Technologist in the spotlight: ID-Pal’s Robert O’Farrell

25 February 2019

How would you describe ID-Pal?

In a world where 80% of relationships are being commenced digitally, ID-Pal makes omni-channel Know Your Customer (KYC) processes, quick, seamless, effective and compliant.

What is the most significant technological advance of the last five years for ID-Pal?

The ability to completely integrate our solution into your own business processes and systems in less than week, with a fully branded solution, maintaining our industry leading user experience (UX).

What do you see as the biggest technology area of growth for ID-Pal in the next five years?

Our use of our existing network effects, leveraging blockchain to provide all our users with a biometrically encrypted re-usable profile, allowing our users to verify their identity in a blink.

What does your Technology Innovation strategy look like?

Our technology innovation strategy is multi-faceted, and can be categorised into two channels:

  1. Product pipeline
  2. Product backlog

The pipeline is populated by those features that are highlighted as key to expanding our hold on existing markets and reaching new markets. They come from market validation, partner feedback and customer feedback. This is the big-ticket items that are easier to identify but harder to implement right. This is what our full-time product team focuses on through direct market interaction and research.

The biggest impact in innovations though, often comes from the small things which is where our backlog proposals process comes in. Any member of staff with any idea at any time can propose them via our backlog proposals tools. There are no bad ideas and we usually get dozens every month. We all discuss those ideas via our collaboration tools and once a month promote the ones that are best aligned with our strategy to the backlog. Also once a month we pick the most impactful ideas from the backlog to build in the next month. Many of our best ideas come from this route of integrating company-wide innovation into our daily processes.

What does your current role involve?

At the heart of it, I am all about innovation: creating new features no-one has thought of; solving old problems in new ways; taking existing, seemingly disparate, solutions and combining in new ways. This often times comes not from what people need (the functional requirements) but from how you deliver it: the methodology use and the Non-Functional Requirements. That comes down to PURS and MeTRiCS: Performance, Usability, Reliability, Security, Maintainability, Testability, Re-usability, Configurability and Scalability.

As the CTO I cover all areas of responsibility on the technology side of the business:

  1. Core system architecture
  2. Product management
  3. Development operations (DevOps)
  4. IT Infrastructure
  5. Desk-side support
  6. IT security

Why did you first get into technology?

I have always enjoyed solving complex problems and building things from the ground up. I learnt my first programming languages at 13 and originally wanted to design genetically personalised and targeted medicines (anti-sensory medicines).

What was the first technology job you had?

There’s two answers to that really: I was designing websites as a contractor when I was 16, did some internships in the likes of the Department of Finance (eProcurement) and contracted for IBM while I was in college (network admin for Diageo and billing lead for NTL). My first full-time post though was in IBM where I was senior developer responsible for the online motor tax website and also worked on the national vehicle and driver file (the system that manages motor tax, driving licences, car registration etc.)

If you were your 18 year old self, what would you advise them to do?

Don’t be so afraid to accept help from others and don’t be so hung up about what’s “fair”. There’s nothing wrong with getting a leg-up from wherever you can get it. Someone else can only get you in the door, you’re the one that has to deliver and therefore ultimately you deserve that opportunity.

In your opinion, what is the most significant technological advance of the last five years?

This is a little off-piste, but I feel the context is important: I’ve no doubt many people will say blockchain, but frankly blockchain is a solution that is only useful in circumstances where peer tracking of data to give the impression of having more reliable data is important. Most people say “blockchain” as if it’s a business model, when it should be looked at as a potential solution to the problem you’re trying to solve. Not a business model. That being said, for me the biggest advance has been the large-scale availability of cloud computing. I remember having to rent time on the super-computer in Queen’s for my simulations. Now I can get a whole array of computers in the cloud, far more powerful in a matter of moments for next to nothing. This has put the power to scale at the fingertips of even the smallest businesses and underlies huge amounts of innovation being brought to market.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

It’s hard to say. If I had to pick one thing, I’d say it was when the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland Electricity networks merged in 2007: I designed and built the trading platform that ESB use to manage the market. It had to forecast how much energy over 90% of the network in Ireland would use in every half hour period of the day, forecast how much energy each power station could generate in each period, trade all that energy on the open market and send the instructions to the power stations of when to generate energy.

What do you see being the biggest technology area of growth in the next five years?

I see technologies becoming far more federated over the coming years. We’re slowly moving away from models where the company offering the service, controls the service and/or the data. GDPR is one such example in more traditional businesses: it may be seen as regulation for data protection, but the impact it’s having is that control is no longer centralised. It is being distributed through-out all users in network. In the more digital spaces, this is something that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all struggling with now as early adopters of this paradigm, although their levels of adoption vary. Facebook adopted it least, and are getting grilled daily: by retaining some central control, they are also being held accountable for not only using that control for profit, but also to regulate the platform.

Within your industry what will be the biggest change in the next five years?

The European Union has led the way on regulation with GDPR. At the moment only larger businesses are truly capable of supporting this, but that will expand as will the worldwide roll-out of similar regulations. That in turn will mean people need to move away from traditional ways of working to far more transparent, technology-enabled solutions.

Who has been the most influential technology person in your career to date?

Personally, probably Garret Taylor. He was my first solution architect in IBM and gave me a fantastic framework of a way to think about technology. He taught me how to learn from things others did well, avoid the things others did poorly and most of all, how to see the impact of every small decision on the bigger picture, architecturally. As a public figure, probably Luis von Ahn: his theories on Human Computing gave us a way to leverage what humans can do well to maximise the power of machines in ways never conceived of before. He invented Captcha, ReCaptcha and Duolingo. As a side-effect of his designs, people don’t even realise they’ve helped to digitise all the books ever written, translate the entire internet and are now helping computers to understand visual images. That thinking revolutionised how I thought about large scale design.

What technology company do you most admire, and why?

Atlassian. What they managed to achieve, bootstrapping their way up to become one of the biggest companies in the world is incredible. They took a problem everyone was already offering solutions for, DevOps, and just did it better. Not by any big revolutionary changes, but by the painstaking effort of doing thousands of little things right.

Where do you put Ireland in terms of technology innovation compared to other countries?

In terms of ideas we’re very supportive. ID-Pal would be nowhere right now without Enterprise Ireland. However, we have a huge gap in supports between the small and the very large. Pre-seed funding can be gotten, venture capital funding can be gotten (albeit to a lesser extent than in the US for example) but decent seed funding is very difficult to come by here. I feel that so many people suffered such large losses in the recession, that we lack bravery. Government programs lack bravery too: there are funds there, but the oversight that comes with them is crippling to a small growing company. We need to be braver in backing strong ideas to scale.

Which start-up does most to impress you at the moment?

Steady is probably my favourite start-up idea out there. We met the guys in Columbus in November 2017 and were instantly impressed. They enable shift workers to find regular shift work, and as an aggregated provider, enable those people to generate strong credit reports for the first time, and therefore enable them to access credit. In world with MyTaxiUber etc this kind of solution is critical to where society is going.

What’s the latest personal technology gadget you have bought?

Lenovo Yoga with a stylus. It’s a laptop and a tablet, and allows me to take notes, annotate screens and create design with a pen-type interaction.

Favourite podcast/blog?

Probably Alexander Jarvis’ blog. He was a friend in college he became one of the founders of Groupon. His insight into start-ups, fund raising, pitching and the practical tools he provides are invaluable.

What’s the best app you have ever downloaded?

Monday.com (formerly dapulse). It has absolutely transformed how I manage distributed teams and co-ordination.

If I was to look at your Spotify account right now what would I see?

A massively eclectic list of Foo Fighters, Armin van Buuren, Muse, Sarah Brightman, DJ Tiesto, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springstein

If I was to look at your Netflix account right now what would I see?

Lots of Marvel stuff, sci-fi, fantasy and dark detective shows.

What do you do in your spare time?

Play piano, sing, watch rugby and football, lots of cycling and some DIY.  I enjoy a few pints with most of those!

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