Kiwi talent shy about products, says Xero developer

Xero's Philip Fierlinger came from San Francisco to find another vibrant development community

Back in 2000, developer Philip Fierlinger was scouring the world for a new home. Based in San Francisco at the time, a friend tried to get him to move to Sydney, but he was underwhelmed by the calibre of work there.

Vancouver interested him, but there wasn’t much happening in web design or development there either.

Friends of friends eventually sold Fierlinger on New Zealand and it turned out that three of his favourite designers, people he says he really admired, came from here. He cites figures such as Che Tamahori, managing director of Shift, Morse Media and Mark Zeman’s Searchbots project as examples.

Fierlinger wondered for a while if, maybe, it was just these three. On further investigation, however, he was blown away by what he sees as the quantity and quality of the work coming from New Zealand.

Local designers, he says, were ambitious in what they were doing with technology. At first he worked in Wellington for Shift, seeking “meaty” projects with complexity and depth. He found that in and also found the calibre of talent at Shift to be “incredible”.

“In 2002 it was a real powerhouse,” he told Computerworld at the recent Web 09 conference in Auckland.

Fierlinger says New Zealand designers feel they have to compete with the best in the world.

“People have extremely high standards,” he says. “They only strive to the highest level. By doing that they also underestimate their own talents and abilities and overshoot their goals.”

He says San Francisco is considered a web mecca around the world, but he was still impressed by the concentration of talent here.

Fierlinger is at a bit of a loss to explain why, except that he thinks isolation is part of it.

“Not knowing how well you are doing is in some ways a benefit,” he says.

In San Francisco, designers and developers are well aware of their talents and influence, he says. But that can blind them as well and lead them to exaggerate what they are doing. It can mean they focus on the wrong things, on themselves rather than what they can achieve, he says.

He thinks designers and developers treat it as a craft here.

“They aren’t after fame or glory, but want to master their craft,” he says.

Fierlinger became one of the first four staff at online accounting software developer Xero, after that company’s founder and CEO, Rod Drury, asked him to head up product design. He says there isn’t another opportunity like it in New Zealand, with the resources and the presence and track record Drury brings to the table.

“He attracts resources and has a huge vision,” Fierlinger says.

And that is one thing, he says, he hasn’t seen much of in New Zealand: the drive to “think big — real, real big”.

Photo: Matt Morris

Given the talent he sees around him, Fierlinger has trouble explaining why it has been hard to hire the right people for Xero. He suggests that there is a mindset here of working for services and maintaining creative freedom as opposed to working on a product — a single piece of software.

“There’s a lack of imagination about what you can do in a product,” he says. “You don’t need to explain that in Silicon Valley.”

But here he has had to sell it.

“I’ve got a great team, amazing talent. I’m definitely spoiled,” he adds.

Fierlinger says he hates accounting, but Xero is a great opportunity to flip that and turn it into something people enjoy.

“How do you make it like a video game?” he asks. Money is fun. Business is fun.”

Fierlinger says Xero has spent a lot of time building its core engine. It also features significant social networking aspects but, he says, the team has only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible there.

“There’s so much more we have in the works. Now we can innovate and do things people haven’t done before and haven’t seen before.”

Ideas include more personalised collaboration and forms that learn and let you work by exception rather than repetition.

Fierlinger says there has never been this kind of opportunity before to develop a product and market it to the world.

“It’s a really interesting time to be working on product. I can’t see myself going back to working for clients.”

Fierlinger presented at the conference on using Flash for rapid prototype development.

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