From saving banks to saving lives

In the first of our regular series on IT leaders, Computerworld journalist Darren Greenwood talks to the information chief at South Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, Phil Brimacombe and finds IT wasn't his first career choice.

For UK-born Phil Brimacombe, New Zealand has not been the chocolate-box image of sheep, mountains and cows.

The IT manager from Exeter has been busy equipping the country's organisations with the latest technologies, be they banks, supermarkets or hospitals. Brimacombe is information chief at South Auckland's Middlemore Hospital.

IT wasn't his first career choice - he studied modern languages at university - but a friend sparked his interest, and in the late 70s just about any degree was enough for a job in IT, so he joined NCR in London in sales and marketing.

But after five years Brimacombe got a serious case of itchy feet. Friends had told him how wonderful New Zealand was, and by sheer chance the NCR New Zealand manager was in Britain on a recruitment drive.

After three years with NCR in Auckland Brimacombe joined Foodtown as a project leader for its major point of sale programme, introducing computerised tills, scanning, Eftpos and staff time-keeping. Large electronic data interfaces were developed, he says, which involved electronic purchase orders and electronic invoices replacing paperwork.

At the time, Foodtown was owned by Coles-Myer of Australia. It also bought KMart and seconded Brimacombe to help set up KMart's automation, point of sale, Eftpos and store processes. The job involved developing barcodes for everything, which was tricky as only foodstuffs tended to have barcodes in those days.

While at Foodtown, where he became IS manager, Brimacombe inherited a a project to downsize a mainframe to a network of smaller machines. When it ended, the staff had a burial ceremony.

"I dressed up as a priest with a dog collar. I gave this lament. I got a guy to dress up as Death. IBM came and did a eulogy and then took the mainframe away," laughs Brimacombe.

After 15 years at Progressive Enterprises - which owns Foodtown - a move to the Hong Kong Bank brought experience of retail banking, including building up a small network of branches and launching an Eftpos card.

"The worst thing was the Mercury power crisis of summer 1998," he says. "That was serious stuff. We had all our processing in 290 Queen Street. We didn't know what the hell to do. It was a complete nightmare."

That weekend the company staged a crisis meeting and, having found an office to Takapuna, staff began relocating equipment and tried to get hold of a generator. Telecom did its bit, he says, but cables blocked fire exits, leading OSH to threaten closure. Crises seemed hourly, but after three days the bank was back online.

"We only just managed it. Our manual processes were only built to last three days. Had we not succeeded, I think the bank would have had to close. It would have gone down the tubes. Our CEO said we were within a whisker of closure," he says.

"A bank is totally reliant on technology. The IT department was right in the game. It was up to us whether the bank survived." Since then, the Hong Kong Bank has relocated to Queen Street. "We built a great generator for the new office, I can tell you."

The bank had a disaster recovery plan, but he says staff did not have the time to look at it.

At Middlemore, over the past year, Brimacombe has overseen the introduction of far more IT in hospitals. X-ray images are now displayed on PCs, handheld devices are taking patient notes and GP and hospital services are being integrated. This means doctors and nurses receive patient details quicker, meaning earlier treatment and better "patient outcomes", including saving lives. "It's very exciting to be involved in this [integration] strategy," Brimacombe says.

Middlemore has a new Kidz First childrens hospital, is developing a new emergency centre and, being sited in a poorer community, is always busy. "I feel what I am doing is worthwhile. That leads to a special motivation." says Brimacombe.

For those thinking of an IT career, he offers some simple advice. "Don't think being in IT is just working with technology. These days you have got to have business understanding and a customer focus."

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