Blog by Kat Jackman
Marketing Campaign Manager at QA and Huffington Post blogger @qaconsultinguk
“When Steve Pankhurst was setting up Friends Reunited in 1999, Mark Zuckerberg was still an anonymous geek rattling around a boarding school in New Hampshire. At separate times they have both been lauded as titans of social networking. But while Zuckerberg went on to set up Facebook, wealth beyond avarice and public egomania, Pankhurst grabbed the money and ran.”
When I recently started working on a new project to fast-track STEM graduates in tech roles —the QA Academy Programme — I knew that Steve Pankhurst, a former STEM graduate himself, would have an inspirational story to tell. Steve made his millions developing the first ever social network, Friends Reunited, which in the early noughties was the mainstream social network in the UK. He made the smart decision to sell his company (to ITV) at the height of its popularity, making himself a tasty £30 million in the process.
I recently got in touch with Steve to ask him a few questions about his journey from a maths degree to becoming an internet millionaire.
1) What was your role in founding and building Friends Reunited?
I was a software developer in the 1990s and, along with my business partner Jason Porter, founded Happy Group in 2000 to try out a number of internet ideas. One of them was an idea from my wife Julie – this later became Friends Reunited. We wanted to try lots of ideas out as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
2) You studied maths at university – how did you go from maths to working in the IT sector?
I left Imperial College with a maths degree in 1985 but I was unsure of what I wanted to do. I was offered a job as a software programmer at the General Electric Company (GEC) so I thought I would give it a try. I must admit I didn’t really do much IT at university – I tried to do courses that involved as little work as possible! Therefore I was at a bit of a disadvantage when joining GEC, as I was up against IT graduates. However, I soon caught up because they had a great graduate training course on entry.
3) What other IT jobs were available to STEM graduates at the time?
IT in the mid-80s was a very different landscape to now. The only real route in was through large engineering or defence companies like Marconi, GEC and Ferranti. There seemed to be few opportunities for entrepreneurial-based companies. I didn’t really want to work for a huge faceless corporation, but I really had little choice. So my plan was always to move on every couple of years, learning as I went, hopefully to smaller and smaller organisations each time – luckily this is what happened and it was a good foundation.
4) Had you always wanted to work in software development?
Not really! I played with writing basic ZX Spectrum games in the early 80s, but it wasn’t until I started my first job (at GEC) that I sort of realised I quite liked the analytical and problem solving side to programming. Whilst I saw it primarily as a job, I did like the analysis and thought process that went into it. However, I never considered myself a geek!
5) Becoming a successful IT entrepreneur is often about finding a niche and exploiting it – how did your career take off?
In the 90s Jason and I started an IT consultancy company. We targeted writing small systems, using the latest technology, for use within larger organisations. Some departments—HR, marketing etc.—never really had a budget for IT, and their internal IT departments rarely helped them. So we found a niche in this area, writing small systems. However, in the mid-90s we got in with a small pension software house, and over the next five years we wrote larger systems for a multitude of insurance companies – mainly pension software. Our systems luckily took off in a niche market and enabled us to learn huge amounts about scale, using the latest technology wherever we could.
6) How did your IT skills and experience help you build Friends Reunited?
Through the 90s we developed a number of systems using Visual Basic 6.0 and Microsoft SQL Server. We had already taught ourselves all these skills and hence developed Friends Reunited using this technology. Our software and the technology may not have been perfect, but it worked.
7) What are the biggest lessons you learnt as a software developer?
Don’t try and build all the bells and whistles at first launch – get something out there as quick as possible to find out whether it works and is actually used. Then don’t be afraid to iterate or pivot if things are not working – sooner rather than later. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help!
Listen to the customer – developers can get themselves a bit blinkered sometimes doing the cool stuff rather than the useful stuff.
8) What is/was the best thing about being a software developer?
Very much a “was” – I don’t do it anymore! Flexible hours, working remotely, anywhere at any time. And putting software out on the web that is used and makes a difference to people – the realisation that people use your systems for good is rather cool.
9) Why do you think that it is difficult for graduates today to get hands-on software developer roles straight out of university?
Whilst you can get great training and write amazing stuff when you are young and at university, there is sometimes no substitute for experience. The business side of software development is all encompassing now, from marketing, PR and social media. Working in a team is also something you can only learn over time. Actually being dependent on others—backend, frontend, UI/UX—can sometimes be tough.
However, I don’t think there has ever been a more exciting time to be armed with IT skills – the variety of IT roles and companies is amazing!