Tech careers in the US - challenges, pitfalls and opportunities

Divina Paredes talks to three Kiwis in the United States who are leading major IT projects or companies, with video

New Zealanders are being tapped to work on — and lead — some of the hottest, innovative business technology projects across the globe. But what kind of leadership skills should IT managers gather here, before heading overseas?

In the case of Michelle Wilkie, who completed a master’s degree in marine sciences at the University of Auckland, the path to becoming a software developer at the US headquarters of SAS wasn’t obvious.

“Originally I thought I would have ended up being a marine biologist or physiotherapist,” says Wilkie, who also majored in biology and statistics as an undergraduate. She applied for two jobs; one as a pharmacologist, the other with business intelligence software company SAS.

Wilkie had been working as a pharmacologist for six months when she received an offer to join the SAS support team in Australia. She packed her bags and 14 years later, she is still with SAS – as a software developer for OnDemand Solutions at the company headquarters in Cary, North Carolina.

At SAS Australia, she stayed for three years, working in technical support. She says the team was a general purpose support organisation so there was no chance to specialise.

During her last year in Sydney, her boss went on maternity leave and she became a team leader. When her boss returned, she had to decide whether to be in management or become “an expert in something”. Wilkie chose the latter, which meant she had to move overseas, this time to the SAS headquarters in Europe based in Germany. She held a technical support role there for four years, and became an expert on business intelligence.

She also met her husband in Germany and six years ago they moved to the US SAS headquarters in North Carolina. They now have a five year old son.

Fraud buster

Wilkie has worked on the fraud framework solutions at SAS and provides consulting and infrastructure services for healthcare, auto insurance and other areas to help identify fraud. She says one of her biggest success stories is with Los Angeles County. An area where the city authority had applied SAS analytics was in welfare assistance programme for childcare.

Qualified residents get money based on the number of children needing services and the distance they have to travel for these. The analytics was able to detect fraud patterns for people who were claiming assistance for these services when they had no children, or based on distances that were improbable, like living in an area that was 20 hours driving distance away from the services.

Wilkie says she mines the skills honed in her natural sciences background for her current role. She says not many people combine biology and statistics as majors. But in her case, this background proved useful at SAS.

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“Biology is experimental design. Statistics helped a lot because you have to do the right experiment and understand the results,” she says. Her master’s degree helped her as she had to write a thesis, build the data, collate her thoughts, articulate them and stand up to defend the thesis. These skills apply to business in general, she says.

At the OnDemand Solutions Lab, she works with customers to help them use software in innovative ways, to address business problems. The work provides a “nice balance” in using her skills. “You get to develop software, code it for end users but also do the consulting side of it.”

Think outside the box

For young New Zealanders who are considering a career in information technology, she advises: “Make sure you have a broad range of skills. Be proactive, you want to be out there thinking of new ideas.”

“Thinking outside the box is probably the biggest thing,” she says. “The job you ultimately land in may have nothing to do with what you have studied. But you learn lessons from there.”

“Just be open-minded,” she says.

“Find something that you have a passion about. If I just stayed inside the box and not thought of opportunities outside science, I would have been more limited in my job choices.”

Education is critical, she says. “For a bachelor’s try to keep it relatively broader, make it multi-disciplinary. Then when you get to a master’s, specialise in something.”

Wilkie keeps up to date in her field in two ways – with members of the research community and technology people she works with. She says that working with customers allows her to be updated on market trends. “Some of them are on the leading edge. Others have business problems that may not be on the leading edge but talking to them you can work out ways to solve it which can keep you ahead of the market.”

For those wanting to tread the data professional’s path, she recommends taking a Master of Science in Analytics and cites the programme at the North Carolina State University that SAS supports.

“It is a good well rounded programme of both business and technical skills,” she says.

Pushing the boundaries

Trevor Kearney’s focus on operations research – plus his innate passion for maths – paved the way for working in one of the hottest fields in data science – high performance analytics.

Kearney is principal software developer, high performance analytics, at the SAS Advanced Computing Laboratory in Cary, North Carolina. The United States has been home to him since 1984.

Unlike compatriot Michelle Wilkie, who had moved to Cary following international postings in Australia and Germany, Kearney went straight from a government stint in Wellington to North Carolina.

Kearney says those wishing to go into a global career via information technology should not be discouraged if they have got a degree from a New Zealand university.

Kearney completed his undergraduate degree in maths from Massey University, and his masters in computer science and operations at the Victoria University in Wellington.

“I never felt outclassed by attending New Zealand universities. I think they are every bit as good, possibly even better,” than universities offshore, he says.

Kearney grew up in Feilding, near Palmerston North. He says the place was “so rural” he had to go to a boarding school. At Massey University, he was introduced to things he subsequently studied in depth, such as operations research and optimisation.

After Massey University, he worked for Mobile Oil and went back to university this time at the Victoria University of Wellington.

He then worked at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and he says the department was interested in what he was researching on for his master’s degree. “I had it really sweet, I had a paying job while doing my masters degree.”

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He was seconded to the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries where he did a range of studies for two major industries – dairy and wheat – and other areas of government. One such study involved the location of prison inmates. “The objective there was to put inmates into various prisons so they had the most frequent visitors and that was a way in which we hoped recidivism would be reduced.”

For his masters’ degree, he was working on optimisation software for what is now referred to as supply chain models. “We were one of the first to write software for this highly exploitable structure within the optimisation problem,” he says. “I was writing SAS procedures and of course I was doing it independently from SAS. We were really pushing out the boundaries as to what SAS had done until then.”

SAS heard about the work he and his colleagues were doing and had asked them to join the company. He says the group he was working with at MAF also moved to SAS offices across the globe. “For many years I wrote optimisation software for one of our software products called SAS OR (operations research).” But when supply chain optimisation gained ground, their work expanded and SAS set up a supply chain consulting arm.

Undertaking analytic tasks that were inconceivable years ago is one of the upsides of his job, he says.

Kearney says he checks out New Zealand news websites most mornings and he also acts as an “ambassador for New Zealand” trying to acquaint his colleagues about rugby and cricket. He admits having lost “quite a lot” of his Kiwi accent, but tells everyone to visit New Zealand. “New Zealand has a terrific reputation as a tourist destination. Everyone wants to go.”

Kearney’s wife also works at SAS and they have two children. The family continues to visit New Zealand to see family and friends both in Auckland and in Manawatu.

So what would he like to happen more in New Zealand when it comes to preparing people for a career in information technology?

“Clearly I would like high school people to contemplate what they call here as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” Kearney says.

People should work on something they are really enthusiastic about, he says. “This is a bit of a vocation, a bit of a calling. You can’t really go into it in any lightweight way, you have got to study long and hard.”

He likewise encourages people to do a postgraduate degree. He says he is surrounded by staff who have these degrees. “You have to go on, if you stay at university, you will be rewarded for doing so.”

Work experience is just as critical. In the field of operations research, for instance, “you can make a tremendous impact knowing what you know even at that level and going out, being a practitioner,” he says.

Canterbury to Silicon Valley

Gerald Blackie was product marketing manager for Alex Harvey Industries when he jumped at the opportunity to travel to the United States to sell some plastic extrusion products.

A year shy of completing his business degree at the University of Auckland, he arrived in the United States on New Year’s Day in 1978, and planned to re-enrol the following semester.

He spent that month travelling around the West Coast and sold over a million dollars worth of products. “One thing led to another and I never got back,” says Blackie, now chairman and CEO of Kaseya, which provides on premise and cloud IT systems management software.

Blackie joined the Silicon Valley company in 2003, and before that had founded Captura Software, which developed systems to process large amounts of expense transactions via a policy engine. It was sold to Concur Technologies in 2002.

He was also a founder of Platinum Software, now called Epicor, a provider of integrated ERP, CRM and SCM solutions.

“I am technical and business [orientated],” he says. “You have to be, otherwise you can’t do what I am doing.”

Blackie started at university working towards an engineering degree at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, but he then shifted to a business course at Auckland University.

The biggest lesson he can share with New Zealand companies planning to take their product or service beyond the Tasman is this: “It is very important to think of it as a global offering first.”

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Blackie says that in his three decades in the industry he has seen companies that have not taken this basic lesson on board. “If you conceive your product and service to be international from the outset, it allows you to more easily overcome some of the issues that might stop you from doing well in markets like the US, Israel or wherever.”

“Make sure you have done your homework make sure you travel around and understand the differences in distribution, understand the differences culturally in the consuming software or software services, whatever the products or services for that matter, and come back and make sure the business plan addresses from the outset a global perspective.

Kaseya employs around 500 people in more than 20 offices around the globe, including Auckland, where it maintains a development team.

“Every time we make plans we have to be mindful is that going to work in New Zealand? Is that going to work in Japan? Is that going to work in Brazil?” he says.

“You have to be constantly aware that our customers utilise our products or our framework to manage their entire business. There are service providers using our product or framework to create a virtual network in which they use our automation to manage hundreds of their customers so their business is completely dependent on us for their revenue flows.

“You have got to remember in any business, the core part of your business is your customers,” says Blackie.

“If you don’t know what your customers’ issues are, and if you don’t get together with your customers in each of the different regions and countries and understand what their issues are, you can’t define a good business plan. You don’t know what kinds of new features and functions you have got to think about, what is going on in technology? How is that going to impact that market, versus another market?”

Blackie says he had an added challenge at Kaseya. When he started, the infrastructure for software as a service did not exist. “A lot of what we do was never taught in universities. We were at the forefront of an industry as a group. It was self educated in many respects.”

“You have to create the environment in which this next generation software as a service can be consumed. You have to teach people how to do more, work less, what the ROI will be, what you have to do to re-engineer your business. How do you market it? There is a whole raft of new skills that have to be learned by the industry in order to make that transition.”

Part of his long-term vision for Kaseya is ensuring the company has qualified people to work in its teams across the globe. Kaseya has partnered with Florida International University (FIU), which uses a Kaseya management platform as part of its IT automation programme. Students who finish the course become certified as an expert in Kaseya, preparing them for a career in IT systems management.

“We are able to hire out of that programme lots of very talented graduates as a well as post graduates,” says Blackie, who explains the state university was chosen because the company has a big support operations and software development centre in Florida.

Blackie says he is keen to set up similar partnerships with New Zealand universities and has started discussions with some local institutions. The FIU faculty will share the course curriculum for no cost, he says.

Blackie says he is optimistic about growth prospects for the company. “Most of the systems that still exist in companies, in governments, in education, etc, were all developed in the 80s and 90s and they were client server, they were based on PCs,” he says. “The world has changed. We are a complete next generation cloud based architecture. We are beginning to see the start of a global refresh of the systems.

“It is a pretty exciting time,” he says. “It is better to be ahead of the game than behind the game.”

Divina Paredes is editor of Computerworld’s sister publication CIO New Zealand.

• Paredes travelled to the US as a guest of SAS.

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