It is 6pm on a rainy Thursday night. As workers are leaving Vodafone’s headquarters in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour, a steady stream of shoulder bag-carrying, jeans-clad people, mostly young, are entering the building.
They are coming for the monthly Auckland Web Meet-up, a night of presentations, beer and pizza, this time hosted by Vodafone.
Close to 200 web developers and designers gathered on this particular night to listen to presentations about how to build iPhone applications and iPhone websites, as well as a presentation by visual effects and animation studio Oktobor.
The group has over 450 active members — if members are not attending any meet-ups in six months they automatically fall off the list. Membership and events are free. And it seems that casual approach to networking is just what a new generation of developers and designers, mostly avid users if not developers of social networking technologies, appreciates.
Computerworld did a quick survey of the 190-plus crowd, revealing that only two belonged to the industry body Software New Zealand. Three were members of the New Zealand Computer Society and one belonged to WDANZ (Web Developers Association of New Zealand). There was some overlap among these people; one belonged to both Software NZ and the Computer Society.
This raises questions about whether these bodies are fulfilling their purposes — or living up to their claims of representation at a time when the government is sponsoring new, federated industry groups.
James Roberts, general manager of SMSS (Student Management Software Solutions), a Wellington software development company owned by 11 tertiary education institutions, does not see the value of IT lobby groups.
“I read about organisations being created all the time, and getting government funding, and then nothing happens. I think the best these bodies can be are networking clubs,” he says.
No time for distractions
Roberts and his business partners started a company in Wellington in the 1990s — G8Labs. They had absolutely no time for “distractions” such as belonging to an IT lobby group, he says. The company eventually merged with an Australian company, is still trading profitably and is now listed on the ASX, he says.
“We basically had to learn ourselves,” he says. But even if he was in the start-up situation today there “would not be anything I would need from an industry group”, he says.
Roberts admits things have changed on the telecommunications side, helped significantly by the likes of TUANZ. But on the general IT side, he has never seen the value of these bodies.
There is only one way to successfully grow IT companies, and it’s the same as for any other company, says Roberts: “build a product that people want and get it to market at the right price...it’s bloody hard work and no amount of waffly, lobby-group feel-good time wasting will make a jot of difference to your success or otherwise.”
Software New Zealand’s president, Wayne Hudson, sees it differently. To him, the main benefit for members of Software NZ is networking, and “finding out what other people have done so they don’t have to make the same mistakes”.
The organisation holds monthly networking dinners with invited speakers in Auckland. The greatest attendance tends to be when “war stories” from successful companies are on offer, says Hudson. If the speaker presents on a very technical subject the audience tends to be smaller but very enthusiastic, he adds.
The average age of the Software NZ’s members is mid- to late forties, says Hudson. The organisation has around 100 members, but combined with the Software Association and other industry groups in the country, the number is close to 400, he says.
Software NZ aims to help its members learn business management, sales and marketing skills, says Hudson. Other benefits include lobbying on behalf of members on issues or policies that stifle business growth; member services that help reduce business running costs; and access to member-only resources, such as business plan and contract templates.
Software New Zealand has a challenge in attracting and retaining younger people, Hudson admits. Young companies have been known to join for a year, access the relevant documents, grab what they need and then leave, which is disadvantaging the supportive organisations, he says. Many Generation Y people feel no need to belong to an organisation; they don’t need help to access information and, most of all, they don’t want to pay to belong, he says.
Software NZ has cut the corporate fee to make it more attractive for software companies to join, he says. It is also working with other organisations, for example the New Zealand Computer Society, to create a shared events calendar.
Gen Y missing out
While Hudson would like to see more young people on board, he is not overly concerned about roping in this group. He says to a degree they don’t know what they are missing, but he doesn’t see the value in bending over backwards, or changing things, just to attract them.
It could also be the case that, over time, when these young software developers grow their businesses and take on more staff, they may see the benefits of joining an organisation like Software NZ, he says. “The Y generation will grow old too,” he says.
Paul Matthews, chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society, says ICT organisations in Auckland tend to work in a siloed manner. The challenge in the sector is to get groups to work together. “But we don’t want to take them over,” he says.
Belonging to a professional body is about growing and developing oneself professionally and personally, standing by a code of ethics, contributing to the ICT community, and gaining professional recognition as a true ICT professional, rather than just someone who “does IT”, Matthews says.
The Computer Society is currently implementing some initiatives to help young professionals “understand the purpose of the NZCS as a professional body”, he says.
NZCS goes Web 2.0 route
The NZCS is also about to launch its redesigned website, which incorporates Web 2.0 features, such as forums, blogs, wikis and an events calendar linked to Google Calendar, says Matthews. There has also been talk of having a presence on Facebook and putting up videos of NZCS presentations on YouTube, he says.
Thanks to an active involvement with the universities, NZCS student memberships are increasing, he says. Over 100 students from AUT have joined this year, he says. But the NZCS has received greater exposure in Wellington than Auckland.
Matthews admits that the younger group needs to see more of a value proposition before joining an organisation. “But I don’t think that is anything new,” he says. This has been the case with every new generation, he says.
Craig Saunders, chief executive of software company Digital Fusion in Christchurch, thinks IT lobby groups could play an important role in the industry, but the challenge is to stand out above the many organisations and online resources for attention.
“If anything, their profile is too low,” he says.
Digital Fusion, a developer of web and FileMaker applications, doesn’t belong to any bodies except the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce.
“You can only be involved in so much,” says Saunders. “Staff aren’t that interested in attending out of hours events; and during hours we have obligations and goals in terms of billable time.”
“To be honest, I probably don’t understand the need for lobby groups, nor are we very aware of the extent of industry lobbying that goes on. This naivety is probably true throughout the small, younger, entrepreneurial companies that make up the industry,” Saunders says.