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From zero to CIO: an interview with our charismatic Chief Information Officer

Our Chief Information Officer, Karl Nicholson, is a rare beast. As a customer once put it, “He’s a focused, dedicated, knowledgeable, techie CIO, who is also thoroughly personable with a sense of humour. Karl and his team are incredibly forward-thinking and innovative, coming up with effective, efficient solutions to every challenge I throw their way. Entirely unflappable, he handles any and all obstacles with ease and diligence. I can honestly say that the service and support provided is the best I’ve ever received. Karl ensures we stay ahead of the curve with a rapid, responsive approach and a can-do attitude.”

Karl is incredibly popular with clients, strategic partners and his team because he balances enviable technical expertise with a natural creative flair, a down-to-earth and empathetic communication style and a deep and intuitive understanding of broader business goals. He isn’t your usual techie and this is what’s driven him to achieve so much in a very short period of time. At just 31 years of age, he’s already made his mark as a thought leader in the technology industry and has been invited to share his knowledge at a number of high-profile industry events, including most recently at GalaxZ20, which you can watch back here: https://bit.ly/33RhvuR

Karl has also just been shortlisted for the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Future Faces Award in the innovation and technology sector, so we thought it was about time we shared a little more about what makes Karl tick.

How did the idea for Synaptek come about?

Synaptek is the Digital Innovation Division of Spherica Business Solutions. Spherica is a progressive IT Managed Services business that boasts clients as diverse as Avanti West Coast, The Wales Millenium Centre, McColl’s retail and a government transport contract, to name just a few. Spherica has spent more than a decade working side-by-side with its clients to transform their IT operations, which has given the team a unique insight into the challenges businesses face in the ever-evolving digital economy.

I was employed as Spherica’s Emerging & Disruptive Technology Consultant and I was often frustrated by the constraints businesses faced due to manual processes, siloed systems and disjointed working practices. The IT services industry has not evolved as fast as it needs to so many digital transformations which businesses undertake are not delivering the benefits they should. Overstretched IT teams have no time to focus on innovation and service improvements because they are managing increasingly complex environments while still relying on out-dated, time-consuming processes. It was this insight that inspired the creation of Synaptek, a division dedicated to using cutting-edge technology to resolve the pain points that limit agility and innovation in many businesses.

The Spherica business partners and I recognised a gap in the market for automation services that improve collaboration, increase productivity and reduce cost inefficiencies across businesses. Our mission when launching Synaptek was to put technology to work in a way that frees people for more value-added work and enables businesses to be more agile and focus their time on enhancing their proposition and customer experience to ensure they remain competitive.

I was privileged to be given the opportunity to take the lead in developing the Synaptek brand proposition and defining our place in the market. I was instrumental in defining our vision to use the power of technology to be a force for good in the workplace.

What are you most passionate about in your role?

I want Synaptek to be a part of changing the future of work. I’m passionate about putting technology to work so that individuals within businesses can spend more time on the parts of their roles that they love. When I first pitched the idea of Synaptek to the leadership team at Spherica, my mission was to fix the problems I saw businesses battling against every day, and I’m delighted to be seeing this coming to fruition.

My role in Synaptek is to drive the culture, people and technology strategy. To develop the business into the success it is today, I’ve had to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and have recruited a team of talented individuals who have the ability and desire to harness its power to deliver real change for our clients’ businesses, their people and their customers. I’m also dedicated to building an inclusive business that attracts raw talent and embraces every educational route into business.

I am very passionate about this part of my role and have been determined to create a culture that nurtures talent, is accessible and changes perceptions of traditional technology service providers. I like to do things differently because I had a non-traditional route into IT and this has given me a determination to change the pathway for people to enter the technology industry.

Tell us more about why you want to drive change

As I mentioned, I didn’t have a traditional route into IT. I don’t have a degree and, to be perfectly honest, I struggled at school. I left with barely any qualifications and a very negative experience of education. My outlook for the future when I left formal education was a little bleak, but I knew I had more to offer than my qualifications showed.

It was only later in life, in early adulthood, that I was diagnosed with dyslexia. This was a defining moment for me as I finally understood why some of the ways in which I was forced to work didn’t match what I knew I was capable of. I had faced many challenges in my early career, especially in communicating in writing to colleagues and clients, so my confidence had taken a battering. But my determination was strong and getting this diagnosis was the driving force for change in me.

Understanding more about dyslexia has helped me to play to my strengths and it has also made me extremely passionate about making roles in the technology industry much more accessible to increase diversity in the sector.

As you mentioned in the introduction, I’ve been told that I’m a bit of a rare breed in the tech industry because I’m a techie who is also very creative, with a passion for design and the arts. I also have an innate understanding of business priorities and I quickly spot creative opportunities for how technology can be better aligned with strategic goals in order to drive businesses forward. I put much of this down to the abilities that dyslexia gives me, so I no longer see dyslexia as something to hold me back in life.

There is much misunderstanding about dyslexia so I advocate for how better understanding can help unleash the unique and creative qualities it gives an individual. As Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder and fellow dyslexic, was quoted, “Personally, I actually think dyslexia in the real world can be a big advantage. We have a slightly different wiring to our brains, which enables us to think creatively and differently.”

I am determined to create a business that embraces differences. I’d like our diversity and accessibility to set us apart as an employer as I think the more diverse your team is, the wider experiences they bring to the party and that’s what creates great software. I want everyone who works with us to be proud to do so and I never want anyone who works for us to ever be made to feel like they aren’t supported in meeting their potential.

How are things going for Synaptek?

What we’re doing at Synaptek is pretty ground-breaking and I’m very excited to be delivering real change in the businesses we’re working with. This is our first year in business and we have already won numerous high-profile contracts. We never expected to grow so quickly but it demonstrates how we’ve identified an opportunity to change businesses for the better.

I also believe that our culture and the approach we’ve taken to recruitment has helped make the business a success so quickly. When we recruit, we focus on the applicant’s attitude and values, perhaps more than their technical ability. We can teach and refine the technical skills but we can’t teach the passion and commitment required to make a growing business a success.

We have tripled the team size in just a few months, even managing to navigate the challenges of onboarding new staff in lockdown. The feedback and collaboration from our new team members has been amazing and I believe this is because we have been determined to build a culture that genuinely looks after our people. I make sure that they know we care about them and recognise their contribution to the business.

I have also been able to use my position within the company to support the local community and help to shape the future for the next generation coming into our industry. Members of my team are volunteering to support the Princess Trust in its innovative Coding School programme to help more young people into a successful technical career. We are actually writing into our business plan to support projects like this and are developing a proposal for sponsoring coding summer schools.

We will continue to support the local community and help to cement Birmingham’s reputation as an innovative region that has a lot of great talent to offer to the rest of the country and the world.

I want to balance the success of the business with making a positive difference in how businesses run and how people thrive. I’m passionate about building a business that makes complex technologies accessible and beneficial to our customers’ needs.

The best automation technology in history wasn’t developed to replace people, it was developed to make their lives easier and I want to educate industry leaders on how technology complements the work of employees. My vision would be that businesses are better able to support their employees and provide engaging and rewarding jobs because technology is keeping their business running while they focus on innovation and growth. We’re very excited to be driving this change at Synaptek.

What do you do in your "spare" time?

Spare time would be nice! 🙂

I love my part-time role as a cadet forces adult volunteer in the Royal Air Force Air Cadets. As Regional Communications Officer, with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, this dovetails nicely with what I do as a day job. I am responsible for the delivery of cyber and radio training for the Royal Air Force’s next generation. I also get involved in events and charity functions that are helping to better the lives of young people.

I recently completed a personal challenge in support of the RAF Benevolent Fund. Last year, I trekked 100 miles through Nijmegan in the Netherlands, but sadly the event was cancelled this year due to Covid-19. So, I decided to do it anyway and spent 28 hours stomping the streets in my home town in 25-degree heat while carrying 10kg of dead weight to achieve the 100-mile challenge.

My experience in the RAF Air Cadets has helped me to develop my leadership and management skills and this has been hugely beneficial in my role at Synaptek – there is no better management school than Initial Officer Training at RAFC Cranwell!

Tell us one thing that may surprise people about you

I once performed and sang in a french Language version of Les Misérables. Unfortunately, there is no video footage available. 😉