Tailor-made and independent software developments

Cäsar Stiefel
Head of Business Line Defense and Public Safety

ELCA Informatik is Switzerland's largest independent, privately-owned company specializing in information and communication technology. Its primary objective is to lead Switzerland's digital transformation. While its military applications are typically classified and integrated into systems, Cäsar Stiefel, Head of Business Line Defense and Public Safety, gives us an insight into an important player in Swiss security policy.


Peter Müller of ASMZ in an interview with Cäser Stiefel


At the beginning of a successful company there is usually a new idea: what technological product or service formed the original basis of ELCA Informatik?

In 1968 - long before PCs were widespread - a small team of engineers from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (then called EPUL) had founded ELCA under the name "Electro-Calcul". They had developed the software of the control system for the installations of the Grande Dixence dam and thus created customised software development as the basis for the young company. Today, software development is still a core service of our company. However, the service portfolio has expanded greatly.

If you briefly summarise today's offering: What is the most succinct way to characterise ELCA Informatik's current product range?

The ELCA Group's IT service offering specialises in individual, customer-specific needs. Our product range includes software development, integration of COTS (Commercial-off-the-Shelf) and MOTS (Military-off-the-Shelf) products, cyber security, individualised and complex cloud solutions, IT consulting and managed services. Our clientele includes both private and public organisations and companies.

In marketing terms, reference is often made to the "Unique Selling Proposition (USP)": What uniqueness should ELCA Informatik be perceived as having by its clients?

ELCA is the largest independent Swiss ICT company in private hands. Our USP results from our product and technology independence, our size with over 2,000 highly qualified employees and the associated competence to be responsible for IT solutions over the entire life cycle.

On the one hand, we have extensive experience as a general contractor in implementing complex individual solutions. And on the other hand, we can adapt and implement MOTS products together with foreign (defence) product suppliers as partners and ensure maintenance.

Specialised areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data & analytics, cybersecurity, advisory services or the design, implementation and operation of classified platforms are also part of our skill set.

ELCA's strategy is based on driving and jointly shaping the digital transformation in Switzerland as a Swiss company.

The Corona pandemic, the Ukraine conflict and supply bottlenecks (to name just a few keywords) are leaving their mark everywhere: to what extent is your company affected by this?

ELCA has a solid foundation with a diversified portfolio from both a technological and client perspective. This makes us more resilient as a company and helps us deal with such events. Our employees work on systems that support the core processes of our customers (public and private organisations and companies in Switzerland) in their business. And this is exactly where our customers need a stable and highly available partner - especially in times of crisis.

Today, it is mostly agreed that the military is no longer the technological driver. How do you perceive this development in your field of activity?

We agree with that. Today, it is industry that is the technological driver. Innovation in defence equipment has declined sharply in domestic industry for reasons of export policy. It is not surprising that in recent years and decades new technology was mainly procured from foreign companies.

The fact is, however, that armaments today contain a large number of software components that are of central importance for smooth operation. In order to ensure maintenance and repair, skills and knowledge must be developed and expanded in Switzerland. On the one hand, to minimise independence from foreign companies (and their political environment) and, on the other hand, to counteract the risk of a massively reduced sustainability of the Swiss Armed Forces.

It is encouraging that the Swiss Armed Forces have recently started to involve local, innovative companies in the framework of STIB to shape their common future. ELCA welcomes this approach and is actively involved in developing and submitting innovation proposals for the challenges of the Swiss Armed Forces of tomorrow.

As a possible future approach, we also see that PPP (public-private partnership) can be used to involve Swiss industry even better and more easily, especially in the area of innovation.

What is the importance of research and development in your company? Are they rather own initiatives or third party contracts?

Our preferred model is to conceptualise and successfully implement scalable, sustainable and promising solutions together with key market participants - both customers and national and international partners. Research and innovation is also driven internally through trend monitoring to anticipate potential challenges related to the development or emergence of new technologies in the market. To maintain the top position of Switzerland's and our company's innovative strength, we also work together with academic institutions such as EPFL.

The army repeatedly complains about the lack of planning security. How do you perceive the current situation? Do you learn about future investment projects in a timely and reliable manner?

At ELCA, we are involved in a large number of associations such as STIB, GRPM, swissASD, Swico, ICT Switzerland, EPFL Center for Digital Trust, Gesprächskreis Cyber- und Informationsraum and Swiss made Software, etc. in order to actively contribute and shape our work. ELCA also has a large number of employees who are actively serving in the military as officers, thus bringing culture and knowledge back into our company.

How important is the actual defence sector in ELCA informatics compared to dual-use and purely civilian goods and services?

We have a long tradition in the armament sector in Switzerland, based on more than 30 years of partnership with the Swiss Armed Forces and key players in the armament sector. ELCA has specific capabilities and a broad technological knowledge that makes a significant contribution to the Swiss Armed Forces' sustainability. Furthermore, the long-standing cooperation offers exciting and challenging projects and thus sustainably strengthens ELCA's attractiveness as an employer.

Today, we cover many different industries and have a balanced presence in the public and private sectors in Switzerland. Our products and services are basically civilian goods, such as blockchain-based ticketing, electronic patient dossiers or artificial intelligence for predictive maintenance - to name just a few examples. Our know-how and our services are also used in the security sector on a case-by-case basis - such as in the CPF (Cockpit Plan Führung / FABIS) or in army telecommunications. However, we do not export these.

Public procurement law was completely revised over a year ago: Did this also have an impact on your field of activity?

In particular, the change of focus from price competition to quality competition gives Swiss companies as well as the ELCA opportunities to offer their skills and expertise in a wider range of tenders. It also offers opportunities for Switzerland to build up new knowledge and experience in the country by having Swiss companies partner with international (defence) companies in public tenders.

Sustainability is another aspect to which we attach great importance at ELCA. Measures such as raising awareness of the need to reduce energy consumption and the use of public transport are just a few examples. We go even further in software development by implementing the requirements with optimised code.

In the majority of cases - not only in Switzerland - defence procurement is not put out to public tender. How do you assess this situation?

This situation requires close interaction with the procurer so that we are not overlooked as a potential supplier. ELCA has many skills and resources, both technological and professional, which help to support our country in all situations.

Offset transactions are always the subject of critical public discussion. What is your opinion on this topic? Are offset transactions perceived more as a brake on the submission of offers or as a door opener and technology transfer vis-à-vis foreign countries?

The offset business enables Swiss companies in our country to build up knowledge and skills that are not available today. Furthermore, they strengthen our industrial location and thus the further development of companies and the safeguarding of jobs.

ELCA also cooperates with foreign defence companies in a number of areas, including cyber security, artificial intelligence (AI/machine learning), predictive maintenance and the integration of defence products into the Swiss Armed Forces. 13.

Defence companies generally need highly qualified personnel. Does the Swiss labour market offer you sufficient development and recruitment opportunities in this respect?

Truly, it is very difficult to find enough resources to meet our growth. As an innovative Swiss company, ELCA primarily employs highly qualified people. The competition for this talent drives us to maintain our attractiveness as an employer by focusing on sustainability and team spirit and by promoting the diversity of our projects in various industries in Switzerland.

We attach great importance to mixing our (project) teams with graduates from EPFL, ETH, universities of applied sciences, universities and our experienced technical experts.

Once an item of armament has been handed over to the armed forces, the question of maintenance, upkeep and further development arises. What is your assessment of the current policy on material competence centres?

The maintenance and further development of ICT systems is of particular importance, especially since the knowledge and skills are central to the use of the systems and thus the operational readiness of the Swiss Armed Forces.

However, we recommend that in future Swiss companies such as ELCA also become more involved so that the skills and knowledge are retained within Switzerland.

For years, the Swiss Armed Forces have suffered from incomplete and partly obsolete equipment. Now there are some financial rays of hope. From your point of view, where should the lever be applied as a matter of priority?

The Corona pandemic, the current Ukraine conflict and other tensions have shown us that, ultimately, a country's resilience is crucial to its survival and the maintenance of public life.

As a Swiss ICT company, we see the priority in further increasing the involvement of local companies in projects and systems. Staying power is also an important criterion for the Swiss (ICT) partner companies in the context of the operational readiness of the Swiss Armed Forces. Today, our company has the ability, the expertise and the size to realise complex and extensive ICT projects as a general contractor, both alone and with national and international partners.

Technological change is increasing exponentially. Where do you see the biggest changes in ELCA Informatik's area of expertise?

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and the increasing complexity in the area of cyber security are currently the greatest challenges on which we are working intensively.

We see future trends in the field of quantum computing, which we are incorporating into our software development.

 "Challenges of the future" are always big words. But in which areas will ELCA Informatik have to prove itself the most in the short and medium term?

The continuous development of our employees, the proactive anticipation of new technologies and the constant change in the economy will continue to drive us in the future. In addition to our steady organic growth, we have recently made further acquisitions. Here, we are focusing on successfully integrating the new talents into the Group and welcoming them into our ELCA Tribe.

Contact: Cäsar Stiefel

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