Tale OneTom King
Educated: St David’s High School, Dalkeith
First job: Apprentice with Ferranti
Qualified: Electrical Engineer 1981
Started to hit his straps: As GEC support manager
Landfall in New Zealand: 1994
Biggest subsequent surprise: Auckland traffic and Eftpos
Member: Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Computer Society
Major sporting achievement: Completed Edinburgh Marathon
Hobbies: Skiing, soccer
Married: Yes, with three children
Drives: A 1988 Sierra
Currently reading: William Stuart Long’s 12-part saga on the colonisation of Australia.
Downsized: From 1200 working under him in Scotland to three now
Lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson claimed that the finest sight a Scotsman ever beheld was the road that led to London. But for Scotsman Tom King, IT services manager at Christchurch Casino, it was the road that led to Christchurch.
Braveheart: Tom King’s High Road to Christchurch
As an emigrant bound for Auckland, the Musselburgh-born IT specialist took one look at the traffic jams girding the Queen City and, like Dick Whittington, turned back momentarily.
But not to London. He headed straight for the Garden City, and has been there ever since. “I looked at the Auckland traffic and told myself, ‘If this is what I have to put up with, I might as well return to Glasgow or Edinburgh’.” That was in 1994.
Apart from Auckland traffic, there was another surprise waiting for the new arrival — Eftpos. Like many new chums to these latitudes, King was surprised to see that what was still a talking point in the Old World was a reality in the New World. “I have to admit it was a surprise to see it as a routine part of retailing,” confesses King.
Witness to history
Christchurch is known as the last conurbation in New Zealand in which people walk to work or just walk for the hell of it. The views of the distant snow-capped Southern Alps are evocative of King’s native land. As we stroll around the streets looking for a likely photographic backdrop, King goes without his jacket and seems impervious to the icy blasts swirling around us.
Prior to the Auckland foray he had made a brief visit to Christchurch to see relatives and so, after his gridlock encounter in Auckland, offered no resistance when Barry Knight of Knight Consulting and Michael Miller of KPMG came up with the offer of a six-month contract at Christchurch Casino, then on the verge of opening.
Rarely has anyone walked into the New Zealand IT scene with such a well-incubated skills toolkit. As a pioneer member of Scotland’s Silicon Glen, King’s career began as an apprentice with Ferranti. Now largely forgotten, Ferranti was the pacemaker for British technology via its work in avionics. Under the benignly despotic Sir Basil de Ferranti, the firm offered a dreamtime practical and theoretical training scheme, allowing young King to hone his skills in head-up displays and inertial navigation, among other things.
Ferranti developed speed wobbles in the 1970s and became part of GEC. It was then that King decided to go the full distance and trade his blue collar for a white collar. He enrolled at Napier University, Scotland, and qualified as an electrical engineer in 1981.
Now he plunged into Britain’s burgeoning hardware manufacturing business with Apollo, which along with Acorn and Sinclair was one of the standard-bearers of the UK manufacturing renaissance.
Apollo expanded rapidly with sites all over the world for the manufacture of its workstations. Anyone who was around at the time will remember that it was widely believed Britain’s hardware manufacturing sector existed under a sun that would never set. But it did, and one of the first intimations of the eclipse was the takeover of Apollo by Hewlett-Packard in 1989.
That same year King left Apollo and went to work for Motorola and then, from there, went to GEC Plessey as systems support manager. It was here that he got a taste of working within a managerial hierarchy as the boss of 1200 manufacturing staff. Between King and this cohort was a cadre of seven IT staff. His executive skills were further honed at the monthly strategy meeting at Coventry for GEC executives nationwide.
At that time in Britain and the Commonwealth, nobody in electronics — or, indeed, in anything electrical at all — could move far without encountering GEC, the pre-eminent British technology firm of the last half of the last century. It was a seemingly indestructible behemoth led by Arnold Weinstock, later Lord Weinstock, who governed it with an intricate formula of mathematical ratios designed to expose any weaknesses the moment they moved through a balance sheet — and which, until several years ago, made it Britain’s biggest single pool of wealth.
This was the state of affairs until, at the height of the dot-com boom, the group’s new professional managers restyled it Marconi and then threw Lord Weinstock’s fabled cash mountain at the bubble just before it popped.
But this was some years in the future. For now King, having experienced the joys of planning and what-iffing at the Coventry strategy sessions, opted for an altogether more cerebral life by freelancing as a part-time lecturer. This interest in education was soon bolstered by a post at the Scots Health Education Board.
By now, though, he was looking south of the border, a long way south — to Australia and New Zealand, with a sideways glance at Canada.
This was in the early 90s, the heyday of the official New Zealand touring road show for the purpose of attracting skilled candidates to these latitudes. These road shows were scorned by many at the time because of the gilded Brigadoon-like picture they painted of this country — especially for the benefit of IT people such as Tom King. In the event, he took the message with a pinch of salt and, with his family, headed south.
Wheel of fortune
New Zealand’s love-hate relationship with pleasure is rarely more obvious than in any public debate on any issue involving alcohol or gaming. The devil sits cross-legged atop every bar and every roulette wheel.
The country’s first two casinos, in Auckland and Christchurch, got the green light via the Casino Control Act of 1990, chiefly in the hope that they would attract more high-end tourists and thus more overseas exchange.
Now the Control Act, with its tough compliance core, is being superseded by the Responsible Gambling Bill, an omnibus disclosure-based piece of legislation that accommodates the widespread use of the word casino in relation to proliferating gaming slot machines in pubs and clubs.
Casino IT is, in fact, playing very much into King’s own background in process control as Internal Affairs takes on an increasingly real-time inspectorate role.
More than any other leisure activity, gaming is now an IT business. Legislation recognises this, and is doing so by the simple expedient of wiring up the industry into an easily monitored super network with simple see-through monitoring windows for the patrolling inspectors.
Is gaming IT so very different? “It’s a different industry. But the IT does not change. At the foundation there must be this good network,” notes King.
The self-effacing King will not be drawn on further detail. But a key piece of standardisation that does make his job simpler is the dominance in Australasia of the low-key (everyone and everything in the gaming sector is low-key, except for the punters) Aristocrat gaming systems hardware supplier.
In no other sector in IT in Australia has any supplier achieved such dominance as has Aristocrat over leisure, and it embraces everything from the table gaming systems through to the poker machines.
Interestingly, Aristocrat recently received the seal of good housekeeping from the gaming authorities in Nevada, thus opening up a huge export opportunity for the Australian systems manufacturer. Where gaming systems differ from all other IT systems is that they are designed to manage transactions based on theories of probability.
In spite of this underpinning complexity, King gives the unruffled impression of a man on top of his own game. Indeed, the Christchurch Casino, with its fin-de-siecle décor, large self-generated payroll and huge donations to welfare organisations over and above its mandated levies, presents the picture of an institution from a more stately age than the one we live in now.
In IT terms much of this gold leaf serenity can be ascribed to reliance on outsourcers. Telecom looks after the casino’s external networks while Christchurch firm Computer Concepts, along with Computerland, deals with local support. Even so, and as King points out, in operational terms gaming is not so very different from any other transactional networked configuration.
The game has changed. But not the principles. Like any wheel of fortune, what goes around comes around, and the lean Scotsman might almost be back in Silicon Glen attending to Lord Weinstock’s famous ratio regime.
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