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Interview: Industry should talk to government, not the other way around

MD of IBM NZ, Rob Lee, discusses the changes that the firm is going through globally, the effects it could have on the NZ market and how the firm is handling the skills shortage that haunts technology firms in the country.

In a chat with Reseller News Rob Lee, MD of IBM NZ discusses the changes that the firm is going through globally, the effects it could have on the NZ market and how the firm is handling the skills shortage that haunts technology firms in the country.

Q: What are the changes that you have seen since taking over? How do the global changes in IBM reflect in the NZ market?

Rob Lee: I joined in May and took over an operation that was travelling quite well.

What we are in the process of doing is carrying on applying the global mission as it makes sense in NZ. So the key things that I have been focusing on since I got here are taking that and applying it here in NZ and also on the value that we bring to clients.

I have also been making sure that we really look at that through the lens of the local market to see what makes sense. New Zealand like all markets in the world is different. There are a lot of similar things but we there are things that are New Zealand.

The thrust of the corporation is to ensure we are bringing value solutions to our clients. We are looking to see how some of the key technologies can be applied to help them some of the issues and opportunities that they have got especially in Cloud, analytics, the whole world of mobile and mobility and the whole world of social and social media. And how all of this intersects to help them change their business.

That’s at the global level. If I bring that to a local level you see opportunities and customer desire to be able to apply a lot of it as well. Cloud in this market is alive and well. People are testing and trying it. But it isn't a one size fits all. People are looking at various opportunities to apply Cloud computing techniques to whatever they do, be it something they do themselves, someone might do for them here or something offshore that we can do for them.

Other things are around analytics, social and mobile. I am seeing enormous opportunities for organisations to transform themselves as they start to look at the client-centric world that we are really heading into now. Our recent C-suite study has really pointed to that. It is all around the customer-activated enterprise and getting the customer to be involved in influencing business strategy and being able to apply that. NZ customers we have talked are seeing that as a great opportunity.

Locally, New Zealand is ;probably a bit behind the rest of the world in terms of involving the customer and other stakeholders in actually developing a business strategy. So there are a few things that are coming out of that. That is one aspect of it. But when it comes to the other aspect of how they are thinking of reaching their customers digitally, the NZ companies in the main are ahead of the rest of the world in some of the stuff they are doing.

We have got bringing the customer into it, but they are reaching the customer well with the digital technologies.

We look at that and the opportunities that it brings to the market in terms of being able to provide analytics, mobility solutions and capturing what is going on in the social world because they are very important elements for them to be able to change how they take their businesses to the client that is out there. And the same applies to the public sector.

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Q: How do you see the adoption of Cloud, analytics, mobility and social media among NZ businesses?

RL: A lot of this is generated or going to be driven by their desire or necessity to transform. The adoption of Cloud is something that can happen independent of a broader transformation. By the way mobility too there is a lot that you can do to reach your employees or reach the customers that is going to be enabled digitally.

It is the other stuff that connects the customer or the employee all the way through to the business systems at an enterprise or public sector organisation that really makes all of that worthwhile. I think we are on the tip of starting the drive into that.

We are engaging a lot with customers in thinking about how they can take all of their data. Analysing that and turning it into valued information for the client or people working with the client, so that they can make better decisions is a big opportunity in NZ. We are looking at the potential of some broad transformation. A lot of the systems that enterprises are using, some of them are 10, 20, up to 40 years old. There is an opportunity to transform applying these technologies together. The intersection will revolutionise the industry.

Q: Do you see more functionality moving into the cloud and being delivered as services to mid size businesses?

RL: NZ has a different profile of businesses to the rest of the world. We have some very large companies that operate on the global scale, we have a number of smaller businesses that operate within NZ, serving the country or making business offshore. It is very difficult – and it would be very brave for someone to say – this is what they are doing.

There are a number of opportunities for them to leverage computing techniques, but no one size fits all. I can imagine, and especially with small businesses, that they will be trying some of these as services for what they do. At the other end of the scale, very big organisations which might have different concerns, or regulatory things that they might need to operate, regarding data sovereignty and security, will think about it differently.

They will apply the Cloud techniques differently in that environment. But they might also be able to use the other Cloud computing techniques for other parts of the business where data sovereignty is not an issue. So it is not a one size fits all. I think there are a number of ways that people will look to applying the technology to what they are doing. That is happening here in NZ.

Q: How do you see the effects of the x86 business sell off in NZ?

RL: We have just announced it. It has not played out yet. We have got a very long way to go on that. So right now for us it is business as usual. So we are right at the start. It is the announcement of an intention. I can’t give you an answer on how it plays out.

I am not sure when that transaction will take place, but it has not taken place yet. So it is still very new. We ran that business, and we are still running that business today.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing IBM in NZ?

RL: There are probably three or four that spring to mind.

The first is to make sure that we are always in touch with what the market wants. That’s very much on our people, on our partners, on our network, to make sure we are listening to the market. And then the corollary, is that we are effectively positioning the products, services, solutions not only in response to the market but is shaping and showing the customers the art of the possible.

We also need to do is ensure we are seen as a company that is driving in NZ, but leveraging our global capabilities in this marketplace. So we are the IBM Corporation in NZ and we want to make sure we are leveraging the best of IBM into this marketplace to support what they are doing.

Thirdly, it is important for us to be very focused in what we talk to our customers about, how we engage, leveraging what we do out of the corporation into this market place and be very focused about where we can bring that value.

What we can do for a small business as opposed to a larger organisation are two very diffwrent things, It comes down to their appetite, whether they want to transform and therefore what parts of the portfolio can add value to them. Those are the key things.

The way we look to the market and the way we work with our business partners and the way we look at the solutions that we can bring, and how the market reacts to that - it is all about focus. And that is the job we have as a team here, to make sure we are bringing to this market what we think is going to be relevant.

Q: Will you be looking for acquisitions in NZ?

RL: Never say never. I would be amongst a group of people making that sort of decision but it is IBM corporation global that would be making those decisions. For the right reasons, the right fit, the right requirements, potentially.

It comes back to whether it fits what we are trying to do globally. There are many acquisitions, if you look at analytics portfolio that we are building and have acquired - they come from all over the globe.

There is no reason why it could not happen. It just comes down to what it is and why.

We also want to make sure that we are giving our local developer community the best shot at being successful on the world stage, as well. So our software development support community is working on making sure that we provide some of our technologies to these companies so they can be successful in what they do.

There is a local chapter here. It is part of the mission we have in A/NZ and we have these developers that we work with locally.

Q: How do you grade your people strength in the country and will you be looking to hire more?

RL: The challenge we have is to make sure we have got the right people to listen and talk to the clients. We are always making sure about have we got the right complement of people to do that engagement. So as IBM changes, the skills that our people need to have will carry on – and the requirements of those will carry on – changing, and they will be more highly geared and continue to grow in the Cloud, analytics, mobility and social.

With Cloud momentum in this market, I see the rest of the momentum growing, and that means the profile of the workforce that we need to address will change.

If the demand is there we will be looking to add on people in certain profile areas.

Q: What are your thoughts on the skills shortage in the country and how does IBM handle it?

RL: As an industry we all stare at this. The government looks at it, the education sector – primary, secondary and tertiary also look at it. I think there are a number of factors here. We need to make sure as a whole that this industry is seen as attractive to people to enter. That is the first thing.

Then it comes down to what we are looking for in this marketplace. Is there a shortage? I believe in some key areas there are. But how you fill those gaps is equally as important as identifying the gap. And, in the long view, you don’t need just people who can work with technology. They can program, they can do stuff. You need people who can think about how they apply technology.

I am an engineer. The way I would talk about this is there is mathematics and there is applied mathematics. You are not an engineer if you know just mathematics, you have to understand applied mathematics. I can see a need for people who can do thing, people who can apply things.

There is another angle. You need a new set of business executives who will understand the power of the application and what they can do. So I think there are a number of things we need to address as NZ.

We are excited about what we are doing with Unitec already, but there is opportunity to do even more in that style.

We will always bring in interns, bring in graduates.

We are always looking to help internal staff develop and grow. We have a local and global programs that are supportive of where the corporation is going. To make sure they have the wherewithal to engage with clients, to discuss, and really making sure that they understand and put themselves in the customer’s shoes.

It is not an easy bridge to cross. To talk both languages is very tough. There are some people in NZ with that skill to do that, but not enough of them. Some of them who do have the skills, often choose to move out of the country.

It is up to industry to talk to government about what we believe is required, as opposed to the other way around. We have a role in putting forward what we believe is a good environment for technology to help the nation, to help businesses flourish and to be successful on the world stage.