular passion for Owens is encouraging more girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). “There weren’t too many girls in my class at DCU when I started studying computer applications. But equally we’re not seeing many ladies coming into Sidero either. We try to promote it as much as we can but it’s also worth pointing that not all jobs in tech require you to be a coder.
“I studied software engineering and I moved into pre-sales and then into consulting.”
Indeed Owens’ career has traversed the gamut of the tech industry in Ireland. After graduating from DCU she worked with Horizon Technologies and founded Commtech Distribution with her brother in 1999. She went on to hold senior business development, general management and leadership roles with Version 1, EMC and Sungard before joining Sidero in 2020.
She said that careers in tech can be varied. “There’s a lot of scope to move around. If you’ve strong interpersonal skills in particular, you can work in project management, scrum management, there are lots of opportunities.”
She agrees the tech industry needs to do a better job around promoting the variety of roles that exist in tech.
“A lot of our senior team are women, some came into the industry as female engineers, and we need to encourage that as well. I’m really proud of some of the work that my team have been doing around STEM out in the schools in primary level. They all run these cool little projects with the kids and are trying get them to think differently around technology and engineering as disciplines.”
Even though she studied technology and systems evolving to the business end of the tech industry was always likely for Owns.
“Look, I’m a farmer’s daughter from Carlow. My mum ran a guest house that ended up being featured on the front page of the New York Times travel section. When we were kids, my dad grew an acre of strawberries and gave it to us, and each of us had to look after the pickers and bringing the strawberries to the co-op to find buyers. We were probably some of the first kids at the crossroads selling strawberries before we went out on a Saturday night. And I guess that mentally was ingrained in me from early on.”
Making the Midlands a tech cluster means making it a no-brainer as a location for ambitious people who also want to improve their quality of life. “If you can have a 15-minute commute to the office, it makes life a lot easier. The cost of living here is much less than in a city, accessing schools is not a huge issue and it could be ideal for people who have worked abroad but want a senior job in a growing company.”
Managing Sidero’s growth and scaling journey is Owens’ top priority for the year ahead. “We’re growing fast. We announced 75 new jobs last year and we’ve hired almost all of those people. So we’re now at 230 people in Athlone and I imagine that we will continue to expand. We will probably look at opening another office in one of the major centres in Ireland, depending on the economy. We’ve been very successful this year with some big government contracts, which I’m excited about.
“We are now the largest privately-owned indigenous software business in Ireland, which after all of the consolidation in the industry lately, is hard to believe.
“So we will continue to drive that success story.”