The IT Bunch

The IT bunch

By Jeremy Bass

And the two most influential individuals in the Australian IT industry are . . . (the envelope please) . . . Bill Gates and Andy Grove. Bill can't be here tonight to collect his shiny statuette because, well, he's graced us with his presence once this year already and we should be grateful for that. Andy sends his apologies, too - being Time's Man of the Year is a big jobOK, so that's those two pretty much out of the picture. Relish this rare opportunity to exclude them from any discussion about who wields what kind of muscle in the industry. We can do that here because, although they may be omnipresent, this is a rundown on the most influential LOCAL players in the Australian IT industry.

The list was compiled using a proven scientific method-ology - a ring-around of IT honchos around the country. G'day mate, yeh, it's me. Me. Oh, um, I'm a journalist and I'm doing a survey . . . Name who you like, and tell me why in 25 words or less. Great. Thanks mate. Totally informal, totally subjective. Gates' recent visit saw him looming large in the collective mind of the respondents at the time of the survey, so he cropped up everywhere. Grove being Tweedledee to Gates' Tweedledum, he figured strongly in peoples' answers too.

Countless corporate CIOs and CEOs were named, most of them once, that once being by a subordinate. This was disturbing at first. So much for some great Aussie spirit of rebellion and anti-authority. But when a guy I've known for some time as a bit of a scallywag named his boss, I thought there's more to this than meets the eye. This is, after all, a field with plenty of scope for radical approach, so there's plenty of room for people to wield influence through the espousal of new ideas, new technologies, new methodologies.

That fits in with the way plenty of CIOs named other CIOs. Qantas' David Burden and Commonwealth Bank's Russell Scrimshaw rate an honourable mention in this respect. So do Westpac's Loran Fite, Woolworths' David Wills and former Tax Office IT boss Geoff Seymour.

But how influential can interesting ideas be in an industry seemingly awash with interesting ideas? Therein lies the reason for a singular lack of CIO presence in the final list.

There's also a relatively limited vendor presence. Respondents were quick to name Bob Savage simply because not only is he the local head of IBM, but he's also a true Blue apparatchik, having been there for 33 years.

A number of those quizzed said Compaq's Ian Penman rates a place because of his company's move on DEC. One distinct factor in putting Penman on the list was uncer-tainty - there are plenty of DEC site bosses out there wondering how he'll end up wielding his influence across his newly expanded territory. Cisco's Gary Jackson got a spot for his flamboyance and for a career path that has traversed just about every household name in computing.

And the others? With the exception of Telstra boss Frank Blount and Communications Minister Richard Alston, they're analysts and lobbyists, made-guys with the kind of connections lists and insights that can only be accrued through many decades' experience and a deep interest in their game.

All up, this lot represents hundreds of years' experience in the game, here and round the world.

Peter Upton

Executive director, AIIA

You'd be hard pressed to find a more appropriate voice for the local IT industry in Canberra than Peter Upton, for the man's career path from elite public sector training through to Canberra-centric private sector lobbying makes him the owner of one of the most valuable Rolodexes in the country. "His Canberra connections mean he carries weight in his own right. Mix that with the lobbying experience and he becomes a hell of an asset wherever he goes. He certainly carries plenty of clout in influencing policy," says one IT boss.

After graduating in economics in the early '70s, Upton gained a coveted place in the Administrative Trainee Scheme for promising young things. He moved smoothly through the Canberra ranks before joining lobbyists Eric White Associates in 1980.

When US public relations giant Burson-Marsteller decided to open a Canberra office in 1986, Upton was appointed to take charge of its Australian Government relations practice. Two years later, he was appointed Australasian CEO.

For the last five years, he's been giving the IT industry the benefits of a known face on Capital Hill, while keeping one foot in the Burson camp as a senior consultant.

Upton and the AIIA's preoccupation du jour is making sure that as e-commerce ramps up, Australia develops the right framework up front with issues like privacy, security, legal certainty and consumer confidence.

Gary Jackson

Managing director, Cisco Systems

Gary Jackson's CV reads like a one-man who's who of the local IT industry. Now the Australian MD of Cisco Systems, he has in past lives headed up local operations for Microsoft, Pyramid and Sybase, all of which thrived under his steerage.

"He's living proof of the value of a little flamboyance as a marketing tool," says one CIO. "That, combined with a career path that traverses such a list of household names makes a winner if ever there was one in this industry. He's newish to Cisco, but he's certainly kept the flag flying high. He's about as good a bet as they could lay, here or overseas."

Twas not always thus, however. Armed with an applied science degree, Jackson began his working life as a design engineer in Canberra. "But I knew early on I wasn't going to set the world on fire doing that," he says. He shifted to sales and something worked. Two and a half years later he was national sales boss.

Jackson's resume shows him to be a dab hand with the crystal ball. The key, he says, is to aim not for where the action is, but where it's going to be. He spent the '70s in mini-systems with Prime. In the '80s he moved early into Unix with Pyramid, and then software with Microsoft. Under him, the latter grew by 44 per cent in 1993. Hot property by this time, he was headhunted by Sybase.

Now, with market interest in networking rising exponentially, Jackson is to be found heading up the local operation of the world's biggest and most promising networking entity.

Robert Savage

Managing director and CEO, IBM AustraliaIBM's been here for 66 years, and Robert Savage has been with the company for 33 of them. After five years in programming, Savage went into marketing in 1970. He's since risen through the ranks to the point where he's not just at the top of the heap here - he's a very important component in the whole Blue schema worldwide, not least because his MDship now stretches to Hong Kong, Taiwan and the much watched China.

Like most vendors, Savage is champing at the bit to get e-commerce off the ground at a time many perceive as a chance to beat the rest of the world to the mark. Early implementation, he says, equals opportunity aplenty. "It's already proved its worth - I believe Australian business leaders know that. I think it's important we do all we can to implement e-business while it's most worthwhile," he says.

Asked about Savage's contribution to the local IT industry, one respondent says he can take plenty of credit for the success of IBM Global Services, a joint venture with Lend Lease and Telstra. "Yes, it's had its hiccups, but there's no doubting it's been a resounding success."

Worth noting, he says, is the way IBM GS has broken with the company's think-big tradition by going for medium rather than large contracts. "And it's doing brilliantly in the process with big successes in banking and finance, manufacturing and government sectors. It was a very shrewd move, given the way so many government agencies have been restructured into smaller operations.

Tom Worthington

Immediate past president, ACS

Some people see tight-knit wires covering the globe known as the Internet as irrelevant. Others see it as a handy enhancement to the way they work. Tom Worthington sees it as a way of life.

Worthington is among the country's most fervent exponents of the Internet for its capacity to enhance our lives in myriad ways. And for the past two years, as immediate past president of the ACS, he was ideally placed to spell that out in the offices and corridors that count in Canberra. "He's certainly helped implant a vision in the eyes of many as to how far you can take life online," says his successor, Prins Ralston.

As the computing profession's "face" in Canberra through the ACS, Worthington has been instrumental in bringing government IT professionals together with academia and industry in helping nut out policy affecting the profession. In recent times, most of his efforts have gone towards ensuring a responsible yet liberal framework for the use of the Net, appearing before numerous Senate committees to address such concerns as privacy and pornography regulation. To that end he has, on occasion, been invited to put on Net-based porn shows for the edification of an assortment of parliamentary dignitaries.

The committees appear to have been suitably impressed - a number of the resulting policies have closely reflected Worthington's recommendations.

Frank Blount

Telstra CEO

"Blount came out here to fulfil a specific, politically driven agenda - to transform a hefty engineering-based public body into a slick marketing entity ready for privatisation," says telecoms pundit Stewart Fist. "There's no doubting he's been successful in doing that. Whether you like the politics driving his appointment isn't that relevant."

But, says Fist, perhaps Blount is getting all this credit for something which was happening naturally anyway. So it might well be a case of the man deserving praise for not getting in the way of that which was inevitable. No matter - there's no doubting he has presided over a profoundly important period in this country's IT&T convergence history.

Frank Blount, former group president with US telecoms giant AT&T and mate of George Bush, was appointed CEO of Telstra Corporation in January 1992. Having spent some years as an executive with Bell South in the US as well, he arrived here one of the most experienced high-level telco operators in the world.

An electrical engineer by training, Blount also holds an MBA from Georgia State University, and an MSc in management from MIT. He has held numerous board positions, particularly with educational institutions.

Blount's career low point, at least in Australia? "It'd have to be the PMT consortium and Foxtel deal. They made a hell of a mess of that and they're still dealing with it at bottom-line level. It's cost them many millions of dollars," says Fist.

Daniel Petre

Chairman, PBL Online

Despite being four years gone, Petre's is still the name synonymous with Microsoft in this country.

Under Petre's steerage between 1988 and 1991, the company went from strength to strength, and the man's media profile blossomed as a favoured Son of Bill. All the more so when he left to spend a couple of years alongside Gates in Redmond, as VP of the company's Workgroup Division. He returned in 1993 to take up directorship of the Asia Pacific regional and Advanced Technology operations.

Asked what he'd like to accomplish for the local IT industry in the future, Petre answers " . . . to try to help Australian businesses and the IT industry to think more globally and competitively . . . [and] . . . to help create world-class, world-scale online companies based in Australia . . . "And what better start could he be off to than heading up the new online division of the Packer family's massive PBL empire? Especially since they signed the NineMSN joint venture deal with his old employers, bringing together all Microsoft's online technology with PBL's television and media content.

Whether it's a winner or not remains to be seen, but NineMSN certainly has the potential to dramatically improve PBL's reach into its customer base.

Petre is currently doing his PhD in Behavioural Science at Macquarie University, and has co-written a book, The Clever Country?, dealing with the strategies Australia needs to adopt to fully leverage the e-commerce revolution.

Ian Penman

Managing director, Compaq Computer Australiaand New ZealandTo paraphrase the responses of several of those surveyed: "I'd put Penman on the list at the moment because the future of our IT investment lies in his hands. I don't know how influential he is in the greater scheme of things, but he certainly feels very influential round here at the moment . . ."

Penman has been here with Compaq since the beginning. With 18 years experience in senior management at IBM, both here and overseas, he was appointed to head Compaq's start-up operation in Australia in 1985. No one can deny that in the time since, he's done his bit towards growing the company into one of the world's biggest PC suppliers, not to mention a premium name in boxes. (Rem-ember when Compaq demanded $12,000 for a 286 when everyone else only charged $8000?). He now presides over an operation worth well over half a billion dollars a year in Australia.

And now, as if he didn't have enough clout anyway, he's holding sway over the DEC community's future as well. The takeover announcement has been and gone. Now they're in quiet time while Penman and his US masters work out their next move.

Richard Alston

Federal Communications Minister

A lot of respondents said they suppose Richard Alston should get a place on the list, but they weren't sure exactly why. What they were trying to say is that the incumbent counts less than the job. The seat stays the same but the bum changes, and at the moment it happens to be Alston's bum in it.

That said, a number of respondents were quick to say that Alston's made a fist of the job over the last two years. He's keen to leave his mark and he probably will, especially in the way he's handled the telecoms industry and the Telstra sale," says one respondent not unfamiliar with the man.

Some say there are signs that his faith in deregulation isn't being borne out in the marketplace. Witness, for example, his recent measures - the threat of massive fines - to make sure Telstra doesn't neglect unprofitable bush customers. "What's that if it isn't some form of regulation? I think he and his minders have had a bit of a rude awakening in that respect," says one commentator.

There are also those who say Alston is shaping up to blot his escutcheon big time over the issue of high-definition (digital) television. "Demand for spectrum is huge and rising, and his just handing over the HDTV rights to the free-to-airs was pretty bloody limp," says one respondant. "He should've put the licences up for auction and given everyone a chance.

"Mind you, it's Catch-22 for him. If you were in his shoes, who would you rather get off side - the Packers and the Murdochs and the Stokeses, or the rest of us?"

Len Rust

IDC Vice President and managing director Australia and New ZealandWith over 30 years' experience in an industry not much more than 30 years old, Len Rust has become a key communications nexus within the IT community and for industry as a whole. "He's hugely knowledgeable about the technology, its evolution and its relationship to business and the rest of humanity," says one respondent. "That's what makes him very good at macro level. He understands things from big picture level right down to the finest detail."

Rust's work has seen him garner a high media profile over the years, as a columnist and contributor all over the world, as well as a big speaker-circuit identity. His research interests are broad, covering IT management, policy, education, sociological issues, marketing, business structures and trend forecasting, to name a few.

Predictably for a man in his job, Rust is not short of opinions. Like so many of his counterparts, he sees the present as a window of opportunity with respect to the development of e-commerce. His primary concern is that governments may end up frittering away a huge opportunity. "We should be working like mad on tax incentives, encryption and other policies to encourage the growth of e-commerce in this country, not soon but now," he says.

"But at the moment they seem to be tripping up on issues like taxing online transactions, keeping crime off the Net, intellectual property rights and so on. All very worthy, but do we want to be the spider or the fly?"

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