Christchurch IT - then, now and in the future

UPDATE: Govt to invest $1.8 million in ICT hub for Christchurch; a year on from the February earthquake Sarah Putt revisits IT companies in Canterbury

“I think the temporary initiative that is EPIC now shouldn’t predetermine where the long-term precinct goes,” he says.

An innovation precinct for the IT sector is part of the city council’s plan, and Hooper says the location is yet to be determined.

“Personally I think it’s better either close to, or in the CBD, and that’s what the city plan indicates at the moment,” Hooper says.

“Should it be clustered beside a health precinct or should it be based next to corporate services? Open to consideration.”

He says CDC would like to be involved. “Government is expressing interest in innovation, so would you expect them to be interested in it? Yes. Do I see them as the fundamental owner of that concept? No.”

While “the risk profile” for Canterbury has changed post-quakes, Hooper says that planning on the city’s rebuild is taking place now.

“Do I think the rebuild is being slowed down by aftershocks right now? No,” he says.

On the day Computerworld visited there was an article in The Press about a $70 million retail and office complex planned to replace Re:START the pop-up mall of shipping containers in central Christchurch.

It is a low-rise concept, and could be the forerunner for buildings of a similar height in the central area. This concerns some IT companies spoken to by Computerworld because it could see office rents double in price from their level before the quakes – with less office space to offer, developers may need to increase the price to pay for the build.

Hooper says there is plenty of consultation to be done, but he’s predicting a bright future for the city. “In five, ten, 20 years out – here’s a modern, rebuilt, western world city with fantastic ICT infrastructure, with a designated area for young, fast growing ICT firms. It’s a destination for global IT companies because of the infrastructure and what you can do.”

Lane says he’s sticking around. “I see it as an opportunity to turn Christchurch into the ideal sort of place. I realise that somebody has to be here to counter the influence of those who would rather just return to the old ways things were done, that was clearly not working even before the quakes. There are a lot of us who would really like to see Christchurch realise its potential.”

Paddy meanwhile is focused on building his company from nine people based in Christchurch to offices around the world.

In true entrepreneurial style, Paddy spent most of the Computerworld interview talking up his company. The last word goes to him.

“I don’t know if we’ll make it to becoming a $100 million company but we want to go international.”

Last year CDC had completed a draft study into the IT sector which showed it employed 6276 people in Christchurch, which amounted to 14 percent of the New Zealand’s total ICT workforce.

The CDC has not updated that study post quake, but Hooper says that anecdotally, skills shortages are a major problem for the city’s IT scene.

“We run an IT forum where have a number of the CEOs of IT firms who come in and talk us through what the industry is facing and skills are a major challenge,” he says.

Westland Milk CIO Darren Wilson says the issue isn’t so much a shortage of applications for IT vacancies; rather those that do apply don’t have enough experience of the right skills. “People with transferable skills upped sticks (straight after the quake) and now you’re trying to lure them back,” he says.

Employers are also finding good candidates are asking for more money, with business analysts salaries increasing by as much as $15,000 in a year.

The significant aftershock on December 23 didn’t help matters. Clarus’s Brown says that since then he knows of three good developers who have left town – one to California, another to Wellington and the third is now living in his bach in Fairlie.

On the plus side Brown says that many IT professionals that had moved away from Christchurch are now coming back – it’s not as many as those leaving, but it is helping.

CDC is assisting with promoting Christchurch IT jobs overseas. In November, The Canterbury Employment Skills Board hosted two jobs expos – in London and Manchester. Hooper says he was pleased with press and TV coverage — in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and on Channel Four — but wasn’t able to provide “hard data” on how many roles were filled.

Hooper cites the Ultra Fast Broadband rollout, for which Enable Networks won the contract in Christchurch, as being a major boost for the region. He says that Christchurch will be the first in the country to benefit from UFB, because the roads were already being dug up and this gave contractors a head start when laying underground fibre infrastructure.

Meanwhile datacentres are doing a brisk trade.

Lane points out that there is a new appreciation for disaster recovery and Egressive now has data located offsite in Christchurch and in Auckland. “We figure the likelihood of all of New Zealand being knocked out by a natural disaster is reasonably small,” he says.

Paddy says Cortexo’s data is now stored in Christchurch and the US.

Along with the skills shortage, and dealing with insurance companies, Hooper says the other challenge for IT companies is finding suitable office space.

An initiative called EPIC (Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus) was started by Effectus CEO Colin Andersen and Stickmen Studios CEO Wil McLellan last year. Its goal was to provide temporary accommodation for small IT companies displaced by the earthquake in the short term, with a more permanent structure planned for the long term.

The Christchurch City Council has provided a section of land for the project in Manchester St – opposite Cortexo’s offices – and work is expected to begin any day now. There will be 17 companies sharing a campus-like environment in a temporary building constructed by Timbercore.

BNZ is handling the financing of the project and part of that agreement may have included the stipulation that all media communications about EPIC be handled by the banks external relations team in Auckland. Computerworld’s enquiries to Andersen were referred to Emily Davies, the BNZ marketing and corporate affairs manager.

Davies declined to answer any of Computerworld’s questions about the project last month. However, today BNZ issued a press release following Steven Joyce's announcement of $1.8 million government funding for the project. The companies that will be part of EPIC are: Astron Media, Brush Technology, Cerebral Fix, Concentrate, Effectus, Fraame, Hand Multi-media, Industrial Research (part of the Ministry of Science and Innovation), Left Click, Memia, Paua Productions, Pilot Consulting Group, RPM Retail, SLI Systems, Spore Tools, Stickmen Studios, Treshna Enterprises and BNZ.

Computerworld'understands part of the motivation for building EPIC is to retain office rents at pre-quake levels of around $180 a square metre. Also we hear that Google may be providing free coffee at the campus.

Lane says Egressive was originally going to move into EPIC, but after securing its new premises the company has decided against it, “although we wish the project well”.

Lane, who is president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, says he was concerned that a cornerstone corporate sponsor might not fit with the Egressive philosophy.

“You couldn’t be in the ‘Microsoft Sanctuary’ for example?” Computerworld asked.

“No, we would prefer to crawl over broken glass. We would never want to be in a position where we had to admit we owed them anything because then I wouldn’t be able to be as openly critical of them as someone needs to be.”

In the future

Will EPIC become the foundation for a vibrant new ICT hub in Christchurch? Hooper appears hesitant.

“I think the temporary initiative that is EPIC now shouldn’t predetermine where the long-term precinct goes,” he says.

An innovation precinct for the IT sector is part of the city council’s plan, and Hooper says the location is yet to be determined.

“Personally I think it’s better either close to, or in the CBD, and that’s what the city plan indicates at the moment,” Hooper says.

“Should it be clustered beside a health precinct or should it be based next to corporate services? Open to consideration.”

He says CDC would like to be involved. “Government is expressing interest in innovation, so would you expect them to be interested in it? Yes. Do I see them as the fundamental owner of that concept? No.”

While “the risk profile” for Canterbury has changed post-quakes, Hooper says that planning on the city’s rebuild is taking place now.

“Do I think the rebuild is being slowed down by aftershocks right now? No,” he says.

On the day Computerworld visited there was an article in The Press about a $70 million retail and office complex planned to replace Re:START the pop-up mall of shipping containers in central Christchurch.

It is a low-rise concept, and could be the forerunner for buildings of a similar height in the central area. This concerns some IT companies spoken to by Computerworld because it could see office rents double in price from their level before the quakes – with less office space to offer, developers may need to increase the price to pay for the build.

Hooper says there is plenty of consultation to be done, but he’s predicting a bright future for the city. “In five, ten, 20 years out – here’s a modern, rebuilt, western world city with fantastic ICT infrastructure, with a designated area for young, fast growing ICT firms. It’s a destination for global IT companies because of the infrastructure and what you can do.”

Lane says he’s sticking around. “I see it as an opportunity to turn Christchurch into the ideal sort of place. I realise that somebody has to be here to counter the influence of those who would rather just return to the old ways things were done, that was clearly not working even before the quakes. There are a lot of us who would really like to see Christchurch realise its potential.”

Paddy meanwhile is focused on building his company from nine people based in Christchurch to offices around the world.

In true entrepreneurial style, Paddy spent most of the Computerworld interview talking up his company. The last word goes to him.

“I don’t know if we’ll make it to becoming a $100 million company but we want to go international.”

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