New Zealanders underestimate the skills of their own native software developers and hardware engineers, says Leo Ramakers, sales and marketing manager of Wellington development house Catalyst IT.
They are too easily diverted to overseas-originated package solutions to the detriment of the nation’s economy, he says.
“A lot of New Zealanders don’t seem to understand that the software dollar goes overseas but the service dollar stays here,” he says.
The occasional widely publicised disaster like Incis tends to turn businesses off developing software at home, but investigations shows the fault with such systems is not with the lack of local skills but the techniques adopted.
Incis was a striking example of a “big bang” development, where parts of the system that were heavily interdependent were being developed simultaneously. Competent software developers, he says, have learned by now the wisdom of iterative, or, to use Ramaker’s word, “spiral” development — developing first the essential elements of the system to meet the highest-priority need, then progressing to the refinements, if these can still be justified.
“When the cost exceeds the benefit of the next element to be delivered, you stop.”
Catalyst IT’s most high-profile current project is the design and development of the new shared-registry domain name system for the domain name registration company and its owner, InternetNZ.
The company does not shy away from such publicly visible projects. It was also responsible for the vote-counting system for the latest general election. It collects the totals submitted by returning officers and massages them for dissemination to the media. Catalyst has inherited that task from QED, which had been doing it since 1987 but went out of business early this year (see QED goes belly-up). Catalyst shares some directors with the former QED.
“Kiwis are astonishingly good engineers” in a hardware and software sense, Ramakers says, with a high productivity for comparatively low cost when rated internationally. Yet much of New Zealand’s software work still disappears overseas. By comparison it’s impossible to export software to Japan, he says, because government and business owners and managers care about that side of the economy.
Ramakers is an enthusiast for open source software, which he sees as another way of preventing overseas companies and their founders “taking out vast personal wealth” from markets like New Zealand.
“If a bootmaker wants to earn the money from a million pairs of boots, he has to make a million pairs. Bill Gates only has to make one pair.”
Intellectual property should be protected, he acknowledges, but protection should apply to the specific mode of expression of an idea, not the idea itself.
IP protection creates three tiers of people, he says.
“There is the purist, who guarantees free exchange of ideas with protection of their expression and profits from it.
“The second tier seeks to leverage protection for unfair gain,” with Amazon’s patent of the single-click transaction as an example.
“And the third tier is the great sea of humanity who are being impoverished by the locking up of ideas.”