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The investigative CTO

The investigative CTO

Student Job Search Aotearoa's registration numbers were falling. Phil Tanner explains why this was actually a positive outcome.

'You need to make sure you look at the top-line and work out what are the inputs into that top-line, to find out what is the story behind it.' - Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa
'You need to make sure you look at the top-line and work out what are the inputs into that top-line, to find out what is the story behind it.' - Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa

When Phil Tanner joined Student Job Search Aotearoa (SJS) more than two years ago, he wanted to get insights on the data the organisation holds.

Tanner recalls asking the staff a simple question: “How many jobs have we got in Napier?”

Nobody could tell him until they had spent 10 minutes going through the website and the data sets.

SJS is a not for profit organisation based in Wellington, matching employers with tertiary students looking for work.

The organisation's website hosts more than 3000 jobs at any given time and these range from manual labouring to highly skilled technical roles.

“It became clear to me while we had lots of students in our database, and the website featured jobs that were available, we did not have access to the information, or we could not pull information from it,” says Tanner. “Without having access to numbers and the actual data, I felt I could not do anything.”

This provided an impetus for Tanner to focus on the data held by the organisation, and how it could be utilised to streamline both technology and operations at SJS.

“I am really a big fan of big data,” says Tanner, who came from a technology start-up before joining SJS as chief technical officer. “I enjoy statistical questions and evidence-based decisions."

He knew what his priority was back then: “I needed something that will get all of the data from the website, from the students, the contact centres and our networks, so we can tie these all together and work out what is going on, what we need to change."

Photo by Divina Paredes
Photo by Divina Paredes

I am really a big fan of big data.

Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa



Tanner works with a compact team - he manages three other ICT staff members.

SJS has about 12 people in the back office staff and around 20 contact centre staff, “during the quiet period”.

The contact centre staff number rises up to 38 during the peak times.

“We are a very spiky business,” he says. “In November, students go on holiday and our traffic triples overnight from 100,000 to 300,000.”

Using public cloud, the organisation only pays for what they need.

“It is a perfect business model for us. As a fairly small charity, we focus on doing what we do well, which is matching students with employers.

“Everything else - including email and back office servers - are outsourced to third party providers.

“Because we focused on our students and employers, it meant when things went wrong, we did not have a good idea of where it was going wrong.

“When I joined we were literally phoning six different partners, saying, we have got a problem. Can you fix it?'

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“We needed monitoring in place on the system so I could tell where the problem happened, so we can phone the right person.”

Big data, big spreadsheets

For a small organisation, SJS was not short of data to work with. When Tanner joined the organisation was fielding a call every 1.7 minutes and placed a student in employment every five minutes. This meant filling more than 28,000 job vacancies in a year.

But as he notes, the volume of data and the way they dealt with it causes some challenges when they needed to report the results to the executive team.

Putting together the report usually took four working days and involved consolidating data from various databases into an Excel spreadsheet. Another two days a month were spent preparing reports for various student associations.

What SJS needed was a “single pane of glass” insight into its data, through a simple and accessible process.

The system needed to cover IT operations business analytics, marketing and security as well, he says.

“When I joined it was very clear I needed to have an overview of the company IT systems and also all of the info the company had, so we could make more than just the instant decisions.

“Without that big data - we can not make [those] decisions,” he says.

Within four months of his arrival, SJS had a look at three vendors in the business intelligence space and chose to work with Splunk.

“It was a huge transformation within the company, being able to access the data, and to look at the data in new ways,” he says. “You did not have to pre-build the report, you could do the report, slice and change, everyday.''

He says they are now able to turn that data around within two or three hours.

For a charity organisation, this shift is very critical. “Every charity knows that it is not how much money you have coming in but how you spend the money that really matters.

“You can be a huge international charity and have millions of dollars coming in, but unless you are spending it the right way, you may as well not bother.”

What looks like a bad news story, is not always bad if you look at the bigger context

Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa


Litmus test

Tanner says over time, SJS noted how the number of students registering for the job search was declining.

“In 2013 to 2014, we saw something like a 33 per cent drop in the number of students that were registering for our service.

“Rightly, the board members were asking questions and senior managers were beginning to panic about it.”

But using business analytics software, his IT team were able to do a lot more than get the raw numbers.

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“I plotted the numbers on a chart and then overlaid on top of that, I plotted the number of students who were registering with us who actually activated their account.''

With most systems, you send an email to the person to activate the account. If you look at those numbers, they were going up, he explains.

“It was actually a good news story. We were getting more active users and were reducing the number of people who register with fake accounts and never activate them.”

It is thought the spike in fake SJS accounts may have been due to competitions running on social media in 2012 and 2013. The students were asked to register for a chance to win a prize.

“We had lots of people who were registering with us as normal and they would register a second account with us. But they never used it, because they were just making these things up in order to be in the draw.

“What was abundantly clear at that point was the decreasing registration was not real, it was part of our marketing strategy changing the numbers.

“What it meant for us as a company was the contact centre staff are now dealing with or spending more of their time dealing with real students.

“It could have taken us months to work out what the problem was with the decline,” he adds. “We could have done big marketing campaigns and spent money to drive up registrations that we did not need. Because the number of students that were using our services was higher than ever before.

“The lesson at that point for me was what looks like a bad news story, is not always bad if you look at the bigger context.”

He transposes this insight to their analysis of website traffic. “If you look at Google analytics for the past year, we got a 12 per cent decrease in the amount of time students were spending on our website,” he says.

“This again looks like a bad news story and something the board picked up on.”

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But if you look at the number of placements those students are getting, that is going up, he says.

“Which means because the number of students getting jobs is going up, the time they are spending on our sites is going down. That is because the students are getting to what they want faster, due to the changes we had with the registration and job application process.”

He attributed this to their implementation of a fully responsive website last year. He says they made sure they would not be tied to a specific size or a bigger screen for the gadgets their tech savvy students use.

He says SJS has experienced a 115 per cent growth in the number of mobile access users to the website. This growth was not only from students, but also employers they work with to get jobs for the students.

“We were in the right direction,” he says. “But if you just report top-line figures of students spending less time on the website, it was actually the opposite story of what was happening.

“You need to make sure you look at the top-line and work out what are the inputs into that top-line, to find out what is the story behind it.”

Collective effort

While working full-time at SJS, Tanner reveals he is also involved with another non-profit group.

He is the supplementary officer for the No. 49 (District of Kapiti) Squadron, which is open to 13 to 18 year old youths who are trained for various life skills.

He got involved when his daughter, 13, joined the group, which is under the Air Training Corps Association of New Zealand. This means he and his daughter join the training three weekend days of the month, plus Wednesday evenings.

Photo by Simon Neale
Photo by Simon Neale


He is pleased with how this volunteer work is actually helping him at SJS.

As a member of the parent support committee, he helps raise funds for the organisation. These supplement the assistance provided by the Defence Force.

“Doing that has helped me realise just how valuable literally every cent is that comes in,” he says. “It is making sure that every dollar we get from any fundraising activity is spent in the best way it can be.”

He applies the same perspective to SJS.

“Although we are owned by the Student Associations, we are a not for profit business primarily funded by the Ministry of Social Development. It is actually my taxpayer money that is paying for the business,” he says. “I want to make sure I am spending the money that comes from my taxes in the best way.”

Before joining the not for profit sector, Tanner was CIO at Heyrex Ltd (formally SAY Systems) in Wellington. He also started an IT consultancy business Crowhurst & Company and was head of IT at LG&DE Ltd in Surrey in the UK.

He is also active in an organisation of CIOs and ICT managers who work in the not for profit sector.

The not for profit CIOs meet every month or so and talk about projects they are working on, and how they have mitigated some of the risks they have encountered.

We are always looking for what we can do to alleviate the normal pain points, which are cost and complexity.

Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa


“We are always looking for what we can do to alleviate the normal pain points, which are cost and complexity.”

“One of the problems of working in a not for profit is you spend so much of your time struggling to deal with what you need to deal with, and don’t realise there are other people facing exactly the same problems, or may have solved these problems.

“The main benefit we have of meeting in this way is that we get to share the experiences, pool the knowledge.

“By sharing our experiences, we can avoid pitfalls we might otherwise not have foreseen and ensure that everyone benefits in a truly open-source way,” says Tanner.

“Our position as not for profits puts us in a uniquely non-competitive environment, where helping each other only improves everyone’s ability to best serve the public.”

What it’s like to be CIO for a not-for-profit

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

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