Doing business with Steve Cotter of REANNZ: From the marine corps to ICT

The CEO of the Crown-owned company REANNZ spent 10 years flying helicopters in the Marine Corps, then moved to telecommunications.

Name: Steve Cotter

Title: CEO of the Crown-owned company REANNZ (Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand)

Twitter handle: @SteveCotter

How long have you been in your current role?

A very quick three years and four months. Time flies...

What business technology issue is your role focusing on?

New Zealand deserves a level playing field to compete with the rest of the world. As a high-speed, advanced network, we’re in a unique position to help researchers and educators eliminate barriers to collaboration and speed the process of bringing innovations to market. We’re always looking for ways to connect our members using bigger, better, broader technologies – whatever REANNZ can do to help turn information into knowledge or improve researchers’ ability to compete on a worldwide stage.

What are your interests away from work? I’m passionate about all kinds of technology, so I’m never too far away from it. As they say, if you enjoy what you do, it isn’t really work. My other interests are my family of course, cycling, travel, and reading (mainly non-fiction).

What are you reading at the moment?

I like to learn about all kinds of topics, so I’m often reading several books at a time. On my Kindle, I’m part way through The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, and Zero to One by Peter Thiel.

If you really want insight as to where technology is headed – look on the university campuses. There you have researchers trying to tackle some of the most difficult challenges and a small city of early adopters just itching to try out the latest thing.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received? When I worked at Google I made a presentation to employee number 8. Thirty seconds into it, he said: ‘Stop. To be successful, you have to think BIG. Plan for success – think five, 10, 15 steps ahead. Any decision we make today has to be flexible enough to achieve that end goal.’

He then told me a story about a discussion he had with Larry and Sergei back in the early days, when they were trying to decide whether to buy servers. They chose to make their own instead of being tied to a supplier. It didn’t necessarily make sense for a startup, but they were thinking big - imagining one day having a million servers - and knew they wanted full control of what would be an integral part of their infrastructure because it would give them a competitive advantage. Planning for success helped them achieve it - they passed one million servers in their data centres back in 2007!

Professionally, who do you admire most?

Frank Moran. I worked for his firm, Plante Moran, while in grad school. He understood that culture matters. He turned a sleepy little accounting/technology consulting firm into a major player in its industry – and ranked as one of Fortune’s ‘Top 100 Companies to Work For’ 17 years in a row. His philosophy: build “a people firm disguised as an accountancy firm”. He didn’t micromanage and believed in a personal/professional life balance. His Statement of Principles still guides Plante Moran’s employees, long after his death.

How long have you been working in your field? How did you get into your role?

I have a degree in aeronautical engineering, and spent the first decade of my career flying helicopters in the Marine Corps. I got out just before my first son was born, and found a way to transition into telecommunications. Because of my management experience as an officer. I worked my way up from managing a crew of linesmen to leading an entire construction division and then realised the networking side of telecommunications was the next big thing.

If you weren't working in your field, what would you be doing? If I weren’t working in my field, I’d be pursuing my other passion: seeing the world. It’s one of the reasons I joined the military – I wanted to travel and experience new cultures. Now, of course, I’d travel with my family!

Can you share one key pointer for keeping abreast of business technology trends?

There are plenty of social media sites you can go (LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) that have lots of good information about trends and best business practices, but it is getting harder and harder to separate the gems from the rocks. I think if you really want insight as to where technology is headed – look on the university campuses. There you have researchers trying to tackle some of the most difficult challenges and a small city of early adopters just itching to try out the latest thing. That’s where the Internet, high-definition video conferencing, cloud computing (just to name a few) were all born - and where you can get a glimpse of the future today.

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