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As CIO for Harcourts Jason Wills built the country’s first real estate website. He is now venturing into mashups and getting ideas from global enterprises like Google and Disney.

Jason Wills’ interest in computers began at an early age when, much to his delight, his parents ran an arcade parlour in Picton. “I grew up around games and Defender was my favourite. My parents fueled the fire by buying me a Commodore 64 home computer.”

But the 36-year-old’s career in ICT began in 1990, when he studied a certificate of business computing at Christchurch Polytechnic. “In those days you could do a one-year course and jump into a job which is what happened to me.”

His first job was in computer sales in Blenheim for a company called Marlborough Computer Services.

“I started selling computers there and doing some technical work as well. I then picked up a job with Nationwide Computers. This was in the clone computer days when we were battling the likes of PC Direct.”

Eventually Wills tired of selling computers and wanted to branch into the technical side, so he applied for a job at Computerland in Christchurch.

“I started off fixing printers and doing general maintenance, working my way up from services engineer to systems engineer over three years. I was than transferred to Alexandra in Otago in 1996 to work as a systems WAN administrator.”

The job only lasted six months because Wills than got a career-changing call from Harcourts. “They needed an IT manager to be based in Auckland. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to move up to Auckland, but I gave it a go. At that stage [1996], there was only one technology person at Harcourts and that was me.”

Wills, who is now based in Christchurch, says the company built a website that “was pretty average but it was the first real estate company website in New Zealand”.

He decided that an intranet system needed to be built, so all the real estate agents could share information and make use of the internet.

“Over January 1997 we built the intranet. I said the objective was to get all the properties into the intranet. There were only 500 listings at the time and we now hold 12,000 at any one time.”

By 1999 he says every office was uploading real estate listings into the system.

In 2001 Wills took on the position of CIO and currently manages 18 people.

He says implementing web technology has changed the way Harcourts does business. “The best challenge for me has been the involvement with our international expansion.

“We had to rebuild the intranet to be changed into a different language for the Chinese market. That was 18 months’ work for the development team.”

He is currently working with design company LeftClick to overhaul the company’s websites. The integrated back-end system and five new web 2.0 international websites are scheduled to go live in March 2009.

Harcourts has also signed an agreement with Google for its listings to be included in Google Base, the latest online initiative of the search firm. It is an extension of the web company’s existing content collection efforts. People can upload their content to the Google Base database and then assign it various ‘attributes’, which will drive that content’s inclusion in search engine results.

“From initial testing it’s looking really good, but we’re still in testing mode at the moment. We’ve helped them [Google] localise it as it was very American,” says Wills.

Harcourts was one of the first local real estate companies to use Google Maps, so Wills is excited about the possibilities of Google Street View.

“That is one of those things we want to start and we’ll get into that with the launch of the public website next year.”

The company also has an island on the virtual world Second Life. “We were the first real estate company in the world to have an office on there in 2006 selling virtual land. There was massive local publicity for it and it was great for recruitment because we are trying to attract Generation Y workers,” says Wills.

His background in sales assists him to communicate with his board of directors at a level they can understand. “If I had come from a developer background, I might not have been able to communicate ideas.”

With this team, his approach is to listen to their ideas and try to incorporate them where possible. “We have a really solid culture within Harcourts and we sit down to have brainstorming sessions. We’ve got a relationship with Disney in the US and used some of their development ideas.”

A Disney philosophy that Wills uses is that when someone has to come up with an idea, the next person has to say what can be added to it.

“Instead of saying ‘but’ I encourage people to say ‘and then’ to add to an idea.”

Although Wills has had to initiate some cost savings, he says the current economic downturn has not overly affected Harcourts’ ICT programme. “In the past 12 months we’ve been looking at cost structure, so I now do a lot of conference calls on Skype. But all the funding [for projects] is still there for me, which is a bonus.”

The biggest change in 12 years for Wills has been the growth of real estate listings online. “The current trend is about giving more information to consumers on the website.

“We adopted a philosophy of putting all the address details up on the site and other information. I think we’re the only company that still offers free sales reports.”

He adds that Harcourts’ main philosophy is to give consumers what they want, when they want it.

“People also want to know more information about a neighbourhood they’re moving into, such as schools and what the area is like, so we’re going to be developing blogs and tools.”

His advice to CIOs is to attend international conferences to keep up with what is happening in technology. “The main thing I try and do is hit the biggest conferences in the world. You can come away with a couple of ideas that can be used down under. Sometimes we’re a bit isolated in New Zealand and new ideas help.

“I also try and keep up with what Microsoft and Google are doing through RSS feeds. With my developers, we try and give them a couple of hours every Friday where they evaluate different systems so they can come up with ideas for Harcourts.”

Looking to the future, Wills says he recently completed a marketing course and is looking at the possibility of moving into another executive role.

“I’m relatively ambitious,” he says. “Heading in the general manager direction would be good in the future.”

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