Industry Insights: Q&A with veteran & entrepreneur Jim Hook, founder 7Technologies Group

Industry Insights: Q&A with veteran & entrepreneur Jim Hook, founder 7Technologies Group

Meredyth Grant

Jim Hook, a British Army veteran founded 7Technologies Group in 2003 turning it into a multi-million pound company in under a decade. Jim was bought out in 2018 when YFM completed a majority equity investment. The company combines operational experience with world-class engineering to provide you with globally-leading ISTAR systems. 

Jim Hook, founder 7Technologies Group and British Army veteran.
  • How did you find yourself in the military?

I was living in a bedsit in Cambridge, employed as a salesman in a Hi-Fi and video shop (Laskys) going nowhere having flunked school. I walked past a careers office and thought it had to be better than what I was already doing. My father had been in the army for a full career and although it hadn’t been my ambition to follow him, it looked like a good way out of where I was. 

  • What was the highlight of your military career?

That’s a difficult question to answer, but to keep it away from a work focus and show the broader opportunities the Army has to offer, I was selected as a group leader on a tri-service expedition, Monte Bianco, where we summited a number of 4000-meter peaks in the Alps, culminating in Mont Blanc / Monte Bianco.

  • Why did you leave the military?

When I was interviewed for a Late Service Commission I was asked ‘if we commission you, how long will you stay in?’. My answer was ‘as long as I’m making a difference’. I stopped making a difference so decided it was time to leave. 

  • What made you go down the entrepreneurial route?

I don’t take orders very well, so the simplest way around that is to work for yourself. The Army gave me confidence which I think is one of the key attributes of anyone heading down the self-employed route.

  • What advice would you give to other service leavers thinking of setting up their own business?

There are 3 pillars to any good business – the company, your staff, and your customers. You need to see the self-perpetuating relationship with these three pillars and dial into it. Have a business that funcitons well and creates new / great product, customers will be happy to buy it, staff will get paid well and invest in working for a well-functioning business, and so on. If anyone of these three is out of kilter the other two will collapse. Trust you own abilities. There may be lots of ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ out there with their opinion of how you should run your own business but you already know how to do it. Accept you will make mistakes along the way and be prepared to learn from them. Understand that ‘business’ only happens when you engage with customers (i.e. people who pay you) so prioritise all meetings with customers rather than businesses – its easy to get B2B meetings as the other business sees it as a sales opportunity.

  • Your business had huge success under your watch with international sales hitting £12.5m in 2015. Was this all part of the plan?

The plan wasn’t really focused on that sort of target until we took investment. Prior to that it was a case of looking after the 3 pillars and realizing that if we got that right everything else would follow which is what happened. If we had been focused on generating revenue, we would lose sight of the ingredients to do that and fail. We adopted the Roosevelt theory – ‘if someone asks you if you can do something, say ‘yes’, and then think about how you are going to do it!’

  • How did you achieve this growth in just ten years? What’s the secret of your success?

Understanding that there are more than 24 hours in a day (or more realistic – more than 8 hours in a work day), looking for the opportunities, creating your own, constantly developing new products, working in areas where there was no competition, employing a military campaign concept of operations, always looking to the future and not the past. 

  • What made you retire from your business in 2017?

We took investment in 2012 and that changed the dynamics. The three pillars became blurred and ‘conventional’ business concepts took over. The result was their vision for the how the business should evolve and mine were not aligned so it was time to move on.

  • Where will you be in 5 years? 

I’d like to say on a chalk stream catching wild brownies but I really don’t know. I’ve been helping some friends and tech businesses with architectures for their opportunities and expect one of those might drag me into something. I suspect it will be COMINT related as I find the area fascinating and yet currently lacking any real effective integration to enhance operational effect. With the evolution of deep learning and Artificial Intelligence the capacity for the COMINT world to evolve is incredibly exciting. 

  • What projects/areas of tech/cyber should the military and commercial sector be focusing on in the next 5 years?

Within the sensor world it needs to be full sensor fusion and autonomous reaction to user defined fused sensor data analysis. Within the COMINT world it’s the networking of disparate, apparently unrelated, data repositories with user established analytical work flows. Both technology areas have the ability to deliver timely actionable intelligence that will provide operational advantage. These capability areas bleed nicely into the commercial world, and vice versa, where the advent of truly smart cities and autonomous vehicles are key technologies milestones for future living. 

  •  Have you left tech and cyber for good now? Do you still keep your hand in?

Its very hard not to keep involved. The challenge is to not get dragged back in so deep there’s no time left for living in the real physical world of the great outdoors.

Your inspiration:

  • Throughout your life who would you say have been your main role models and why?

I’ve met a lot of people along the way, probably all of which have been military men and women. They wouldn’t be people most would have heard of. Each has inspired me in different ways and I hope I’ve learnt a little from all of them. The aspects that they exhibited that have defined me however are more straightforward – honesty, integrity, punctuality and reliability.

  • Do you or have you ever had a mentor? What did you learn from them?

I can’t say that I have but one person who has always supported me is General Sir Tim Radford who is currently the deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

  • What mistakes have you made in your career? How have they shaped you for the better?

Too many to identify any individual one. The importance of making mistakes is to learn from them and not make them again. Making mistakes isn’t a problem though as they are your education so you should always look at them as positive strides along your route. Every mistake has an opportunity for resolution and improvement lurking nearby. 

  • True entrepreneurs are renowned for their resilience. What is it that makes you get up again, when you’ve been knocked down? 

I don’t like failure.

Your thoughts on tech industry issues:

  • What emerging technologies should we be keeping an eye on?

Graph Data Science supported with deep learning and ever more impressive AI analysis.

  • If you were to retrain now, what area of cyber/tech would you focus on developing skills in?

Graph Data Science and big data analysis. Working out how to bring together wide sources of data, collected in all domains, and then using the ever-advancing toolsets to analyse it is how systems will add context to intelligence in the future.

  • What more can the government do to encourage more veterans into cyber and tech training programs and jobs?

Implement a more radical approach to how the Reserves are structured and employed. We live in a dynamic, near borderless, world and yet we expect reserves to operate in a very regimented structure. Harness what they are currently doing and let them feed that into a new technical virtual collaboration where the full-time serving personnel benefit from their input. Obviously not all reserve work is technical or cyber related but the world is becoming more virtual by the minute so remove the hurdles for those who don’t want to, or can’t, report for the standard military activities and set objectives by task output and not time working. The results will be far more beneficial in the long run.

  • Why are service leavers well suited to cyber security and tech jobs?

Military personnel think differently to civilians. They work to an output objective, and not a daily work routine. When employed they look at the deadline and think about how to get there and then get on with it. Civilians who have never had to understand the life and death imperative of a deadline don’t easily adapt to that stress. Cyber security and tech jobs reward those who are productive, and by the nature of understanding objective lead tasks, military personnel can excel in these areas.

  • Why do you think the ‘general public’ are so flippant about their data security?

Because its invisible until something happens. As most people don’t experience serious cyber crime its easy for them to think it won’t happen to them. That, combined with not understanding quite what can be achieved, leads them to think it won’t happen to them…until it does. 

  • How can we encourage everyday people to take better care of their cyber security?

That’s a difficult one. People need to know what can, and actually does, happen to them. That means marketing it, whilst not scare mongering. Advertising it as a reality would be a start but who will pay for that sort of media campaign?

  • Should the national curriculum focus more on cyber security and tech skills?

I’m not sure what it covers currently but its probably a good place to start with the answer to question 6 above. However, that means educating the teachers first. 

Offensive cyber & cross domain cyber

In an interview with Sky News earlier this year, General Sanders, head of the Army’s Strategic Command and (in an interview alongside Jeremy Fleming, Head of GCHQ) said; 

“What you’re seeing are our adversaries, our rivals, exploiting the tools that are meant to make for a more utopian society – so things like social media – against us, fuelling conspiracy theories and really sowing division and tearing the fabric of society apart . . . almost fuelling a civil war inside some of these societies.”

  • Firstly, what is cross domain cyber?

There are 5 domains – maritime, land, air, space and cyberspace. In the battlefield they are all used for communication as well as offensive action against an enemy. Controlling an enemies ability to communicate, sense, and move between domains, delivers operational advantage. Nearly all [technical] systems operating within these domains are computer controlled. More and more are networked. Operating offensive cyber actions, or controlling the IT systems that control the sensors and attached devices prevents the use of those systems to the enemy and in some cases allows us to use them against the enemy. 

  • How can the government and commercial sector work more effectively together? People? skills? Funding?

The government needs to have a far more flexible and dynamic approach to procurement. It simply isn’t fit for purpose. If you were to compare it to software engineering its ‘iterative’ in its approach. In defence of the procurement agencies however, they are under resourced for the amount of projects they need to manage, although that itself is, in part, due to the cumbersome approach applied resulting in projects lasting far too long before delivery at which time the requirements will have changed. There is, and always will be, the age-old argument of whether procurement should be requirements driven or technology led. A flexible and dynamic procurement service, where people were empowered to make decisions, would be able to deliver both appropriately. 

  • In your view, what is the biggest threat facing the UK in terms of cyber security at the moment?

At the current time I would say fake news. Our media services are atrocious and always looking for the scare tactic / headline porn that grabs people’s attention and gets them angry. That in itself makes it hard for people to know what’s truthful and accurate and what isn’t. Far worse however, are the legions of bots, implemented and controlled by state actors, promulgating fictional stories to control whole population mindsets. Turning a population against its military through stories of fake war crimes, or controlling the vote for an election or referendum by feeding fake issues to a crazed media machine looking for a story to run with has changed the political and physical landscape more than any war has done in the past few decades. ‘Spin’ was seen as bad, but we knew it was spin. Fake news is far worse as we don’t know its fake. 

Seven Technologies Group is a Lisburn-based specialist security and surveillance business, providing advanced tactical remote sensing, communications, tracking, search and cyber security solutions to a range of customers, with a primary focus on the Special Forces and Intelligence Communities.

The company employs over 100 people in its three offices throughout the UK, and has significantly increased its international sales, selling to 28 countries in 2015.