OZB People: 10 Questions for Clive Sheppard

1. Please tell us about who you are and what you do.

I’m Clive from Surrey, just outside London in the UK.  Originally a quantity surveyor, I couldn’t fight my love of technology and at the age of 28 I switched to IT.  I’m 52 now, and luckily I haven’t been found out as a fraud yet!

2. Share your backstory with us.  How did your business or organisation come about and what was it that switched you on to this area in the first place?

I was never happy as a quantity surveyor – it just wasn’t me.  My uncle was really successful in the field and I worked school holidays in one of his offices to earn money mainly to buy musical instruments and hifi equipment.  When the time came to go to university the thought was to study for a degree that would guarantee a job at the end of it – and so the Faculty of the Built Environment became my home for 4 years.  The first two years were tough but the third year was spent getting work experience in Central London.  The large company I was lucky to work for was very progressive and embraced technology.  That surely planted seeds of thought and made me realise what really “turned me on” … and it wasn’t walking around muddy building sites arguing with sub-contractors!  In my final year I decided to type and bind my thesis myself and in doing so learned how to make a computer do what I wanted rather than be ruled by it.  After graduating, I persevered as a QS for several years with a company just outside of London but in parallel I became the go to guy for IT queries (people would come to me rather than speak with the IT department).  One Christmas I decided that enough was enough and first day back at work in January I asked to either be transferred to the IT department or else I would hand in my notice.  The boss said “but you’ve got no formal IT qualifications” so I could see that my future lay elsewhere.  I spent the next 4 weeks looking through the paper for something related to IT and everyone at the office thought I was mad throwing away my nice graduate salary and all expenses paid company car.

So, at 28 I scraped through an entrance exam and joined a large London IT firm as a junior engineer with a salary £10,000 less per year and an 8 year-old van rather than a brand new Mondeo.  But … I was as happy as a proverbial pig!  I studied hard in the evenings to not look like a fraud with my colleagues (who were all 5 to 10 years younger than me) and quickly got promoted to the role of “senior customer engineer”.  Each day or at least each week would mean a new task at a different customer – it was a real baptism of fire and I loved it.  At the end of every client visit we asked them to complete a customer satisfaction questionnaire and my CSQ’s became a standing joke back at the office – “what on earth do you DO to these people, Clive? … They want to have your babies!”  Ten months later it all culminated in me being awarded “engineer of the year” in my first year at the company among thousands of engineers so it seemed like I had found my niche.

I stayed at the firm for a couple more years and continued to pass all the exams but when my wife (Cristina – born and bred in Berceni, Bucharest!) decided to go to university as a mature student our finances took a nosedive.  I thought to myself “if all these customers are so happy with what I do, surely I could get my own clients and more than make up the difference to the family coffers.”  That’s exactly what I did and, not without an enormous amount of trepidation, Synapse IT was born.

After 10 years of steady growth, the recession began to bite in 2008 – 2010.  Cristina and I too had decided to go our separate ways and I was down in the dumps – I certainly didn’t want to move back in with my Mum and Dad in deepest, darkest Surrey!  Cristina and I went to our bank in Central London to close down our joint accounts and during the meeting the bank manager’s computer had a few problems.  “All our computers are managed from Bucharest, don’t you know?” said the manager and I thought to myself “if it’s good enough for Barclays perhaps it’s worth giving it a go there myself”.  Cristina had always said “You won’t last 5 minutes in Bucharest … you don’t like the heat and you HATE mosquitoes” so I was determined to prove her wrong!

Over the next 2 years I gradually closed down our London help desk and setup something similar in Bucharest.  The “feet on the street” were still in London looking after our clients in the West End but when clients called in for us to fix problems remotely I had a growing team of experts in Bucharest.  Using cloud-based technologies, of which I’ve been a fan since the late 90’s, meant that clients had no idea that when they were speaking to myself, Ana, Lucian or Radu they were speaking to us some 1200 miles away!

I realised early on that if I could make it work, Romania would become my home.  My visits back to the UK became less frequent and I missed the UK less and less.  My Romanian improved over time (ie not just swear words and kitsch expressions from the 90’s), I made some truly wonderful friends (not least my wife Mona who I met running around the lake at Herastrau!) and very soon my life was back on track!

3. What do you think or hope the future has in store for you and your business?

After thinking that the stork had passed me by, I was absolutely DELIGHTED to become a Dad at the ripe old age of 49!  Naturally my whole focus in life has shifted and our daughter Emma Anastasia is the apple of my eye!  I’d now like to live to be 100 to nurture Emma and watch her grow up and be happy doing whatever she wants to do with her life.

Businesswise, nothing ever stands still in IT and my relationship with technology will always be about “taming it” to make lives easier and more productive.  I’ve been extolling the virtues to all that would listen about storing data in “the Cloud” (before it was even called the Cloud!) for 20 years or so.  We ourselves at Synapse have put everything in the Cloud for over 10 years now … the IT expression is “eat your own dog food”.  In short, we believe in practising what we preach.  Moving forwards, we’ll hopefully continue to innovate, adapt and provide real-life experience to our clients.

4. How has lockdown been for you and for your business and what have you done that has helped you personally and professionally?

On a personal level lockdown has been more difficult than I would have foreseen.  Out of the blue, my 86-year-old Dad back in UK took a tumble down the stairs and a few hours later passed away in hospital.  The lockdowns both here and in the UK made everything that much harder.  Travelling to the UK for a funeral was out of the question and in the end the funeral could only be attended by my brother and his wife.  My role, therefore, was to create a tribute website for family, friends, and neighbours to pay their respects and share stories and photos of happier times.  I have so many people to visit and thank once I can go back to the UK safely.
Professionally, the lockdown caught many businesses with their pants down and many of our clients are theatres and production companies in London’s West End.  Naturally, they’ve had no income for several months and it’s still unknown when they’ll re-open.  For sure that’s affected us financially but even so, we’ve been very busy assisting clients to work remotely more effectively.  Some clients have even come round to the idea that having a physical office just isn’t necessary anymore.  In the coming weeks we’ll be assisting a long-time client with the closing down of their London office.  In August they’ll move totally to the Cloud in an environment hosted by Synapse in UK and Dutch datacentres.  In Romania, just 10 days ago a Pharmaceutical company in Bucharest moved their whole accounting function to our Cloud servers so that everyone could work from anywhere.  For us it’s been business as usual … just with quite a few clients calling us asking for extended credit!

5. What’s your take on Bucharest and Romania?  What are the highs and lows in your opinion?

I first set foot in Bucharest at the time of the “Mineriad” back in June 1990.  Just after I finished my finals at university, I went Inter-Railing around Europe with a friend.  With a budget of £5 per day, we were burning through our cash in Western Europe, so we decided to head east.  Lots of fun in Berlin, Prague, and Budapest and then a read of the travel guide about Romania and Albania gave me the shivers!  We decided “let’s go to Romania but ONLY for a day or two! …  and then head off to Yugoslavia”.  I never made it to Yugoslavia … I fell in love with Romania at first sight.  In the train I woke up bleary-eyed and looked out the window.  “Where the heck are we?”  I asked my friend.  “Romania!”  he replied.  To me it was like a religious experience – I was in paradise.  I now know that we were travelling through the Apuseni region in Transilvania, scenery I love to this day.  My friend continued on to Yugoslavia after a few days but I stayed in Romania (overstaying my visa – oops!) until late September.  I spent that hot summer as “englezul Clive” in Berceni … learning to eat semințe like a local, playing football in the street with the locals, going to watch Rapid vs Steaua and Dinamo, learning to curse in Romanian like a pro, etc, etc.  To this day Romanian cursing makes me laugh rather than take offence and often the sheer creativity and inventiveness has me cracking up.  How can anyone not wonder where on earth “am dat cu mucii-n fasole” (I sneezed bogies into the beans) originates from, meaning that you’ve made a gaffe?!

For me, the highs of Romania are its people – their latin warmth – and the fact that so much of the country (away from the towns and cities) is unspoiled, natural, accessible and usually free.  Anywhere nice in the UK has a paid carpark and you can only do this or that.  For sure it’s often better organised but it’s all “manufactured” and everything is about making money.  Bucharest’s big appeal to me is that it’s safe.  I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder or wonder if that person is carrying a knife – London’s not the same place it was when I was a student – everyone seems angrier these days.  Ten years ago when I first settled here I didn’t have a car and had many late night/early morning chats with people while waiting for night buses.  I just can’t imagine that happening in Croydon or Brixton anymore.
Lows?  The fact that many things (particularly banking) are still very paper-based and face-to-face based.  Sure, the technology is also great here (I can’t fault the internet speeds) but the fact that lots of things then needs to be followed up with a semnatura or stampila drives me nuts.  When I explain to people that I have run a company in the UK for 20 years and have never had to stamp anything once they look at me with disbelief!

6. What is your must do/must visit/favourite thing to do or show off to visitors here in Bucharest and Romania at large?

I finally talked my Dad into visiting back in 2015.  Like myself, Mona and our friends, he loved walking in the lovely parks in Bucharest, eating an ice cream, having a drink by the lake, that sort of thing.  I think just “chilling out” is lovely to do here.  Seeing everyone out with friends and their families, chatting, laughing – just enjoying time together – is so reassuring that the world is not all mad and tail-chasing.  Further afield, outings to Snagov, Sinaia, Predeal, Brasov, Rasnov, Turda, Alba Iulia, Cluj, Sibiu, etc, all have much to offer.  My Dad came to Romania not sure of what to expect but left a huge fan of the country and its people – that says it all to me.

7. What is your number 1 recommendation now for a book/film/series/app or gadget?

I tend to like reading/watching/doing things that move me emotionally – that way I know they mean something.  I recently binge-watched Narcos and Narcos Mexico on Netflix and really enjoyed them.  Slightly further back Chernobyl was a superb and very moving production.  My two favourite recent books are “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell and “My Name is Why” by Lemn Sissay.  Both had me captivated from the first page to the last.  For an app, I’ve been in love with Citrix for many years.  To have your work computer in a window that works on virtually all devices from anywhere is awesome technology.  Lastly, I have two favourite gadgets.  The first is my Bluesound hifi system.  Being able to stream music all around the house and on the terrace in high quality using apps like Spotify and Tidal on my phone is just magic.  The second is my Dyson Pure Cool air purifier.  It purrs by my bedside every night providing just enough “curent” to keep me happy and remind me that my ex-wife was probably right – I am too soft for Bucharest.

8. If you could eat in any restaurant in all of Romania and have dinner with anyone in the world (not a husband/wife/relative) which restaurant would that be and with which person?

I think I’d be happy enough eating al fresco at La Brasserie by the lake at Herastrau.  As for my companion, that’s a tricky one, but I think I’d choose my first Romanian friend, Stefan Mogos.  “Who the heck is Stefan Mogos?” I hear you ask!  Back in June 1990 I sat in a train carriage entering Romania for the first time.  Stefan and I struck up a conversation (mostly about football – Italia ’90, great times) – no mean feat considering my Romanian was non-existent and his English was pretty rudimentary!  On arriving at a hot and dusty Gara de Nord he knew enough to ask me where myself and my friend would be staying in Bucharest.  We had no idea at all.  Perhaps we’d sleep on the station platform like we did in Berlin.  “You stay with me and wife. OK?”  That was the start of a beautiful friendship and typifies what is beautiful about Romania and its people.  Through Stefan I saw what everyday life was like for regular Romanians and his kindness, warmth and friendship deeply touched me and changed my life forever.  Constantin Brancoveanu, Berceni accepted me as one of its own.  So Stefan, enjoy your steak by the lake – I have so much to thank you for.  You can have as much as you like, tonight’s on me!

9. Sum up your business in one sentence, what it is and why should people engage with it?

Our motto is “Technology Tamed” … We’re the nice, friendly, approachable guys who help you add elements of technology into your life to make it easier rather than believing in forcing technology upon you just for technology’s sake.

10. Describe your Romania in one word.

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