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Managing Director, Extech Cloud
Happy to lead from the front, four years ago, Andrew took the bold decision to disrupt his industry and take his business in a different direction. With his passionate and energetic style he has successfully delivered, through his team, a reborn award winning innovative business model where potential clients are now actively seeking out his business to learn more. Their purpose at Extech Cloud is to ‘Engineer a flexible community’ preparing businesses for the ‘New Normal’.
Managing Director, TVision Technology
TVision Technology provides a business management solution powered by Microsoft technology. Business Central software allows you to manage data, improve financial processes, maximise profitability, monitor projects in real time, and drive business growth. Established in 1999, our extensive experience and knowledge ensures our clients implementations go-live on time and on budget.
Managing Director, The Jonathan Lea Network
We’re an SRA regulated firm of solicitors who focus on advising entrepreneurs, senior managers and investors, particularly in respect of technology startups. Our team consists of employed paralegals, trainees and solicitors in our Haywards Heath office, who combine seamlessly with a remote network of trusted specialist and experienced self-employed solicitors.
Let’s start with an explanation of exactly what the Cloud is?
Pippa: It’s very simple, the Cloud is just an array of servers sitting somewhere other than your own office that store your data so that you don’t have to. So, rather than investing many thousands of pounds in having your own bank of servers with all the maintenance and security issues that come with it, someone else has that headache and you have virtually unlimited storage at a relatively low monthly cost.
Thank you, that’s clear. Let’s start with the hot topic at the moment, home working, and how we can remain cyber safe whilst on our personal networks
Andrew: What we have seen is that those who addressed the problem before they started home working, those that were using the Microsoft environment for example and not using their own separate networks, had no problems whatsoever as laptops work everywhere of course. It was those companies sitting there not knowing what direction to take, running their own systems or in a hosting set up with someone else, these were the people who were challenged. Their network was only set up to work from the office and it was not designed to work in a mobile capacity. What we have seen at Extech is a huge increase in interest, so the pandemic has actually done my business a massive favour because we have been migrating people to the Microsoft Cloud for many years but trying to get people to understand the benefits, the flexibility and the peace of mind is really difficult when they go to the office everyday and it just works. This is a massive wake up call for businesses.
Pippa: Over 50% of our clients are in wine production and many of these were ready for the home working scenario. Many are device agnostic, therefore they were able to be nimble when this struck. So there have been two camps - those that were ready and those that were not. Those that already moved to the cloud were able to get down to the more humanitarian aspect of the welfare of their staff. Those that had not, panicked and were all hands to the pump in sorting the solution.
Scott: Most of our clients are either cloud based or work on secure access networks so there was not too much to deal with there. A lot of what we are seeing, as we deal with a lot of law firms and trust companies based in the Channel Islands, are things like a husband and wife working for competing law firms, side be side at home trying to work. The wrong eyes on a screen is a problem, saving to the network is a problem, so there are a bunch of interesting issues there. If we are going to be working from home in the long term, things like confidentiality, data processing, data loss prevention - these are the challenges. I also think that reliance on a single large platform can be a problem, we have seen outages recently from the likes of Microsoft, the issue with putting all your eggs in one basket can be a problem. I have had a client recently, when asked who is caring for their data said that Microsoft is taking care of that for me but I had to point him to their terms where it clearly states that your data is your data and therefore your problem. There are many misnomers about the cloud and how safe it is. I heard recently of a firm that lost £273,000 as someone had hacked their Microsoft credentials and then sat watching the mailbox, waited for a large invoice to come in and then diverted it to another account.
Maarten: I cannot believe that hacking trick is still working. When will people learn?
Scott: Oh that is certainly still working, time and time again. So the challenge now, with the accounts department not in the same building as the sales department for example, it is not so easy to pop into the boss to confirm requests. Even if you do that online, who’s watching?
Maarten: Jonathan, as a law firm what have been your biggest challenges?
Jonathan: We have a virtual set up and we deal with lawyers around the world. We have a G-Suite system that seems to work very well and all staff working from home worked better than I expected. Of course, we have to pay special attention as we have so many confidential files on our systems so I was keen to get everyone back into the office as soon as possible. All law firms have to be extra vigilant at this time - we use something called Action Step as our main legal software provider which is the largest IT purchasing decision we have had to make and so far we have had no issues whatsoever.
Scott: The first rule of all IT security is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) it is – vital that your IT provider set this up for you but not when anyone else is around. I heard of a chap who said he had set it up on his computer and his wife’s, and his phone so he has no access problems. Trouble is, the hackers also have no access problems in this scenario. What you need are layers of security and it needs to be taken very seriously.
Andrew: Layers upon layers is the key. Companies have to select an IT provider who understands this. Many companies still do not use MFA and that amazes me – it is default, absolutely default. The other thing is inscription, also default. The final thing is maintain. You have to maintain your systems constantly so that you are filling holes and watching for attacks.
Do you feel that much of the problem is the MD not having the requisite knowledge to make these decisions and therefore total reliance on the IT Director?
Pippa: This comes back to what you said earlier - you must select the right IT provider. The same as anything a company purchases, buy the right product and if in doubt, ask around. The other thing we have not mentioned here is device security. At TVision Technology, we have bio-passwords which are 17-digit passwords to get into any of our devices as we know that if you have hackers who know their way around systems, they can get in. Of course this can be an inconvenience but not as inconvenient as losing all your data or being held to ransom to get it back. Our Head of IT rolls two dice every time he sets up a new bio-password as that would be impossible to guess or anticipate the next password. This chap likes nothing more than watching an attempted hack, he enjoys it, it’s a game but if you don’t have someone with this level of knowledge, then you can be exposed and that is exactly why companies buy into our level of expertise, it enables them to get on with their business whilst we protect their backs.
Andrew: Finally on this subject, never, ever try to work with these large suppliers yourself – even as a partner don’t do it. It has taken us years to get to understand how they work and where the holes are. Regarding Extech, we are multiple gold Microsoft partners, we have four accreditations, we are cyber essentials plus, we are ISO27001, ISO 9001 and so on – we understand the systems so that you don’t have to.
Maarten: Isn’t that the point. As business owners, we don’t care how you do it, we just want the security of knowing that you are taking care of it so that we can get on with our business. IT is just a tool - it might be the lifeblood of your companies, but to the rest of us it is just a tool and we want it to be safe and we want it to work. The answer of course, as the Influencers around this table have clearly shown, is to contract the right supplier.
Scott: One further worry I want to throw into the mix here is that I often hear companies say they will not use AliBaba for example, as the Chinese government has access to it. Well, if you think that it is any different with the likes of Microsoft and Google, you are sorely mistaken. Everything that goes through these large systems is available to the US government - is being copied, stored and sent on. That’s why my clients in Jersey, for example, will never use these systems because they know it will end up in the hands of the US government.
Maarten: Jonathan, does that shocking news worry you?
Joanthan: I think with the larger clients, yes it is a worry but many of our clients are tech start-ups and smaller SMEs who are not overly concerned about that. One of our clients was recently negotiating a multi-billion pound contract with the Israeli Defence Force so certainly, I can see that this could be an issue for them.
Maarten: So when I contract one of you as my IT supplier, how on earth do I know what cloud you have it on and who has access to it?
Scott: Essentially, you don’t. If you have any highly sensitive data the only way to truly protect that is to own your own cloud system, to have this data on your own maintained servers but this is a very costly enterprise. Amazon, Google, Microsoft – all of them are open to governments to snoop on. It’s not as if you have anything sensitive, it’s the fact that I for one still firmly believe in the concept of personal privacy that the world, sadly, seems to have forgotten.
Maarten: Jonathan, you are scribbling furiously over there.
Jonathan: Indeed, I am making notes having listened to this conversation to review all our IT provisions on a much more regular basis. My paramount concern is my clients privacy and hearing experts discuss it in this way is pushing me, like all your readers I am sure, to review every aspect of our IT requirements annually.
Andrew: The other issue we face is developers and the lack of them. If we look at App development, we cannot train the developers fast enough to keep up. In the US alone this year, there are one million positions available for developers. In the next five years, over 500,000 apps will be developed which is more apps developed than in the last 40 years. All these apps will be developed for the cloud platform and what all mere mortals need is a translator. A supplier who can translate tech into understandable language.
Pippa: Funny you should say that as that is exactly what I say to my clients - I am not the developer or the world leading IT expert, we employ those people. I am a translator. I will listen to the clients’ business landscapes and their issues and I will translate that into the package they require to stay safe, thus allowing them to get on with their business.
Joanthan: There is no doubt that all businesses should have an independent IT audit every year to ensure we are up to date and learn of the latest developments and threats. I do feel that most businesses sort their IT, are happy with it and then move on without ever going back to look at the relevance of the system they have against the continuous rising threats.
Pippa: I am saying that to our clients all the time and constantly encouraging them to review and update. It is vital for corporate security. Moving on from security, one of the things that many clients are concerned about is the speed of their systems. They want all their staff to have rapid and constant access to their systems and that comes down to the efficiency of the tool we have provided.
Scott: And that is the beauty of the Cloud of course. On-boarding and off-boarding users is so easy with the Cloud as it has, in most cases, infinite capacity.
Pippa: That’s very much in line with a discussion I was having last week regarding Teams or Zoom for example. It is all recordable and then searchable for certain phrases should you be writing the meeting notes. Well, that is all sitting on the Cloud and will be there for ever and anyone with access can utilise that same search engine to find out what was said.
Scott: That brings me to the next issue of humans using Zoom, Teams and the like. We are having trouble reading people’s body language on a screen and only now realising how, unconsciously, we read people every day. Well, we can’t do that on screen and humans are having to adjust to how they read people. Of course, there is an app in development that will read body language and then tell you how the person on your screen is feeling and how they are emotionally dealing with the conversation. This is then going through yet another provider and there is yet more information about you out there. Every problem will result in a company developing an answer.
Maarten: I feel the need to buy a typewriter. OK, moving on.
Who would like to explain to me the Internet of Things (IOT)?
Scott: I will give that a go for you. It is total connection. Everyone loves the example of the fridge that will be able to recognise when you are out of milk and order it for you. As with everything, it comes with huge benefits and equal risks. There is a plethora of useless applications for it, like the fridge, but equally some great innovations are coming. I have a high level certification and work with the Met Police and one of the many issues they are concerned with is things like connected dolls. Dolls that, via 5G can chat away with the little girl and be her ‘live’ friend. The trouble is, this allows bad folk to hack in and get the doll to tell the child to leave their home for example. And connected toasters that are a jump point into your home and therefore your system. As we are all working from home that means the hacker is into your company system too if you do not have the aforementioned security systems in place.
Pippa: It’s like the connected devices we have now, like Alexa and Hey Google - these devices are listening all the time and, worryingly, recording all the time.
Andrew: By 2022, there will be well over 50 billion connected devices in the world and everything will, ultimately, be connected to the internet. Even your daughter’s doll, and it has to go somewhere, be stored somewhere.
Maarten: So outside of the fun stuff like toasters and fridges, where is the direct business advantage of IOT?
Pippa: There will be so much. Let’s use an example of vending machines. If the machine is at a hotel at the top of a mountain, do you then send your guy out for half a day up the mountain to see if it needs restocking? At the moment, yes you do but once IOT is fully operational, the vending machine will talk to the company’s computer and tell it what it is short of and what it needs and the guy only makes the one trip to re-supply exactly what it needs. In just this small example, you can see the huge benefits coming.
Scott: I have shares in an Italian vending machine company called Pagita and it knows all the sell-by dates for all stock, it knows what is selling and even more remarkable, it will know that the Mars bars are within a week of expiry and will automatically ping all the phones within a certain radius with news that the price has dropped 50%, and that clears the stock. All without a human being involved at all. This is particularly relevant in Italy as the country is the largest user of vending machines in the world - they are just everywhere.
Andrew: It will be the end of physical connections to anything. Everything will become wireless.
Joanthan: Hopefully that will help where I am based in the Burgess Hill/ Haywards Heath area as there are connection black spots all over the place that just stop your connection. 5G will eliminate all these problems.
What about the rise of artificial intelligence or AI? Mark Zuckerberg recently said that he will not rest until he can play chess with a friend beside him who is actually on another continent via holographic telepresence. Is that realistic and how far away are we from all being around this table, without all being around this table?
Scott: A long time away. I don’t think it will be ubiquitous or cheap for a long time to come. To do it in a room like this, we would need a hell of a lot of very expensive equipment.
Maarten: But in 2018, the World Economic Forum predicted that within five years, AI would create 58 million jobs.
Pippa: An example being used is McLaren, the supercar and F1 company in Woking, who are using it right now. They have bought into a games company to allows their design teams in different parts of the world to all be able to see the same thing, at the same time when they are deciding on changes.
Scott: Using headsets, that is available right now but holographic telepresence is a big step away from that. We could certainly all do this meeting with headsets and be anywhere in the world.
The world of robots, or bots, is rampant too. A report recently said that up to 60% of all ‘likes’ that people are receiving on their social media accounts are bots doing the job to make you feel more liked, more popular and glue them to the site.
Scott: It goes further. If you contract into a pay-per-click campaign on Facebook or Google for example, and you don’t think that they have their own bots driving and uplifting your click rate, then you really need to think again.
Jonathan: It is quite evident within Facebook, where you have some very odd, anonymous people liking your posts and it does seem quite obvious that these are not people who have ever been seen before but it sure racks up the click charges.
Maarten: Pay-per-click is a hell of a racket in my opinion as you have absolutely no idea who is clicking or if anyone is clicking and it just racks up the bills.
Scott: And if you look at their terms and conditions, if they say it’s a click, it’s a click and you have no room, or data, to argue. It’s a brilliant model - even casinos don’t have it that good.
Maarten: I guess then it is no surprise that the three richest men in the world are in this sector - it really is a licence to print money off our backs.
Jonathan: There is also some really interesting legal AI software on the market that will analyse contracts, for example, to look for compliance, errors and undertake due diligence. It certainly saves the hundreds of man hours, ploughing through contracts when there is an AI system there to do it for you, faster and more accurately in most cases. From a legal standpoint, you have to have a human eye in there as well as we have responsibility but it saves hours of human work. We have a fantastically original client called Check An Invoice, which uses AI to go through each client invoice, checking for all the obvious errors but even they use a human as a final control point. So sure are they that the job will be perfect that they insure against losses.
Pippa: We use a similar system that has an algorithm running in the background that will profile your customer based on who normally pays when, with real time data that seriously improves a company’s cash flow forecasts. There are down-sides to technology but the improvements it can make in day to day life are remarkable.
Maarten: What about when AI goes wrong? Look at the fiasco with algorithms over the A Level results - they got it disastrously wrong.
Scott: A really important point to make here is there currently is no such thing as AI. All these systems are running algorithms and machine learning. That is no artificial intelligence, it’s just machines learning from historic data. For real AI, it has to be able to fully understand what it is looking at, and why, and that is some years away yet. As we know, and many a disclaimer states; past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.
Maarten: With the speed of advance of technology, how afraid are you that we mere mortals will get left behind?
Jonathan: We are a law firm that uses tech of course and we are aware that we have to keep a constant watch on what is happening in our sector. For example, a while ago we added an e-commerce document download system that allows people from across the planet to download ready made template documents for a few pounds, and that is a way of further monetising our accrued knowledge. It’s a tiny part of our revenue at the moment but these things are all steps in that direction and it does lead to time charged business. This is not ground breaking stuff but it is very useful. Legally, there will always be limits on how far we can go as the human aspect of law is so vitally important.
Crypto currency is a mystery to many. Will it replace traditional banking? Facebook’s crypto currency app, Libra is expected to hit the market this year
and will, apparently, be totally in line with legislation. Do you feel that crypto currency will become a big player?
Andrew: I think we should certainly be thinking about it. It will become a major player and it’s not just the currency itself but the blockchain platform it sits on. The banks certainly don’t want it but we should keep an eye on it as it is coming, in one form or another.
Scott: Our clients in Jersey are very interested in it and the simple point is this. If the banks were overly concerned about it, it wouldn’t exist. The uses for this currently are occasional investment tools and illegal activities and account for less than 1% of all transactions. The biggest problem they face is who on earth trusts a deregulated currency? Having someone behind it saying trust us just will not work. Looking at the largest of them at the moment, Bitcoin, we still don’t know who started it or who owns that original seed capital that is currently worth around £2.7 billion. I think where we will get to is blockchain based currency that will be regulated which, in essence, will be run by banks that have gone online into this space.
Pippa: One further interesting topic in this tech space is telephones. The advance here is dramatic, with such things as Voice Over IP (VOIP) and the changes that is making. Platforms like Ring Central or Five Nines, any one of these unified comm systems in the Cloud, you can now plug a thousand phone lines into that and distribute that to 10,000 people by simply importing a spread sheet of 10,000 people. What we used to call unified comms systems, such as that talked about by Cisco ten years ago, is coming true right now and that’s really exciting tech.
Andrew: It does away with all the stuff we are used to. When you move into a new office building, there’s no more installing ISDT lines or the like - if you have an internet connection you have a full functioning phone system within minutes. It will be a challenge for telecoms companies as they will no longer be able to charge for cabling, or digging up the road for cable runs. It’s certainly the end of the line for rental charges.
Pippa: I could be sitting on the beach in Bali and talk to a client who will never know that l am not in the same city as him - the quality is that good and he will have called me on my normal number. of course.
Maarten: I have to say that the speed of change to mere mortals such as I is mind boggling. Half terrifying and half absolutely fascinating. I see there are contact lenses coming soon with a miniature chip installed that will monitor your pulse and heart rate. Another is a temporary tattoo that will open doors for you and replace the key card we all use now. BMW have just announced that when you buy your new car without heated seats, and you then sell it on to someone who really wants them, he simply taps into the onboard computer, pays some money and hey presto, heated seats.
I would like to thank our expert Tech Influencers for their time and annoyingly, I feel there is so much more content around this topic. I think we might have to run a Part 2 of this debate.
I have certainly learnt a lot from this live discussion and, might l say, what a pleasure it is to have an actual live discussion after so long and tech or no tech, humans will never be able to replicate live contact with other humans. Thank you all for your time and for sharing your knowledge.