by James Henderson

Pivoting in a pandemic: How Embed shifted tech gears to survive

Interview
Feb 03, 2021
CTOIT Leadership

Andy Welsh faced a new type of challenge as CTO in 2020: innovating out of scope in an entertainment season best remembered for endless uncertainty in a year that almost got cancelled.

andy welsh embed
Credit: Embed

As CTO of a self-labelled ‘small cloud-based software solutions’ company, Andy Welsh’s responsibilities covers the spectrum of product design, development, delivery, and maintenance.

He is an executive who operates on the front line, advising on practices, governance, risk management, and policy, as well issuing technology recommendations to allow Embed—which services the out-of-home entertainment sector of amusement arcades and theme parks—to achieve strategic asspirations. “On any given day, at any given time, I can be found leading a brainstorming session on the whiteboard, coding, or interfacing with one of our customers,” says Singapore-based Welsh.

In operating as a cashless business management solution provider serving the entertainment industry—spanning mobile wallets, kiosks, card readers, and POS systems—Embed has naturally been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic across Asia-Pacific. More than most, this continues to be a sector under strain.

Ranked No. 8 in the 2019 CIO50 ASEAN awards and No. 11 in 2020, Welsh is no stranger to disruption, operating in an “older sunset” industry ripe for change. “Even before 2020, uncertainty was a big shadow to manage: How do we expose ourselves with just enough risk to truly innovate?” Both before and after the pandemic, Welsh acknowledged the constant balancing act in understanding calculated risk as a technology executive: “Too little, a business risks being left behind. Too much, and you’re roadkill on the information superhighway.”

Welsh had aligned to the belief that attractions, amusements, and family entertainment were relatively immune to economic downturns—“parents will always find a way to celebrate a child’s birthday”—meaning the motivation to evolve technologically remained fairly low. But the pandemic changed that approach. “It’s unequivocal that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the industry, with the ongoing closure of venues and the new operating models that operators will need to adopt.”

For the first time in the industry’s history, high-traffic businesses were the first to close and the last to reopen. The industry that operates in the business of fun was, for the first time in history, collectively depressed. So Welsh undertook a new approach: giving away core innovation to ensure collective survival, allowing businesses to once again get up and running postpandemic.

How Embed adapted during the pandemic

As many executives hunkered down and went dark, Welsh and the Embed leadership team pivoted the business to work in six-week cycles of innovation—soldiering on remotely, redefining processes, and working around-the-clock to ensure continuity. The aim? To kick-start the industry’s recovery by leading the business through a dramatic pivot in strategy.

In March 2020, Welsh shifted Embed development to focus on surviving the pandemic while implementing the Licensing Fee Relief Act to dramatically reduce licensing fees for customers.

This was in addition to huddling with industry leaders to share tactics for survival, as well as spotlighting industry insiders who shared insights, recommendations, and strategies via the EmbedLive program, running almost 80 episodes in the process, which had pioneers or leaders in their respective field offering advice to business owners on how to navigate through the stormy waters of the pandemic.

In April 2020, Welsh offered Embed’s award-winning innovation—the Mobile Wallet—free of charge for a year to demonstrate a commitment to industry recovery efforts. This also resulted in the acquisition of customers across the world through the ability to embrace “safe, low-touch game play” free of charge.

Perhaps most strikingly, in July 2020 Welsh adopted an innovative approach to technology through the launch of a nontoxic and family-approved cleaning product: Embed Hygiene Defence, which is designed to capitalise on a “new type of customer” engaging with businesses perceived as “safe” across Southeast Asia. For Welsh, such an approach extends to becoming more conscious of hygiene, price, and social distancing.

Entering a new business category—from cloud to cleaning—as CTO is not the type of risk-taking expected during a pandemic, but it was key to “thriving” during such an uncertain time. “Consumers are incredibly savvy about knowing to look at the ingredients labels of their products, including cleaning products, and they avoid exposing their families to toxic cleaning products,” Welsh says.

A history of technology curiosity

Before a career in technology beckoned, Welsh—who speaks fluent Bahasa following a childhood in Indonesia—cut his teeth in scripting by managing the autoexec.bat file on his old 286 PC, squeezing enough memory to play Space Quest. “I got computers,” he recalled. “I knew they’d be a big part of my life. But I took the long way round to IT. One of my mentors advised me early on not to study IT, rather study what you want to implement in IT.”

Following such advice, Welsh allowed his healthy curiosity to run wild before realising the common denominator which prompted more than 20 years of developing mission-critical and housing valuation systems used daily by four major Australian banks. This is in addition to the creation of his cloud ticketing and booking management platform Booking Boss, which was acquired by Helix Leisure in 2017 then by Embed a few years later.

“Every day is a new day in technology and as CTO it’s on us to pull the new shiny things apart and understand their potential and then to drive a reasonable timeline to achieve it,” Welsh says. “Sadly though, it’s also ours to recognise when they have failed and for that pet project that is so close to be canned.”

To that point, “the technology-as-a-service mentality is no longer wholly true,” he says. “The role of the CTO is to now derive a strategy of possibilities for the future of the company, which is a big weight to bear. To sit in cruise control on technology is to actively miss out on potential.”