Magic Software has been a global vendor of application platforms for approximately 25 years and is based in more than 50 countries. David Akka, Managing Director for UK, Eire and Nordics at Magic Software took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to Justin Richards about his work, cloud computing and project management.

Can you tell me a little bit about Magic Software and what it does? 

Magic’s entire concept for products is metadata engines, which are ready-made business application engines. These contain pre-written technical and administrative functions and services. They enable users to bypass the intensive technical code-writing stage of application development and move quickly on to deployment.

To give an example, if someone wants to retrieve a record from a database and bring it to the screen, with many other environments or technologies they will need to learn everything to do with the database.

This includes how to create and open cursors, retrieve techniques, data manipulation queries etc, all the nitty-gritty of the databases. By using application platforms all a developer needs to define are what kind of databases are required, where the data is stored and where to present it. In a nutshell all they have to do is describe what to do, rather than how to do.

Because our technology is based on a metadata engine, the biggest advantage of that is that applications creating using our systems can run on different infrastructures, so we can run on the Wintel (Windows/Intel) environment all the way to UNIX or SUN or HP. We can run the same application on the cloud and on mobile devices from exactly the same database.

What it allows people to do, for example, is to develop an application for the desktop, as open clients, to take that particular code, without changing it, without developing it again, just to take a different engine and to develop it on the cloud or on their mobile devices. 

So the system is quite a flexible one?

Quite a flexible system. The platform is involved almost throughout the entire technical stack, so we run on almost every platform, work on almost every database, with almost any technology used today. We have customers, for example, who started with DOS application and then when Windows came out all that they needed to do was to deploy the Windows engine.

When the internet came out then they used an internet engine and now when the cloud comes out we have the ability to change again, either take the Windows engine or the internet engines and use these over the cloud.

Cloud computing is the hot topic at the moment. Has it made your company’s job easier? How do you see cloud computing moving forward in the future?

Cloud computing has become such a hot topic, in my opinion, due to the micro/macro factors that work together. In the enterprise software market there are three or four main players right now who don’t really invest a lot in innovation, nor in R & D.

Most of the investment diagnosis is done by mergers and acquisition and there is some sort of expectation that eventually the end user pays for that. On the other hand, with the recession right now, we need to try to reduce the total costs of IT in any organisation and introduce innovation at a lower price. 

More and more IT managers are spending too much money on maintenance rather than on innovation themselves and should try to find a way to reduce that maintenance or to reduce the total cost of the ownership of the IT service. So with a lack of innovation and high maintenance costs it’s little wonder why organisations are looking for another way forward.

Another factor to consider is the growing mobile workforce. Issues such as supply chain management, working remotely, location-based logic etc, will push organisations to move more and more logic to mobile devices.

Smaller companies can take a very flexible approach to development and go and put it on the cloud and very quickly introduce innovation into CRM, HR, IT. Not just to sell the application, but actually to distribute the application directly to the end user without needing to introduce any capital into that, so therefore those companies of as few as five people can go and compete against the giants right now.

Cloud computing is the buzz word at the moment and there are numerous definitions as to what cloud computing is. The one thing that does remain a major issue is the security of the cloud; how do you see the security side of things within the cloud?

I think that security is a very important factor. Many CIOs right now talk about development strategy, of a doughnut strategy for the cloud. This has the core of the business kept inside the organisation and then all the things they think they can look at in the cloud are like a doughnut around the core. Perhaps, in future, when they feel more comfortable to keep their ‘crown jewels’ outside the core, in the cloud, they will, and security is the most important factor in that decision.

There is a lot of innovation there, a lot of new technologies around security right now. For example, a couple of days ago Gartner came up with a report about cloud and its key emphasis was on about private clouds.

On the one hand it’s a bit of a paradox, because the whole rationale of the cloud is to try to share resources, share CPUs, to share databases, to share bandwidth. On the other hand it very much makes sense because of human behaviour. Everyone burns their fingers with the best bits, everyone wants to try to take it step by step, but they don’t want to be the first one to be there with their data on the internet in case someone hacks into the system.

So they’d choose the elements of cloud that they wanted?

Absolutely. If you take that example of the private cloud, one of the things we are allowing companies today, if they are developing the white labelling private cloud, it will actually keep the database and everything to do with data on promise. So our applications platform knows that wherever their database is on the cloud it will allow people to have multiple locations all around the globe. VPN is a consequence of that and is an example of one of the versions of security that we are pushing very hard. 

For companies who feel reluctant at this stage to keep the data in the cloud the confirmation of identity over the clouds is a very important element for security. A lot of innovation is happening right now, so no doubt it is a very important factor. I think a lot more work needs to be done between the application and the doughnuts. The industry will be forced to come up with more and more adequate solutions for that. But it will always be one of the issues they will be concerned with.

If you were giving tips to someone regarding getting involved in cloud computing what sort of tips would you give, particularly to small businesses looking to move in that direction?

I think number one is don’t forget the users.

The big players today, I think, sometimes spread themselves too wide and too thin and may not adhere to every need or requirement of their end users and therefore provide an inferior service. I would suggest smaller businesses try to look into some sort of niche market and try to develop highly functional ‘killer’ applications. If they’ve done their homework on cloud computing correctly, they can actually reach everyone on earth right now. That would actually allow them, I think, to create a fantastic company.

There’s a company called Success Factors. The company, within three or four years, managed to get to the level where they had $800m turnover. If they had gone through the direct marketing route, they would not be able to do it to that degree. In a relatively short period of time, through utilisation of cloud technology, they managed to build a very, very good business, but they are very niche and they are very focused and highly functional, so this is the key.

I’d say try to take that kind of specific niche and run with it.

What sort of factors of cost savings are we talking about when it comes to using cloud computing?

It’s very difficult to put a figure on it; it very much depends on the company. Let’s say if an organisation could traditionally have spent between say $800,000 to $1.2m on a solution over three or four years, I think that could be dropped to around $200,000-300,000. That’s what we see, or that’s how we understand the savings involved here. Maybe slightly more with a little bit of customisation, but these are generally the sort of numbers we can talk about.

Can you give me some background about yourself?

I did a computer science and maths degree, which I finished when I was 18. After that I went and worked as a programmer in a government organisation and I went up through the ranks all the way concentrating on project management and I worked there for seven years. During that time I did another degree in communication and philosophy.

After that I moved to another organisation where I was a CTO. That organisation mainly dealt with printed media and solutions for printed media. We supported basically seven or eight different products and then I did a Masters in computer science and during that time I joined Magic Software.

I joined originally as a project manager. I was Professional Services Manager for the UK, Professional Services Manager for EMEA, I did business development for the Nordic region, during which time I finalised my MBA in Manchester, before I became the Regional Manager of UK Nordic and Ireland.

Why do you think so many IT projects are perceived to go awry? Do you have any advice for project managers on how best to keep the project on track?

I think there are a few factors that are important for project success, and it’s very basic stuff, but almost every fiasco that one reads about, one or two of these elements always exist, the most prominent of which is where there is a gap between what the end user understands the system to be and what the IT people understand it to be. 

When they’ve collected their requirements, when they’ve analysed everything, when they’ve started designing the model of the system, I would advise them to try to look carefully at the IT system that the end user can see.

The second major issue, I think, is that a lot of projects fail to carry out a risk assessment, which I think is an important step to take. Regardless of the schedule, the budget etc, I think a project manager needs to, once he’s got the go ahead from the Board or whoever the stakeholder is, to always, everyday, think about only one thing, about risk management.

They need to be proactive about reducing risks. Of course there will always be unexpected things, and there are always things that one cannot foresee, but relatively speaking they will probably have a higher success factor.

You work with quite a range of companies. Do you have to deal with them very differently?

It depends on the culture. For example, in the US there is a very big differentiation between big organisations and small organisations in the way they think and act. I found that difference in Europe to be slightly less.

I think even managers of departments or sectors of big organisations still think they are managing their own business. I think that’s one element to my answer. 

When you’re looking at really big organisations, ones that span across various continents and cultures, one of the biggest things to manage, beyond the obvious communication issues, is to try to be tolerant and try to understand people’s reasons for their behaviour and understand differences in cultures. Sensitivity and tolerance towards different people and cultures is important.

What are your predictions for the IT industry in the next few years?

I think too little money is invested on innovation and I think this will change obviously because of the cloud. I think initially it was just a few companies that were dominating this market, but I think that will change significantly. I think the entire mobile - I don’t want to call it a trend because it is already a reality - I think it will become even more significant. 

For example, there’s a new device made by a Japanese company and it’s basically a necklace, a necklace that everyone can wear. And it’s like your own personal computer, but now it’s with you all day. You just tap everything on the air in front of you and that’s your keyboard. I think you are going to see a lot more innovation around personalising computers in a way that is not just about making it a nice colour, but something that becomes part of the person. It’s not an implant, but smart jewellery. 

Basically, it’s very much like how you carry a telephone around today, but instead that will be your desktop, and you will be able to do everything you need from that on-body personal computer.

If data and information defined the 90s, and the beginning of this decade was very much about mobile, I think in the last four or five years we have started to see again platforms, and the application of platforms take prominence. People don’t want to keep dealing with separate tasks, they would like to get some sort of library or already proven work and use them to configure rather than to develop; I think we’ve seen quite a lot of that in the last five years and will continue to do so.

I also think that for customers the amount of data that an organisation can quickly manage to accumulate is an issue and the need for IT tools dash-boarding or ways to basically make sense of data are increasingly important. The trend of normalising data, moving from operational data to transactional data, I think will be a big force that will basically shape enterprising very much.

What are your views on professionalism in IT?

Actually this is something we are very much highlighting at Magic Software. As application platform vendors we have a lot of developers who are using our technology and we very much believe in a certification process.

Learning from experience, or even learning from reading a book is one thing, but once you actually need to revise and learn for an exam and pass that exam, there’s some sort of base line of what people know or what people don’t know, or what sort of service level they can provide, what sort of quality they have in their writing.

I would very much welcome the government getting involved and encouraging this. I think it’s not an art, it’s a science and there’s a lot of research being applied into the industry and once they that is applied then people need to be certified to use that technology.

How do you think the IT industry could improve its image? Do you think it needs to?

I think the generation now that comes to work is a generation that has grown up with the internet already. I think for them using a computer is not a geeky thing anymore. I have a niece who is 14, and if she doesn’t know something, even a word, she can go to Google and search for it. I didn’t have that privilege when I was young.

The point I’m trying to make is that for her a computer is some sort of an extension of her knowledge base. She’s 14 and already she understands that. I think right now we really see the third generation of the internet. They play a lot of games and so on, but in four or five years’ time these people are going to come to work for us, and whether they would like to be in the IT profession or to use IT all day, the geekiness will be basically part of the tool. 

Just as no one looks at you as a race driver just because you drive a car, no one will look at them as a geek because they’re using a computer, programming one or developing security for one. I don’t think the industry should do anything now. It will be a natural revolution with the internet generation when they come into the workforce.

What is the hardest part of your job and what is the most satisfying part of your job?

The biggest satisfaction is when you talk to an organisation’s executive and you see their pain and you understand that you can actually help them and actually help build them a fantastic solution that will really address many of their problems. And when it’s finished and the entire organisation starts using a solution that we delivered or helped to deliver, and they’re pleasantly surprised to see those benefits, that gives me and my team great satisfaction.

What gives me less satisfaction? To be honest there’s a lot of travel. When I used to manage Scandinavia for Magic I lived in a suitcase for about two years and ever since then every time I need to travel for a long time it’s not the nicest thing. But that comes with the job really.

Did you have a role model who inspired you to go into computing or is it something you got naturally interested in?

I found it quite boring to begin with - I never had a computer before I went into computer science and that came about by accident. I joined the government and they basically almost pushed me to try to do that and I just loved it.

It was basically because they paid for my degree; they didn’t force me, but really put a lot of pressure on me to go and do it and I said ok and it was why I did that for a job.

Is there anything you would do differently now looking back?

I am quite happy with the way my life has progressed and how my career has progressed too. But I think it took me a long time. I’ve made some mistakes, but can live with them.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary?
It’s not a factor, whatever makes sense at the time, whatever the best solution is.

Apple or PC
PC; I do have a nice one and I love it.

Blackberry or Smart phone, you’ve got an iPhone?
I have a Blackberry too. I try to keep my emails separate from my phone. I don’t really like the Blackberry platform but I understand the benefit of it. With the iPhone I like the entire interface and the way it looks (it’s futuristic) and its functions, so definitely smart phone.

Wii or Playstation?
Wii. I have a Playstation too.

Geek or nerd?
There are a lot of elements in me that are geeky and nerdy and a lot of those elements are very cool as well.