Rotageek CEO leans on a medical past to schedule better

Chris McCullough founded workforce scheduling firm Rotageek after working for the UK NHS in A&E.

Chris McCullough's journey to leading workforce scheduling SaaS company Rotageek has not been the usual one. He worked as an accident and emergency doctor in UK National Health Service hospitals before beginning a switch to tech in 2006, but there is a big connection between his two career paths.

Working for the NHS, which today still employs about 1.3 million people despite years of austerity measures, McCullough says he saw plenty of examples of good practice and bad practice in scheduling.

"An example of bad practice is where the way doctors work is really rigid," he says. "Even worse is that you might not know where you're working this week or the week after, and that's a hard way to live. The best practice is often based on the actions of really conscientious individuals. And you see everything in between."

Speaking via Zoom from his Surrey home, McCullough recalls that one of his first jobs was being asked to set a rota, a task for which he had no experience, and adds that he never had a digital schedule all the time he worked in hospitals. Instead, he would ask colleagues to take a picture of the print-out and send it to him. That led to the first steps to improve scheduling. "That's why we started it… to bring that standard up," he says.


Planning lessons

McCullough saw at first-hand how, without efficient scheduling, employers can't have the right staff and skills mix or manage key areas such as payroll; patients, on the other hand, can't benefit from optimal outcomes. Scheduling, he says, "should be a co-operative experience" with both sides involved.

From 2006, McCullough worked with colleague Nick Mann (now Rotageek CTO) but a coding effort he originally anticipated would take a few months remains, a good deal later, a work in progress. Over weekends and evenings, Mann coded while McCullough specced and helped to test. The third founder was Roy Pounder of the Royal College of Physicians. But the operation was not without challenges: an early version of the software lacked a Print function because the assumption was that nobody wanted it. You live, you learn…

If the switch from saving patients to saving schedules was a sharp turn then there were hints at his background that made it not so shocking. Although he was a career medic, he had learned programming as far back as the Spectrum ZX81, the starting point for a generation of Brits. And anyway, he argues, what does a doctor do if not weigh risks and possibilities, using science and mathematics to make balanced decisions?

McCullough and team wanted rotas that worked, were fair and wouldn't overly fatigue people. This work led, eventually, to the modern Rotageek, having morphed from healthcare to a broader set of businesses with a focus on the high street as the founders "learned how not to run a business" along the way.


An extensive schedule

But entrepreneurs know that missteps are inevitable and today the company still has loyal customers such as Lola's Cupcakes but also O2 as the penny dropped that this could be more than a small-business play. Another O2 connection was important too when, in 2014, Rotageek joined Wayra, O2's innovation accelerator hub.

Today, Rotageek creates what McCullough had long aspired to: "optimised data schedules that feel really humane". He says there is "good evidence that the NHS loses people when they have a family", so schedules can be a source of people retention too. A critical aspect of success is the user experience and McCulloch says the UI works best kept simple: many people still don't have smartphones and he errs on the side of simple UIs are that are hardly noticed by users: "It needs to be really simple and straightforward to use."

Tools that started out from NHS experience now save O2 £2.5 million through better workforce management and Rotageek has raised £12.4m in funding. And life is coming circle with Rotageek having recently signed a partnership with Locum's Nest to improve NHS rostering. In June 2020, Rotageek's platform was included in O2 Business' suite of digital solutions to help people return to work safely.

McCullough is realistic about the future. Headcount is doubling annually and Rotageek now has almost 40 staff but a sale to a larger firm would likely help to get big deals over the line. He has a "short attention span, that's why I ended up in A&E". But he also likes the balance derived from having been in a world where making money wasn't the big issue.

He and his company have work to do, trying to make software that makes processes better and people happier. There's plenty on his schedule.