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Episode 90: “Impacts of Brexit on management and delivery of projects in Ireland” with Pat Lucey

Aspira is an award-winning Enterprise IT and Project Management Professional Services firm of which Pat Lucey is a co-founder.

Prior to that, Pat was a Project Manager with Motorola for 17 years and also worked with Siemens in Munich.

In this interview, Pat shares some of his Project Management experience in addition to discussing the impact of Brexit on the management and delivery of projects in Ireland. Today, he is based in Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland.

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Can you share with our listeners your experience in project management to date and the company that you are with now?

Sure. If I jump right back, I studied Electronic Engineering in college and after that, I went to work for Siemens in Munich. Then, I came back to Ireland to work for multinational Motorola but that’s what brought me to Cork. I was there for 17 years, as part of that time I headed up the project management division there. We had teams across 9 countries, delivering infrastructure projects globally.

Motorola decided to pull out of Ireland back in 2007, so at that point, I decided along with a colleague of mine to set up our own company. We set up “Aspira” back then, a project management consulting and IT company. For the past 11 years now, we’ve built up that team, we started with 6 people, all former colleagues of mine and now we’re up to 120 people.

There is still a good spattering of Motorola experience in there, about 35 ex-colleagues from Motorola and the rest of people who we have brought on board over the past 10 or 11 years. We focus a lot on delivering project management services, consulting training as well as IT, software and testing services.

Can you tell us, people you’re working with or the industries you are working in, is it is a primarily IT projects?

It’s probably 80% IT projects and the footprint is quite wide. We work with everything from utilities and energy companies to the banking and financial services sector through to the medical devices and pharma. It’s one of the big advantages of being a project management specialist company is the challenges are similar across the different industries.

For me, it’s all learning experience. We did work with one of the large forestry companies, and going into it, my expectations were to plant trees and 4 or 3 years later you cut them down. Didn’t think it would be too complexed. Of course, the reality is that they have massive IT in supply chain logistical operations. I was very quickly humbled and learning the complexities of the business and the system they work with.

So really there were like a bunch of PhDs with chainsaws and it was very interesting, very informative. So, what I really enjoy about my job now is that for IT working in different sectors and different industries and learning so much as you engage with different clients.

Can you share with us, if one comes to mind, one of your most rewarding projects and then maybe one of your most challenging projects?

The most rewarding project is an easy one, it’s a software development project. We won a public tender about four years ago from the National Health Service and it was to build a brand new system for the National cancer registry database. Basically, they needed to refresh the technology used to track in signs of cancer and to measure the effectiveness of different treatments for that cancer.

So, it was a very difficult project, we were interfacing with a lot of different systems. But the reason that’s been so rewarding is that we know that through the work we’ve done and the system launched last summer, even if we make a tiny fraction of a percentage of improvement into the ability to measure effectiveness of cancer treatments, we will have made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. So that’s the most rewarding project we have worked on. It took about 3 years and it was a really tough project, but the long-term benefits are fantastic.

The most challenging project was an interesting one. It was in the pharma-medical device sector where one large multinational decided to buy a division from another large multinational and set up a whole new part of its business. So, you had a very complex situation where there was an acquisition going on and you had to maintain FDA approval to keep producing the product. 14 difference enterprise-level IT system had to be moved from one system to another, from one ARP to another ARP, from one training management system to another, from one HR system to another and they all had to go live on the same day.

So, that date has been burnt into my brain coming up to a couple of years ago and I struggle to remember my wedding anniversary but I still remember that day. There were so many systems and moving parts involved. It was complex and there was no room for error. I am thankful to say that it went live that day with was a lot of blood sweat and tears involved in getting up there but it was a very successful project.

Getting involved originally, my immediate thought was can we de-scope here. There was too much in this project, too many things that could go wrong, but for various reasons, there was no room to cut scope, so it wasn’t an extremely complex project with thousands of people involved and lots and lots of potential risk of things going wrong. I can’t say that everything ran smoothly, there were certainly bumps on the way. Thankfully, the ultimate objective was achieved.

Is there anything that comes to mind that you wouldn’t do again with that particular project?

Looking back at it, I remember one of our project managers on the team, when I looked at her timesheet for the month of April, she had worked 29 days and they were long days, rather than remind her that there were 30 days in April, that let us know really “we need to get more people here”.

So, if I was going back and starting again I think I would have signed more resources from day one because it turned out to be a bigger project than it looked like from the start. She worked 29 out of 30 calendar days, and I still joke about it that she could have fitted in that extra day, just to do it for the full house.

Moving on to Brexit, in terms of big projects, what impact do you think Brexit might have for project delivery in Ireland, for Ireland and Irish companies?

If I look at it, both the macro and micro level. At the micro level, our own company “Aspira”. We were planning to set up a UK office last year, 2017. And with the result of the Brexit referendum, we decided to hold off on that because of the uncertainty. I that it’s the uncertainty rather than the fact of Brexit that is the problem.

Nobody knows what is going to happen with exchange rates, import-export, the money, the hundreds and thousands of international agreements that are in place. It just causes a huge question mark over doing business in the UK.

At a macro level, it actually reminds me, I mentioned earlier I lived in Germany, I lived there when the Berlin Wall came down back in 1989 and it reminds me of a little bit of that. Moneywise it’s the opposite scenario. When their wall came down and there was the whole plan of the reunification of Germany and now we are talking about potentially hard borders going in place.

I think there are some lessons we can learn from the German reunification experience. Certainly, when the wall came down, there was the euphoria in the country and the organization I worked in, everybody was going around pretty much doing high-fives which is a typically Germanic approach. Really quickly, the issue has turned to more practical matters.

There was political willingness on both sides to achieve reunification but the economists and the broadcasters wrote it’s impossible. There were hundreds of international agreements that East Germany was part of and that it could not be achieved. But it was achieved within a year because those political will on both sides.

The German economy suffered, they have been paying the cost of that reunification for the past 30 years. But I think it was the political will on all sides is what made it happen in such a short time frame. If you compare that with Brexit, it just seems to be complete uncertainty there and it doesn’t seem from the outside that there is a clear path and agreements on what the UK is trying to achieve.

So, again, and you know a one-year timeframe probably talking about it more like a 10-year timeframe before it gets completed. That’s the bit that’s really hurting us. For the Irish economy, the UK is obviously a very big export market for us, but it’s not the only market.

In our case, we are now looking to set up an operation in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. So, to go straight to mainland Europe rather than the UK. I suspect that Brexit will force Irish companies to look beyond the UK and look to the mainland Europe and traditionally to the US.

We have seen the changes in the US economy since president Trump come into power and the emphasis he is putting on keeping jobs at home. It’s interesting that there are more jobs created by Irish companies in the US than those that are created by US companies in Ireland.

Do think that going to Amsterdam is just as easy as going to London and what advice do you have for the companies that are doing the same here?

So, we have found it to be relatively straightforward and I mean that the language of business is still English. Thankfully, they have very strong speaking skills in the Netherlands, so there’s no issue there. Location wise, it’s a little bit further to get there but once you’re there you’re in mainland Europe and getting to other cities in Germany or France is a lot easier.

So, it does have some advantages from that regard. In terms of costs, whether you’re in London or Amsterdam, they are both expensive. There is not much difference in that regard. The one area I was expecting the Irish business to benefit from Brexit was in the area of finance and banking.

The UK-based banks will no longer have passport rights for international banking transactions, out of necessity international banks will have to move and set up an operation within the EU. So, Ireland certainly was bidding to be the location for some of those moves. So far, it looks like Frankfurt and Paris have been gaining more in terms of companies relocating their banking centers within the EU.

Can you tell us your own thoughts on the 2040 plan in Ireland?
It’s just on the past week or so that the Irish government brought out their project Ireland 2040, a program which lays out the strategy for the next 20 years of spending. They’re planning to spend something like 150 billion euros to build out the infrastructure.

Couple of interesting things in there, they are looking to rebalance so that the large amount of growth which happens in Dublin at the moment be balanced by emphasizing growth in some of the other regions. They plan to build things like Cork-Limerick motorway which is badly needed.

By having that, I think we would have a tech corridor there that would be a rival to anything from the US to International Airport, two major cities, universities, it would be a fantastic location and alternative to the Dublin region where you have a better quality of life, I would argue, and the access to all the latest technology.

Also, to bring a lot of emphasis into the stem subjects which again is a hobby of mine. I think we need to have more and more emphasis on science, technology, and engineering, and mathematics in second and third level college because that’s where the future is going to be.

One criticism I would have is the northwest region of Ireland, which is the region closest to Northern Ireland and will be most affected by Brexit. Still, even in this new plan, it is getting less investment than the other parts of the country. So, I will call on the Irish government to invest more in that area because the people will most immediately be impacted by any border.

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