· 6 min read · Features

HR technology special 2/7: interview with Katy Clough, HR director at AppSense

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It may not seem a good idea at the end of a first interview to turn to the entrepreneurial founder of the business – not known for being a fan of HR – and say that, yes, you could see yourself working well with him, but only if he would shut up and listen for a second.

For Katy Clough, it not only secured a second meeting but, eight interviews later, she became the first HR director of high-tech firm AppSense and the first woman on the senior management team.

"I had to work hard to bring him on side," she recalls of her first experiences with co-founder and chairman, Charles Sharland. "As an entrepreneurial businessman, Charlie is not a rules person. The simpler the better. He likes to see results."

For someone with less confidence and commerciality, convincing such a person HR is value-adding rather than just administration and compliance is a daunting prospect. After all, Sharland had built AppSense up to a multi million pound business without an HR department. And he had a track record in the sector, successfully founded services provider Vistorm in 1991, growing it to a $50 million company over 10 years and selling it to US giant EDS in 2008.

But Clough had experience ranging from M&A to firms about to be sold and relished the challenge of working in a fast-moving, entrepreurial business. Oh, and she is persuasive.

"Charlie has incredible drive and a wonderful storytelling mentality. As chairman, he still has an active role; he is very hands-on and guardian of the culture. But he has come to the view good process with a light touch is the way forward. He realises we don't have to be hidebound by bureaucracy."

She also has a supporter in AppSense CEO Darron Antill, who she describes as a strong exponent of HR. But when she first went for the role of global HRD two years ago, Clough was what she describes as the "wild card".

"I was lucky the recruiter was intuitive. He told me I didn't fit what AppSense thought it wanted - but he thought I fitted what it needed. So he put me forward," she explains.

The company had fewer than 200 employees and HR was admin-based, sitting in finance. But Sharland and Antill had plans. Anticipating significant growth, they realised they needed someone on board to lead the people agenda.

Clough was working across the same office park in Daresbury, near Warrington, in which AppSense was located. In her role as group HR director of healthcare firm Assura, she was involved in the closing stages of a deal selling Assura Medical to Virgin Healthcare. "When I joined Assura, I knew there was a possibility the business would be sold and that it would not be a long-term role. But it was my first experience working at a small company," she explains.

"I had learned huge amounts in big change programmes in big organisations, but it had never been a case of 'the buck stops here'. When I worked at Assura, I realised I didn't want to go back to a big organisation. AppSense provided me with an opportunity to work in a growing business, when most of my HR colleagues were downsizing or restructuring. But the best thing about working at AppSense is there is genuine accountability: you take a decision, implement it and see the results next week."

Clough describes it as the "freedom to do the job in the most productive way that works for you, with responsibility for making the right decisions for the organisation and being measured on your unambiguous contribution."

It took some getting used to. "I had never had this level of freedom. Here they say, 'what are you asking me for? Just do it'. You have to challenge yourself to ensure everything you do is about the ROI the company will get from every individual.

"Charlie put his own money on the line to grow AppSense. Every week, the salary bill is going up as we recruit, so I need to show what we are getting back. In listed companies, you are a long way from day-to-day commercial realities. I have to think how I would justify putting someone on training, how I can articulate what the value to the company will be."

This ability to articulate is vital, given the fast growth. In the financial crisis, revenues continued to rise, especially in new territories, but AppSense did not invest in recruitment. In the first half of financial year 2012, it increased orders by 46% and Sharland plans to make AppSense a significant global technology company by 2020. Recruitment is business-critical and between 1 July and 31 December 2011, it expanded its global workforce by 40%. But recruiting has been a challenge, selling AppSense to top-flight engineering graduates who had not heard of it, especially in the US.

Its advantage in the war for engineering talent has been its cutting-edge product. Called 'user virtualisation', the software helps companies securely move the 'user' (employee) virtually, from one device to another and one place to another. So a company's IT department can enable a worker to access certain documents at home on their personal iPad, but stop them accessing others on that device in that location. But when that same person goes into the office, the software recognises where they are and enables them to access all documents on their work PC. The idea is to empower employees through the freedom to choose when and where they work, and on their device of choice, while maintaining high standards of security.

"It effectively turns some people on and off," explains Clough. "You may have groups that work in different ways that you need to enable. It plays into the shifts happening in terms of blurring work and personal lives - and particularly the Gen Y desire to use their own device."

Last month, the company took the 'bring your own device' (BYOD) concept further by announcing plans to acquire California-based RAPsphere, a mobile IT firm developing mobile information management solutions, expanding the application of user virtualisation across the mobile world. This will be its first acquisition.

The sexy nature of its technology is attracting people to what she says is the largest privately owned software developer in the UK. "People are excited to work here - it is new, we are looking at emerging technology and it is a hot organisation to join," says Clough. It also helps that AppSense is based in Warrington, in the northwest, where there is little competition in leading-edge IT.

"We have linked with technology universities such as Manchester, Sheffield, York and Liverpool John Moores. They are now steering superstars in our direction rather than to the bigger corporate organisations, where they would be swallowed up."

Having doubled the number of employees to 410 in 15 different countries (recruiting 135 in her first nine months), Clough's challenge is now to embed them.

"The hardest part is how to make sure the rest of the organisation does not fall apart - having been a tightknit, family-type community, when all of a sudden we are putting all these new people in. We have to onboard new employees and make them productive, while keeping the core of 30 engaged," says Clough. "We are reaching a level where retaining the things that are fantastic is going to be harder. We may double in size again. We need to continue to embed what's important to us in everything we do."

Clough has assembled an HR team of three in the UK (admin, technical recruitment and EMEA HR) and an HR manager plus recruitment administrator in New York. All administration will be moved to New York this year, freeing the UK team to concentrate on strategic issues such as leadership development and succession planning.

"This will be the year of development. We are uplifting the sales team, spending money uplifting developers and investing in leadership. We have 48 managers on a 12-month programme and have been working with First 100 on leadership development in the US and to accelerate performance with new starters and senior management."

With such a tight HR team, Clough is using external partners and is in the process of tendering. "We are expanding in territories where the economy is strong - Australia, Singapore, Brazil. We need expert advice to understand where we position in these places. We may need to look at job families across the globe."

The focus is on performance management. Clough is keen on starters attending meetings before they join and has a competency matrix that explains five critical things in a job that will make a difference. Employees score themselves against this matrix. "We talk about killer moves and say anything you do should be helping deliver one of the six killer moves, which are around areas such as how to build alliances or product development. We review progress against them every quarter," she explains.

Next year will be the tipping point, says Clough, and there are plans for major investment in people. With a growing customer base, growth in northern Europe and the US, let alone emerging markets, and a technology roadmap that runs out in three years, sourcing talent is one of the barriers to AppSense achieving its ambitious plans. "We are picky about who is right for us. But we will run out of people to recruit eventually," Clough concedes. "We have to broaden our understanding of the core things that make people successful and develop them. Instead of thinking, in three months, this person will be developing a product or source code, we will have to spend nine months on someone who may ultimately pay off for us."

Getting this right will be crucial as AppSense expands into Asia-Pacific and Latin America. In this fiscal year, it opens offices in Brazil, Hong Kong and Singapore (marking its entry into China and Korea and supporting its presence in Australia and New Zealand). With 3,000 customers, including Barclays, the Co-operative Group, Kraft, government and healthcare, Clough can take comfort in one fact - in today's low-growth UK economy, AppSense makes the heart grow fond