Prof John Byrne: the man who turned Ireland into a tech world power
He set up the school of computer science in Trinity, which marks its 50th anniversary
Prof John Byrne, known as the ‘father of computing’ in Ireland. The school of computer science and statistics at Trinity College Dublin, which he set up, this year marks its 50th anniversary
TK Whitaker may be known as the man who made modern Ireland, but the highly respected civil servant wasn’t the only person who helped make the State what it is today.
For those who wonder how Ireland came to excel both at luring the biggest and best tech companies to set up here and at producing a good few homegrown tech heroes, a great deal of credit must go to Prof John Byrne, the man who helped kickstart a revolution.
Affectionately known as the “father of computing” in Ireland, Prof Byrne established the school of computer science and statistics at Trinity College Dublin, which this year marks its 50th anniversary. In doing so, he effectively established the Republic’s software sector, which today employs 24,000 people and generates €16 billion of exports annually.
His influence doesn’t just stop there, however. In setting up the college department, he brought disparate disciplines together, empowered women to work in what was traditionally seen as “a man’s field”, taught a whole generation of public servants of the value of computing and also created an environment in which students were encouraged to firmly embrace industry, leading to the birth of leading Irish tech companies such as Iona Technologies and Havok.
“Without John there would be nothing,” is how Iona co-founder Annrai O’Toole puts it. Others who studied under him agree.
“Prof Byrne was a visionary and he saw the way technology was developing and the possible impact it could have on the Irish economy. He built a very strong team and school and was very involved in identifying the key elements for the software industry that enabled it to grow,” says Marie Redmond, a trailblazer in the digital and software industries and founder of X Communications.
Gerard Lacey, associate professor in graphics and vision at the school, is also full of praise for Prof Byrne, who he says ran a benign dictatorship and “trained the first battalion of IT workers” in Ireland.
“He understood Silicon Valley really well and that it was where the centre of innovation was, and so tried to tap into it,” says Lacey.
Byrne and his colleagues truly believed that what could be achieved in and around San Francisco could be replicated locally, according to those who were guided by him.
Some might dispute that he is the father of computing here, but I think it is a fair title given his huge influence
“In the early days students went over to the US to work, and likewise multinationals out there also began to realise what was happening here, so there was a natural fit. Exposure to what was happening elsewhere led us to believe we could do it too,” says Chris Horn, the co-founder, chief executive, and chairman of Iona.
“At the same time, we gained a sense that they weren’t actually doing anything that different from what we were doing in terms of technical ability, which gave a lot of us confidence that we could succeed,” he adds.
Most of those who learned under Prof Byrne believe that while Ireland may have still become something of a mecca for tech companies without him, it certainly wouldn’t have achieved the levels of success it has enjoyed.
“Some might dispute the suggestion that he is the father of computing here, but I certainly think it is a fair title given his huge influence on the sector, even through the sheer number of people who came through the school,” says Horn, who is also an Irish Times columnist.
O’Toole, who went on to establish Cape Clear Technologies and more recently the HR-focused software start-up Utmost, agrees.
“The school generated momentum that continued outside the campus as new tech companies emerged from the late 1980s onwards. People synonymous with the tech scene in Ireland like Chris Horn, Brian Caulfield, Steve Collins, Sean O’Sullivan and Sean Blanchfield, all came from the school,” he says.
According to Horn, who wrote a biography on Prof Byrne two years ago, the founding of the school in 1969 was unprecedented.
“One of the unique things about it in the early days was that as a student you were exposed to both computing and electronics. This was something pretty unique in teaching people an overview that encompassed both hardware and software. It is certainly possible that someone else would have established a school like it in Ireland, but whether they would have had the foresight to bring those two things together in one package, I don’t know. That was incredibly insightful and had far-reaching consequences.”
Jane Grimson, Trinity’s first female engineering graduate, agrees.
“The critical factor is that computer science at Trinity grew out of the engineering school, whereas in other universities it often emerged from science and mathematics. Engineering at that time was dominated by civil engineering, which always had strong links with industry and the outside world, and that ethos permeated the early days of the department,” she says.
Steve Collins, co-founder of Havok and Swrve and also a partner at Frontline Ventures, believes that the links with the outside world were hugely important in ensuring that students wanted to work with industry rather than being sniffy about it.
“The school had a very particular culture that was driven by Prof Byrne. He was always keen to embrace industry and wanted to see technology go out into the world. He was very much about ensuring that there wasn’t an insular ivory tower approach,” says Collins.
O’Toole suggests that during the school’s halcyon days, what was going on was pretty special in terms of its impact on today’s tech start-ups.
“Certainly for the period of the 1980s and 1990s it wasn’t just producing programmers, it was fostering an ambitious “build” mentality. That helped create new, emerging entrepreneurial companies which in turn created a virtuous cycle of more businesses solving big problems and more opportunities for graduates,” he says.
Prof Byrne and a few others recognised that software was going to be the big thing
Horn, meanwhile, says the school’s strategy of bringing different disciplines together continued successfully long after its founding, noting for example the decision to merge it with the school of statistics in the early 2000s.
“That again was a significant step with a lot of foresight involved because today in computing, data science is an intrinsic part of the whole tech scene,” Horn says.
Prior to setting up the school of computer science in 1969, Prof Byrne, who died in April 2016, was already hard at work trying to convince others of the importance of technology. In 1962, along with Trinity’s head of engineering Prof William Wright, he raised financing for an IBM 6020, one of the first computers in the country. He then set up an evening course that gave the first exposure to computing to many public servants, something which would later impact on the strategy to lure tech-focused multinationals to the country.
“Going back to the 1980s and 1990s in particular, IDA Ireland has recognised the impact of the tech sector for foreign direct investment [FDI] and had been very successful with it, but Prof Byrne and a few others recognised that software was going to be the big thing. They put together a lot of evidence to explain why they felt it would be so important that proved pivotal,” says Jane Grimson, daughter of Prof Wright.
Prof Byrne’s championing of women in a male-dominated sector was certainly ahead of its time, with Grimson noting that in the 1970s there was a practically a 50/50 gender split in terms of those graduating with degrees in computer science. She also believes Byrne was ahead of the curve in seeking out research grants from the European Union, which led to a lot of spin-outs from staff who were exposed to new technologies and ways of working through collaboration with others.
Lacey believes that the culture established by Prof Byrne and his colleagues fostered an entrepreneurial spirit that still exists now, with at least 50 spin-outs from staff and students. The facts bear this out, with research from Pitchbook showing that Trinity continues to produce more entrepreneurs than any other university in Europe.
Redmond isn’t so sure of the school’s status today.
“Trinity had the best computer school in Ireland. Can it make a comeback? I can’t see it happening in the short term with the current class of players, as there is no one like John driving things. But then, does it matter if it is the best school? If there is a better one, then it is because someone who was trained by John went out and set up rivals,” she says.
Many others, including Grimson and Collins, talk of their confidence in the school as it looks towards the next 50 years, although they also speak of the need to up investment in the third sector to enable colleges to continue to innovate.
O’Toole also remains positive about the coming years, even as he urges a further blending of disciplines so that students receive a more rounded education.
“The school will, just like technology, need to continue to reinvent itself. Just as the world is changing, the world of education is changing too,” he says.
“We are in an age of convergence. Tech is not just about technology anymore, it’s about our broader society,” O’Toole adds.
The top spin-outs from the school of computing and statistics
The school of computer science and statistics is behind some of the most successful start-ups to emerge in Ireland. These include:
Iona, which grew out of research carried out in Trinity in the 1980s, went on to become one of Ireland’s most successful technology ventures as it benefited from the upsurge in tech spending in the late 1990s. Founded in 1991 by Chris Horn, Sean Baker and Annrai O’Toole, it floated on the Nasdaq stock exchange in February 1997 at a price that valued the company at $329 million. At its peak in the early 2000s was worth $1.75 billion and had an annual turnover in excess of $100 million.
It might have hit the big time after being acquired by Fran Rooney, who led it to a flotation on the Nasdaq, but Baltimore originally spun out from Trinity in the mid-1970s, where it was founded by lecturer Dr Michael Purser. At its peak, it had a higher market capitalisation than Bank of Ireland, at £7.5 billion.
Founded in 1998 by computer science lecturers Steve Collins and Hugh Reynolds, Havok was a gaming tools developer which was acquired by Intel for $110 million in 2007. The company, which worked with leading game publishers such as Nintendo and Sony, was in October 2015 sold on to Microsoft for an undisclosed sum.
Not content with building one successful tech start-up, Collins and Reynolds returned again with Swrve, a mobile and social marketing company whose backers include Atlantic Bridge, Intel and the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.