Compac manager says Research & Development a technology race

Q and A with R&D manager at Compac Sorting Equipment, winner of Company of the Year at this year's Hi-Tech Awards

Nigel Beach started at Compac Sorting Equipment almost 16 years ago. At that time there were only 30 staff members. Now, Compac employs more than 300 workers around the world. Compac manufactures sorting and packing equipment for fruit growers. In May Compac won the Company of the Year and Exporter of the Year (over $5 million category) awards at the Hi-Tech Awards. Beach, who is head of research and development and owns a five percent stake in Compac, talks to Sim Ahmed about what excites him about technology, and where Compac and the New Zealand technology export sector is headed.

What were you doing before you started working for Compac?

I went straight from uni into Compac, working as a software engineer. I wrote a very successful version of our machine vision software that we use to grade and spot fruit. We still use that software, sometimes my devs complain about the code and ask “who wrote this piece of crap?”, and I need to remind them it was me.

Why did you decide to go into a career in technology? What excites you about it?

What I find exciting about technology, and Compac in particular, is being able to invent new things and be a part of something world-leading.

What we get to do is think of things nobody else has. We create new algorithms, and do new research that teaches us about what we have already done or want to do. I find that exhilarating.

I think it’s a very New Zealand kind of attitude. We’re small but that’s not what all people should be concentrating on, we can aim big, just take a look at Orion Health. They’re the company people should be looking to as an example of technology exporters.

What is the biggest challenge working in R&D in New Zealand?

R&D is a technology race, and you need to know which area you want to be racing in. Sometimes you can go down one direction, because you think you could do better there, but you end up leaving another area behind. You’ve got to be strategic about where you want to be in the market, and what you’re developing.

It’s almost as much about what not to do as what to do. We’ve become better at understanding market opportunities, but we’ve made mistakes too.

Rather than just having a really good idea and going after it, we’ve fine tuned whether there will be people who want to buy it at all.

I think now that I’m running the product management side of the business too we can develop products and develop customers at an equal pace.

Being a software engineer, how was the transition into the more marketing-focused product management role?

I’ve had some experience with product management in the past. While working with Compac some years ago I had a side job, I owned a software company [Jafasoft] which sold this one particular product online called PrintPunk.

This was back in the bad old Internet Explorer 6 days. You know how on the IE6 if you printed a page it would cut off one side of the page and you’d get all this wasted paper? This software would fix that and make it print neatly. It was going well for about three years until Microsoft finally fixed it on their end.

I think I gained a lot of experience from building and selling that. It was quite successful, I must have done something right to sell around 1500 copies considering I was doing it all in my spare time.

Luckily I had support from my management then who knew what I was doing and gave me support.

Would you extend the same level of support to your staff now?

Yeah, I think I would. As long as it doesn’t detract from their day-to-day work.

If they’re anything like I was, they’ll get a better perspective of issues that the business faces and I think that’s valuable.

In an interview with CIO in 2008 you said Compac sends its engineers out to customers to learn in the field, is this still the case?

I started here when the company was still small, so it was just something you had to do, and I learned so much from it.

We still do it for the first version of products. We send our engineers to see how things are going in the real world. It changes their way of thinking when they go to a site and see 200 people standing around doing nothing because their machine isn’t working.

What has it been like trying to hire engineers in New Zealand?

It’s tough. It’s not easy, but they are there. Finding good software engineers has always been hard, and it’s just a bit harder now.

There’s a trend at universities for engineers to take up mechatronics, which combines software engineering with mechanical and electrical engineering.

Fortunately for a company like ours we can really use those kinds of people, but I imagine that might not be the skills needed in traditional IT companies.

We try to find them early. It gives us an advantage being able to see the brightest before they are snapped up. We have summer internship programmes, last summer we had around 22 students come through our factory.

Orion Health CEO Ian McCrae said in a previous Computerworld that computer science should be given more prominence in schools, saying it should be the fourth science. What is your view of technology in schools?

I think computer science should be a core subject. The world has changed dramatically, what was important even just ten years ago might not be as important today.

Everyone should be learning some level of programming. I mean we make our kids learn things like trigonometry at school, but how often would they use that in real life? If you taught them programming they’d learn the ideas behind trigonometry and other maths problems, but have some tangible and employable skills at the end of it.

What do you think of the recent budget announcements of $166 million towards high-tech industries, and $59 million towards science and engineering tertiary courses?

I think this is a great start. There needs to be more support for technology exports in New Zealand, I mean there’s only so much primary produce we can export as a country before we get into technology.

What’s next for Compac?

We are also focused on getting into the European market. We have a presence there, but we’re competing against a lot of well established companies.

A lot more of what we do will be in the emerging markets in Asia, and we’ve got sales people on the ground in China.

NIGEL BEACH – SNAPSHOT

Favourite mobile device: iPhone 3GS.

Car: I walk to work.

Most important technology innovation: In my lifetime it has to be the invention of the internet.

Who do you most admire? Steve Jobs. As an R&D man getting things right is incredibly important, and Jobs had a knack for getting the customer what they wanted.

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