Spread of universities fails to create 'concentration of talent': O'Callahan

In part two of Q and A with Mozilla's New Zealand head Rob O'Callahan he explains why he moved back home

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview Rob O'Callahan, head of Mozilla's New Zealand office, tells Stephen Bell why he moved back to Auckland and explains why he thinks the fact New Zealand universities are so spread out prevents a "critical mass" of talented people working in the same field.

What's the great attraction that brought you back to New Zealand?

The lifestyle's much better here, especially for kids -- I have two children, both born in America. I have family here. I also feel it's a bit ungracious to have a great childhood and a great education almost free and then take off overseas and never come back. You want to give something back to the place where you grew up.

So how do we persuade more people to do that?

We need to make sure there are more interesting jobs here. A lot, probably most, of the so-called ICT jobs here are actually pretty boring. That's one reason for starting a Mozilla office down here.

Another problem is the mindset of global companies. A lot of companies decide how much to pay you depending on what it costs to live in the place where you're working; so you'll get paid much more in London or New York than you will in Auckland. If there were more equality there, more people would be attracted back.

It's a matter of critical mass, too; the more people you have local to you working in the same field the better it is. One of our problems is that our universities are too spread out.

We've spread our money around and established several computing faculties. We'd do a lot better if we focussed our research money on one particular site. Talented people want to move to where there is already a concentration of talent. I've met academics overseas who'd be interested in living in New Zealand; but they want good colleagues and the good colleagues are right now spread among different locations.

Aren't we always told the internet abolishes distance?

Not really, if you compare us to somewhere like Stanford or Carnegie-Mellon, where you've got people working in the same building. Virtual collaboration really doesn't compare, no matter how much you wish it did.

And it never will?

I suppose we could have the technology one day; but even if it does work as well, you'll still have a problem getting people to believe it.

Also, the kind of work we do needs to have an understanding of the whole computing stack right from the hardware up to the high-level software.

You have to understand how [machine] processes work, how machine-code works, how high-level languages like C++ work. We tend not to teach that in New Zealand. Most ICT jobs here are at a high-level where you're basically putting together components to build a specific system for a company. For that, you don't need that kind of [lower-level] knowledge; but for the more interesting work, you do.

It's an economic problem. The students demand the kind of skills for the jobs that are out there, so universities don't teach the low-level stuff. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. That makes it hard for [companies like Mozilla] to grow here and to employ a lot of the people who do apply to us.

We have found some excellent people, but they tend to be self-taught. People we've hired here have typically learned skills on their own. If we had one leading computer-science university in New Zealand, there would be an opportunity to teach those skills.

The other universities could take care of the 'IT-department' kind of skillset.

Part one of Q and A with Rob O'Callahan here.

O'Callahan will be presenting at the ITEX conference at SkyCity in Auckland on Wednesday November 23.

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