Competition for the brightest and best in IT

Part two of Q and A with Auckland University professor John Hosking

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview with Auckland University professor John Hosking he discusses competition amongst New Zealand universities and why he is leaving at the end of the year to take up a new role as dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University in Canberra.

From the outside looking in, there is competition for the best students and we are a tiny country and all our universities are competing with each other.

Yes we compete a lot but we also collaborate a lot. So I’m a PI [Prime Investigator] on a [combined] seven-university research project.

I am leading this research grant; it is across seven universities, six within New Zealand and one overseas. In that case what you’re looking at, and what the Ministry for Science and Innovation is looking for, are building partnerships where you are bringing to bear the best talent across the country.

If you are building a great university you are still wanting to collaborate with others, to grow the pot as opposed to doing it all by yourself.

If you look around, there is not just a Stanford, there is a Berkeley. You look at Boston, you’ve not just got MIT there, you’ve got a number of quality universities that are around that area.

Growing one great university doesn’t mean you don’t grow others, but you have to grow at least one. Auckland’s got the scale to be in a position to pull this off more successfully than others.

What about this specific location for Auckland University, in the middle of the city?

There is no reason not to have a CBD campus, we are constrained here in the fact that we have to go up rather than out, but there is $2 billion worth of building activity going on in this university at the moment over a 10-year period.

That is a significant investment to restructure the university to be the post-graduate research university that we aspire to.

That is a vote of confidence by the council of this university in that vision and being prepared to put their money where their mouth is to achieve it.

And yet you’re leaving. You are going to the Australian National University in Canberra. Why?

ANU is a benchmark university, so it is not quite one of the great universities yet, but it is very close. It is the top regional [South East Asia region] university in terms of the international ranking systems.

They came knocking at the door and it was very hard to refuse them. I have put an awful lot into the University of Auckland here and I am quite passionate about it.

That passion won’t go away when I go to ANU, but there is an opportunity there to lead the charge around making a great university.

Being Australia they have two or three universities that are knocking on the door there, I would like to help ANU be the one that gets there.

What is the role?

My role at ANU is dean of the college of engineering and computer science, so it is a broader role than just computer science.

It is a relatively small college, so from the point of view of numbers it is not enormous. But the quality of minds there is outstanding.

There are some very good people doing excellent work in both the engineering and computer science areas and if I can help them get the resources they need to step up a level, I will have considered my job well done.

You have published more than 200 academic papers, what is your area of research?

I am a software engineer, I have had a bit of an eclectic experience and you tend to change your research direction as things go.

There has been a very strong engineering theme through my work in computer science.

Specifically an area called software tools, how do you build things that help other computer scientists build software systems more effectively and quickly.

Within that is an area called meta tools, which are tools that help you build other tools. It is going up the abstraction domain, but it is a fun area and it is quite industry-relevant.

So I have always had a strong industry interaction as a result of that, so the centre for software innovation evolved from that.

Will you be able to continue your research in this new role?

Yes. The vice chancellor at ANU, Ian Young, himself pursues an active research programme, and he has been very encouraging of me continuing my research.

I have a strong collaborative network already which I plan to continue working with. Expect to see a few more papers coming out.

Finally, if you had one message to the government before you left – Ministers Joyce and English who are involved in creating the national infrastructure plan – what would it be?

Universities are part the infrastructure, if you ignore them you ignore the economic driver that is really going to turn this country around.

Part one of the Q and A with John Hosking here.

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