Steve O'Neill: Looking beyond the business

By Anthony Doesburg

Steve O'Neill believes his company's software has potential beyond the corporate world, in areas such as education and healthcare. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve O'Neill believes his company's software has potential beyond the corporate world, in areas such as education and healthcare. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Business is not just business for Steve O'Neill, chief executive of Auckland company Sentient Software.

Sentient, a six-year-old seller of project portfolio management (PPM) software (*see bottom), is a means to an end for O'Neill, whose drive is as much philanthropic as profit-making.

But that hasn't stopped the company from accumulating an impressive customer list in a market where it is up against software heavyweights Oracle, SAP and CA Technologies.

Air New Zealand, Carter Holt Harvey, The Warehouse, Meridian Energy and Auckland Regional Council, all organisations with scores of simultaneous projects to manage, are among users of Sentient PPM.

But O'Neill is also eager to get it into the hands of education and health users, professing that it's not so much for the revenue, but for the help it can provide for those sectors.

"Our tools can not only be leveraged in the corporate world ... but also in those other worlds where they can have a direct, positive impact on the community," the 41-year-old says.

The earnest hopes are backed up by O'Neill's financial support for a handful of students, involvement with a business school study of distributed project management, and a dream he nurtures of launching a small business investment initiative, SBI.

O'Neill didn't create Sentient PPM but became involved in the business after calling it quits in the corporate world.

His working life began as an engineering cadet at the government agency - part of the Ministry of Transport - that controls the country's airspace. Shortly after he joined, it became the first state-owned enterprise, Airways New Zealand.

He didn't hang around, transferring to Government Computing Service (GCS), where he completed his cadetship. But GCS wasn't long for this world either.

It was another early candidate for turning into an SoE, and within a couple of years was bought by US computer services company EDS. O'Neill, by now immersed in the world of data communications, was part of the transaction.

Shifting his cadetship to GCS allowed him to qualify with a New Zealand Certificate in Electronics after only 18 months. Instead of contemplating a career maintaining radar equipment, he was thrust into the world of computers.

"I stuck with GCS and - after the acquisition and transition - EDS for 12 years," O'Neill says.

"At that time GCS was based out of Wellington and would fly technicians around the country. But it decided to set up bases in Auckland and Christchurch. So as a pretty green cadet I was offered the opportunity to move back home and help set up the office in Auckland."

With responsibility for technology in government offices north of a line from New Plymouth to Gisborne, O'Neill was witnessing the end of the green-screen computing era. Dumb terminals connected to mainframes were being replaced by PCs with the power to run graphical user interfaces such as Microsoft Windows.

The internet was also becoming mainstream, opening up opportunities for nimble new telcos, and forcing traditional telcos to look for fresh sources of revenue. That's where his next job came from.

"I was offered a job at Telecom, which was a great opportunity, but I was very happy at EDS," says O'Neill.

He had risen to the role of EDS national manager of distributed systems. A former customer, now at Telecom, was pestering him to help set up an IT services team at the telco. To get him off his back, O'Neill said he would make his decision on a coin toss.

"There I was sitting on the phone to him from my office in Mt Wellington, and I picked up a coin and told him to call heads or tails. He called tails and that's what came up. So I wrote my resignation letter that night." The irony was that his first task at Telecom was to outsource its internal IT to EDS.

From there, however, he worked with former salesman Chris Quin to develop the telco's fledgling IT consulting business.

From a core of 16 professional services staff, and following a series of acquisitions, the group grew into Gen-i. The business is still under Chris Quin, and today has about 3000 employees.

But in 2005, helped by a brush with serious illness - he had been fighting Hodgkin's disease for a couple of years - O'Neill decided to quit.

"For my sins I had ended up with 300 to 400 technical staff reporting to me, and it was about that time that I thought about resigning, because it was taking me away from my passions."

Helping create Gen-i had given him experience at growing a business, and he wanted to apply what he'd learned to other small enterprises.

Sentient Software, which sprang from a tool a Telecom contractor had written to manage his own projects, proved to be the vehicle he was looking for.

In six years it has grown to 19 staff, has sales of about $4 million and has ambitious Australian expansion plans.

The key in a market dominated by big software companies is simplicity, O'Neill says: Sentient's boast is matching its overseas rivals for a 10th of the price in a 10th of the implementation time.

"Sentient is very much a vehicle for getting me into that SBI space ... to me it's not so much about focusing on the money as doing the right thing and, strangely enough, the money just happened."

* What it does

Project Portfolio Management software is used to analyse and manage a number of projects, to decide on the best mix and sequence of projects, and to help make sure they meet the desired goals.

- NZ Herald

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