Leading light

October 3, 2018

In just four years, ZeroLight – originally a division of Tyneside-based Eutechnyx – has conquered the global automotive visualisation market by drawing on its racing video games heritage. Here COO, Arwen Duddington, reveals how the company is nurturing its world-leading team, while also inspiring the next generation

Arwen Duddington enjoyed an idyllic village upbringing in the Midlands and, after completing her studies, travelled the world spending extended periods living in Australia and Japan.

On her return to the UK, she set about building a career in operations.

Arwen initially joined the Hilton Group in its London-based international sales department before moving to Virgin Projects in 1998. Part of the Virgin Group, the entrepreneurial values instilled by its free-spirited owner chimed with the adventurous Arwen.

“Virgin Projects sat under Virgin Management and you could be working on a print procurement initiative one day, and arranging a staff party at Richard’s [Branson] house on another.

“Despite its size, the group at that time still had a start-up mentality and could be agile and quick thinking. You felt anything was possible and I really liked that.”

Arwen relocated to Newcastle in 2004 and started to search for an operations role at an organisation with a similar ethos to Virgin Group. She applied for a position at Eutechnyx, which had gained international recognition for its racing and driving video games.

Arwen became head of operations and was tasked with setting up a talent development team.

“At the time, it was difficult to attract software developers to the North East and so we set up a graduate academy with the local universities to create our own talent pool,” she reveals.

In 2012, Eutechnyx received a phone call from IBM asking whether it could assist with an automotive project.

Arwen explains more:

“Jaguar Land Rover wanted a digital version of its latest car for the Paris Motor Show and, because of our specialism in creating photo realistic virtualisations of car models, we were asked if we could deliver it.

“Our team place a great deal of emphasis on innovation and saw the potential of using our tech for a new purpose so we jumped at the opportunity.”

The success of the project led Eutechnyx to set up a separate division to explore the potential of delivering similar virtualisations to motor companies. It was named ZeroLight.

Within four short years, ZeroLight’s state-of-the-art digital configurators, 3D models and VR/AR experiences – using propriety software created from 20 years of specialist automotive experience – are used by Audi, Porsche, Nissan, BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen, among others. The company has also won plaudits and countless awards around the world.

As chief operations officer of ZeroLight, Arwen is responsible for all the non-technical elements of the international business including building a brilliant team of software developers, technicians, engineers and support staff.

With ZeroLight’s values of ‘innovation, collaboration, focus and quality’, Arwen’s key responsibility is to create the right environment for its 96-strong team (80 of whom are based on Tyneside with satellite offices based in China, Germany and the US) to develop their pioneering ideas in a creative and supportive environment.

She, and ZeroLight, achieve this in several ways.

Firstly, the company employs a multi-disciplinary staff development programme –ZL Talent – comprising bi-annual reviews, in-house mentoring and training, as well as opportunities to attend conferences and trade shows around the world.

Considerable attention is also paid to #LifeAtZeroLight’, with team members benefiting from flexible working, social events, sports clubs, free food and drink and varied CSR activities.

The physical environment has proved an essential element in the development of the international company too.

Two years ago, ZeroLight moved from its base in Gateshead to Live Works – a stunning building developed by Live Theatre, which is located in the heart of Newcastle’s thriving Quayside.

The highlight of the building is undoubtedly the top floor space with its spectacular views of the Tyne, bridges and Sage Gateshead and when Arwen first visited Live Works – which at that point was still a building site – she immediately knew what she wanted to do with the space.

Instead of earmarking it for senior management offices, it has become a fabulous communal space – known as The Terrace – complete with a kitchen serving free food and snacks, pool and table tennis tables, board games, a flat screen television showing music videos and comfy seating.

Arwen adds: “When we moved into Live Works, it was absolutely key that we created something that reflected our values as a company. “So not only is the building beautiful, there are a number of break out areas – including the Terrace – where people can collaborate and have the freedom to innovate.”

By accommodating Live Works – and proudly adorning its exterior with its branding for every passer-by to see, ZeroLight is making an important statement, as Arwen explains:

“As a company, we don’t need to be based in Newcastle. All our clients are international and our suppliers from Silicon Valley don’t care where we’re based. But we chose to base our headquarters in Newcastle because it’s part of our heritage.

We also recognise the city has a thriving tech and digital scene and we want to be a visible part of that ecosystem and the local community – whether that’s through knowledge sharing, skills sharing, talent development, or simply by hosting events in our office space.

Arwen also sits on the boards of Creative Fuse, the research project exploring the social, economic and innovation value of the creative, digital and IT sector in the North East, and business improvement district company NE1, to further help promote and develop the North East’s benefits.

Meanwhile, Arwen is rightly proud of the ZeroLight team, describing them as “world leaders in their field”. She also reveals that members are regularly asked to speak at tech conferences around the world.

The COO is unapologetic about the company’s strategy to recruit “the best of the best” – regardless of gender, background or location.

Arwen does, however, admit that Brexit is already causing an impact on recruitment with ZeroLight – like many other UK tech companies – experiencing a noticeable drop in international applications.

To ensure a pipeline of talent continues to be nurtured in the North East, ZeroLight is maintaining close relations with the region’s universities through its academy. It’s a tried-and-tested strategy, as Arwen reveals that 70 per cent of ZeroLight’s tech directors, including its chief technical officer, was part of the academy’s graduate programme.

The ambitious company is also mindful of encouraging more females into the tech industry and is currently working with local schools and colleges to promote opportunities in the tech sector and encourage both boys and girls to aspire to be the ‘best of the best’ in STEM related careers.

“We host cohorts of girls who get to come to our office and use our technology so that they can learn what opportunities are out there for them,” Arwen reveals.

ZeroLight’s COO also sees it as particularly encouraging that a number of major global tech firms are now led by women – citing both Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and Susan Wojcicki (YouTube).

“Perhaps the perception has been that tech is a man’s world but we are now seeing amazing women who are leaders in their fields,” says Arwen, adding “encouraging more females into the sector is a big piece of work though, and it’s one that everyone must be involved with to help change the perception.”