LEAD INTERVIEW: CHRIS PONT

Founder and Chair, IJYI

Our lead interview in the TECH issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Chris Pont, Founder and Chair at IJYI.

Published in Suffolk Director Magazine Winter 2023

Tech: Transform, Expand and Connect 

“Other than the very early days where I wanted very much to be a Ghostbuster, I’ve always wanted to be involved in tech. I have always seen it as something that could give you an advantage and an efficient and quick way of doing lots of boring monotonous stuff that people didn’t particularly want to do.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Chris Pont talks to Suffolk Director

As you would expect, Chris Pont, who is Co-founder and Chair of software delivery, data and business intelligence firm, IJYI, has always had an interest in technology.

“My interest stems from the days of playing with an RM Nimbus PC at primary school, and using a Logo Turtle – a basic robot that was cabled to a PC and you could tell it to go ‘right 90’, ‘forward 20’, ‘pen up’ etc. There was also a savings account scheme with the school that linked to Barclays, and I was put in charge of logging all the transactions on the PC, saving it to a floppy disk, before it was taken to the bank.”

As the eldest of three, Chris was born at Ipswich’s Heath Road Hospital in 1981. His dad owned and ran petrol filling stations in Stratford St Andrew, Kessingland, Stanton and Thetford.

“Dad’s business meant he’d always be getting up early to go and get the milk and newspapers for the garage, and then he would be working late doing admin, or manning the tills; I think Mum was very understanding.

“I often went with Dad to see a petrol tanker delivery in. It was a lot more manual than it is nowadays and involved lifting manhole covers and getting on top of the tanker to take dip readings, to make sure they were delivering the right amount. Both technology and health and safety have put an end to all that now.

Having lived just off Britannia Road in Ipswich since he was born, when Chris was eight, his family all moved to one of the first new houses built on the Grange Farm Estate in Kesgrave.

“When I was little our holidays were always pretty local because of Dad’s work. We’d go to caravan sites in Great Yarmouth, and we had a lot of fun, spending pretty much the whole holiday, either in the amusement arcades or in the pool. Later on, we did get to go on a bigger holiday to Disneyland in Florida. We went with my cousins, and we all worked weekends in my dad’s storeroom at the garage in Stratford St Andrew, to earn pocket money to take with us.

“When I went up to Kesgrave High School in the early nineties, there weren’t Computer Science classes, but we had access to PCs for Art lessons, where we played with basic graphic design programmes, such as PaintSPA and NewsSPA. I also got involved in the technical side of the school’s theatre productions, setting up lighting rigs and smoke machines, and wiring up the sound systems.”

“At home, Dad was moving his business from using A2 sized paper spreadsheets and manually pricing products with a price-gun, to putting everything onto a computer-based system. It was quite a big project, and he and his business partner bought an Olivetti 486 computer to manage it. As it was at home, I’d play with the computer, but sometimes I would break it, and then I would either panic and spend the rest of the day trying to fix it, or I would admit what I had done and get a telling off. So, I got quite good at repairing PCs, although I was learning under duress.

“Eventually, and probably in an attempt to stop me from breaking Dad’s work PC, I got a home Pentium PC for Christmas. But after unwrapping it, we discovered the CD-ROM drive didn’t work. I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out why.”

“I never like to let the machine beat me – it’s a tool and I need to know how it works. I think that stubborn streak, which has caused me many headaches and late nights over the years, is what ultimately pushed me into learning more about tech.”

“I had lots of games back then. As well as PC CD-ROMs, I also copied Sinclair Spectrum games with an Amstrad tape-to-tape. My favourites were PGA Tour Golf and FIFA, as well as ‘Worms’, the artillery video game.

“In the mid-nineties, I started teaching myself to write basic code – rudimental stuff to move shapes around or draw basic 3d objects. This was about the time when PCs were connecting to the Internet, and I realised this was the future. You could talk to people all around the world and use technology to do lots of those boring mundane tasks that no-one wanted to do. My mind was set on a career in tech.”

At the same time as this realisation, Chris was just about to start studying for his GCSEs.

Learning about technology

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“My uncle worked for a computer company, and he travelled to Germany quite a lot on business, and Dad said to me that if I was serious about a career in IT, I should learn German. So, as well as Science, Maths and English, I took GCSEs in German, French, Geography and Drama. I knew I wanted to get into tech, but I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do; I thought perhaps I would end up installing hardware.”

After completing his GCSEs, Chris moved onto Northgate High School to do A Levels in Maths, Politics and Computing.

“There was an expectation that if you wanted a good career in a modern sector like technology, you needed to have a degree. So, I looked around the universities and their halls of residences, and the independence I felt I would get from living away from home really attracted me. I decided to go to Plymouth, as they had good computing facilities there; a couple of my mates from Northgate were also going there.

“I decided to study for a Multi-Media Computing degree, as I felt that it encompassed all the different aspects of tech: software development, 3D modelling, databases and graphic design, and it would give me wider tech knowledge, as I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”

At university, Chris lived in a house with eight other students who were all doing computer degrees.

“It was between 1999 and 2003, and as well as enjoying university life, we would spend our time building computer networks to play games. It was a great time in tech and things were moving so fast with regard to the Internet, scanners, printers and processing power.

“A lot of the things we were learning about were modern, but most gave you the basics to go forward and build our knowledge further once we were in employment.”

After gaining his degree, Chris set out to find his first job.

“I was back at home, and I saw a job advertised at Ansaback, a call centre on Ransomes Europark. They wanted a Script Builder, someone who could prepare pre-written text that would pop up on the computer screens of the call handlers, which they could then follow as a dialogue.

“The work I did meant call centre agents could be trained to deal with lots of different companies in a diverse range of sectors. I got on so well and was then asked to move onto their sister business, developing their call centre software called ‘CallScripter’. The result of this work was that they not only used it themselves, but sold it to other call centre companies.

“This was my first software development job, and I was asked to travel to Switzerland and the Netherlands to help with providing consultancy.”

“I was only 22 and I was dropped in at the deep end quite a bit, but I managed to muddle my way through, most of the time. However, the job did give me the opportunity and experience to learn how a business works, and how to interact with people.”

In 2005, Chris was referred, via a friend, for a job as a contractor at BT in Martlesham.

“I got the role and I had to help to build software systems that managed the BT network. While working there, I realised that there were certain elements of the network that were creaking a bit, but it gave me the insight to understand that even really big businesses with a global reputation have problems.”

Chris worked for four years at BT before moving onto software management roles at Killik, a stockbroker based in the City, Kwiboo and Aviva.

Becoming more agile in tech

“In 2013, I started working for insurance business, Willis. Based in Ipswich, I was a consultant leading the software development team.

“While I was there, I became an ‘Agile Scrum Master’, which is a term used for someone who helps facilitate the process of delivering software using ‘Scrum’, and who leads an Agile software development team.

“Agile Software is a way of rolling out a new programme in staged, bite-sized chunks. You work on one bit, then all the stakeholders involved assess it, challenge it and refine it, before moving onto the next chunk of work. It’s a totally transparent process, where you can shape and alter things as you go along, to get the desired end result. Within reason, it also enables clients to change their minds.

“We put some of the digital transformation process in place at Willis and we also found a way to automate several stages of the software programme, with the result that we reduced deployments from a week down to 15 minutes.

“Automation takes effort, but for processes that are well-known, repeated and require checking, it can eliminate human error. It also means there’s less decision making needed in fixing that last minute bug. Emergency software releases are often something that gets rushed through. But if they’re automated, then they go through the same rigour as any other release.”

It was at Willis that Chris met John Nicholson.

“John worked alongside me and over time we started talking about setting up our own business. However, it was a small thing around Willis not giving contractors access to free parking that spurred us into action.

“I joked with John that it would be cheaper to rent our own office in Ipswich, with a couple of parking spaces and work from there. So that is what we did, and in 2014, we moved into an office in Friar’s Courtyard and IJYI was born.”

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Why the name IJYI?

“We thought that if we were setting up a tech business, we didn’t want a boring name. So, we decided to purchase the IJYI brand and logo. The swirl in the logo fitted in with the iterative development that we were becoming known for. We also liked the ‘EG’ comparison when saying the name, as this meant ‘for example’ and we wanted to be an example of great software delivery.

“We want the work we do with clients to be fun, engaging and innovative because that’s what it should be. What we do, is work on developing something new, that in some cases will revolutionise the client’s business.

“However, although it served its purpose initially, Friar’s Courtyard wasn’t a great environment. It was a small office that was very cold in winter, and very hot in the summer.

“Over the next three years we were there, we grew the business from just John and I, to a team of 12, working for businesses based in Ipswich, Cambridge and Norwich. We also landed a contract with the Rail Delivery Group. They oversee the train operating companies nationally making sure they all have systems in place to run their services properly.”

In 2017, IJYI moved offices to Connexions on Princes Street.

“It was a much better environment and over the next couple of years, we grew the business to 30 people, taking on more contracts working for district and county councils, delivering Agile Software systems which were bespoke to their needs. We also started doing data and business intelligence work, consolidating all the data, management and performance information available from finance, HR, marketing and sales, and putting it into one ‘data warehouse’.”

In 2019, IJYI celebrated its fifth birthday, turning the office into a 90’s themed amusement arcade with pinball machines and video games. Things were going well. Business was at a £1.6 million turnover. Then Covid hit.

“Fortunately, very early on, we had already established a working from home policy and in late January of 2020, we started doing tests to make sure that we could still operate with our team working from different locations.

“However, when the announcement came from Boris Johnson on Monday 23 March 2020, we were all shocked.

“The next day, we had members of staff coming into the office and we allowed them to take home anything they needed to do their work. Most took their PCs, but some took their desk and chair.

“To keep up the team’s motivation, I was doing daily videos and sending them out over Teams. My aim was to keep everyone up to date with what the impact would be on the business from the Government’s announcements, and what we were going to do in response. To add to my stress levels, I was also moving at that time – having exchanged contracts two weeks prior to Lockdown One.”

“We also had just signed up a new client, and the result was that they became our first ‘virtual client’. To this day, we have only ever met over Teams and have never been in a room face-to-face!”

“One positive to come out of Covid though, was that it highlighted opportunities to work further afield. It also opened up and forced people to work digitally, which in turn created opportunities, as the conditions on where you were based geographically, particularly when it came to government contracts, disappeared.”

Going it alone

Then early in June 2020, something happened that set Chris a bit adrift.

“John told me that he wanted to step away from IJYI and he resigned as a director. Looking back, I can now see where he was coming from. He liked to tinker with ‘bleeding edge’ technology, and the type of clients we had, didn’t give us this freedom. But at that time, it was scary. We were two months into a global pandemic, and I was now doing things on my own. I had to give the impression I was cool, calm, collected, and in control, when in fact, it wasn’t like that at all.

“As soon as I was able to, I worked from the office. So I was on my own both physically and mentally; this continued right through Lockdown Two.

“The hardest part of being CEO is battling with your own psychology. I over analyse things, replaying things in my head and I had no one in the business I could share this with. Also at that time, there was a lot of movement in the tech sector, and a number of our staff were leaving.

“Despite the fact that we had ‘Huddles’, where everyone working at IJYI got together to socialise via Teams, I still had to be the ‘guru’ keeping things together. Some days were pretty tough for me, and although business was okay, it was challenging. Often, I would get home and just sit in my car on the driveway for 20 minutes, to collect my thoughts before going through the front door.”

One thing Chris has learnt though is that success brings unwanted attention and behaviour.

“The pandemic brought both the best of times and the worst. I have discovered who in my team has my back, and also those that don’t. Although devastating to discover, this enabled me to take the steps I needed, to ensure the team that came out the other side were all heading in the same direction. I have been wowed by people’s loyalty and kindness, and I’m really lucky to have the team I have now.”

In October 2021, the senior team at IJYI was restructured.

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Kevin Linsell took Chris Pont’s place as CEO of IJYI

 

“I became Chair and Kevin Linsell, who was our Sales & Marketing Director, took my place as CEO. I also appointed Kevin Ward as my CFO. This has allowed me to concentrate on the things I enjoy in the business: strategy, business development and being a tech ambassador. I am now in a much better place, and much happier. The people around me can manage the day-to-day operations and they are people I trust to get on with it; an added bonus is that they are good fun to work with.

“I have learnt that you should never be afraid to hire people smarter than you. Just because you’ve started a business doing something, when you are on the Board you see things from a different perspective; having someone in your team that is smarter than you can be a real asset. For instance, I was great at software delivery, but it’s not something I can now do day-to-day, so why should I be frightened to hire someone who can do that better than me?

“Now I am in a place where I can spend more time getting the work life balance right. I married Jess in 2013, and we have two children; Frank who is five and Audrey who is two, and it is great to spend more time with them.

“In my free time, I enjoy paddleboarding and running, which is a great way to clear my head or do a bit of thinking. Last year I ran the Brighton Marathon and raised £1,000 for Diabetes UK. Also, I’m a member of Greyfriars Roundtable. I joined during the first lockdown, and I love it. I’ve made some great friends; we get together regularly for social events and also do some fantastic charity work. I love being involved in the ‘Rudolph’ collections, it really makes my Christmas and it’s great to see so many people who come out to support us.”

“Also, my brother and I are trying to start a brewery. We have been brewing beer in his garage for a while, and we did start building our own little brewery in Martlesham, but it was curtailed due to planning constraints.

“I spoke in parliament earlier this year when I was asked by Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich, to sit on a parliamentary select committee for education. I spoke about post-16 education and work placements and apprenticeships.

“I also chair the Ipswich Digital Skills Taskforce, where we have been tasked with rolling out tech infrastructure across the town centre to increase footfall, spend and dwell time, as well as the visitor experience.”

“When it comes to the business, IJYI has now moved to IP-City Centre and we are now working on getting everyone into hybrid working, so we can use our space to interact physically and be more creative. We have some fantastic clients who are great to work with. By growing the team, we can afford to have some of the more niche roles that can work across multiple projects and give real benefit to the businesses that we work with.

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“Taking into consideration our learnings from the Covid lockdowns, we’ve made some big changes in the last 12 months, which have made the business more resilient to the unexpected.

“In my new role, I’m looking forward to spending more time working on the business, rather than in it, helping organisations to make good use of technology and who can benefit from my, and the team at IJYI’s, experience. It’s always an exciting time to be in tech, but particularly now when there’s some awesome stuff happing in terms of Cloud, AI (artificial intelligence), data, and Web3.

“Professionally, I am enjoying spending more time networking. I love meeting people, finding out about their journey, and what drives them. We’ve started doing our own events, such as a food and drink networking evening, with Conatus MD Kevin Ward (who is also our CFO) and Honey + Harvey. This has been fantastic and was well received, and I am really looking forward to running more of them and being able to join other networking events where I can meet more people representing the excellent businesses that Suffolk has to offer.”

For more information on IJYI, visit https://ukdlink.biz/sdmitec

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