Why GE Australia wants to invest in software innovation

GE Australia’s CIO wants to create a local ‘centre of excellence’ for customer-focussed software development

GE Australia CIO Mark Sheppard has pitched the creation of a local ‘software centre of excellence’ to GE's global CEO, Jeff Immelt, as part of a process of the conglomerate devolving more software development to regional subsidiaries.

"As the 'Industrial Internet' is gaining momentum, there was felt a need, internally, for us to build out that [software development] capability even more so,” Sheppard said.

Rather than continuing to build out the GE Software Center in San Ramon, California, “it made sense for GE to look to see where it would be possible to move more of that capability out into the regions around the world” the CIO said.

Sheppard said Australia is “uniquely positioned”, with both a good developer skills base and significant industrial base to make it attractive.

“Australia’s a big industrial player for GE,” Sheppard said.

“This is one of our largest industrial markets. Our oil and gas business, for example, is one of the largest in GE in the world. Our transportation business makes locomotives that haul a lot of the ore around the Pilbara.

“So for us it made absolute sense to consider Australia for a software centre because we could build applications and be close to the customers.”

“We think we’ve got a very compelling case,” the CIO said. “From a supply perspective we feel pretty strongly about the talent pipeline in terms of people to be able to work on business like that.”

Sheppard said that part of the appeal of the San Ramon centre for developers has been that they can work on “real things”, such as health care systems that can save lives.

“And that is very appealing to the Australian psyche,” the CIO said.

“If I go and talk to new graduates or young people in the software development area, they want to work on real things. There’s a massive sense of social responsibility and I think it’s probably more so than ever before.

“So I think there’s both the demand, a need, from the industrial base that we’ve got [in Australia] and also a very strong supply of potential talent to work in an environment like that.”

The San Ramon centre will focus on Predix, GE’s underlying operating system for its industrial applications. Software development hubs around the world will dedicate their efforts to building customer-facing applications on top of Predix.

“By having local software centres we can get close to customers in an agile way and build apps to sit on top of Predix — so be much more nimble and much more localised in terms of the way we go to market,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard said he expected GE to make a decision on the centre of excellence within a month.

As part of assessing GE Australia’s capability to create a local software development centre, the company pulled together a temporary, “pop-up” centre of excellence over several weeks.

“We took a dataset that we had in our mining business, which essentially gave us service data for some of the underground mining equipment we’ve got,” the CIO said.

“In the space of two weeks we specced out an application, we pulled together a handful of developers together and in three days – and three long nights – they put together a fantastic little application which is a prototype concept that our mining business wants to use.”

“I think that it really does work in our culture,” the CIO said.

“We’ve traditionally had a very change-centric culture and I think whilst we do manufacture some very long-cycle equipment, we’re a very nimble business as well.”

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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