For software veteran Joe Smyth, Galway’s thriving start-up scene owes its strength to a supportive ecosystem and melting pot of cultures
When he was 15, Joe Smyth took apart his Atari 2600 games console, out of curiosity. But then he found he couldn’t put the device back together again. He never did fix the Atari, but that, says the Senior Vice-President of R&D at Genesys, a leading cloud customer experience orchestration company, was what started him on the path to a career in tech.
Over the last three decades, he has worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Apple, Cisco and Nortel, on both sides of the Atlantic. “People never thought about technology [as a career] back then,” says Smyth, who grew up in the small town of Claremorris, Co. Mayo.
Today, he works 37 miles down the road in the university city of Galway, on Ireland’s west coast, helping Genesys to provide companies with artificial intelligence-driven solutions to customer interaction and orchestration. It is a growing sector: Forrester1, the global research company, predicts digital customer service interactions will increase by 40 per cent this year.
Smyth’s part in the Genesys story began in 2013, when he joined forces with Barry O’Sullivan, now the Executive Vice President and General Manager of Digital and AI at Genesys, another senior Irish tech figure. O’Sullivan left Cisco in Silicon Valley to co-found AltoCloud. The start-up’s concept was to “bring voice contact centres into the web age” using machine learning to make customer interaction as near to seamless as possible.
In 2016, the fledgling company was the first tenant at the PorterShed, Galway’s incubator-cum-coworking space for start-ups that soon became a centre of gravity for entrepreneurs and investors. “It has really turbocharged the start-up scene here,” says Smyth.
In the mix of Galway’s tech ecosystem, start-ups complement the multinationals, present in the region since the 1970s, and third-level institutions such as the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), providing new talent. “They all feed off each other,” says Barry O’Sullivan.
Boosted by venture capital, Altocloud was in the vanguard of Galway’s start-up scene when it was acquired in 2018 by Silicon Valley software player, Genesys. In April 2022, its 200 or so Galway employees will move into an office in the city’s Bonham Quay development, designed to accommodate hybrid working.
Smyth makes time for school visits, encouraging youngsters to consider tech as a career. “When I started, software engineering was something you did in the corner and you programmed away,” he reflects. These days, he says, “you need a different mindset. This is a career for people who are collaborative, creative and inventive.” For Smyth, diversity is at the heart of building successful teams.
The burgeoning tech scene, mixing with the city’s student population and swell of summer tourists, has helped Galway become more cosmopolitan. “There’s a large European population, and that’s been amazing for us,” he says. One of those is Genesys’s own chief data scientist in Galway, Maciej Dąbrowski from Poland, who finished his Ph. D at Insight, Galway University’s research centre for data analytics.
“Walk down the street and you’ll hear all sorts of languages spoken,” Smyth says. “I’ve seen cities elsewhere with a million people that are pretty dormant, whereas Galway, with 100,000, is vibrant throughout the year.” With its artistic, bohemian edge, Galway won Europe’s friendliest city award from Condé Nast Traveller last year. Add to that the rugged natural beauty of Connemara right on the doorstep and you have an attractive place to live and work. Smyth is a keen sea swimmer, who lives 10 minutes from the seafront and these days chooses to walk to work.
Smyth is collaborating with IDA Ireland, the government agency promoting foreign investment, helping them introduce multinationals to the region and its tech community. “You can’t have a talent pool if there’s only one company,” he reasons, “and Galway has a coalition of the willing to help build that talent pool and cluster of software companies here.”