5 mins with Andy Slaney, winner of Outstanding Contribution to the Industry 2019

What is your current job title?

I started my own consultancy business in 2010 (BiTronix Ltd). I specialise in the design of satellite and terrestrial communication equipment. I offer technical leadership and design consultancy services at a very senior level, to bind development teams together to achieve rapid product growth. I also maintain a very hands on approach to leadership and design. I have had a long term relationship with Ultra Electronics, GigaSat and am currently acting as Head of Innovations to define the future product road map for the business, provide  technical leadership to the Engineering team and to assist the sales team in opening up new markets and developing new business worldwide. I also fund my own research and development of new leading edge communications products (watch this space!). 

Can you tell us about your telecoms career history so far?

After leaving school, I applied for a 4-year Technicians apprenticeship with a company called Continental Microwave Ltd in 1993. In that year the company took on board 6 apprentices. Continental Microwave Ltd had three main product lines, Satellite News Gathering (SNG) for broadcasters, point-to-point digital microwave links and UHF television transmission systems. The training I received was excellent and well structured. I had the good fortune to work in every department within the organization which gave me a great grounding in how a successful manufacturing organization is run and an appreciation for everyone’s role in the organisations. During this time I was given a day release to study an ONC and HNC in electronics. During the final year of my apprenticeship I was offered a position working in the electronics design department. After the apprenticeship I was offered a position as a Junior Engineer with the company. I also asked the company if they would sponsor me to do a part time Bachelor’s Degree in Communication System Design.

In 2001 I decided to leave Continental Microwave and was offered a position with Gigatronics.

Gigatronics is a US based company that decided to set-up a UK R&D division primarily focussed on their power meter product range in January of 2001. My role was as a senior digital design engineer and to take on-board the digital baseband development of a frequency selective power meter product. The role was heavily FPGA based and involved developing DSP algorithms to measure power. Unfortunately, due to poor trading conditions Gigatronics UK was closed down in March of 2002.

In June 2002 I completed my BEng Degree with First Class Honours and at this time I joined GigaSat, which was another start-up company.

GigaSat, at the time, was specialising in the development of SNG products primarily for the broadcast market. I was employee number 6 and we literally worked out of the owners Garage! I was hired to bring more in-house value added capability to the products that we were developing. Whilst at GigaSat I worked incredibly hard and long hours to ensure they had a competitive product range as well as innovative designs, which have helped secure significant business.

At around the same time in September of 2002 I started a PhD in the field of MIMO and Space-Time Coding on a part-time basis. This was self-funded.

In the early days of working at Gigasat it was necessary to perform the roles of the different departments usually seen within larger organisations. So as well as designing the products, I was involved in purchasing, mechanical design and assembly. My training at Continental Microwave served me well. I and the team around me did what it took to make the company grow. There were some turbulent times! At the young age of 27 (2004) I was given the opportunity to lead the Engineering team, a role that I greatly aspired to since starting my apprenticeship.

I continued to work for GigaSat until June 2008 and by this time the company was turning over circa £12M and quite successful.

It was then that I decided to move on and join another start-up company called Siraia Networks Ltd as their CTO. Siraia Networks Limited was formed to provide a dynamic and tailored alternative to the fast-emerging mobile network markets in the Far East, Asia and Africa in particular. Siraia’s ethos was to develop innovative solutions based on our own TrueConnect technology platform to enable fixed and mobile service providers to reduce costs, increase profitability, and expand offerings by delivering both legacy and IP services over a packet-based infrastructure.

I maintained a very hands-on design role and developed some very novel technology including a fully software defined point to point micro-wave radio link. The company lasted two years due and closed on June of 2010 due to poor sales.

This lead up to me starting my own business in June 2010.

Prior to my current contract with Ultra-Electronics, GigaSat, I worked with many companies including ComDev (now Honeywell); SIS LIVE where I was the creator of the uPAK, uPAK60 and ManPak VSAT product range and successfully took the concepts into production and to market. These products are now owned by General Dynamics, Mission Systems. I also partnered with Digital RF and Delma MSS Ltd in developing Counter Terrorist and Surveillance Solutions.

What made you pursue a career in telecoms?

I have always had an interest in electronics since childhood. I started by purchasing components from a local electronic store with my pocket money and built my own radio receivers and other simple electronic circuits. The best way to learn electronics is to practice and make plenty of mistakes along the way (as long as you learn from them)! This was in the mid 80’s before the internet and PCs were mainstream in the home. Nowadays you can buy everything you need online. My dad also bought a second hand BBC Computer Model B with 32K RAM! I taught myself how to program this computer and wrote various games, which I tried to publish to the well-known game makers at the time (without success). This gave me a grounding on software programming.

I actually had aspirations to become a physicist and after gaining 9 GCSEs in school I took up 4 A-Levels. Unfortunately I took the wrong choices in subjects and soon began to feel like I was losing direction in life. I started to skip classes. As the weeks went by I grew too far to behind on the courses to catch up and so decided to drop out of college. It was a very difficult time in this respect.

However, as one door shuts another opens and I applied for an Electronics Technician Apprenticeship with Continental Microwave Ltd. Looking back this was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. To have a hobby turn into a career is a wonderful thing.

In your opinion, what are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the industry in the next five years?

The biggest challenge is keeping pace with technology and markets in the fast paced environment that we live in. The draining aspect of the work is that everyone wants something yesterday! I have found that many companies, especially public companies, are reticent in spending on Research and Development without a strong backing business case behind it. Academic institutions want to align themselves more with industry and equally vice-versa. I find that free thinking is becoming more scarce. To be honest I can understand this as there are not too many success stories to speak of. For example with Electronically Steerable phased-array Antennas (ESA’s), many companies have pumped millions into what is considered ground breaking technology, yet after many years the products are not mature and have many problems associated with them.

For land-terminal satellite communications I often find that the market winners are variations of parabolic systems (old antenna technology). However, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications are surely to become prevalent in the next 5 years and a supplementary terminal capability will be required with suitable tracking antenna technology.

The key challenges are to make ever smaller, lighter, higher directivity terminals. In this respect I do have some very ground breaking ideas in mind.

Equally with 5G coming onto the scene there will be great opportunities to utilise the mass produced components to reduce terminal costs.

What is your biggest achievement so far?

Attaining my PhD. I had to overcome so many life changing circumstances while working on my PhD.  All of my studies post HNC had to be undertaken in my own time. While I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Communication System Design, my daughter was born and had many health problems. I also had to work full time as a Junior Engineer and at this time as my income was so low I started a Disco business to earn more money. The funny thing is that I earned more money doing Discos in the evenings and weekends than in my full time job. At the time I had finished my Degree, my son was born and I was keen to continue my studies and move to a PhD. I cannot tell you how many of my peers and friends tried to talk me out of it. However, in 2002 I embarked on my PhD and 7 years later managed to achieve this. The greatest gift you can receive are personal achievements of your goals in life, especially when obstacles are thrown in your path.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Being creative and seeing my thoughts and concepts become reality.

How important is mentoring to you? Have you mentored a colleague?

I had the great privilege of having many mentors in my early career. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many people. Even the Managing director of Continental Microwave used to give up his lunch breaks to walk me through various schematics and teach me how various products work.

I very much take enjoyment to mentor anyone who wants to learn. Since taking up various leadership roles I have mentored many colleagues. To be honest the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. I am fortunate to work with so many great people even to this day and we share and collaborate ideas within our different skill sets.

The sad part of our world is such that economics set up financial barriers which stop companies collaborating and sharing technology for the betterment of mankind.

What did winning mean to you?

So often, the Engineers that create our everyday objects in life go unnoticed. We often hear about the CEOs of successful technological companies, but not the engineers who are behind the success stories. It takes a great team to achieve great things.

Winning this award is the first time I have had official recognition for the many years of hard work. I am truly thankful and grateful for those that saw fit to nominate and award this to me and I only hope I can continue to show myself worthy and contribute to society. I would not say things have come easy in my career and life. I have had to work incredibly hard and push through so many problems both professionally and personally, navigate the politics in industry and life. Winning the award certainly does help motivate me further.

What advice would you give others considering entering an industry award? Did you find the process easy?

To be honest, I had no idea I was put up for the award until I received notification. I am so grateful to have a great team around me and colleagues and partners in business who thought I should be put forward for the award. I would strongly advise anyone to nominate a colleague who has gone the extra mile within an organisation as a token of recognition.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in telecoms?

As with any career, I think you have to have an interest to start with and follow your passion. In my line of work I am finding there are less young engineers/graduates who are perusing this field of engineering. It is difficult to find good engineers and this is increasing as time goes on. I won’t lie, It is a long learning curve but certainly a rewarding one once you put in the effort to attain the knowledge and skills. I would advise anyone wishing to embark in this line of work, not to box yourself into one area of design, but to broaden your knowledge and skill sets. Often working for the smaller companies is far more exciting and rewarding as you are able to get involved in the entire product design cycle and many aspects of it, rather than one small element of a larger design.  A multidisciplined approach also makes you more employable.

Andy Slaney is the winner of the 2019 Outstanding contribution to the industry Award.

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