Learning the market

It is a long way from primary school teaching to networking integration. But in the education system, where learning and technology have always gone hand in hand, the increasing use of computers in the classroom has proven both a boon and headache for both school teachers and the IT industry alike.

Geoff Byers is one person who has managed to bridge that technical divide, proving that a strong understanding of your target market can provide the key to a successful business. Byers started his computing career in the classroom as a primary school teacher.

"It was one of those things where I was teaching in schools that were involved in computing early on," he recalled. "It required some level of competency in computing and I ended up taking the role over in about three or four schools."

It was his role as principal of Mona Vale Primary School that really started Byers' move into the networking market. In 1990 he was involved in setting up a network of 120 computers. It was one of the first Novell networks to be employed in a NSW school and he eventually gained accreditation as a Certified Novell Engineer.

In 1996 the Education Department restructured its operations and created a new position, the Technology Advisor. Byers was seconded for the role.

"They sought somebody who had experience in computing but also had some relationship with the classroom."

At the same time, the Government launched an initiative to put computers on the desks of every school in Australia.

"It changed the way IT was happening in schools dramatically because a lot of schools had no computers, and those that did generally had very high-profile Parents & Citizens committees to raise the funds. Now, all of a sudden, schools were being given 40 or 50 computers and no IT support base."

Despite the support of the new technical advisors, the IT industry was unable to support the new structure.

"Some high schools were lucky because staff were working in computing studies, but most primary schools had no hope whatsoever," Byers said. "Yet companies that were out there in the industry weren't really set up to help. All of a sudden their main supply to schools had been taken away because the computers were supplied free and so was the warranty. The only market seen to be available to the industry was the peripherals. If they weren't lucky enough to get onto the Government tender, the whole school industry was lost to them."

Amidst the initial confusion, Byers saw an opportunity to provide high-end services to the education sector.

"By the end of 97, I realised there was this huge niche market that wasn't being addressed by anybody and it wasn't in hardware in any shape or form. It was being able to provide high-level network assistance to schools. I talked to a technology advisor who worked in the Granville district and we realised there was this market out there."

Now this is not just a tale of business acumen. It is also a love story. The other Technology Advisor - Peta - is now not only the P in GP Technology, but Geoff's wife as well. The couple has just celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

"It was a lovely way to have a relationship develop because we have a respect for each other's abilities and friendship based on the mutual respect of each other's skills as a technical advisor," Byers explained. "It makes doing business easier. We spend a fair amount of time working together and because we have worked professionally, we very much slip into professional mode.

"It was after we had started the company that we realised there were other sides to the relationship. It is nice that it happened the other way around - we have a wonderful relationship together because it was built on respect and friendship before the love side came into it."

These days the couple offers networking services to around 200 schools across the state - from the top end of Newcastle down to the Sydney suburb of Sutherland. Byers spends much of his time on the road, setting up and maintaining networks at each institution.

"The advantage of coming from a teaching background is that we know not only what works from a technological sense but also what works in a curriculum sense - what schools actually require to make the use of computers viable," Byers said. "It is one thing to put the boxes on the desks and it is another to make them educationally workable. It is a case of understanding what works best in terms of the educational infrastructure, and not just in terms of the nuts and bolts."

The reality is that a school is not the most hospitable climate for a network. Students are naturally inquisitive - often to the detriment of computer systems - but schools also provide a dynamic software environment not found in your average office. It could be a complicated task for a company new to the market, especially where word of mouth can make or break a business.

"We spend no money on advertising the company apart from having a Web presence and a general mailout at the beginning of the business. All our business is generated through recommendation. If you don't do the job right, within a matter of months you could have no clients. It is a grapevine that works on two levels: one is the principal level and the other is those who support computers in the classroom."

And while many in the industry complain about the lack of technical expertise, Byers' empathy for those in the teaching profession is obvious - and refreshing.

"The people we deal with are excellent teachers - they know exactly how to use the computers in the curriculum. Their job is not to know what sort of network to put in. So a lot of our work lies under the heading of consultants. We go in and talk about options and I guess that is where it really helps to have the understanding coming from the classroom. If you can set it up and give them the applications that they need then they can fly with it because they know how to teach - they don't need to be technicians. I guess that is where the strength of our company comes from because we have an inherent understanding of that."