Barbara VanKirk, founder of the Murrysville-based IT consulting firm IQ Inc., has been in the software business for more than 30 years and has seen drastic changes to the industry in that time. Next week, VanKirk will receive the ATHENA Award from Seton Hill University’s E-Magnify. We spoke with her about the past, the ever-changing present and the not-too-distant future of computer technology.
Keystone Edge: How did you go about starting an IT consulting and software development firm in 1994? What was your inspiration/impetus?
Barbara VanKirk: I had, prior to consulting, worked as a software engineer for Westinghouse and built software for tracking the construction of nuclear power plants. I discovered through the years of writing software that I had a real passion for working with people–helping them understand computers. So I moved into an organization that provided me some experience with end-user support within Westinghouse, and once again I got a real passion for consulting services and decided to move out of Westinghouse and work for a consulting company. And as I worked for this company my eyes were opened and I discovered there was a whole world outside of Westinghouse and a lot of interesting potential applications for software development. So I worked as a consultant for about five years and in 1994 was going through some family health problems and needed to have flexibility. But my employer at the time was not open to the idea of telecommuting so I decided I would probably need to do it myself. So before telecommuting was a buzzword in the community, I decided I would put together a business model that would allow individuals to work during the hours they were most productive or that fit into their schedules–but certainly with parameters around that.
KE: What are the most significant ways the IT business has changed since you founded IQ Inc.?
BVK: Mobile devices are the most significant change to our industry… IQ never attached itself to one particular technology. We always looked at where we were today and where is the technology going to go in the future. I actually had a manager at Westinghouse tell me one time, he said Barbara, you will see in your professional career the technology of a Cray computer–and Cray was the fastest computer at the time, in the late ’70s, early’80s–you will see that in a handheld device. And that has held true. We used to have rooms full of computers–lot’s of wires, big drums for hardware to store all the data. So I’ve seen a big change not only in the size but also in the speed of computers. We’re walking around with Blackberries that have the speed and memory capacity that we had to write software to operate nuclear power plants at the time.
KE: So how have you adapted your business to deal with these major, and often rapid, changes to computer technology over the years?
BVK: We sit down with the customer and determine what the problem is, what issues they are dealing with, and then help them formulate the solution to their problem. If the solution is something they need on a desktop, or if they need it as software as a service, we can provide the hardware, develop the application, and provide the networking services to get them into our site to run the software.
KE: How have your clients’ needs changed over time?
BVK: We started out totally as a service organization; we hired consultants and we put them out in the field with our clients. That has changed drastically. As the industry changes, as we go through these ebbs and flows in the economy, we have found that our customers appreciate the business model we’ve created because we can morph into what they need us to be. We can place consultants on site to help them with a problem, we can take the problem and solve it here within our four walls, we can do a combination of that, or we can find them a full-time placement, a full-time employee, that they manage. And we can also develop software and licenses to that software… At one time the clients only wanted to have people on site, where they had control and they could manage them and they knew where they were and what they were doing. There was a time when [the mentality was], ‘if I can’t see you, you must not be working.’ Well, that’s not true.
KE: You’ve been in software development and computer technology a long time. What direction are we headed in terms of technology development?
BVK: I definitely think that virtual offices will continue to grow. What virtualization allows you to do is tap into resources that may be thousands of miles away from you, so you could have a 24-7 operation without changing the dynamics of your company. I also believe you will see more of what I call universal applications, universal databases. So no matter where you are in the world, if you have a healthcare issue you should be able to get to your healthcare records… We’re still in the infancy stages of software development. We really are. We haven’t tapped into the capabilities of what we can do with technology.