From humble beginnings in a backyard barn in Geelong to an international provider of education technology solutions, Sky Software has had quite a successful decade. An innovator in the field of education technology systems, Sky Software was created from a merger between PEPi Systems and Accounts IQ.
In 2010, Clive Mayhew, one of the early pioneers of the internet in Australia, facilitated a merger between PEPi Systems and Accounts IQ with the intent to form a single, cloud-based student management solution that would meet the requirements for Education Providers. Sky Software is now considered to be “Australia’s leading provider of cloud-based student management and online accounting solutions”.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Marcel Creed and Nick Stanley on their company’s work and what the future holds for them.
Based in Ipswich with a background in education and a passion for technology, Marcel Creed is Sky Software’s Senior Executive in Business Development. Holding a Master of Education degree, Marcel has expert knowledge in a field that he says is “an increasingly complicated sector”. His early career was spent in Senior Management roles across ELICOS, VET and higher education sectors in Australia and his present work mainly involves assisting education providers to “better understand how technologies interface with their daily operational and business needs.” His background and enthusiasm for the subject of education gives him a unique insight into how education technology could be better used by the institutions that need them.
Nick Stanley is the Technology Entrepreneur and CEO of Sky Software who founded PEPi Systems in 2003. Originally, his team worked out of a converted barn in Geelong, but over the decade his base has expanded and Sky Software and now has offices in Geelong and Sydney, with a software development centre in Geelong. Described as having “stoic determination and vision,” Nick worked hard to build his original company into something big – a global player in the education technology market: “we focused on new functionality features and improvements that other vendors would just say “no” to. I really believe it was and still is our “yes we can” approach that placed the PEPi Systems solution at the head of its class.”
PEPi is your dedicated student management system. What are some of the features of this product?
MARCEL CREED: Sky PEPi is a comprehensive system that integrates all aspects of student administration for education providers and manages the specific requirements for higher education, vocational education and training, short courses, seminars and English language.
The Sky PEPi Student Management System is an innovative approach to student administration, adopting a unique student-centric approach to the processing of student records. The system is designed to offer end-to-end functionality to support student management, marketing and learning management in a completely web-based environment – which can be deployed onsite or hosted.
PEPi also offers the chance for an education facility to customise the user interface. Do you think allowing the chance for a system to be branded makes your product more attractive?
MARCEL CREED: Yes, but more importantly, the solution is incorporating dynamic content features into its standard user interface. Through drag-and-drop technology and the unique Configurator tool, the user can manipulate their own user interface and change the field labels to suit. The key to this is Nick’s vision to move beyond just organisational branding of the Sky PEPi Solution to a more “personalised brand” where the solution can be personalised in terms of personal preference in basic workflow process and user interface.
NICK STANLEY: A person’s work is an extension of themselves. At Sky Software, we have been exploring ways in which our users can interact with the software more personally to better reflect how they work. We’ve included the capacity to move their screen view with a simple mouse drag and drop, our Configurator tool allows fields to be edited or re-labelled and the Tool Tips functionality gives the user the opportunity to create their own procedure manual visible with each screen view. The solution also provides predictive workflow logic that offers the user “next step” choices. We don’t see ourselves stopping here either: we have embraced Web 2.0 technologies in our solution design, but we are currently exploring where the semantic web will take us and what that means for the future of the education workplace and the information systems that support it.
MARCEL CREED: Customers are looking increasingly for toolsets that can push content out to prospective and current students as well as to stay connected with alumni. A sophisticated application programming interface is key to this as it facilitates the integration of websites, mobile devices and other corporate applications, allowing the push and pull of information on demand. Another important aspect to this approach is to facilitate a consistent and unified branding from the Institute’s web presence, which is underpinned by a front end that has enough flexibility to rebrand and to be re-skinned. This approach is a real competitive advantage to the PEPi solution. Importantly, this competitive advantage manifests in tangible advantages to client institutes through a slicker, smarter and more attractive online experience.
Can you describe the creative process at Sky Software and take us from conception to creation?
NICK STANLEY: Like most progressive software companies we’re a little different in the way we view the creative process. Now I am not saying we are like Google or Facebook in that respect: we still abide by “normal” work disciplines in that our staff aren’t riding around the office on bicycles or skateboards.
We are currently implementing the new scrum approach to development, where the different members of our team engage to form structure – which will bring positive gains to our efficiency and effectiveness based on feedback from partners. We have a diverse mix in our team with some more experienced ICT stalwarts interspersed with a group of young graduates. It makes for an interesting mix and while we don’t always see things the same way, we are constantly challenging where our solution is at on behalf of our clients and what it should be and do for them.
We are also keen to foster innovation and encourage the team to think outside the square. An example of this is a new concept we are implementing called “Free Dev Day”. The idea is to allow the team one day per month where they can forget about priorities and just do something a little different. We are making a bit of a game out of it and including a social side where teams form, build a small concept or an enhancement and then present that back to everyone while enjoying a beverage at the end of the week. It’s an exciting concept and one that is quite liberating… who knows, the next Zuckerberg might be in our midst.
Do the programs need much maintenance and upkeep?
NICK STANLEY: Yes and no. No in that the solution infrastructure is very robust and easy to maintain. However, we are not content with staying where we are and we are constantly looking to challenge the status quo on what is perceived as effective solutions for education management. We want to keep our solution dynamic, so this means we work to 3-4 version upgrades per year.
Many of your products use a cloud based system which seems to be the way many companies are moving nowadays. Do you think the future of systems management will utilise the use of online data management?
NICK STANLEY: Yes, but over the next decade what you will see is the emergence and subsequent growth of semantic web technologies. It won’t be too long before the semantic web is upon us. One of the benefits of being an emerging software house is we are growing with this type of technology and have the flexibility to adopt new innovations as they come along.
Sky Software seems to be, among other things, focused upon delivering functional systems in a low-cost, streamlined way. Does the company have certain aims or targets when creating a product?
MARCEL CREED: Absolutely – we work to strict methodology developed over many years of organisational and cumulative experience.
NICK STANLEY: We’re always looking for ways to improve and we have a lot of participation from all team members in relation to product development. We meet weekly to discuss product developments and their impact on both current and future releases. Consequently, we know what the solution will look and feel like several versions ahead and work towards scheduled version release deadlines.
Could you give us an overview of Sky Campus and how the different applications advantage an educator’s ability to increase engagement and learning opportunities?
MARCEL CREED: Increasingly, we are finding that Education Providers want to move to solution vendors that are specialists in the field of education and training. Sky Campus provides the additional value-added opportunity in providing the simplicity of working with the one vendor to provide multiple solutions.
We are also finding that our web-based solutions offer the capacity to merge the Education Providers website with the “outside world” through dynamic content portals. These portals allow the Provider’s website to capture information directly from their website and push it seamlessly into the “backend” of our Campus solutions.
What advantages does your Sky Campus product offer over a system like Blackboard?
MARCEL CREED: Blackboard is a learning management system. Sky Campus offers student administration management, customer relationship management, dynamic content portals, learning management systems and collaborative platforms. The two solutions are chalk and cheese when it comes to product functionality.
How secure is your data storage?
MARCEL CREED: Extremely secure, with each education provider on their own server.
In other articles, you have identified Ipswich as a prime location for Information Technology companies to establish themselves. You elaborate by stating that its proximity to major industries such as aeronautical, education, training and health makes it well-positioned geographically to develop major hubs in a cost-effective way. Have there been any recent moves to facilitate such a hub developing?
MARCEL CREED: The NBN and the subsequent rollout – first to regional areas – will provide opportunity for regional cities such as Ipswich to be well-positioned as ICT hubs. With Ipswich moving to the NBN in 2014 and as previously stated, its access to “big” industry, the opportunity remains.
What is the future holding for Sky Software and have you identified any room for expansion or improvement with current products?
MARCEL CREED: Apart from continued take up of our solutions from leading Australian education providers, Sky Software is increasing its global expansion activities. We have recently completed several deployments internationally, including work in Taiwan, South Korea and Czech Republic. We have also established a consortium of 12 private education providers in Singapore, where we are well down the process in applying for a government grant.
NICK STANLEY: Previously, our solutions have been mostly adopted by larger education providers because the Sky PEPi solution is an enterprise model. With the release of our Blue Sky SaaS product in early 2012, smaller providers will now be able to utilise this innovative, large-scale enterprise technology at a fraction of the price.
The Sky Software footprint is becoming increasingly global. We are receiving acknowledgment for our work on a global scale and this includes recent deployments in Asia and Europe. Interestingly, we even received an enquiry from North Africa a month ago.
Thanks again for the interview Nick and Marcel and I hope that Sky Software continues to flourish!