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Stories by Peter Isaac

50 years of IBM New Zealand

When the modern age dawned in the 1970s, there was one permanence in all our lives -- IBM. It was like the British Empire at its height. It would go on and on and grow and grow. On IBM the sun would never set.
The centrepiece of this particular empire, as far as New Zealand was concerned, was the 12th Floor of IBM House on The Terrace in Wellington. The proconsul was Basil Logan. Barely in middle age at the time, he looked as if he too would rule on and on, and for a while he did.

Written by Peter Isaac02 Nov. 05 22:00

Show us the value

Imagine what US entrepreneur Warren Buffett could have done with Quotable Value at his disposal. “Hey!” he might have called out to an associate. He is not yet personally keyboard-enabled: “Pull up the last three months of sales in Buffalo – looks like a textile factory is sitting on property worth three times its share value.”

Written by Peter Isaac01 May 05 22:00

Into the belly of the beast

Eamonn Kelly has the look of someone who knows more than you do. “I’m a geek,” he admits cheerfully. Well, now he’s an automated geek because he has wrapped up his knowledge in a systems stethoscope known as MRS, a management reporting system. Or, as Kelly describes it, “the meaningful interpetation of data”.
His system operates somewhere in the region where operations analysis and decision support overlap. “It makes sense of the user’s own information,” he says. “It pulls together all the streams, all the log files – and you have just the one picture. It turns the historical into real time.”

Written by Peter Isaac01 May 05 22:00

The ratepayers’ desktop

“Oh dear,” you think to yourself when Ewen Church strides purposefully into the Upper Hutt City conference room. He looks so much like adventurer Peter Hillary we wonder whether they’ve got CIO confused with a healthy lifestyle magazine. Maybe, we think, they’ve got Hillary on community assignment to cut down on the valley’s obesity problem. The resemblance is that close, even down to the half smile.

Written by Peter Isaac01 April 05 22:00

Dan Lee is The Business

If there is such a place as CIO heaven, Dan Lee must wake up every morning believing he is there. Lee is at an Olympian distance from the often irritating debate on the whole hazy topic of whether the CIO is a blessing or burden, an asset or a charge upon the business.
The CIO of The Marketplace Company is the business, and that is electronic trading platforms. And its most recognisable branded product is Unlisted, the independent second-tier share trading market.

Written by Peter Isaac21 March 05 23:00

Plague year

No change swept through the IT industry quite so unexpectedly, and so swiftly, as the erosion of Big Consultancy.
At the beginning of 2002 Big Consultancy stood rock solid, one of the three or four great pillars of the IT industry. By the end of last year it had all the appearance of a creature queuing up for registration on the endangered species list.

Written by Peter Isaac06 April 03 22:00

Shell games

In the era of downsizing, few can pick an organisation that has shrunk its IT department to the near-disappearance levels of Shell New Zealand.
Until just a few years ago Shell operated a determinedly in-house operation on two floors, the sixth and the seventh, in the trademark Shell House on Wellington’s Terrace. They teemed with people who operated within a strict hierarchy with an even stricter sign-off regime. You approached the sixth and the seventh with more than a degree of trepidation. Whatever you wanted was not going to be easy, you sensed.

Written by Peter Isaac03 Nov. 02 22:00

Lean but not so mean

When Bob Hennessy had to fire half his team at TNT he was left with an enduring horror of having under-employed staff on the payroll. His solution, when he took over last year as CIO of WestpacTrust, was to institute a resource sign-in model.
Hey, you ask, what’s that? Under this approach, staff go to the work rather than having the work follow them around.
Consultants go to where the work is, and that is what Hennessy wanted his staff to do. If staff find themselves with no work sitting in front of them, that does not mean anyone can cut themselves some slack and coast for a while.
There may be a “few moments on the bench”, concedes Hennessy, who is whipcord thin and who looks as if he only sits down under extreme compulsion. “It is up to the individual to ensure that they are reassigned,” he says.
This abolishes the usual New Zealand pattern in which the work filters down through the hierarchies, to be taken up by the various job centres regardless of their capacity at the time.
Under the sign-in approach, it is up to the staff to seek out the work that needs to be done. “Needs to be done” is important here because, with his background in low-margin industries like steel and transport, Hennessy observed from the outset the temptation in banking for people to create work just for the sake of having something to do. He describes it as “feeding the monster”.
The sign-in approach allows a fairly clear lead-in to answering one of IT’s most perplexing questions, notes Hennessy. Namely, “Would I spend this money if it were my own?”
In fact, sign-in is a kind of holy water to the devil of Parkinson’s Law. Instead of work expanding to fill the resources (time) that exist for its completion, sign-in means that it is the resources that will expand to minimise the time required for completion of the work.
Hennessy came to IT after shining at mathematics at high school. Then, as a code-cutting trainee with BHP Steel, he found himself becoming increasingly curious about the human dimension.
Tiring of the endless numerical logic during an on-the-job training session at BHP, he grabbed control of the whiteboard and inscribed upon it various abstract symbols, inviting classmates to do some out-of-the-square thinking and puzzle them out — and then describe what they thought they saw.
Later, as an IT manager, he was witness to a defining incident as a member of a learned audience listening to a disquisition by an associate of James Martin, who then pretty much controlled the industry guru business.
The speaker described in a matter of fact tone a system of prodigious capability and all the while the audience nodded in assent to the value of this tour de force of systems implementation.
Then, in the same level tones, the speaker noted that such a system with such a performance was not technologically attainable then, or in the near future. It was at this moment that Hennessy developed his own guiding principle: anything he had to do with had to be visibly workable and a demonstrable improvement on what was already in place.
Thus, for example, he does not favour abstract discussions about Linux just because it exists. Because something is new does not necessarily mean that it offers an operational improvement on what already exists and is running satisfactorily. “There is a level of expectancy in our industry about what the new thing is going to be. There is this industry anticipation over the new ‘ism’, the new ERP, the new dot-com, the new CRM. This is accompanied by a reluctance to evaluate how useful to the business these isms are going to be. You have to ask yourself, when one of these isms comes along, ‘Is this a hurdle worth confronting?’”
Hennessy recalls an occasion when an extremely successful truck operator sought him out for advice on IT. The tycoon was visibly agitated about the investment that vendors were requiring him to make. Hennessy recalls telling the truck operator: “Forget about all the mumbo jumbo. You merely need to know what it will do, how much it will cost, what the return on the investment will be and when it is going in. Pretend you are opening a new depot, in other words.”
In steel and transport, Hennessy notes, IT is regarded as a necessary evil. It is not part of the business in the sense it is in banking, where IT — via ATMs — for example, dishes out cash to customers. The extreme scepticism about IT that he encountered during his own 20 or so years in steel and transport made him ultra-sensitive to costs and returns at Westpac. Hennessy was with Westpac for four years in Australia before becoming head of information technology and group head of architecture services at WestpacTrust in October last year.
Hennessy believes the banking sector as a whole has created problems for itself by providing over-generous IT budgets. “When you look at industries such as steel and transport with their 2% to 3% margins, you do not see over-generous IT budgets. The result is that all the people involved in IT are starved out from their lairs and forced to share ideas and services. “It’s interesting how meanness in IT budgets forces people to co-operate, which means putting the customer in the middle of everything.”
Conversely, Hennessy observes, enriched IT budgets can lead to IT departmental types staying in their own squares simply because they are too comfortable to step outside.
Coming from the hardscrabble world of steel and transport, Hennessy often finds himself wondering about the belief, common in other sectors, that there is a direct correlation between expenditure/capacity and value to the business. “Having the capacity you want does not necessarily depend upon spending money.”
Hennessy has broad responsibility for Westpac’s side of the old clearing co-operative Databank, now known as EDS. Much of the Databank programming is still in Assembler, one of the earliest of all programming techniques. Hennessy views the retention of Assembler as an example of the practical commonsense behind the cheque-clearing co-operative.
“They could have spent millions and replaced Assembler. But someone saw the commonsense in paying a few hundred thousand dollars instead to train people to maintain it.”
The lesson that is still to be learned within the IT sector is that a “30-year-old program tends to be much more stable than one that is 10 years old.”
Recently Hennessy’s 16-year-old nephew mentioned to him that he was learning Assembler. “I was extremely pleased. The skill is going to give him a lot of control over his own career. Where did this notion arise that somehow the world is going to blow up because some important organisations are still using Assembler?”
Hennessy’s rather complex job title — head of information technology and group head of architecture services — needs defining. He is part of Westpac’s central governance regime in which “dotted and direct” lines intersect on their way around New Zealand and across the Tasman. The EDS (Databank) track, for example, dots its way to Hennessy before assuming a direct line to head office in Australia. In general his bailiwick is in the realm of ensuring that anything involving digital technology works in the way it was designed to work. This extends to WestpacTrust’s relationship role with its mainstay outsourcers, IBM and Telstra.
The architecture reference in his title indicates, though, his definite presence on the ground floor in delivering projects of all varieties. Westpac knows and Hennessy knows that projects go wrong, not down the line, but at the very start, often because of flawed hopes and expectations outstripping the ability to economically deliver them.
Confucius noted that the longest journey in the world began with a single step. Having someone around at the departure point who studied psychology and philosophy on their way to their university technical degrees will ensure a cool, appraising approach right at the outset. n

Written by Peter Isaac31 Aug. 02 22:00

The interceptor

By the middle of last year world border protection information-sharing standards were fraying. After the long peace, the world’s state border guardians were drifting apart on standards — doing their own thing, their way.
After September 11 the guardians did a U-turn and switched to accelerated convergence — nowhere more emphasised than by the rallying around the United Nations Edifact EDI standard.

Written by Peter Isaac31 Aug. 02 22:00

Cosy up to the vendors

The significance of the scrapping of the state IT tendering procedures (“Risky Business”, CIO, October 2001) has created benefits, the scope of which are still not fully comprehended, Rosewarne believes.
The melting away of the tender walls means that there is no excuse for users such as himself to keep vendors at arm’s length. “A lot of my time is spent with vendors, with the industry. It helps eliminate surprises by helping each other anticipate what is needed.”

Written by Peter Isaac31 Aug. 02 22:00

Y2K: the biggest distraction

New Zealand users have always been known for a tendency to acquire technology rather than solutions, in the words of IDC savant Len Rust.
When Y2K struck, this tendency turned to pandemonium, Rosewarne believes. “It was the ultimate distraction.” The way Rosewarne tells it, just as New Zealand IT was collectively getting its head out from under the tech mantle, Y2K came along and slammed the collective head back into tech mechanics. Stunned, that collective head stayed there until only quite recently. Groggily, we are only now belatedly entering the post-tech era.

Written by Peter Isaac31 Aug. 02 22:00

Not wanted: on-the-job training

Rosewarne is dismayed at the number of people who knock on his door in pursuit of consultancy work, yet readily admit they have no knowledge of Customs or Immigration work. “Why can’t they take the trouble to learn? Why do they believe that we will bring them up to speed at our expense?” As far as Rosewarne is concerned, aspirants must come into his office “running” — fully briefed on his business and with an in-depth understanding.
Rosewarne is bemused that consultants and others who have done little or no research on the nature of Customs or Immigration still want to come into his office and tell him about his “problems”. (The “problems” preoccupation syndrome he also blames on the Y2K era.)

Written by Peter Isaac31 Aug. 02 22:00

Christchurch catch-up

Through a carefully considered blend of conservative savvy and stylish dash, Christchurch City Council (CCC), is sometimes considered the best run of all New Zealand municipalities. It provides local governance and service to the metropolitan area of Christchurch, serving a resident population of 316,000 and 137,000 rating assessments.
CCC has 1600 full-time-equivalent employees and manages community assets valued at $3.6 billion. Annual operating expenditure is around $260 million.

Written by Peter Isaac30 June 02 22:00