As part of Idealog’s Technology Month, Rod was interviewed on tech-related things, their biggest fears for the future and what other companies and individuals inspire him.
What’s your favourite…
Technology you can’t live without?
That’s a really hard one. The easiest answer is probably the internet, as that is really the substructure of the hyper-connected world we live in today. Beyond that, it is probably my favourite personal and productivity related apps, including the likes of Evernote, Spotify, Netflix, BBC and Google Maps and then the related app-driven platforms I use such as Garmin for health and wellness and Sonos for Music at home. I am also a bit of an Apple junkie from a hardware perspective. I do like toys.
Underrated or old technology?
A bit left field, but maybe running shoes. They haven’t really changed as much as the electronic hardware and software worlds and all the new digitally-driven products and services, but for less than $300 you can still get an awesome pair of road or off-road running shoes and get many hours of enjoyment and use from them. Possibly the best payback all around when I think of value for money and the use I get. They are a much better return per dollar invested than my surfboards sadly.
New Zealand tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?
I think it is the individual Kiwi trailblazers and the companies they are building. It’s people like Peter Beck at Rocket Labs, Rod Drury at Xero and Sam Morgan at Trade Me. These people have displayed bold ambition and belief in, and tenacity for, what they are trying to do which is to change the game. In terms of cool, I also think the Avertana guys are doing pretty amazing stuff turning waste into wealth with a business model that has global application and could frankly be huge and change the world in a positive way. Beyond that, you also see plenty of young start-up’s pursuing pretty cool ideas I would have never thought of that are also pretty inspiring. In short, there are plenty of Kiwis doing cool stuff. Doing cool stuff is not a challenge for Kiwis.
Global tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?
This one’s a toss up between Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame and Elon Musk. I love how Elon Musk can pursue so many different domains (space, energy, travel etc) at once with such aggression and again, bold ambition, but at the same time it’s also hard to look past what Jeff Bezos has achieved at Amazon. That company is an unstoppable beast whilst what Elon Musk is doing with Space X, Telsa and the Hyper Loop is also mind blowing on multiple fronts. Can’t pick a winner here I am afraid.
Tech project or product you’ve had a hand in?
Back in the old days of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s there was Xtra, which was seriously fun when we were in essence helping build and grow the internet in New Zealand and we knew we were part of building something truly changing the way the world worked. Then there is obviously the ones that we did over the last four odd years when I ran Spark Ventures such as Skinny, the WiFi Hotspot network, Lightbox TV and the Qrious big data business. These were great initiatives from Spark, focused much more on delivering new and better experiences to consumers adopting very non-traditional approaches from a very large traditional New Zealand corporate. I think we showed that large, traditional corporates can innovate if they choose to and adopt the right approaches and hire the right talent. More recently I have been involved in a start-up through the Icehouse Flux Accelerator called Genoapay, which will soon be in market, focused on making life more affordable for consumers. Quite excited about where this can go and proud to be 100 percent conflicted.
Tech project or product that isn’t yours, but your envious of?
This list would be enormous. A few names are Apple, Google, Amazon, Telsa, TradeMe, PushPay, Spotify, Sonos, Uber etc …. the list goes on and on. I love the companies and people in them who build products and services anchored in delivering completely new experiences, which deliver new solutions to old problems and use technology and new business models to do it. I always admire those who can completely re-imagine the ways things can be delivered and in doing so blow the incumbent models to pieces. I am a big fan of the creative destruction mindset these innovators bring to the table.
What first drew you to this industry?
It was really joining Xtra in early 1998. I had one of the earlier Compuserve internet accounts in NZ when I was working at Fletcher Challenge Energy and was really interested in the ability that what became the internet gave you to communicate and connect with people and content all around the world. I just wanted to be part of that. I don’t know what it was really (and my friends thought I was working for a chewing gum company) but I knew it was something exciting and I wanted to be part of it.
What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?
The possibilities. Technology is constantly improving, accelerating and adapting and is no longer the constraining factor. It is now the enabling factor, with imagination being the constraining factor. Technology driven disruption is here to stay and will only increase. You will either be a disruptor or the disrupted. I do think the grey in the middle is disappearing pretty quickly and the choice on which side of the line you want to be on is becoming more stark. My personal view is that many traditional businesses are not taking this seriously enough, maybe through a lack of understanding, and once they hit the negative inflection point their chances of responding and recovering are seriously reduced. For some it is already too late.
How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?
Pretty strong. Kiwis are naturally curious and tend to look outward. We also adopt technology quickly and are good generalists. On the flip side, we live in a country that is small so we need to look more at the world as our market and get better at moving from ideation to commercialisation. Innovation is the commercialisation of great ideas into sustainable business models. We do need to get better at moving past the idea and into creating the sustainable business model and scaling it quickly. The internet has collapsed borders and made competition global. The opportunity is global, but so is the threat.
Where does inspiration come from for you?
I am a naturally curious person and also tend to read a lot and pretty broadly. I am attracted to new ways of thinking and doing and change in general. I always like to think things can be done better and with the technology we now have available I do believe that almost anything can be improved if new mindsets are adopted and are backed by the use of new digitally fit approaches delivered by the new generation of digital talent.
How has tech impacted on your work? How will it impact on it in the future?
It is always impacting on my work and always will. You only have to look at the Telecom I joined in 1998, to the Spark of today to see the level and pace of change. Telecom was a fixed line communications company that made most of its money selling phone calls over the copper phone network. Today, Spark is a mobile data company that is also heavily invested in data centres and cloud infrastructure and new digital businesses, such as Lightbox and Qrious. Spark, in many ways, is the inverse of Telecom of 15 years ago and new technology and changing consumer behaviours have driven most of that change….. plus a little regulation.
What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience?
For me it is probably email and using that rather than simply getting up, walking around the corner and talking to someone. It can become a very bad habit left unchecked. A close runner up would be the mobile phone, which is now banned from the bedroom at night. I also think social media platforms present serious challenges and implications for the younger generations who have been brought up on them and don’t know any different. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a reaction against some of them in the not too distant future and somewhat analogous to what we have seen with the likes of tobacco in the past.
How would you describe your relationship with technology? Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it?
I wouldn’t say I am addicted, but I am a heavy user of it as a bit of a function of the businesses I have worked in and the roles I have had. That said, over the years I have become much more conscious of it and have put checks and balances in place. I probably still send too many emails, watch too much Netflix and Lightbox and have too many electronic gadgets!
Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?
Honestly, more of a curse.
Do you think technology needs more laws surrounding it, or a form of resource consent regulation?
I think you always need laws or regulations to protect those who can’t protect themselves or to constrain those who are frankly up to no good or driving poor outcomes for society, but I am generally anti regulation unless for where it is unavoidable. I prefer self regulating systems if they can be achieved, but unfortunately that isn’t always realistic.
What needs to be done to tackle the diversity issue in tech?
I will probably get myself into trouble here as I think of diversity first and foremost as diversity of thought, and then everything else follows, that such as gender, race, religion etc. The reality is that different groups of people are attracted to different disciplines for very natural reasons so you will never get a perfect diversity spread across all disciplines. I think that is just unrealistic and ignores how humans are. But, it is clear we have diversity issues in tech and also at the management and board level and frankly, generally across the board.
It took a long time to get here so will take time to fix. Whilst I think you can put in quotas and targets and that that will improve it through more forced measures, the long term answer is in starting with our kids and ensuring that the system makes it clear that all options are open to all and supports that from when they start kindergarten for example all the way to being the chair of the board.
Interestingly, and probably not the answer for New Zealand, I was in Israel last year and they certainly felt like they had a system that was much more naturally diverse (in a gender sense) as a consequence of their environment and also their compulsory military services for both the young men and women. I don’t know how we replicate that, but it felt like diversity are built into their system from very early on. Beyond that, it simply needs to continue to be part of the conversation until it is resolved because facts prove we are a long way off where we need to be and they also show that more diverse businesses perform better.
What worries you the most about technology?
That, for New Zealand, we don’t understand the threat and don’t pursue the opportunity. What were our sources of competitive advantage in the past won’t be in the future, and that future is not that far away. I worry we aren’t prepared and we aren’t preparing our kids for a vastly different future and importantly the education system is no keeping pace.
What’s your scariest prediction for the future? Will the robots kill us all?
Well, I am more on Elon Musk’s side than Mark Zuckerberg’s. I think it could go bad if not well checked. In terms of things that scare me, it is probably that we aren’t prepared for the level of change and we will have future generations who don’t have the training and skills to lead purposeful and productive lives…. and that’s a pretty depressing thought.
What will New Zealand look like as a country in 2037?
I have no idea. I would love to think we become the innovation nation of the Southern Hemisphere and a safe place where talent wants to work and live.