NZCS charts changes in IT and responds accordingly

Part two of the Q and A with New Zealand Computer Society president Ray Delany

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview with New Zealand Computer Society president Ray Delany, he discusses the changing face of IT in New Zealand.

I was chatting to someone recently who said that when they began as a developer they sat in a room and never had interaction with clients, but that it is now becoming important for developers to get out there and be more engaged with the business and with customers — is that a fair comment?

The isolated geek image is not helpful for the professional for two reasons; it is not the best way to get things done usually, but there are exceptions, and it attracts the wrong sort of people.

I spoke to a class of undergraduates this morning and they’re all geeks and they’ve been attracted to those courses because they’re geeks. But I’m trying to persuade them that they cannot just continue to be geeks; they have a very low awareness of the softer skills, the need to communicate and the need to ask penetrating questions.

We talk a lot about this in the IT industry. Increasingly, in just about any industry that you care to name, IT is the business.

If you’re a bank what else have you got? You’ve just got IT. Not quite the same in healthcare, which I’ve spent a lot of time working in, but healthcare is impossible to conduct effectively now without IT. It’s now deeply embedded in society – do we really want all this incredible important stuff being run by people who can’t communicate very well?

You called them the soft skills, that’s interesting.

It is a catch phrase that is a convenient badge. To me they’re just people skills. In IT we talk about hard skills, the ability to code, to know what buttons to push and how to actually clearly define things.

I think the term soft indicates that they’re not really something that you can read a book and understand how to do it. There’s no manual for customer service, there’s no manual for penetrating questioning or communication, they are skills that you learn by doing.

Another challenge is the constant change in IT. Every thing is continually being launched and upgraded and renewed. Are things really being invented and reinvented, or is that just marketing?

It’s a changing industry for sure but maybe it’s some time off yet, but I do think we are entering a period of consolidation and stabilisation. So I don’t know if you’ve read the books by Nicholas Carr but I find them fascinating.

He uses the analogy of other high tech industry and the two examples he uses are electricity and railways which were very high tech in the 19th century.

When he plots the trajectory of the growth of those industries over a 50-year period, they’re analogies are very close to IT.

For example, manufacturing companies in the 19th century used steam engines. You had a gigantic steam engine in the centre of the factory and a bunch of pulleys that drove all the machines.

When they introduced electric power in the latter part of the 19th century instead of having a massive steam engine you could have small electric motors on every bench. So you had to reticulate the power to that and people started off with their own generators just like a lot of people have their own servers.

And then the generators consolidate into one big generator that’s serving a whole bunch of businesses. And eventually it grows up and becomes a power station.

Carr is arguing that something similar is happening in the IT industry, that eventually all of that chaos and constant change will settle down and it will become routine.

Still complex and interesting for the professionals within it, just as the electrical power industry is complex and interesting. But we don’t think of that as an industry that changes a lot.

That is effectively what the cloud is about, that structure. What we don’t yet have is that standardisation and reliability of the electric switch. When you plug your laptop into a power point in New Zealand you know you’re going to get 220 volts and 50 HZ to a much greater fineness of tolerance. So we’re not yet at that point but I think we will be in the future and probably within my career.

We’re [at Delany’s company Designer Tech] astonished about how rapidly you can move in the cloud, anybody who hasn’t figured that out yet I think has got a problem.

The smart cloud guys are making it so easy to connect and try something and see if it works for you and disconnect if it doesn’t. It is a game changer I think, but until you’ve actually tried it I don’t think you appreciate it.

There are not a lot of women in IT, do you think there are?

There used to be an organisation called Women In Technology, so there are a few.

If WIT no longer exists, is it the job of the Computer Society to encourage more women into the IT profession?

Its something that we are giving thought to. I think it is within the mandate of the Society to make connections in whatever way is most appropriate for the profession and clearly gender imbalance is part of that. I am not sure how much of an issue it truly is.

Do you think in New Zealand that we are different to other parts of the world when it comes to the adoption of IT?

I think there are some differences in New Zealand that are not immediately apparent.

My own personal view, and I was born and bred in Ireland although I’ve lived here longer now, is there is a distinct difference between the Europe and the older societies, and the new world of America, Canada, Australia and here.

I think the characteristic of that is that we’re much more forward looking - mainly because there’s not that much to look back on.

Locally within that framework, we’re a very innovative culture because we have had to be. We definitely in the past haven’t had the same level of resource so you just had to make do with whatever came to hand. No 8 wire is the classic badge for that.

We’ve got quite good at that in IT and we continue to be good at it. But we also need to be good at stuff that probably isn’t natural to us.

One of the downsides of innovation is that we never get to stabilising and driving the thing home and making it a success, we always want to move onto to the next innovation. I think that is the defining characteristic of Kiwi society – we’re very good at starting thing up, creating new things, we like running small businesses, we’re good at running small businesses, we’re less good at running big business I think.

We’re also a little bit inclined to respond to what Mark Twain referred to as the ‘expert as the guy from out of town’.

We tend to assume that if they come from Europe or the States it’s intrinsically better and I don’t think the evidence supports that in all cases.

Finally, out of 10 how would you rate the ICT Minister Steven Joyce?

I would prefer not to put a score on it. I think that the Minister has an extraordinarily difficult job that requires him to balance a number of different, some apparently competing interests.

I think they have been pretty good at juggling those balls and keeping progress forward. So is there room for improvement? Always. But I think on balance I do not have a problem with the job he is doing.

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