Andy Harper had heard people preach the merits of the Golden Rule before, but it wasn’t until he was deep beneath the surface of the ocean, confined in a submarine with 140 other sailors for months on end, that he truly grasped its importance.
“The Royal Navy Submarine Service engenders a sense of teamwork that is second to none,” he explains. “I realized very quickly that, in those circumstances, you have to get along with people. It was a real eye opener for me because we all had egos and attitudes, of course. You have different disciplines who all think they’re the best, but very quickly you realize that the main entity is the team itself, and the team functioning properly is what brings the solution. Three months spent underwater on a submarine engender true tolerance and understanding. You have to treat others the way you’d want them to treat you, and you have to be willing to do yourself any task you assign to someone else.”
Now the cofounder and CEO of Gaeltek LLC, a full service IT consulting firm that specializes in preventing IT issues from afflicting DC-area business before they start, Andy brings this same team-oriented mission to the business world. “The sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” he affirms. “When you pull together as a team, you can deliver far better, and that’s what we do both for, and with, our clients. We create unparalleled synergies within our employees, and between Gaeltek and the companies it services. That’s why we don’t call our clients customers; we call them partners.”
Gaeltek was formed in 2004 after Andy realized how poorly businesses were being serviced from an IT perspective. He had served in America as a weapons engineer in the Royal Navy and wanted to stay on to work in the defense industry, but due to the political and economic climate of the time, that wasn’t possible. Instead, he took a job in the British Embassy as an IT manager and then went to work for a small company that provided IT support to other small companies. “I was there for all of a month before I realized how shocked I was at how horribly that company treated its clients,” Andy muses. “They prioritized based on the amount of money the client paid them, rather than the relationship. It was completely at odds with how I wanted to deal with people. I always want to treat people the way I would like to be treated myself, and we founded Gaeltek under that mantra.”
Gaeltek was thus founded with the mission to provide top-notch technology support to small businesses, providing them the tools and value they truly require to do well in the current marketplace. Setting itself apart from its competitors by assuming complete responsibility for its clients’ networks, the company is committed to providing solutions proactively, hedging off potential problems before they develop.
“If you think about it, IT providers generally make the most money when their clients are hurting the most, which didn’t seem like a fair business paradigm to me,” says Andy. “I used to manage a weapon system that had to be working 100 percent of the time, and if there were any glitches, you were making explanations to the highest level of government. That really taught me the importance of operational readiness, or keeping systems online. Just like with a new car, you want to keep a new computer system and network in the best possible condition, so we wanted to revolutionize the way computer maintenance is done, introducing the concepts of responsibility and vigilance.” That’s why Andy and his team came up with the idea to take full responsibility of maintaining their clients’ entire networks. By monitoring, managing, being proactive, and really looking at how systems work, they succeed in minimizing downtime, mitigating issues, and initiating immediate workarounds for each client because they are familiar with that client’s IT environment in its entirety.
This approach, known as managed services, has gained popularity recently, but in 2004, Andy and his team were ahead of the curve, though they didn’t know it at the time. Now a team of five, and each with a unique background, Gaeltek offers a more nuanced and holistic expertise that surpasses the nuts-and-bolts approach of its competitors. Andy’s wife, Amanda, handles the business-related aspects of the company, while he is more oriented around systems and configuration management. Another team member, Dave, was a database developer for the US Marines. “We’re not just here to support a technical tool when it’s broken,” Andy affirms. “We’re here to support a business doing business.”
Gaeltek’s clients span the professional services industries, including law firms and high-end retail stores, that stand to better deliver their services through maximizing their IT capabilities. It represents its clients’ best interests, distilling complicated issues and translating technical jargon so that each party involved understands exactly where they’re going and why.
Andy grew up in a town on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland called East Kilbride, which had been built after the Second World War to give people better housing and the promise of a better tomorrow. His father, a driving instructor who ran his own business, always encouraged Andy to work hard for his education. His mother worked nights as an auxiliary nurse in a hospital to help make ends meet, and his older brother and sister both still live in the town they were raised in. “We weren’t wealthy and we didn’t go on fantastic vacations, and it frustrated me that my parents worked so hard but didn’t have much to show for it,” Andy remembers.
Young Andy had no professional aspirations growing up save for the fact that he was fascinated by engineering. An avid reader and deeply technical child, he was building radios by the time he was seven years old. He didn’t play any sports, however, and by the time he reached high school, he felt the itch to get out and do something physical. With that, he joined the Sea Cadet Corps. They valued Andy’s burgeoning technical expertise and also developed his leadership skills, lending him a new air of independence that inspired him to seek out and secure his first job—a summer gig at a small electronics company when he was 15.
Andy thoroughly enjoyed his experience with the Sea Cadets and toyed with the idea of joining the Navy, which his father discouraged because he thought it didn’t hold a future. Andy found out, however, that he could join the Navy as an engineer officer. His father said there was no way he’d ever get in because he was working class in the class strata of the UK—a challenge that would forever fuel Andy’s desire to succeed. “I decided I wanted to prove him wrong, so I went for it,” he remembers. Through hard work and perseverance, he earned a reserved place at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth at the age of 15. If he got good grades at school, he would be admitted to the College as a midshipman, which was equivalent to an entry level officer in the US.
Life changed dramatically for Andy at Britannia, where he learned incredible discipline. “We were all wannabe Naval officers who had been at the top of their classes, learning that we all had to work together to be part of the team,” he remembers. “We learned that the team is much more important than the individual, and that set us up for true success.” At age 18, he joined the HMS Intrepid, a landing craft carrier, and sailed across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. “In Barbados, you really see the haves and the have nots, which I wasn’t sure how to handle initially,” he remarks. “You see some people who can get anything they want because they have money, while others didn’t even have running water. That was a real eye opener.”
Andy then passed out as a midshipman and went on to the HMS Illustrious, an aircraft carrier, where he got an ankle injury and was switched to a shore-based assignment for several months. He then enrolled in the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth to start his three-year engineering degree. It was a rigorous course that stretched his abilities up until he graduated in 1988, when he underwent more training and ultimately became an engineering officer in the Royal Navy as he had always wanted. “All through that experience, I could hear my father in the back of my mind saying it wasn’t possible,” Andy laughs. “It wasn’t until the very end, when I qualified as a submariner and got my submarine dolphin badge, that I realized I had actually done it, and it was possible. That realization is a real cornerstone of the development of my self-concept.”
After qualifying as a submarine officer and training to work with nuclear weapons at the age of 24, he was among the four people on the HMS Revenge who would be involved in the authentication of a fighting message for, essentially, ending the world. If his boss had refused to pull the trigger, that responsibility would fall to him. He worked in that capacity for several years and then went to the training side of things, monitoring and managing the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. “It was kind of like monitoring and managing a computer network, focused on operational management and maintaining high levels of availability,” he affirms.
He then went to the squadron staff, where he focused on assessing submarine crews and their capacity to monitor and manage weapons systems. That’s when he came across an opportunity in DC as a head technical liaison for the Trident weapons program. Landing that position, he came to America to work in 1997 and fell in love with the country almost immediately. “There’s a level of optimism in the US that American citizens don’t even realize they have,” he remarks. “It’s the ability to say we can do this, and to go do it. There’s more optimism in America during the darkest days than there is on the brightest days back home, and I think that’s truly one of the strengths of this country. I wish people here understood what they have in that optimism, because they’d embrace it all the more.”
Optimism wasn’t the only thing Andy fell in love with during his three years of working here. His team had just done a test launch of a Trident missile near Coco Beach in Florida, and he met a woman named Amanda at the post-launch party. The two started dating and ended up marrying in 2002.
Andy spent a total of seventeen years in the Royal Navy, and he never really envisioned leaving it. There came a time, however, when he realized he could stick with submarines forever, or he could try something different. Thus, at the age of 34, he chose to leave, even though he was still several years from earning his pension. “For me, if I went back for those years just to earn that pension when I had the intention of leaving anyhow, it would have been a lie, so I decided not to,” he explains. “I’d had my eyes opened in America, and I saw another way of life. “
With his extensive relationships in the UK and with US contractors, and his nuanced understanding of how business operates in both climates, Andy had aspirations to work in the US defense industry, but took an IT support position at the British Embassy instead. Up to that point, he’d been an engineering manager, developing deep technical knowledge but without actually doing the work. At the embassy, however, he turned over a new leaf. The September 11 terrorist attacks then changed the defense climate completely, signaling to Andy that he should pursue a different career path going forward. It was around that time that he began working at the small company that operated in such contrast to his code of ethics. “They weren’t being honest, and there was no way I’d do business with someone like that, let alone work for them,” he affirms. “You do what you say you’re going to do, period.” Thus, Gaeltek was born.
It was over dinner one evening that Andy first brought up the idea of starting his own business to Amanda. They hadn’t done any market research, but they felt they didn’t have anything to lose in trying. Amanda handled the financials from day one in her spare time, enthusiastic about the future. Very fiscally conservative by nature, she was a great grounding influence for Andy and an ideal complement, providing support in areas of business management where he wasn’t as well versed.
Gaeltek’s first year earnings were meager—so meager, in fact, that Amanda joked she wouldn’t have let him launch the company had she known how hard it would be. Thankfully, however, she still had her job, which provided a helpful cushion through those fledgling months. They kept growing one customer at a time, generating slow, steady, methodical, and sustainable growth. “I feel that I don’t have a creative bone in my body, which makes that whole period so remarkable,” Andy laughs. “I’m a true engineer. I’m not artistic, but I did come up with a business model—something I haven’t been exposed to, really. It’s been the linchpin of my imaginative life.”
Now that Gaeltek has evolved into a small company that’s nationally known and recognized as a thought leader, people look to it as model for how to run their own businesses. In this manner, Andy and his team aren’t only serving their own clients with the highest standards—they’re actually raising the standard of technology support across the industry. “I believe leaders develop others to bring out the best in them,” he avows. “At Gaeltek, we work as peer leaders to other IT providers to help them bring out the best in their employees as well. I want people to be able to go to any IT solutions company and know they’re going to get quality, and that somebody is actually going to care about their business.”
Recognized by CRN, a leading magazine in the IT industry, as one of the top forty managed service providers in North America, Gaeltek is still focused on the individual clients it serves. “The best part of my job is helping someone do something they thought they couldn’t do, and making their life easier in that way,” Andy remarks. “Technology is all about enabling. People are scared of it, so I like that I can go and help people overcome that fear. It makes it easy to get up and go to work in the morning.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Andy emphasizes the importance of listening. “Try to pay attention when people are really trying to help you,” he says. “Seek to understand what others are trying to communicate to you. If I had my time again, that’s what I would focus on. I think I could have done even better if I had been able to comprehend the advice people were trying to give me along the way. I think in every single walk of life, you have people who are trying to help you, so let them.”
One such person in Andy’s life is none other than Amanda, who unlocked a new dimension in her husband when she challenged him to run a half marathon. At the time, he couldn’t run more than a mile, but now, 20 months later, he’s just completed his second full marathon. “Running’s like therapy,” he remarks. “It gives me the opportunity to reset my thinking, which helps me build the business even more.”
Just as the Harpers support one another, Gaeltek seeks to support the surrounding community. The company donates to several charities, including the No Greater Sacrifice Foundation, a charity that provides for the education of the children of America’s fallen heroes, and the Teach Them To Fish Foundation, which helps develop crucial skillsets in individuals in developing countries. Giving back in this manner pays homage to the Golden Rule upon which Gaeltek was founded, supporting the community just as Andy and his team hope to be supported in times of crisis. “There was one crucial moment when we were faced with a technical issue we had no idea how to handle,” Andy remembers. “We called on the help of someone we had met, and what had been impossible for us to figure out was embarrassingly simple for him to solve.” When one approaches the world in this manner, treating others as teammates rather than adversaries and friends rather than foes, you’re automatically steps closer to those words that are as important in the world of business as they are in military service—mission accomplished.