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Talking Tech: The secrets of a successful career in Digital Transformation

Editor Mark Baker talks exclusively to Neill Smith, Associate Partner and Head of Digital Enterprise UK, KPS UK, to find out how he got started in his tech career and what he enjoys when he’s not working

Tell us about the company you work for?

KPS is a leading consultancy partner for digital transformation, helping clients realise their digital goals quickly.

Whether it’s largescale digital transformation programmes, creating customised platforms and specialised solutions or designing new digital services, KPS’s Instant Transformation approach is the perfect way for clients to strengthen their competitive edge.

As part of a European group listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and with offices in Germany, the Nordics and Spain, KPS UK has access to 1,300 consultants and the latest technology components.

An accredited SAP centre of expertise, KPS UK was recently named SAP Partner of the Year for Retail and Consumer Goods and SAP Partner Center of Expertise CX & S/4HANA.

How did you get started?

Actually, a random conversation catapulted me into a completely new career!

I fell into the IT software solution sector by accident 25 years ago when, while chatting over a beer, my lodger offered me a job in his sales team. My initial response was a flat ‘no’ but he didn’t give up and when he promised £10,000 more plus a company car, I thought: ‘Why not?’

I knew nothing about software at that point. Up until then, I’d always relied on friends to help me out with anything computer-related. Ironically, my lack of knowledge worked in my favour, because the challenge spurred me on and I became super-interested in technology. 

What do you think is the key to successfully working with customers in the tech sector?

You have to be brave enough to call it out.  Understanding the ethos of how and why people buy, and when it is and isn’t right to sell is really important to me. Being in an authentic partnership with a customer is about understanding them so well that you can help deliver their vision and ideologies. But the flipside is that you have to be brave enough to call it out, if you believe something isn’t right.

Would you say you are competitive?

I’ve been into sport since a really young age – so yes,  and that competitive nature has been an asset in the workplace. I excelled in basketball and ended up being coached by an ex-England player, which took me on to national level where I played for some of the divisional teams and throughout university. At 16, I was offered a scholarship to a US college on the back of my basketball skill but, in hindsight, the offer came too early. I turned it down because I was a bit scared of taking what was a huge jump. If that opportunity had come at 18, I’d have gone for it, but I wasn’t quite ready at 16.

What experiences have shaped your life and career?

The stadium tragedy at Hillsborough was – I was there that day when almost 100 people lost their lives and more than 750 were injured. It was the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and although, as Forest supporters my dad and I were not at the end of the stadium where the fateful crush happened it was a shocking experience.

As a 13-year-old, the events of that day had a huge impact on me and underlined the fact that life is incredibly fragile.

What do you think helped in your career that you now use to mentor others?

People allowed me to learn from my mistakes!

When you’re in your teens and early twenties, you feel invincible which is why you spend your time drinking and having a good time. I certainly lived up to the maxim ‘work hard, play hard’. Looking back at some of the decisions I took back then, I’d like to think I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. I was lucky to have people around me who granted me the space to learn from my mistakes, while gently steering me in the right direction and that’s what I try and do for team members who are starting out in their careers.

Have you ever done anything outside your tech career?

I flew out to watch the British Lions rugby squad on tour in Australia in 2001 and tagged on a three-week holiday in New Zealand. While there, I got chatting to a guy in a bar who told me they were looking for rugby players and I thought: ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’

At the time I was single with no commitments, so I flew home, resigned from my job and headed back. I spent a year in NZ, where I played the toughest rugby I’ve ever experienced. The passion and competitive spirit I saw in my teammates and our rivals was a real eye-opener and I learned so much – both from a skills perspective and about behaviour and motivation.

It was a bit of an adventure, as when I wasn’t playing rugby I spent my time exploring the islands. Having been fascinated by the natural world since I was a kid, it was amazing to go albatross watching and diving with the sharks.

What is the culture like at KPS?

KPS is unusual in that it combines the entrepreneurial, can-do culture of a startup with the backing of a heavy hitter. It has a proven track record in Europe in terms of delivering large SAP-enabled transformations, supply chain optimisation, financial systems, strategy management and customer engagement experience and has been ridiculously successful. Once I started talking to the team and learned more about where they’re taking the business, I was intrigued and excited at the opportunity to build-out this space in the UK.

‘Playing buzzword bingo isn’t our style’

I feel a strong personal synergy with KPS’s customer-first, customer-centric, collaborative engagement approach. I like that they’re not trying to do everything purely based on the bottom-line figure and the team share the same values – integrity, empathy and collaboration. There’s a tendency among some companies in this market to play buzzword bingo, but that’s just not our style.

What advice would you give to businesses looking to undergo digital transformation?

Digital transformation is about moving to a more seamless system that offers innovation, greater revenue potential and better service. We enable that through the three ‘i’s – innovation, industrialisation and internationalisation.

A solution tailored to one sector won’t be the best fit for another.

Innovation will improve customer retention and give a competitive advantage and delivering relevant industrialised content is essential. I wouldn’t take a solution that’s geared up to the fashion sector and attempt to fit it to an aerospace customer, because that would be crazy. Sadly, you see a lot of this in the industry but the harsh reality is that trying to disguise one thing as another is never going to deliver.

And how can consultants best help their clients?

You need information to make a confident decision.

I listen hard to customers so that I have a clear understanding of their aims, wants and needs. Then, it’s about figuring out how we can help them meet those challenges. My job is to give a customer all the relevant information they need, so that they can feel confident about making a decision.

Are there any pitfalls to watch out for?

I firmly believe that projects fail when the client/partner relationship isn’t solid.

One of the fundamental challenges is that many organisations who service the IT industry view their service or software as something that’s done to, rather than with, a client. Failed projects almost always happen when the relationship between client and the delivery partner isn’t solid. If it isn’t a collaborative relationship, it’s purely transactional which doesn’t allow either party to benefit fully.

‘I’m not saying let’s sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya’

Customers and vendors spend a huge amount of effort, time, people hours and money acquiring new technologies and solutions but most never extract the full value out of the relationship, other than a bit of cash on the bottom line. That’s a real shame, as far as I’m concerned. I believe in a collaborative partnership, which grows over time. I’m not saying: ‘Let’s sit around the campfire toasting marshmallows and singing Kumbaya’ but I do want my customers to be able to tap into the sustainable added value we can bring.

Do you have a good work/life balance?

Yes.  My wife Gillie, who runs her own business and our three children are the most important thing in my life. I try, though not always successfully, to be a good role model to Max, 17, Ben, 15 and seven-year-old Erin. All three are into sport: Max is in his school rugby team and plays for a local club; Ben is into athletics and hockey and Erin loves horse riding, swimming, hockey and bossing her brothers around. I’m basically a taxi driver in my spare time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you have time for hobbies?

I’ve been passionate about natural history since I was young and one of my hobbies is photographing wildlife. Each year, I head for a location where I’ll be able to set up really great shots.

I’ve been trying to make it to Saaremaa, an island off the west coast of Estonia, for the past two years but it’s been cancelled twice because of Covid. The island’s known for its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, so it’s still top of my bucket list! This year, I’ve already taken trips to Scotland and the Peak District.

Lastly, what do you love most about what you do?

The feeling of ‘We’ve done it!’

Nothing’s better than the buzz that comes from helping a customer achieve their vision. It’s an amazing feeling when a customer messages you to say: ‘Bloody hell, I can’t believe we’ve done it! Let’s celebrate over a beer.’ Those are the moments that bring joy.