Monday 25 March 2019

Tech-savvy Wexford couple tapping into new markets

TEKcentral is buzzing in Taghmon. David Looby paid a visit to the cutting edge company with a bright future

Niamh and Frank Turner with Gerard Tonge who loves to code
Niamh and Frank Turner with Gerard Tonge who loves to code

A technology obsessed couple have found their dream job by thinking inside the box and in the process turning thousands of people on to the wonders of computing.

Wexford couple Frank and Niamh Turner founded TEKcentral in the Taghmon Action Group centre in 2016 after Frank was made redundant and Niamh decided she needed a change of pace from her hectic Waterford city job.

Speaking at their bright, modern offices, which they opened with Frank's redundancy and their savings, Frank said: 'We both come from an electronic and computer engineering background. It took us quite a long time to actually take the plunge to start TEKcentral.'

Niamh said: 'I was in Waterford in an electrical manufacturing company, up at 6 a.m. and not home until 7 p.m. No one in the kids' creche knew me. It's difficult for a woman as the guilt would kill you. Frank worked in Hitachi. He was made redundant so he started up his own IT business and did his teaching diploma.'

For the parents of four children, making the move into a start-up was a daunting prospect but it was a dream Frank and Niamh have never shied away from, in the process building a successful Wexford company without any supports from the Local Enterprise Office.

They had the vision for TEKcentral for many years and with this in mind Frank completed his teachers diploma in ICT in 2011.

It wasn't until 2016 that they had that moment of 'jump or get off the pot' so they went for it.

Niamh, who is a Bierney from Wexford town, said: 'At the time we had four children ranging between one and 12 so it was a big decision to come out of industry, but looking back we would say if you can do something that you love for yourself it is very rewarding.'

The couple teach coding and technology to young people at schools, in libraries and at their TEKcentral hub, which has over a dozen PCs and boxes full of fun tech stuff for children to program everything from race cars to games.

'We cover both software and hardware (and everything in between). I think the driving force behind the positive reaction we get from schools, parents and libraries is the genuine interest we both have in all things technical and electronic and the buzz we get from seeing young people enjoy and discover these things.'

Frank and Niamh currently have classes in the Educate Together school in New Ross, and have many classes and programs throughout the year in New Ross Library.

They were recently partners with the Wexford County Council for Wexford Science Festival 'WexSci', during Science Week.

'We had a brilliant week meeting schools and groups. For instance we met Ramsgrange Community School in New Ross Library where we programmed Micro:Bits and hacked into a remote control car to rewire the Micro:Bit into it. We also met with Youth New Ross, where we had a great Comic Life session. We were so impressed with these young people's artistic abilities that we said we would have to go back there, so they are going to create their own characters between now and Christmas and we are going to revisit them in the new year to take them through building their own comic book with their own characters.'

For the last two years they have run a summer program in all libraries in County Wexford. These have consisted of two four week sessions.

'These sessions are so important as not every young person has access to computers or can attend classes, and because the summer session is a four-week program the young people are getting a really good introduction to computers, coding and technology.'

The enterprising couple cater for everybody, young people with all kinds of interests and conditions and professionals who feel somewhat embarrassed by their lack of tech knowledge.

Children from Cottage Autism Network started coming to TEKcentral in 2017.

One of the children, Gerard Tonge, from Adamstown, really took to the place.

His mother Rachell Morris said: 'We had tried absolutely everything for Gerard. The first time here he was like a whirlwind but he settled after a few visits and this is the only place Gerard feels at ease in.'

Gerard, a bubbly, bright boy of 11, who has cerebral palsy, Adhd and Autism, was never into coding until he attended a TEKcentral class and now he can't get enough. In the process he has made friends.

Rachell said: 'He has never been good with his peers. Niamh and Frank get on so well with children and adults and it makes such a different having a place where your child is made to feel so welcome. As a parent you don't have to worry about them while they are here and he is learning a lot. Frank and Niamh have gone above and beyond to accommodate Ger and all is interests.'

While we chatted Gerard was totally absorbed playing a noisy game and loving every minute of it.

Niamh said they teach children Python and Scratch coding, adding: 'It's very rewarding for us. We do classes in Wexford town, Enniscorthy, New Ross. We have 28 laptops. We go into primary schools, many of which wouldn't have laptops for every child, especially in country schools.'

They run eight week courses in schools all along the east coast, teaching the children tech in fun, interactive ways.

'We go into hardware and software and play games like Simon Says on computers. The children are writing the programs. We teach them how mobile phones work.'

They have 130 clients, not including pupils and today Frank and Niamh employ two people.

'We work with children who never see computers and have never used a mouse or keyboard so it's great to get them into it. We also get professionals attending our classes and on a one-to-one basis because they don't know how to use a computer. You are trying to get them to upskill.'

Frank and Niamh are constantly updating their technology. Frank says: 'We've a lot of robots, electronic kit. We use the tech and computers to do PC autopsies and we do the evolution. We use Micro:Bits which were used in 6th classes in the UK Every 11-year-old in the UK got one. It would be great if Irish pupils could get them.'

The company's unique selling point is that they provide all of the equipment, a selling point which has won over county councils and schools across the east coast.

Their classes for children with dyslexia and autism are also proving a hit, with positive word of mouth seeing parents travel from outside the county to bring their children to the Taghmon business.

Using a colour scheme individually tailored to each child, Frank and Niamh can offer a specialised service for each child.

Their income comes 70 per cent from their classes and 30 per cent from their schools and libraries classes.

Frank said: 'We are in Kildare County Council and in Educate Together schools in Arklow, Carlow, Kilkenny in September. We are very invested in the company and have plans to expand into north Wicklow, Waterford and Dublin. There is always an email to answer. Our only problem is keeping all the work in the office.'

Niamh said: 'I love it. I especially love working with the Cottage Autism Network groups. You see so many autistic kids who have such potential; it's just a matter of harnessing it. In classrooms you can just see the pupils' confidence growing week after week. Many schools don't have any IT.

'We are filling a gap in the education system. We are also teaching teachers in Enniscorthy Education Centre using Scratch, Python and Micro:Bits. We do debugging programs for teachers too. We have a small IT business as well.'

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