"Six months of writing code and it was vetoed in 10 minutes by the unions. It was the worst job of my life."
Scaling the career ladder from technical support assistant to managing director hasn't blunted Kevin Neal's memories of working at the sharp end of IT. He still remembers writing a software application to automate processes at the London Port Authority, where he was technical director.
Still, Neal learnt from that experience - and all the others he has collected during his 30 years in technology - and used it to climb the corporate ladder. "I was always ambitious," he says. "I always tried to learn from the experience and keep moving."
Today, Neal works as managing director of Redbus Interhouse, an independent internet collocation facility in London, where several companies share web hosting facilities. He is responsible for the company's 100 staff in the UK and France, and for dealing with the company's customers, which include ISPs and dotcoms. The company has grown rapidly since it was formed in October 1998 - by June 1999 it had opened its first site, and it went public on the London Stock Exchange in March this year.
For Neal, it's a far cry from his beginnings as a technical support assistant with ICL in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For five years, he specialised in running mainframe computers and their applications. "In those days, you had to run mainframes 24/7 because they were so expensive," he says.
"So I learnt how to manage shift systems and the stress of downtime." That knowledge became useful when Neal moved into the internet sector, where services must be up 24/7 too - albeit for different reasons.
At ICL, Neal also became a convert to the idea of on-the-job training, having joined straight from school with a handful of O and A-levels but no professional qualifications. In addition to some technical training, ICL also offered management training to technical staff.
"At the time, it seemed pointless, but the further I have moved in my career, the more I have appreciated it," says Neal. Consequently, training and continuous learning are high management priorities for Neal, who sees them as essential for those looking to further their careers.
A stint in sales taught him the customer care skills, which he identifies as central to his success. "When we sold early computers, we had to be able to explain to businesses why they wanted our systems," he says. "That matters more than anything else."
In 1994, Neal joined ISP Demon Internet, as technical support manager and later director of technology. During this time, Demon's customer base grew from 30,000 to more than 250,000 before being sold to Scottish Telecom.
Being part of that rapid expansion wasn't without its downsides. After realising he was spending 12 hours a day at the office, Neal learned delegation skills the hard way. Many technical staff believe they know their systems best and it isn't always easy to hand over the reigns, but no one can do it all themselves. "I now look for staff who can cope with delegation," he says. "I can't stand little Hitlers."
Just a number
After four years with Demon, Neal felt he had learnt as much as he could. "The atmosphere changed once we were sold, and it wasn't as much fun," he says. "There was a sense that where we once all went to the pub together on a Friday night, and people had faith in the same goal, you were now just an employee number. It's not very motivating."
Looking around for another job, Neal wasn't afraid to exploit contacts. He had maintained contact with many former colleagues, including one who'd worked at Demon some years before.
"I gave him a call at the right time," says Neal. "He was looking for someone with my skills to take on the role of managing director of his new company, and offered me the opportunity."
That was in October 1998, and Neal hasn't looked back. At Redbus Interhouse, he's working hard to maintain the atmosphere he so enjoyed in the early days of Demon, with strong communication and team spirit. "We are taking steps to make sure that the culture doesn't change as the company grows," he says. "We make sure that I spend time with the engineers and know what they're doing and vice versa."
Holding on to that small company atmosphere is no mean feat - Redbus now operates in five countries across Europe with plans to expand further - but Neal makes sure he takes time out to spread the word. Once a month he visits the engineers in each country and talks to them about their work and the company.
Neal may have reached the top, but he's still learning. "I have never managed a pan-European company before," he says. "No two days are the same."
Other lessons are more general, such as remembering the little guys. "It's easy to forget about junior staff," he says. "But I can never forget that the lowly engineer is the one earning my pennies."
As managing director Neal has abandoned his division between IT and business. "A few years ago I would have described myself as an IT manager," he says. "But now it's a hybrid - I would struggle to define myself as one or the other."
|An alternative CV|
|Job: Managing director, Redbus Interhouse|
Born: 21 March 1950
Family: Married twice, four children
Qualifications: O and A-levels and workplace training coursesMost important professional quality: Listen and delegate - no one is right all the time, not even me
If money were no object ... I'd buy a decent ski boat
Least attractive quality in employees: Calling in sick - there's no way to plan for it
Pet hate: People who are nice to me because of where and who I am. I haven't changed, why should they?
Goal for the future: Nothing beyond here, really. I'm happy being boss until the share options kick in
Working hours: From 7am when Paris wakes up to 10pm when we have dealt with the West Coast
Career advice: Keep moving, and always learn something from every mistake - that came from a salesman
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