Richard Walling is well known to most of our customers, and has been the go-to person for them and his colleagues for all things product-related during his 25 year career with WCBS.

Having graduated from the University of London he became interested in the IT world after working for the French Railways London office where they were just starting to computerise the UK ticketing operation.

So, how did this lead on to Richard being crowned The Guru of School Software Solutions? In his own words follows his interesting story.

From the Railways to “South East” Area Manager at WCBS

After my time with French Railways I moved into the independent schools sector, first at Croydon High School for 2½ years, then Woldingham School.

Relatively early in my time there, I helped the bursar to implement a new finance and management information system called Pass, and encountered WCBS for the first time.

This led me, in 1997, to become the South East Area Manager for WCBS. My key responsibilities as the only employee based outside the Glastonbury office were to carry out on-site training visits and general liaison with customers, because of the large number of independent schools in this region.

WCBS Christmas party 1999

The ‘South East’ proved to be a very loose term, because certainly within my first month I found myself in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Most of my prior experience was using the admin and academic systems, so I’d had a crash course on the finance product in my first week from Karen, who is still a colleague at WCBS. By day four I was on my first solo training appointment.

Gradually I travelled all over the country and as I did more and more visits, I learned about how schools were using our products.

Transition period: Networking and Pass for Windows – achieving the milestones

The big change going on behind the scenes in my early days was the development of Pass for Windows, the basis of passFINANCE as we know it today. Both our finance and admin/academic software had originally been Unix based, but with the advent of Windows, systems were becoming more universal.

Exhibitor at ISBA conference 2004

Also, networks within schools were developing. In my previous role I was responsible for enabling access to the systems right across the school. For example, everything was hosted on a central server in the finance department, but the admissions team, who were key users, were based 1/4 of a mile away in another building on campus. Networking like that was very unusual then in the school environment, and quite complicated, involving several different companies and a little bit of thinking outside the box from everyone, but it did work. That was the key thing.

The launch of Pass for Windows and its ongoing development was a big milestone for WCBS and involved moving existing customers over to the new products. It was quite a lengthy process; to start with it had to be at a convenient time for the school. We supported some of our customers on the Unix product for a good number of years until they were ready to make the change.

Expansion into schools overseas – more thinking outside the box

The next big change was our expansion into the international market. When I started, there was just one school in South Africa and one in the Middle East. This really was an exciting time as it was a very different market to be working in, because although on the outside the schools looked quite similar, the requirements for the international sector were really different in many respects. Again, it was a great opportunity to allow ourselves to think outside the box. It accelerated the development of products within new areas because some international schools had more exacting requirements – for example, taking lesson by lesson attendance. This was a requirement of the IB qualification, you couldn’t graduate unless you’d actually attended 80% of the classes.

We rapidly expanded into more countries across the world, which brought with it the opportunity to visit many of these places.

International travel – highs and lows

Some of the international travel experiences were more enjoyable than others, including visits to schools in Switzerland simply because of the stunning scenery and locations. Sometimes I had to remind myself when I was on a train through the Alps that I was actually at work. There were people on the same train paying a lot of money to have a holiday!

Company outing, 2006

On the less positive side, I think being sat in a traffic jam in Dubai, with the thermometer registering an outside temperature of 54 degrees and not looking forward to getting out of the taxi, which was nicely air conditioned, was one of the least enjoyable!

This reminds me of another experience at the other end of the temperature scale: on one of my first trips to Switzerland my destination airport was closed because of snow and we were diverted to Strasbourg. In France I had a three hour bus trip to where we should have been. But I did quite well because, as this was before everything was paid for on credit cards, I’d put a few euros in my wallet just in case, and in the hour waiting for the bus to come, I got chatting to somebody else from the flight and he didn’t have any euros, so I bought him a coffee. It turned out we were going to the same hotel in Switzerland and he actually paid for the taxi from the airport which was considerably more expensive than a coffee.

It was about 3 o’clock in the morning by the time we finally got there, and I was due at the school at 8 o’clock the same morning to start training on their first session on the software.

Probably I kept going on adrenaline, because it was quite exciting!

I can speak French reasonably well. I wouldn’t possibly go as far as saying fluent, but certainly I was using it in an office capacity with French Railways and the language used there was quite different sometimes from the French learned at school, especially when things were going wrong. I learned more German when we started working with schools in Germany mainly to understand restaurant menus a bit better after a less than wonderful experience with steak tartare!

Understanding our customers

Now I’ve moved into my new role I think to be honest Customer Success has really been a driving force throughout my time at WCBS, and I suppose it’s been 25 years working towards this. Having worked as a customer of WCBS, managing a system within a school, I know and understand the pressures that people in those positions have, and over the years have learnt about different types of schools, giving me a good insight into what we need to do to support them.

So, I’ve been able to use my knowledge and expertise to help them do their jobs. If, during a visit customers ask for some extra functionality, I know whether I can say yes, we’ll go away and work on that. Also, they might have been doing things one way for years and you have to assure them there’s a better way.

Having worked as a customer of WCBS…I know and understand the pressures that people in those positions have, and over the years have learnt about different types of schools

I do always try to find something to leave with our customers that they don’t know, even if only to save five minutes a day and make life easier. This happens at almost every meeting.

Now that most people are used to working with software than in the early days, it has changed our approach, especially with training. Originally the software really only allowed you to do things in one or two ways, depending on configurations, and so you would work through with people by telling them ‘what’ to do. Now, because schools work in so many different ways and our software has become much more flexible to accommodate this, it’s a two way conversation. You have to find out what problems the customers are trying to solve to come up with the best solution.

Having that sort of empathy with people to know how they work best is really important. The immediate answer isn’t always there, but the need for the right answer, even if it takes a bit longer is more important.

Doing the honours - WCBS' 35th birthday

Acknowledging the value of face-to-face

Since being appointed in September 2021 I have managed to get out to some schools but with COVID restrictions in place it hasn’t been easy. Fortunately most of us are now used to remote meetings and Teams has made such a huge difference, so you can actually engage with people nearly as well online. It’s not quite the same, though, as there are little things that you pick up during an onsite visit. For example, I went to talk to somebody about academic reporting and in conversation over lunch at the school, HUBadmissions was mentioned so on our way back we dropped in to see the Admissions secretary who was very interested. They were doing practically everything manually. Now, that wouldn’t have happened on a Teams meeting.

Another example, I’ve just had an email this morning from a school who are changing their billing and fee collection arrangements quite radically, and it wasn’t easy to see how they would make passFINANCE work with their new requirements. By looking at the whole configuration of the system and how it is used in the school, I’ve come up with a solution that will serve their purposes well. It also coincides with a new member of staff taking responsibility for Billing at the school, so I have arranged to visit to help them understand exactly how the system can be used to suit their needs.

25 years’ experience: passing on the knowledge and still enjoying the challenges

After more than 25 years with WCBS, I’m often asked why have I stayed so long.

Umm… well there was never a plan that far in advance! My career has developed within WCBS as the company has developed and changed so that’s one of the reasons. I don’t think I would have still been here if it had been the same every day. There are new opportunities all the time and now we’re at a very exciting period in the company’s development with HUBmis, then HUBadmissions coming soon and HUBincome later in the year. They are a completely new generation of products that are going to transform the way we can work with schools.

Recently I compiled a list of some of our long term customers from memory back to at least 2000. The number of schools on the list surprised me, and it’s quite an achievement, especially for a software company that started up right at the beginning of Edtech.

I think as well, as I mentioned earlier, having been able to travel to different places, different cultures and experiencing different ways of life is another thing that’s kept me going, as it’s always been interesting to me.

I do now like being able to pass on the knowledge to the next generation of people in the business. To some extent that happens pretty much every day, from any part of the company, and it’s not true that there’s nothing that happened 20 years ago that can’t be relevant today.

Most importantly we’ve got a great team of people at WCBS. People who will step in and help you out if you need it.

It remains challenging but I think I always like a challenge, I don’t sit around with my feet up too much as my wife will tell you – she sometimes gets fed up with me always busy, but my way of relaxing is to do practical things and achieve something.

Away from WCBS: the love of classics!

One of the things that keeps me out of mischief at weekends is Classic Car restoration, which needs practical problem solving. You get to talk to other people in a different sort of world. It’s such a contrast as some days at work I feel like an oldie, but the world of old cars is where I feel one of the younger people!

I have two Morris Minors, both of which are a good deal older than I am [pictured]. The white one technically isn’t finished yet, and that’s been a four plus years’ project because it was a complete wreck when I got it. But the black one? Well, that was a project also, but a good few years ago was actually initiated by my daughter, who wanted it for transport to her Year 11 prom. The car was my mother’s, my parents had bought it when I was three for her to learn to drive on, which she duly did, and subsequently I did as well. It spent the best part of 10 years just rotting away literally in their garage after she could no longer drive. It was only when this idea came up, fortunately more than a year before the Prom, that prompted me into action.

The Morrises

Even most of the woodwork had rotted so has been replaced, with ash. Somebody else had to do the last bits of the work, partly because of the lack of facilities I had but also the time. I was actually driving back from Nottingham to Glastonbury following a user group meeting with several colleagues in the car when I got a call from the specialist, on speaker. He literally said “’Ello. Your car’s ready.” That was it! By the end of that week I collected it and then was the driver for my daughter and two friends. I did the same thing for a friend the following year. The car’s been on the road ever since.

I love being in the countryside, and we are very fortunate in living just a minute’s walk from an extensive local common and woodland. If I’m working from home, I usually start my day with an early morning walk around the common, and it’s amazing how many times a 15 minute stroll at lunchtime can help to come up with a solution to that annoying problem that has been “stuck” for half the morning in your mind.

Early winter morning March 2022

Having spent many years training on location, facilitating workshops and helping his colleagues provide better service, Richard was made Director of Customer Success in 2021; recognition of his excellent track record of ensuring the needs of our customers are met and helping them to use our software to its full potential.