Belfast Telegraph

IT boss spent six years in RAF before computing career

By John Mulgrew

Patrick McAliskey found the drive and work ethic to forge his future career in one of Northern Ireland’s leading IT firms after a six year spell working as an engineer in the RAF.

The Lurgan man is now eyeing up the potential of floating Belfast-based Novosco on the London Stock Exchange as a way of growing the burgeoning business yet further.

Just this year the firm — which was set up along with business partner John Lennon —walked away with two gongs at the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, including taking the top company award.

Novosco, which employs 111 people and has been in business for 20 years, won attention from the judges for its consistency in winning contracts worth millions of pounds, both at home and in Great Britain.

After setting up the firm in 2007, 47-year-old father-of-three Patrick McAliskey has now grown the business into a multi-award-winning IT firm, which has expanded in size by around 20% each year since its inception.

“We are a managed cloud computing provider. We build IT infrastructure for large organisations, for things such as large NHS trusts — such as Belfast,” he said.

“We would build all of their servers which are used to run the hospital. They have hundreds of applications and we build that for them and are responsible for managing the whole thing.”

Novosco now counts almost 20 NHS trusts among its clients, along with around 40 of the 100 top firms here, as well as several housing associations.

This year, it secured contracts worth more than £2.1m with a large housing association in the south-east of England.

Novosco was born out of the forging together of two firms, with Mr McAliskey’s Real Time Systems first set up back in 1994, after a spell with FG Wilson and a furniture firm in south Belfast.

It was a busy year for the former RAF man, who also got married and was in the process of building a house.

The company then came together with John Lennon’s 4sol to form Novosco in 2007. It’s grown from a workforce of around 35, to a business turning over £20m a year.

It’s also expanded from its Northern Ireland Science Park base to include offices in Dublin, Manchester and Cork.

“We grew by 20% in 2014 and our turnover is around the £20m mark,” he said.

“And we have a lot of young staff, lots of people with energy. We have hired about 30-35 staff in recent years, and are continuing to grow.”

The company has grand plans for yet further growth, and Mr McAliskey said following in the footsteps of fellow IT firm Kainos by becoming a public company, could be one option open to Novosco in the future.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t be a £100m turnover firm with 200-300 people. We would like to see us expanding by 20%. We have a strong management team and a positive outlook, and growth is central.

“We are making big investments this year and will carry on doing yet more recruiting.

“Northern Ireland is very short on listed companies, and it would be a lovely option and something we would look at.”

It was a career in the RAF which helped Mr McAliskey gather key skills, as well growing his love of engineering and IT.

“I was always into electronics and into aeroplanes. I left school after my O-levels, and I left with not many of them,” he said.

“I joined the RAF and trained as an electronics engineer, working on instrument landing systems — anything that safely gets a plane on the ground.”

The former St Michael’s, Lurgan, pupil joined the service in 1985, during the height of the Troubles, and was still serving at the beginning of the Gulf War.

“I had to live in a bunker for six months,” he said.

“For me, it was a great opportunity to get trained. I then moved into software development and was tying the knowledge of electronics and moving into infrastructure.

“There was great discipline and I really needed it. It was character building.”

When he’s not at the helm of his Belfast-based firm, Mr McAliskey spends much of his downtime with his wife Anita — who he met in during their school years — and children, Niamh (15) Oisin (12) and Enya (10).

And some of his family are already showing an interest in following their father’s footsteps.

“Enya has been in the office with me, and interviewed staff about working here. There’s a bit of wanting to be an entrepreneur,” he said.

“My eldest daughter wants to do something in business. They are very good at their studies and also all love their sport.

“We do a lot of sport, and love going on holidays. I’ve also put up a polytunnel and grow vegetables.”

As the firm continues to flourish and expand, Mr Aliskey said he’s keen to ensure Novosco “puts itself out there as the best place to work”.

“We are getting good people in Northern Ireland, but there will be more people coming in through foreign direct investment (FDI), so you have to put yourself out there as the best place to work.”

“We recently got the whole company to climb Slieve Donard. It’s all about feeling part of the Novosco team.”

This time it's personal

Q: Do you prefer the town or country, and why?

A: I was brought up in a town, but I prefer the country, as it’s a great place to chill out. I recently installed a polytunnel in my garden to grow vegetables. I find it a great way take my mind off work. If I lived in town, I wouldn’t have space for it.

Q: How has the IT industry in NI changed?

A: It has changed almost beyond recognition in the past decade. We’ve had a big influx of foreign direct investment from companies like Citi, CME and Puppet Labs, which has supported growth. We’ve also had local IT companies like Kainos and First Derivatives list on the stock market, and there are a range of IT companies, like ourselves, competing and winning in external markets. Graduates in ICT now have an expectation of getting well-paid employment in the sector, which is a big change from a decade ago when the sector was still recovering from the dotcom bust.

Q: How do you foresee it growing in the next decade? Where is our industry placed globally?

A: There is no doubt the sector will continue to grow. Looking at the continuing trend of inward investment, the rate of growth and the number of good start-ups gives cause for optimism. One of the areas set to grow is managed cloud services. Currently, a relatively small amount of companies’ data is in data centres, but more and more of it will be transferred. For us at Novosco, helping firms with their strategy for the cloud is a big opportunity.

The Northern Ireland IT sector stacks up very well in the grand scheme globally. You only have to look at how well local tech companies are competing outside of Northern Ireland. Because of the skills we have, we at Novosco are able to win large contracts in Great Britain against multi-national business that have 10-20 times our turnover.

Q: Have you any career advice for anyone trying to work in the sector?

A: The key piece of advice I would give is to try to work out what part of IT you want to work in, then figure out which degree best matches that area and try to get as much experience as you can. Getting experience outside of the island of Ireland could also be beneficial. Once you are in employment, it’s essential to keep learning and developing. This is something we put a priority on.

Q: What was the last book that you read?

A: I’m a big fan of audiobooks, and tend to listen to a book a week in the car. The most recent I listened to was The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, by Reid Hoffman. It is a fantastic book about how you can build a better relationship with your staff. In terms of non-business audiobooks, I recently listened to Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall. Also a fantastic book, in a very different way.

Q: What was your last holiday? What will be next?

A: The last was a family holiday at Cambrils, Spain. We stayed on a campsite with plenty for the kids to do, including a swimming pool. It was great to relax. We’re booked again for next year.

Q: What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?

A: The Ramones would be one of my favourites. I love their song I Just Wanna Have Something To Do. It brings back memories of being at school.

Q: What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports?

A: My favourite sport is football, and I’m a big Manchester United fan. I have been since 1976, when they were beaten by Southampton in the FA Cup final. I was eight, and it is probably my earliest memory. I remember crying. I do quite a lot of running. I have completed three of the six global marathons — New York, London and Berlin — and my ambition is to do all six, the others being Boston, Chicago and Tokyo.

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