IT automation service provider in Focus: Ultima
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Moving from the pre-PC, start-up era of the Eighties and early Nineties to technology giants Microsoft, Acer and VMware has given Ultima CEO Scott Dodds a breadth of experience few can boast.
We spoke to Scott to understand the forward-thinking approach of IT (Intelligent Transformation) service provider Ultima and its automation transformation process…
Tell us about your career path.
The way I describe starting my career to our new starters is to say I started in the pre-PC era, which kind of blows their minds! I started out back in the early Eighties, having left college. I went straight into the very early days of what was to become the tech industry in the UK. I was working, believe it or not, on Apple software at that time, which definitely surprises the younger talent in our office! I began working for one of the very first so-called “resellers” that were set up in the UK, a company called Fletcher Dennys Systems.
During those early days, we did a bit of everything. Then the IBM PC arrived, and we moved away from Apple, and that was the birth of everything PC, Microsoft and more. A few years down the road, I moved into a distribution business called Rapid Recall, which was one of the very early distribution channel partners in the UK. I spent about five or six years with them before setting up my own reseller company called RTM (Route To Market Ltd.), which was a bit of a crazy idea at the time, at the beginning of the Nineties. We sold software off of CDs! It was a huge change to the traditional business model because we had no inventory, no stock.
I then took my first step into the corporate lifestyle by joining Compaq back in the early Nineties, and ran their channels and did various roles in the business for six or seven years. Then I left to join Acer in the UK, where I was sales director before becoming managing director. Four or five years later, I joined Microsoft, and stayed for about 10.5 years, acting as COO for the UK, and later running part of Western Europe for the midmarket and channels. I also had a year at VMware as VP for the mid-market and channels.
Four years ago now, I got back in touch with someone I worked with back in the Rapid Recall days. The founder of Ultima, Max McNeill and I worked in the same sales team back in the day. He asked me if I’d like to come and take a position at Ultima, then running successfully for 25 years, as CEO to take it to the next level. That’s how I became involved in the business.
You've worked the spectrum from bootstrapping startup to the corporate business world. What inspired you to move more permanently into the corporate arena?
When I first started, this wasn't a particularly organised industry. It was a bit like the Wild West to some extent; it still is today. But it was an exciting time to learn and start from nothing - in those days, you could get involved working with a technical focus or a sales and marketing focus, whatever you liked, because you were building the business as you went.
The driving interest for me was to always try and do new things. Ultimately, I think I always wanted to run my own business and be the COO or CEO. I tried to get as many different experiences as possible, which is an idea that I've tried to instill in the teams that have worked for me. If you have an ambition to drive a business in any direction, it's good to have varied experiences so you can bring your learnings to the table. Even when I worked for big companies like Microsoft, there was diversity in my role. Even for a company like Ultima, a mid-market sized company worth £120 million with around 400 people in the business, every day is an interesting challenge.
The scale of the opportunity led me to focus on a company like Ultima in the last few years, because you can channel all that varied technology experience into great outcomes for customers, using new cloud and hybrid technology.
"Aggregating technology is necessary in today’s world where the cloud essentially disaggregates everything. At Ultima, we do some very innovative work with technology to change business outcomes. "
Since you joined Ultima four years ago, what has the company’s growth trajectory been like?
Well, it's been in the double digits every year in terms of growth. We aim to keep that growth continual, although we are now less focused on revenue and the top line. We're more focused on profitability, and for us that’s about selling more complex technology.
One of the areas that we've moved into is an area we call “intelligent automation”. Our core business for many years has been around infrastructure - your data center, your network, your applications, your devices, i.e. the core infrastructure of your business. Over the last few years, we've been adding a lot of layers of intelligent automation through technology, such as robotic process automation (RPA). Chat bots, voice bots and other new technology is being introduced all the time.
We are blending all that technology together to make big savings in the cost of managing those infrastructure technologies through automation and new technology. It has been exciting for us to create new and innovative ways of supporting businesses through autonomous services. We have managed service capability, as well as the ability to fulfill the technology through licensing, cloud services and more. We’re really focused on bringing all that together and making the concept of intelligent transformation a reality for most of our clients.
Is the intelligent approach Ultima’s USP?
Absolutely. I describe intelligent transformation as “the new IT” – it’s no longer something that you learn about in school. IT is now in the DNA of businesses, but how to optimize it and make the leap to dramatic efficiency, flexibility and creativity can be difficult.
There's still lot of work to do in that arena for most companies, particularly in the UK. Core infrastructure technology over the last 25 to 30 years has blended with a lot of new ideas and new technologies to make it increasingly efficient, and part of our appeal to existing and potential clients is that we offer this layer of intelligent automation to make it more efficient and effective.
Industry: Information Technology & Services
HQ: Reading, Berkshire
Ownership: Privately Held
Size: 201-500 employees
How does Ultima guard against disruption?
One of the inoculations to disruption is how flexible our infrastructure platform is. You have to automate to innovate. When we talk to our clients, we consider how they set up the basic process of their business, which is repetitive and potentially involves several people. The process is often working on things that have relatively low value that could be done automatically with technology. We ask, “How do you release that human capital to go and do more creative things with your clients?” The concept of disruption is about giving yourself the flexibility to be innovative, and therefore disruptive, by using this new technology.
The biggest disruptor for most companies today is the speed of change. At Ultima, we’ve spent a lot of time in the last two or three years thinking about how fast we can make the changes to our own business to take advantage of new technology. We use the analogy of fast-flowing “digital rivers” to explain our mindset; if you are in a kayak in turbulent water, you have to keep moving with the flow of the river to stay afloat; if you’re not moving with the speed of the technology industry’s flow, or preferably faster than it, you’re going be disrupted. The capabilities of technology are moving exponentially faster every day, but automation is driving huge productivity gains and making companies more efficient and able to keep ahead of competitors. Additionally, the cloud provides unlimited scale for businesses to come up with ideas and implement them quickly. Essentially, what we do is to help our clients navigate the fast flows around them - that's our job.
How do you foresee the company growing and changing in the future?
Constantly is the answer! I think that that's one of the things that is inevitable now in the world of technology. Never mind our client's world and how they use technology, our own business has got to constantly adapt. One of the things that's implicit in being a technology partner to our clients is that we have to stay ahead of those “digital river” flows ourselves - we can't be left behind either. I call it “seeing around corners”. We have to plan at least 12 to 24 months out, which is really hard in this industry where everything changes rapidly by the month.
You have to try and predict where the market's going and establish what you need to build in terms of capabilities and skills. You have to ask yourself what type of organization and the type of technology and tools are needed to support clients in the coming years. If you don't make those decisions early enough, it's very difficult to catch up.
My experience is key to be able to understand how the big technology vendors such as Microsoft and VMware work and also how far ahead they are thinking in terms of their technology. Learning from that, and predicting that, is essentially betting on what you think is going to happen, but I think we're making pretty smart bets today to make our business competitive, and then translating that into success for our clients.
What lessons would you like to have known before you started out?
To constantly learn. With this industry, you almost have to learn in real time! One of the things I've learned is that you have to do your own learning and carry out your own research. You have to have a passion for your work.
What advice would you give others in your industry?
It's all about great people. Even with great technology, brilliant robotic processes and everything else, it doesn't replace any of the human capital and the human talent that you need for a business to be successful. All it does is augment it and support better decision-making. For any manager at any business, it's always about the talent you have and how you keep it, support it and encourage it. Not only that, but it’s also about how you blend your talent with the support tools and technologies that are available now. That includes AI, automation, and more; there’s a constant wave of new types of technology to make businesses competitive.
Additionally, there needs to be more diversity in terms of spreading talent across all the different areas of business. The industry still struggles to include women, and we need to spend more time on STEM education and opportunities for women coming into the business world.
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