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Profile: Breeze CEO Nicki Page

Profile: Breeze CEO Nicki Page

Talks the channel's 2015 transition, key Cloud projects and getting women ahead

Nicki Page, CEO Breeze

Nicki Page, CEO Breeze

Montech took over Breeze and Technology Effect earlier in the year appointing Nicki Page to CEO of the lot. Breeze has rapidly emerged as one of Microsoft’s key Cloud partners and thought leaders, and Page was the winner of the Entrepreneur Award at the 2014 ARN Women In ICT Awards. It's been a good time.

She sat down to discuss her company’s 2015 plans, working in the channel and the changes Cloud is reaping on the industry.

How did you get your start in computers?

I was born into the IT industry. My dad was an electronics engineer. He was going out and buying motherboards and chips and soldering at home when I was a little girl. He was always naturally interested in electronics, and took a role as the IT manager in British Telecom in 1979. Everybody told him not to do it, as computers were going to be a fad. Luckily, he didn’t listen. So I naturally grew up with him always bringing computers home, and building hardware. In the school holidays I would go along to his office and he’d pay me pocket money to do some data input for him, data processing.

That would have been rare, a girl of that generation growing up around computers?

They’re all things that I thought all kids were doing, that it was a natural thing to do. It wasn’t until I started growing up that I realised I actually had some great computer skills. My dad had taught me how to program; simple programs, like how to input your spelling words for school. I’d input those spelling words and they’d flash up onto a screen and I’d have to type them in correctly. And that’s how I used to learn my spelling homework.

That was at the age of eight and nine. My sister and I very quickly went to the top of the class in spelling. So my dad very early on realised, hey, there’s some value in teaching kids this. All through school my dad really encouraged us to attend schools that had a computer studies track in the curriculum, which was really rare back in the '80s.

You really had to seek out schools that offered that, which, of course, as a child you’re completely oblivious to. But, you know, it’s the best gift he ever gave me. When leaving school he encouraged me to go and study Computer Science. There were very few colleges and universities that did that back then.

Outside of computers, what were some of your other hobbies growing up?

I was a gymnast growing up. I think my mother was sick of the energy that I had, so she just sent me to school a year early and checked me into a gym club for 19 hours a week.

I don’t do that now but I did actually get to quite a competitive stage. I competed at the Southeast England over in the U.K. right up until I was about 16.

So I detect a bit of a competitive streak there?

When you have done a sport as a child I think it taught me to be mentally strong. As a gymnast you’ve really got to have your wits about you. To practice something until it feels right and you land it, but also to also take that calculated risk. And I think that comes hand in hand now in how I do business.

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I’ve got two children nowadays that I’m very active with. My husband and I do a lot for Can2 Australia which is a cancer charity group. I actually mentor for them, take them on running programs. I feel like I can give something back to the community. I have a dog as well, so I take her running in the mornings. That for me sets my day up. I mean it’s really a form of meditation as well as exercise.

So how did you get your start in the IT industry?

After I left college I really did not know what to do with my life. I thought, I’ve got computer skills, so I’ll apply for a job, even if it is just building PCs, or data processing, until I worked out what I wanted to do. As I was coming into the second year of my Computer Science studies I was offered a job with an IBM business partner, and they trained me on the latest IBM mid-range computers. That was the AS400 and they put me through this 12-month graduate program where I could take the industry certifications and exams. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

What drew you to Australia then?

It was those AS400 skills that opened the doors for me coming to Australia. I got in contact with IBM business partners in Sydney. Peter Kazacos interviewed me and offered me a job. I felt like I was the luckiest person on this planet coming to live and work in Sydney. KAZ at that time was very small, I was employee number 30 or something. So I actually got to know Peter on a personal level.

So as his business grew, I was growing up, as well. I was the only female in the technical group. I didn’t know any different because I’d always been in IT.

Peter put me through the Microsoft Certified System Engineer training and qualifications, so I had a hybrid role of connecting Microsoft PCs to IBM AS400s. From there, I fast tracked into Microsoft. My role at Microsoft was fabulous, they paid me to research disruptive technologies in the U.S., how we could bring them to the Australian market, what training did we need to do in the Australian channel so those technologies were adopted locally? Whilst I was doing that my husband had just started Breeze Training – I had met him in Australia.

Tell us about how you got into Breeze?

My husband, Mick Badran, started Breeze in '98. He was working with the likes of Dimension Data Learning Solutions and doing Microsoft training. So he was doing really, really well for many years and I was enjoying my career at Microsoft as well.

But we got to 2009, and the GFC hit - which was a real challenge for the whole IT economy.

Breeze overnight lost million dollar training contracts. It had just dried out, no one had budget. That was coupled with the unfortunate passing away of a business partner which meant they lost a contract. So I had an ultimatum in 2009 - do I step into Breeze and try and help them turn the business around with a new vision and strategy, or do I keep going on my own journey? Mick was very persuasive and basically said ‘You can take on the CEO role, we’ll listen to your vision and strategy and get things back on track.’

So what were the changes that you made?

It needed recovering. It needed energy. It needed fresh blood. They needed to maximize their existing business investments, which meant that we could glue together existing enterprise applications.

Nobody had money anymore. So we really focused on that middleware and got very specialised at that. We recognised that we didn’t want to be a big consulting company. We didn’t want to compete with the Dimension Datas. We just didn’t have the clout that they had. It was really about getting very specialised and very, very good at what we did. That was crucial.

Secondly, we offered customers value add. We became a specialised application integration shop and became famous for it.

Then in 2012 we started hearing about Cloud and looked at how we could add value to our client solutions. We were very lucky. We’ve got a great customer who had challenges on Melbourne Cup Day where they had a huge scaling issue.

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It’s the biggest day in racing, the one day of the year where they have to buy and upgrade their hardware. Hundreds of thousands of dollars just to cope with one day of the year. The rest of the year the hardware would be under-utilised. Cloud suited this scenario perfectly. They hadn’t heard of it but they were prepared to trust us, and so we got Microsoft in. We set up a proof of concept. We put a solution together that kept their secret sauce on premise, yet moved that bottleneck out to the Cloud.

A early form of a hybrid solution then?

It was a hybrid solution. That’s where we’re at now. Breeze is a hybrid application integration specialist shop. Most customers are comfortable with a hybrid scenario because they’ve got existing investments. So Melbourne Cup Day, our hearts were in our mouths wondering how it was going to perform. Can you imagine? The largest day in their business and the pressure that came with that - It was truly mission critical. But on race day it performed beautifully and that really put us on the map. The customer was happy because they paid for what they used, which was cents compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars prior.

That must have been a huge moment for the business?

Exactly. It also put Microsoft Azure on the map which was still very new. I mean it was still running it out of the US at the time. It also put Breeze on the map because that was our first worldwide partner award for application integration.

From then on we built on that - we could approach gaming companies or other customers that needed burst or high volume transactions.

I didn’t want to just be a services company. Because with service you very much rely on people, and as you know people in Australia like to move on. As a person leaves, the IP walks out the door with them. So I really wanted to think of a way to retain that IP.

So I approached Microsoft and I was very lucky, I was one of a very few from Australia that Microsoft flew to Redmond for their Cloud Transformation Workshops.

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That must’ve been a huge learning curve...

Yeah which was just brilliant. And we were part of an IDC focus group so they literally taught us what partners were doing in the US, and how they were making their money; what Cloud pricing models looked like, and all the legals that go with that.

So it was a whole change of concepts, as well as financials that needed to go with that whole package. We literally transformed the business and started developing product which was a huge risk for us. We’d never developed product before. We were a services company. When you start introducing product you have a lot of different variables that you need to consider from your legals and your financials.

So where did that take your business next? You have been working with Bupa haven’t you?

We looked at what customers will be doing need a year or two from now. You have got to keep innovating.

It took us on a whole new journey again in 2013. Again we found another fabulous customer in Bupa Dental Corporation, who were doing a data integration plan of 220 dental practices they had bought worldwide. Every month end they could not see how their dental practices were performing as each had completely different accounting software. They used to fax or email through their financial reports at month end. And it took 15 people, data processors, in the back of the headoffice six weeks to reconcile all the numbers. So every month they were getting further and further behind.

So they brought us in. We realised if we could devise a solution where we could actually suck the data from the dental practices, process it in the Cloud and plug it back into their own premise data warehousing we could give them real time visibility on how the businesses are performing. So they took us on a journey which then enabled us to own the IP. At the end of it, a nine-month project, they took their process down from six weeks to real time.

It also enabled them to have enormous business insights. They can actually look at individual dental practices so they can compare - what are the practices that are performing selling? Is it teeth whitening?

We now know that, for example, females in New South Wales spend more money on teeth whitening in June than they do any other time of the year. So they can run campaigns according to that.

So in some ways you have effectively become a vendor yourselves?

It opens up a whole business dynamic. That enabled us to commercialise a product called Cloud Data Manager. And because it’s in the Cloud we were then able to scale to the UK and Canada, and through Australia and New Zealand. That won us our second Worldwide Partner of the Year Award.

That must produce a much more stable revenue model as well? It sounds like you’re becoming a data analytics company…

We still do services, but we are going to be growing that product space and that recurring revenue model, and also introducing managed services around that as well. So even though we solved a challenge for Bupa Dental Corporation it’s really a data challenge that we’ve solved. We can now collect data from x-ray machines or Coke machines, whatever. We don’t care where the data is stored as long as we can get access to the API, because our engine can then process it and bring it to life through business intelligence tools. So that’s really where I see a future in our strategy. That whole collecting, cleansing and analyzing data.

Cloud is enabling us to move much faster, much more cost effectively than ever before, and it offers customers more flexibility. Sure it’s opened up other challenges, such as a big security discussion. We’re discovering new legal issues. Who actually owns it when it’s in the Cloud? Is it on your environment? My environment? Who owns the licensing? So it has opened up other challenges but it’s changing the dynamics of the way customers are working or businesses are making decisions now and not the IT departments. And that’s where we’re seeing quite an opportunity.

How has the Montech merger gone so far? Any more to come?

What’s exciting to me and the whole Montech journey is that it’s really exciting to see great people coming together. There will be more M&As. We’ll continue to grow organically but we’ll also grow through acquisition as well. And we’ll continue to service our customers end-to-end whether it’s a hybrid Cloud solution, a Cloud solution or just servicing them really well on premise until they’re ready for that Cloud road map.

You have long worked in an industry where there are very few women. Do you think that’s improved over the last 10 years? Are more women being attracted toward Computer Science?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that really is a perception thing as well. I think we’re encouraging girls from a younger age to get into technology. ICT is very broad nowadays. I mean, if I didn’t have the encouragement of my dad I would never have had the career that I’ve got today.

I mean look at all the design and tech that we’re doing. I mean we’re getting some fabulous UX designers and graphic designers emerging. I was talking to a young lady the other day – she’s studying to be an architect and it’s all computer aided design. It’s all fabulous technology. They are now modelling whole cities.

I think we’re naturally seeing a lot more females getting to technology through those different avenues. I think for females it’s not a matter of the capabilities, the skills or the interest - that’s already there. I think more than anything it’s a confidence thing. I was at Microsoft last week actually talking to a fabulous group of interns, 25 of the 30 people were females. All were very smart, but lacked the confidence in their careers, because there’s always a room full of men in every meeting they go to, and they’re not that confident to speak up.

I mean I love seeing all people succeed in their career, particularly in the IT industry because it’s something that I’ve been so passionate about pretty much all my life. But there’s nothing better than seeing a female get ahead in the industry as well. There’s one lady I’m coaching at the moment and she works at Breeze. She was such a shy wallflower when she first started there, now she’s confident, speaking in customer meetings and talking about the technology and the business side of IT, which is just so rewarding to watch.

Ultimately, at the end of the day take a risk. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Yep, sure you may fail at it, but you learned along the way and then you’ll get better at it next time. If they can’t dig deep and back themselves, if they can’t find that confidence , then get out there and find a great mentor that does believe in you.

It’s really about not confusing the capabilities with confidence. I think if we could work more on that, you’ll see some more fabulous female entrepreneurs come to life.

Allan Swann is the Editor of ARN, published by IDG Communications Australia. Follow Allan on Twitter @allanswann, and at Google+.

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Tags azureDimension Data Learning Solutions (DDLS)IBMeducationPeter KazacosWIICTAAS400KazMick BanranTechnology EffectMicrosoftWomen in ICT AwardsBreezeARN AwardsNicki PageFemales in IT and Telecommunications (FITT)Montech

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