MELBOURNE - Not everyone who works in IT always thought they'd make a career out of it. The rapid advancement of IT throughout all sectors of industry means it has drawn in people from all professions, often without them realising it until after the fact.
Richard Downing, for example, started his career as a tax accountant. Now he is the managing director at William Downing and Associates, a reseller and developer specialising in the Platinum accounting software range.
Downing's career in computing kicked off when he joined a chartered accounting firm in the early 1980s. His résumé indicated he had some knowledge of computers, so he was immediately roped in to assist one of the firm's biggest clients with a PC installation that had gone horribly wrong.
"So I trotted out there, and spent a lot of late nights learning all about MS-DOS and so forth," said Downing. "Through the middle of the '80s I fiddled around with the computer side of things, and at the same time went back to university and did a programming degree of an evening."
By the late '80s Downing realised there was a fair demand from accounting taxation clients for his firm to install accounting applications for them.
At that time he got involved with the character-based CBA product, and built a solid computer practice specialising in that range.
The accounting firm continued to grow through the '90s, from 10 people when Downing joined, to over 100. "But I found as we moved into the '90s that developing technology or consulting in technology within the constraints of a mainstream accounting practice was not possible, Downing said. "You had the conflicting interests of accountants, who understand accountancy and try to manage the way you manage an accounting practice in the far more dynamic arena of IT consulting, where it's moving far quicker."
Hence in 1995 Downing sold his share in that practice to establish a specialist practice that would only focus on IT consulting.
Downing adopted the name of his father's company, William Downing and Associates, and set about building the business. It continues as a CPA accounting firm, but doesn't offer CPA services.
"We merely maintain that professional link so that we publish to our clients that at the end of the day it's not a computer problem you have, it's an accounting problem," Downing said. "And so we're trying to present to the clients that we actually understand the accounting process very well from that sort of background."
But before beginning with the new firm Downing spent four months researching tech- nology, and putting himself through training courses. He recognised the change to Windows and 32-bit systems, and decided to look at products in these areas.
Hence he considered solutions from Oracle, ACCPAC, Great Plains and Systems Union, before deciding on Platinum SQL in August that year.
"What I liked about it was that it was designed from an SQL database," said Downing, "while other products, like Great Plains were ports from an older database. It (Platinum SQL) was designed using the richness and the benefits of what an SQL database ought to be."
But getting a dealership for SQL was more than a matter of just asking for one. "Platinum was fairly stringent about the checklist of things you had to do," said Downing. "You had to get certified with Microsoft as a solution provider. You had to have a minimum of 15 support staff. There were a whole lot of criteria like that. And it took me more than 12 months to get through those criteria.
"And I was quite pleased that they had that list of standards, because a good product will get a bad name in the market if you have amateurs installing it.
"Dealing with the size of organisations that SQL will suit, you do need that minimum infrastructure to do it. You can't be a backyarder with two or three support staff and hope to support it."
In order to survive while the infrastructure to support SQL came together Downing assembled a support team for the Platinum CBA product. He said within a few weeks of opening in October 1995 the new company picked up over 100 clients, including those CBA clients of Grant Thornton Computing.
The next step was to assemble a development team to meet Platinum's requirement for Microsoft expertise. By the end of 1995 he had a development team of 15 programmers.
While still building the skill set to support Platinum SQL, Downing turned his attention to replacing the CBA section of the business. "While we could ride 1996 out with character-mode CBA, I knew that we couldn't ride 1997 to 98 beyond on that," Downing said. "So I then turned my attention to that middle layer of accounting package that I would run with. I had already set my mind on Platinum SQL, so I then had a critical look at that layer below Platinum SQL, where I'd migrate from CBA to.
At this time he considered ACCPAC for Windows, Platinum for Windows and Great Plains. "It was a harder decision this time, because each had their strengths and weaknesses."
In the end it came down to looking at the core of the products. It was here that Downing identified substantial development ability within Platinum for Windows, which would allow feasible customisation within accounting systems valued at $50,000 or less.
Leg work pays off
By early 1997 William Downing and Associates met the criteria for SQL certification, and now has a staff of 30 people. Downing expects this to grow to 50 by the year's end.
While not an IT manager by background, Downing feels he has an advantage over other IT owners with his accounting background. "I was a business adviser for 10 years, I can assess financial figures, I can assess business relationships, and I can do my own negotiation and know what a reasonable return on business is," Downing said.
"And those skills are very important when it got to things like asking whether I partner with Platinum in the long term. There'd been a lot of market rumour about Platinum's financial performance, and it makes people worry. Again, being a chartered accountant I did a bit of leg work and research. I pulled the financial statements and studied them carefully, I looked through their corporate history, and I was satisfied in my own mind that Platinum had long term financial viability."
And when you're building your entire business around a company, it pays to do your homework.