What’s immediately striking about Robbie O’Brien is that his business exists because of the internet yet he uses every opportunity to warn of its destructive powers.
The serial entrepreneur, who has spent 30 years on a rollercoaster of establishing, running and selling-off tech software companies in multi-million pound deals, is now a leading light in the battle against cyber criminals.
The Creggan native is CEO of MetaCompliance, a global information security and compliance software company with offices in Derry, London and Birmingham with a US base opening shortly. And, although his company’s market is mostly overseas, his employee base in Derry is ever-expanding and brings a distinctly local flavour to what is a truly global threat.
Derry-born Robbie doesn’t mince his words when highlighting the risks.
“So many people think the internet is like having a secure safe for information - what can go wrong? they ask. The answer is simple: everything. The internet can destroy your life and/or your business.
“Hacking is in the news daily, whether it’s intelligence services using everyday gadgets such as Smart TVs or mass data breaches such as those experienced at Yahoo and Ashley Madison. Most people simply accept that it happens and think little of it. However, when you consider that lives have been lost as a result of hacking, it’s clear that it is far from a victimless crime.
“People have become so addicted to technology; it is part of our everyday lives. We’re rarely more than a few steps from smart technology - many people even wear it - and it places our most personal of details at risk.
“It’s vitally important that everyone is aware of the steps necessary to avoid the dangers. From protecting personal details to safeguarding websites, there are many lessons to be heeded and learned. At MetaCompliance we work to ensure that clients stay protected through staff awareness.
“And a bit like Alan Parker’s ‘The Commitments’, we think of MetaCompliance as the hardest working, fastest growing, most innovative, tech company in the country.”
Robbie has learned many lessons in the technology business since growing up in Derry in the 1970s and early 1980s. But it was there that he first learned how to get ahead.
The eldest of seven children, he was brought up in High Park. “We lived beside St. Peter’s C.B.S. and because I went to St. Columb’s College, I quickly learned to run quite fast.
“The trip to school was, for me, quite literally the ‘school run.’
“I remember each day seeing the carnage of the night before on Central Drive where we waited for the bus. There was the joke about ‘what goes up and doesn’t come down? The Creggan bus!’”
From the short sprints of school days, Robbie’s career began to take flight in 1986 at aerospace giant Short Bros. Plc in Belfast.
Technology was a big attraction for the ambitious Derry man and, in 1987 he began a relationship with an innovator who would become an important catalyst in the personal development of the young entrepreneur.
“I joined Memory Ireland, which was led by Aidan McKenna and Pearse Mee – a leader who would later become my mentor. Memory Ireland became Ireland’s most famous and first stock market-listed computer services company.”
In early 1990, Memory Ireland itself was consigned to memory but it was the beginning of something special for Robbie.
“They made a failed attempt to take Memory to the US but there was silver lining when I became a co-founder of AMT Sybex with Pearse Mee and others. The company, a software developer that supplies the utilities industry, was eventually sold for £96m to Capita.
“The bad news for me was that I was fired before that for leading a management buy-out for the Irish operation. I didn’t consider it a failure, though, as I learned how to be more successful as a result.”
By that stage the ambitious Derry man had caught the entrepreneurial bug but was scooped up by US multinational, Intergraph Corporation, to run its operations in Ireland.
“The company was run by Jim Meadlock, who was the Steve Jobs of computer aided design. He was a giant in the field - Chief Electrical Engineer in the NASA space programme, invented digital photogrammetery and developed the guidance systems for Cruise and Patriot missile systems.
“I was involved in large projects, including data centre builds for large engineering firms, oil rigs and refineries. It was a fantastic experience.”
Robbie put the know-how to good use in 1999 when he founded InterTech Ireland which was sold to Maxima, a UK re-seller of software, for €6.1m in 2006.
In 2005, Robbie founded MetaCompliance - “my true passion.”
“We are building a software company that really makes a difference to the way organisations protect themselves in the face of compliance and legislation,” he said.
“With the General Data Protection Regulations just around the corner, all companies need to get their acts together to avoid what could mean up to €20,000,000 in penalties.
“We certainly see a bright future for the hardest working, fastest growing, most innovative, tech company in the country - if not the world. Watch this space.”