Since the opening of Digital Equipment Corporation in Galway in 1971 its legacy — now in the guise of Hewlett Packard Enterprise — is still as strong as ever, writes Dr Chris Coughlan.

Although officially opened in 1973 by the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) began manufacturing in Galway in 1971. This marked the beginning of Ireland’s Information Technology Industry and Smart Economy.

Now 46 years onwards is an opportune time to assess the significant role of ‘the Digital Legacy’ that has contributed and continues to contribute both today and in the future not only to Galway but to Ireland.

Who would have thought that from the dark cloud in 1994 when Digital hardware closed down in Galway — with the loss of 780 jobs — that a silver lining would emerge. It emerged on many different fronts:

  • A small software manufacturing operation, the Digital European Software Centre, remained with about 200 employees. The challenge for the remaining software operation was to build on this continuing presence and identify other areas for creating new employment opportunities.
  • Following the Digital hardware closure in Galway a task force working with the IDA was successful in subsequently attracting new employment to the area. In fact, as a result, a new cluster emerged based on bio-medical devices with the attraction of major companies like Boston Scientific and Medtronic. This in turn has today given rise to many local and indigenous small to medium enterprises, many of which now support the medical device industry worldwide from many international locations.
  • Information Communication Technology (ICT) is Galway’s other cluster. The origins of this emerged from the applied experience and expertise of many of the redundant Digital managers and employees, with the support of Enterprise Ireland they helped transform local existing traditional companies and founded new start-ups. In addition because of the international experience of the ex Digital people many were “Born Global”, that is the mindset from the start was to do business on a worldwide basis. Today this is reflected by the very successful Information Technology Association of Galway (ITAG) which has over 80 members ranging from individual, SME and Multinational members in the region.
  • The Galway Chamber of Commerce along with Enterprise Ireland and a number of other bodies supported by Digital Equipment Corporation started an incubation centre where redundant Digital employees were given business support and facilities to incubate business ideas and start-ups. Many of these have since become major employers not only in Galway but nationally and internationally. Today the original incubation centre has developed into the ultra modern 50,000 sq ft facility, the Galway Technology Centre (GTC).
  • An additional bonus for the IDA and Ireland Inc. at the time was that a pool of a skilled workforce and internationally experienced managers were available and became a major asset in attracting a new wave of FDI, who through their availability could quickly begin new operations in Ireland and hit the road running thus reducing and in many cases eliminating a costly start-up phase. Digital redundant managers and employees had the international experience which enabled the IDA to use their availability to attract a new wave of MNCs as well as IT industries and companies into Ireland. Many of these ex “DECies” went on to hold top and leading positions in this exciting new wave of FDI companies.
  • Directly as a result of the ICT and biomedical clusters located in Galway, two major Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI) centres have been established at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). These two research centres — the Regenerative Medical Institute (REMEDI) and the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), now the Insight Research Centre — have grown to hosting hundreds of world leading researchers in the areas of gene therapy delivery and adult stem cell research and in data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) research. In fact Compaq which took over Digital in 1998 was a founding member of DERI. Now numerous local MNC’s and SME’s are playing highly involved roles in both of these research centres.

Steady employment growth during mergers

In 1998 Digital worldwide was taken over by Compaq Computers and in turn Compaq was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002.

Inside view of Ireland’s digital technology revolution

Throughout those turbulent years of mergers, the employment continued to grow at the Software Centre in Galway due to the resilience of management and employees. The operation in Galway is a story of survival, determination, innovation and re-invention.

It is a story of adapting to downsizings, closure, take over’s and economic and technological change be it in the guise of Digital, changing to Compaq, changing to HP. Understanding the corporate worldwide value-chain and its future worldwide strategic direction was key to identifying new opportunities from international service delivery to research and development.

At a local level is a story of how it impacted and transformed a then mainly agrarian economic region to the beginning of an industrial region e.g. industrial manufacturing, technological skills and processes, local economic development, education, business and commerce, start-up supporting SME’s, growth of existing companies, setting international standards in local companies (e.g. quality control, procurement) etc.

Throughout the years, Digital, followed by Compaq, followed by Hewlett Packard, contributed and played a significant role in the economic, business, sporting, and cultural life of Galway.

At a national level Digital in Galway marked the beginnings and sowed the seed of the Smart Economy in Ireland that is spoken so much today as one of the key sources of wealth generation and employment.

In 2015, a new Hewlett Packard Facility, housing more than 800 employees, next to the original Digital building, was opened by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD.

For the three companies, the journey in Galway was from assembly line to RD&I in Cloud Computing, and onto the fields of Analytics and Cyber Security — where its employees today are still leading and breaking new ground at the forefront of IT both on a worldwide basis and for Ireland Inc — and this continues to be the Digital Legacy.

- Dr Chris Coughlan, is a member of the Management Team at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Galway

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