The Big Interview: Paramjit Uppal, founder and CEO of AND Digital

Paramjit Uppal, chief of AND Digital, explains how his club model has harnessed IT talent while avoiding binary choices.
The tech boss said it made 'perfect sense' for the firm to launch its first Scottish club in Edinburgh. Picture: contributed.The tech boss said it made 'perfect sense' for the firm to launch its first Scottish club in Edinburgh. Picture: contributed.
The tech boss said it made 'perfect sense' for the firm to launch its first Scottish club in Edinburgh. Picture: contributed.

Paramjit Uppal is the founder and chief executive of AND Digital, which is billed as a digital transformation specialist providing businesses with access to digital talent to help them build products faster. It has worked with organisations including British Airways, spirits giant Diageo and the Ministry of Justice.

The firm turns over £42 million and recently secured an £11m investment from BGF and on the back of this chose to launch its first Scottish office in Edinburgh, aiming to recruit 80 to 100 tech roles in the city in the next 18 months. Uppal had his “lightbulb moment” in 2014 after becoming aware of the failure rate of many digital transformation projects. He saw that technology alone wasn’t enough – it needed the right people in the right environment to succeed.

Can you describe what the firm does?

Uppal hails the firm growing to 600 permanent staff in six years. Picture: contributed.Uppal hails the firm growing to 600 permanent staff in six years. Picture: contributed.
Uppal hails the firm growing to 600 permanent staff in six years. Picture: contributed.
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We believe every business is now a tech business, with software and data at its core. As “doing” tech is still a human activity, we also believe these businesses need their own people to innovate, successfully compete and delight their customers. Yet most businesses lack the digital skills for them to be successful. AND Digital was born from the desire to close this digital skills gap.

We provide immediate access to the tech talent that clients require and create products in partnership with them. Not only does that mean we build and ship better digital products faster, but it also means our clients build the digital skills of their in-house teams simultaneously, enabling them for on-going success.

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Digital specialist creating 100 jobs in Edinburgh with new office

We do all this through our unique club-based model. We have small offices, or clubs as we call them, of 80 to 100 people serving up to 12 clients. These clubs are autonomous units, but they also have the resources of a large company. It’s a pioneering approach designed to allow us to be nimble and agile – keeping the pace, close relationships and individuality of our start-up days, while still allowing us to grow rapidly at scale.

Why did you establish AND Digital?

I wanted to challenge the prevailing thinking on how businesses acquire, build and retain tech skills and figure out a new way to grow a “people first” company. For businesses, AND helps achieve the best of both worlds – highly skilled tech talent blended with in-house teams to deliver better digital products faster and, at the same time, increasing clients’ long-term digital capabilities.

AND was inspired by the book Built To Last by Jim Collins. Instead of being oppressed by the “Tyranny of the OR,” great companies follow the mindset of the “Genius of the AND”. They don’t simply focus on one thing, believing they have to make a binary choice. Instead, they blend ideas that are often seen as competing: the idea that it is possible to be, for example, people-focused and commercially successful; have small company feeling and big company resources at the same time; being excellent in creative and tech – you get the idea.

How did your career progress before AND Digital?

I started my career as a software developer in one of the big management consulting firms at the time. This progressed into architecture and delivery roles, and then into management and leadership, including a stint in industry where I led the build of one of the first web-based customer service solutions. My career was going really well until the demise of Enron and the resulting collapse of Arthur Andersen. This was something nobody could have ever imagined. It led me to the realisation that big companies fail as much as small ones, and that risk is relative, so I thought why not start my own small business.

In 2003, I started an IT consulting business, and grew that from zero to 300 people over ten years. We achieved a lot in those years, such as helping some of the biggest UK companies to transform their IT capabilities. I was approached by a US consultancy that wanted to have a permanent presence in the UK. After working with them for several years, it made sense for them to acquire the business and for me to shape my next venture to tackle the digital skills gap in a new, challenging way – hence the idea behind AND Digital.

You have announced ambitious plans to recruit 80 to 100 digital specialists within about the next 18 months and are targeting international expansion – can you give more details and what is driving such rapid growth?

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Our impressive growth stems from our Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) that we set every five years – others would call it a company mission. We make it “audacious” for a reason: it dares us to do things differently, bigger – whatever that may be. Our first BHAG took us to 2019, and inspired us to build a remarkable company. The success of this was measured through various goals, from rapid growth, going from zero to 500 people in five years, to raising the bar for clients; it also involved being a Best Company to Work For every year. In just six years, we have proven a growth formula for people-based tech firms, with our club model at its core.

We believe this growth formula, coupled with the successes we have achieved with our clients, puts us in the perfect position to now make a remarkable impact globally. By 2025, we want to build tech with clients that makes life better for hundreds of millions of people and upskill hundreds of thousands of people in tech, all while staying firmly people-first. We want to prove our unique operating model across the world, and achieve ten-fold growth – that’s around £500m-plus in revenue globally.You have launched Club Somerville in Edinburgh – why did choose this location and what are your Scottish expansion plans?

Although Scotland’s tech sector contributes £4.9 billion annually to the country’s economy, recruiting specialist talent remains a challenge for many businesses, with more than 13,000 unfilled digital positions each year. We saw opportunities with the key clients in Edinburgh and for our club model to help address this skills gap.

It made perfect sense for us to launch our first Scottish club in Edinburgh. The city is at the forefront of innovation and financial services. This, alongside a burgeoning ecosystem of tech, public and private sector organisations, is a perfect place to make an impact.

Every club takes its name from a notable pioneer, chosen by our own ANDis (that’s what we call our people). Our new Scottish club has taken inspiration from Scottish science writer and polymath Mary Somerville. Since launching in February, we’ve set up home in St Andrew Square and welcomed 13 new tech experts, with a further 25 recruits joining later this month and next month.

What is the impact on your business from Covid-19 – is it making companies focus more on their digital capabilities?

It’s a challenging time for everyone at the moment and we’ve seen a decrease in immediate demand for our service from a number of impacted clients. However, we’re delighted to see we’ve seen steady demand in Edinburgh – so recruitment in Edinburgh is something that isn’t letting up.

When we emerge from this, we believe the new normal will be even more driven by tech – whether that’s new digital services, more online and e-commerce, or ways of work that are agile and remote. A few small examples we’re already working on include increasing traceability of digital supply chains.

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Businesses that survive this crisis will want to move fast with their digital aspirations, placing increased demand on the talent they need to achieve those plans. We will be there to help them.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for AND Digital?

Talent is our biggest challenge. The demand for tech talent is continuing to grow at a pace that’s unrivalled by any other industry – yet it’s not being matched by growth in numbers of candidates entering the tech job market.

We need to consider the sustainability of this as we grow and how to fill our most senior tech roles. Over the next two years, we plan to double in size.

What has been the most pivotal moment in your career and/or AND Digital’s development?

We have achieved so much in such a short period of time. As a company, from zero to 600 permanent people in six years, through to reaching tenth place in The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For.

Amongst all our achievements, it’s often the little things that are pivotal. One I personally feel is pivotal for me is our 300th ANDi. It took me ten years to get to that scale in my previous business, and we reached that milestone in a fraction of the time at AND. Being a foodie myself, we marked the occasion with a great lunch in one of the UK’s top restaurants – it was a lovely moment.

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