Most CIOs think they have their hands full with developing the ICT facility to meet the needs of their organisation within a (usually) tight budget, leading their team and – if highly regarded enough – participating in strategy sessions with directors; not to mention firefighting mishaps and unexpected delays. But there are a few who spot a gap in the market, a benefit for the company and/or a career opportunity for themselves and who find time alongside their daily tasks to pursue a more entrepreneurial second string to their bow. Then there are those whose talent is sought by the organisation to help it pursue or facilitate some new endeavour. They may find themselves thrust into an entrepreneurial role they might not have dreamed up of their own accord.
The entrepreneurial route
Scott Houston as chief technical officer for special effects company Weta Digital, experienced some of his firefighting moments sourcing additional processors for the huge arrays that render computer-generated animations on to film and finding the space to house them. There was some logic, therefore to developing other uses that large compute power might be put to, when the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong had been completed.
Having to house 1000 extra processors to render simulated warriors for a huge battle scene in The Return of the King” in 2003 led him to space on Telecom’s premises and into collaboration with Telecom subsidiary Gen-i. His thinking was helped by a visit to New Zealand at the end of that year by Ian Foster, Kiwi-born pioneer and evangelist of “grid computing” – he is nicknamed “the Gridfather”.
Houston then went to a supercomputing conference in Arizona and learned more about the techniques of combining the power of large numbers of processors, co-located or distributed but working together.
The New Zealand Supercomputing Centre was born in August 2004 out of an agreement between Telecom/Gen-i and Weta, and Houston became its head.
“I naively travelled up and down the country saying ‘hey, I’ve got 1000 processors; who wants to use them’,” he recalls. “I found the people who needed them couldn’t pay and those who could pay wanted more than raw processing power. We needed to offer customers real solutions.
With the help of software and data from GNS Science (the Crown Research Institute formerly known as the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences) the Supercomputer Centre was able to offer seismic processing services; at first this was achieved through on-selling GNS’s Globe Claritas software, but now the partners are providing on-demand processing services. A large contract with an unnamed United States client was in the offing when CIO spoke with Houston in early June.
On the digital animation front he says, “I’m working with Urban Voyager in Auckland, rendering images for a simulated walkthrough of a shopping mall to be built in Dubai”. Other clients include producers of X-box games and an animated Bible for children. A job for Animal Logic, the Australian maker of the penguin movie Happy Feet, exposed a “fundamental flaw” in the centre’s operation; that it could only offer the processors when they were not needed by Weta. This meant 30 days notice had to be given of an impending job. When Animal Logic needed an additional 1000 processors, the easiest approach was to send them to Sydney; Weta contributed 500 and Telecom bought another 500. After the job was finished, all 1000 were taken back to Wellington and remain available there. Clearly a more flexible arrangement was needed, Houston says. He scoured the market for other large processor arrays with spare capacity and is making a business out of matching these faculties with appropriate software applications and relevant customers, preferably geographically close at hand.
The model adopted by Houston’s own company, InterGrid, established last year, is to provide just such a link, enhanced by offering specific software for applications that demand large computing power.
InterGrid is the brand for selling these services internationally but the NZSC name may well stay for marketing in New Zealand.
Current offerings are in biotechnology, modelling the complex structures and behaviours of organic molecules; in seismic processing, usually connected with oil or gas exploration; and in rendering of synthetic images for film and television – a field Houston, as former chief technical officer of Weta Digital, knows well.
As well as representing the NZSC overseas, Houston has investigated reservoirs of computing power in Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Australia, that can be re-purposed during idle time and linked to a customer through a digital network.
InterGrid is looking at possible deals with a studio in Hong Kong to provide seismic processing for Chinese mineral exploration projects and for an Indian company in the seismic field to provide computer-generated imagery for Bollywood movies.
The big picture
Tofigh Alizadeh complements his position as IT manager for vehicle selling and leasing company Turners Auctions by working on strategy for Turners NetResult, a developer of web-oriented software for mobile devices.
Half-owned by Turners Auctions, Turners NetResult was initially founded to provide applications for managing auctions and to ensure a vehicle is fully checked when it is returned at the end of its lease. The customer drops the car off and the program gives the Turners’ representative a checklist to run through before signing the lease off. This list can be carried on a portable terminal.
Generalising such an audit capability gives rise to a product that can be used in a variety of industries such as building, where the work of a contractor can be checked and signed off on site.
Another software product, Mobile Agenda is aimed again at a wide range of sales and service industries; it is used to line up appointments for agents, giving them a timetable for the day, which can be “pushed” to their mobile devices.
The subsidiary company was founded in 2001. Alizadeh came on board at Turners early last year. With a consulting and sales background, he was asked to strategise for the company, particularly in “deciding how to go after channels” to improve sales of the software. He is also now involved in improving the Turners NetResult website.
There is a tight coupling between the ICT needs of Turners itself and those of the software business, he says, “so my two roles complement each other”. Since Turners Auctions is a customer of the NetResult products, it provides an effective in-house development and market testing facility; he then co-ordinates the conversion of a product created for Turners into a more widely marketable tool.
“I get to support the venture both as provider and customer,” Alizadeh says.
This means a split role, both in the sense of time management of his two workloads and in avoiding a conflict of interest between “my customer’s hat [Turners Auctions] and my director’s hat [Turners NetResult].” Clearly it is part of his job as a NetResult representative to get the best price out of Turners Auctions as a customer. “I just have to keep those roles separate,” he says.
“My priority [with NetResult] is to maximise sales; I’m part of the executive team developing strategy.”
As an IT manager, equally, his business background is a plus and means he can stand back from technological concerns. “It’s not about technology; my challenge is to have the big picture of what management expects of the [Turners Auctions] business and challenge them.
“Take the website,” he says. “In a lot of people’s view, it’s a piece of technology. I see it as a business tool. I gather the requirements, suggest approaches and push the decision back to business. IT should not be responsible for designing a website.”
One recent innovation that Alizadeh has co-ordinated for Turners Auctions is Turners Live, a software download that lets buyers participate in an auction live, complete with video images from their PCs. As well as seeing images of the vehicles at auction, buyers can get a digest of information about each vehicle and can bid at the auction after supplying personal or company details in advance.
The efficiency of such a process is dependent on broadband service in the customer’s area, he says. “As you make improvements in IT, you meet challenges in bandwidth; for an application like Turners Live you need consistent speed.”
From CIO to CEO
Steve Saunders, now CEO of consultancy Theta Systems played an initially more catalytic than active role in the company’s formation. In the 1990s he was CIO for meat company Affco, which was changing technology platforms “and needed the experience and expertise that was not available within Affco”.
Initially these skills and resources were delivered by a group of individual contractors on an as-needed basis, but in 1995 they formed themselves into Theta.
“Theta provided Affco with a cost-effective model to deliver business value when required, without the cost of employing permanent staff,” says Saunders “So as you might imagine I was extremely familiar with the Theta team and watched them grow from that time.”
After leaving Affco “I often mentored the business owners as they built the business. I finally ended up at The University of Auckland for what I thought would be a complementary role to the director of IT Systems and Services only to find I was the acting director for a period of time. During my time at the university, I applied to and was accepted as a member of the Institute of Directors (IoD). Shortly afterwards I was approached by the chairman of Theta to consider joining the board, I gladly accepted as I was looking for some avenue by which I could utilise my business and IT experience gained over the years, and saw this as an opportunity to contribute in some way to the continuing success of Theta.”
As Theta planned to grow its business the owners asked him to come on board as CEO “and I jumped at the opportunity. So I find myself back with many of the same team I worked with at the start of Theta.”
Over its 12 years the company has specialised in the utilities sector, he says, “especially electricity where we have developed countless applications for Genesis Energy and a number of other clients in New Zealand and Australia.
“We are unabashedly technical with experience in database management and data warehousing/business intelligence. We develop software in many languages and like most companies these days Java and .NET are the main pillars we build on.
“The business model the founders adopted was an associate model which has endured. Surprisingly the longevity of tenure and the loyalty of the associates outstrip that of many companies with more conventional models.
“Intuitively a group of consultants held together only because they are hugely competent and are therefore always in demand and utilised, has a huge advantage over the more conventional models where you end up with the normal distribution of talent and hence much lower demand and utilisation for each.
“Naturally if you want the best talent you pay more” Saunders says. Adding on overheads required for growth is a challenge to the budget. It’s tempting to “try to keep the overheads low at the expense of really good processes and governance”. However, Theta emphasises good processes and methodologies especially with regard to the technical side of things.
“Recently I have been focusing my energy more in the overall strategy and positioning the business for growth,” he says.
“These are skills I learned over many years with national and international corporates and the university and the trick is to bring them to bear with just the right weight. The last thing you need is to completely stall the company with overbearing processes and bureaucracy.
“Getting efficiencies and finding ways to lower costs and at the same time giving a real sense of permanence are things I believe our customers will value and will lead to long-term relationships. If you can rely on annuity revenue, then it’s quite feasible and possible to build more of a hybrid model where you have both associates and permanent employees. We are now evolving into this hybrid model all the time, absolutely focused on retaining the style and culture that made us Theta in the first place. Everyone is staff no matter how they are employed.”
There is enormous opportunity in the current market for people like the Theta staff “who can deliver real value and walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” says Saunders.
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