Getting global giant Dell to run like a start-up drives CIO Walsh

Irishman brings background experience in customer support to senior executive role at Dell

Paul Walsh (left), Dell’s chief information officer, with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Dell Aongus Hegarty at the announcement of Dell’s decision to create 100 innovation technology R&D roles at its Limerick Campus. Photograph: Don Moloney / Press 22

Paul Walsh (left), Dell’s chief information officer, with Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and president of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Dell Aongus Hegarty at the announcement of Dell’s decision to create 100 innovation technology R&D roles at its Limerick Campus. Photograph: Don Moloney / Press 22

 

When Paul Walsh started out with Dell, it was in customer support. Back then, the company was concentrating on shifting PCs, allowing customers to build their own at a time when it was out of the ordinary.

These days, he’s on the executive team as the company’s chief information officer, taking up the role following the departure of Adriana Karaboutis for Biogen Idec last year.

“It was really exciting to be chosen specifically because I do have a record with Dell, and I started on the tech support, so it was fun to come back. Even when I go to Cherrywood, there are a lot of people that are still there that I used to work with back then,” he says.

After six months in the role of Dell’s chief information officer, Walsh was back in Ireland at the company’s Limerick facility for the announcement that it is planning to expand. The company is in the process of adding 100 new jobs to its 900-strong workforce in Limerick, another milestone in the broadening and development of Dell’s business globally.

The expanding team in Limerick is a source of pride for the country’s Irish chief information officer, and Dell’s president for EMEA, Aongus Hegarty.

It’s also a good note to return on, especially following the closure of Dell’s manufacturing facility in Limerick in 2009.

Walsh hasn’t spent his whole career with Dell. Currently based in Austin, Texas, where Dell’s headquarters is located, he spent 14 years before that in Seattle, a large chunk of his 20 years of experience in the tech industry.

There seems to be something about Dell that keeps pulling him back though. After leaving Dell the first time, he moved to Microsoft, where he was the Dell strategy consultant among other roles such as working in product groups, defining and building products.

Affinity

After eight years, he moved to Quest Software – later acquired by Dell – as director of product management and development, spending two years at the firm.

He then had a stint with Amazon, and later Sears, before returning to Dell in 2013 as vice-president of the company’s commerce division. “There’s something about me and Dell,” he says. “I have an affinity with it.”

The company has undergone significant change over that time, and especially in recent months. No longer just about PCs, Dell has been working hard to pitch itself as an end-to-end solutions provider for customers, from hardware to security software.

After owner Michael Dell won the battle to take the tech firm private once more, the writing was on the wall. Things were going to change and, as far as Michael Dell was concerned, it would be for the better. So far, that seems to be bearing out.

“There’s a great energy in there,” says Walsh. “There’s a feeling that not only are we transforming a company, which we are, but if you think about IT, we’re enabling the transformation of a global iconic brand from the inside out. There’s a lot of energy that comes from that.

“Michael is setting his vision of where he wants to be in five years. What we have to think about from an IT perspective is how do we get there in two to ensure that we’re being a partner to the business and enabling the business as opposed to being an inhibitor to it.”

Dell is, the company’s founder claims, the biggest start-up in the world. That doesn’t mean it has a small headcount – the company employs 2,300 people in Ireland alone – but rather it refers to the outlook of the firm and the speed at which it can now move. Without the added pressure of investors to keep happy and Wall Street to watch out for, Dell can be more agile than it was previously – similar to the start-ups that it seeks to emulate.

“From my perspective, we just just keep our eyes on the customer, understand what the customer wants and drive towards that,” says Walsh. “The privatisation just allows us more time to go and do that.”

That means moving faster and making decisions more quickly than before. One of the biggest examples of Dell’s ability to move quickly can be seen in the recent decision to accept bitcoin as payment.

“Based on our customers’ feedback, we said we wanted to deploy bitcoin – customers were asking for it,” says Walsh. “From the day we decided to do it to the day we launched it initially, it was 14 days. We were acting like that start-up.”

The move was successful for Dell, he says, with the largest single order paid for in bitcoin totalling more than $50,000. That was just in the US. When Dell decided to expand its bitcoin acceptance to the UK and Canada, it took only three days to deploy.

“We’re always looking at how do we reduce the cost of running Dell from an IT perspective,” he says.

That requires more than just an aesthetic change though; a change in culture is needed to pull the transformation off successfully. “You can have the greatest strategy, but unless you actually change the culture as well to adopt that . . . ” he explains. “Strategy is eaten every day by culture. We had to ensure we’re driving the right cultures from the ground up; it’s not just a top down approach.”

Part of his current remit is meeting customers and teams around the world, from Austin, Texas, and Ireland to Malaysia, India and Brazil. That’s a crucial part of the role for him.

“It’s great to meet customers. I can get their insights and understand what they’re looking for,” he says. “What I don’t want to do is sit back and be in an ivory tower and say this is what I think it’s going to be – it’s understanding what the customer is asking for and then delivering against that.”

With that in mind, his experience in customer support at the beginning of his Dell career is probably a bonus in the current role.

“You always have ambitions. You always want to drive your career the right way,” he says. “Did I think I was going to be the CIO of Dell? I wasn’t planning on being CIO. Did I think about it when I joined again two years ago? It was something that I thought I’d love to have the opportunity of doing, but I wasn’t sure when that was going to be.”

Walsh is set to meet any challenges the role throws at him head on; the only exception may be the Austin summer. A keen sailor, the years spent in Seattle may make the high temperatures in Texas a little hard to bear. He already has a solution in mind though – heading back to Seattle for the summer when possible.

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