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Future in the palm of his hand (12/03)

By ANDREW WAREING A conversation with Nigel Leith is a little like riding a roller coaster.


A conversation with Nigel Leith is a little like riding a roller coaster.

It is fast, full of twists and turns, and ends in a strange sense of satisfaction that one has glimpsed into something somehow more than one’s everyday understanding.

Leith is technical director, acting CEO and co-founder, with Dan Kaltiainen, of Pen Systems and he is the living embodiment of the word frenetic. Never seeming content to sit in one place position for very long, he will be reclined in his chair one second, then up to get a piece of equipment out of the company’s tiny technology museum the next.

Kaltiainen is no longer with the company, having left to pursue other interests, but partners Alfred “Fritz” Grottoli and Michael McLaughlin joined Leith.

A self-professed “chip head,” Nigel is an absolute believer in the paperless society, one that was promised in the early years of the computer, and he approaches the topic with an almost evangelical fervour.

“That’s one of my problems with the IT industry because we promised this paperless society and we haven’t delivered, and it seems to be okay that we haven’t delivered,” Leith says. “In fact, it also seems to be okay to live in an environment where your desktop is getting slower and the IT department can’t close the backdoors to their own products. To me, that isn’t okay.”

The personal data assistant (PDA) device Leith developed, loaded with one of the company’s programs such as Inspector +, is an obvious solution, he says. Capable of storing a large amount of data, the PDA is perfect for freeing someone such as an inspector who no longer has to bring a box of forms with him into the field, but can print documents on demand and can vastly improve his productivity.

“I guess we’re enabling (with the company’s software Inspector +),” he says. “Most think of this as a higher quality of life because someone like an inspector is doing what he likes, and, for the city it’s good because he’s getting at least one more inspection done a day. At $50 for an inspection, that’s $16,000 a year. So the payback of this is pretty quick.”

Leith is a native Australian who came to Canada in 1990, “chasing a girl,” but while here, was diagnosed with cancer. After receiving treatment at Laurentian hospital, he had found a long-term love affair, not with a girl, but with a place.

“I still feel like I’m on holiday,” Leith says. “I really understand why people stay here (in Sudbury). I’ve been in every country in the world except mainland China, but this is No. 1 for me,” he says.

An avid pilot and fisherman as well, Leith has also discovered the joy of theatre, having joined with a theatre company called Black Dog Productions, which in mid-November was preparing for their production of the play Death Trap, staged at Laurentian’s Thornloe University.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Canada was try out for an audition. Of course, you only join the theatre to meet the girls,” he quips. “Actually, it’s a real left-brain, right-brain kind of thing, a kind of radical escape that you need, especially in a business like this. You can’t be thinking about your lines and work at the same time.”

Being a “chip head,” the next step is never far from his mind. The main challenge is developing software to work in a number of different environments and to meet the needs of the clients.

Pen Systems had its origins in 1992 after the development of the first “pen” hand-held devices, which have slowly evolved over time to become the PDAs that have become almost as ubiquitous as the lap top and the cell phone in most business environments. The core of the company’s software line, Inspector +, evolved from the question, “how do you work with a laptop when you don’t have a lap?” and aimed to find solutions for inspectors who have specific questions that need to be answered.

It has not always been that way, says Leith.

“Everyone says they embrace change, Leith says. “No they don’t. They will embrace change if they are told they have to, but other than that (they won’t.). Now, you can walk into a meeting and say ‘who’s got a pocket PC or a Palm?’ and hands will go up. It’s a much more encouraging environment.”

In the beginning, Leith says Pen Systems was “mesmerized” by the gold-mining sector across the world, and for a long while, everything was going well. Then, the bottom fell out of the gold market and many companies that were their bread and butter were suddenly cutting costs.

As a result, the company was forced to learn an important lesson; diversify! As a result, they started looking at different potential customers for their software and started seeing applications for cities, for medical use in triage, health inspections - anywhere that professionals needed to assess a situation, fill out a form and ask a specific set of questions about a situation.

Competition scarce

“We looked at the competition and we really didn’t see any competitors for what we were doing out there,” he says. “There were companies that were producing municipal software, but they were front desk applications. Those guys had a laptop application that you could take out a laptop, and fill out an application, but it still didn’t do what our software did. I’ve always been a believer in, if you’re going to develop an expert system, you have to be an expert in what somebody does. In the case of Inspector +, we took 18 months working with building officials, fire inspectors, going out on inspections, understanding the whole process.”

A new project underway at Pen Systems is the development of programs for municipalities that will track the locations of sidewalk and road degradation that have created a serious liability for the city.

Sometimes the path of a company or a development of any kind is punctuated by a series of moments of inspiration and serendipity, but that is not the case for Pen Systems, says Leith.

“Really, this is one huge long-term plan. I’ve got this thing planned out for another two years,” he says. “I’d like to say there were a series of Eureka! moments, but it’s sort of pretty obvious where it has to go if you consider the goal is making a very open architecture in terms of data and hardware. You have to make software that runs on all platforms. That forces you down a particular road of development.”

Essential to the company’s evolution has been its corporate partners that include companies such as Bell Mobility, Nortel Networks, Palm, Xwave and Municipal Software to name a few.

At the heart of Pen Systems is a group of eight “seriously smart” software writers that are developing new products and revising and improving the current range of products, says Leith. While he may come up with a “grand vision” of what is to come, it is up to the software writers to make it happen, and, while it may be a challenge, it is also rewarding.

“This is exciting,” he says. “It’s pretty funky what we’re doing and we attract good, smart people. That’s good because this requires a certain amount of vision.”

Leith has directions he would like to go in the future, including perhaps realizing his dream of developing an “organic microchip” that would increase modern computing power by leaps and bounds.

It might mean selling the company someday, he acknowledges.

“The only criterion to selling, or an equity transfer, would be if I was confident they would keep the direction of the company,” he says. “What I don’t want is someone coming in and dismantling this part of the company, because it is just so exciting.”