UNSW 2022 Co-Op Scholarship Induction Ceremony
March 18, 2022
I was recently flattered to be invited to speak at the UNSW 2022 Co-Op Scholarship Induction Ceremony as an Alumni. What follows is the text of the written speech - as I don't refer to notes when speaking, what came out was slightly different but this hits the key themes.
Thank you to Kay and the Co-op program for the invitation to speak to you here this evening, and to Michelle for your stellar organisation and co-ordination during such unpredictable times!
Firstly - to the 2022 co-op scholars, congratulations! You have no doubt done great things to be included in the cohort, and I'm sure you will continue to do great things into the future. You are embarking on what will very likely be a life changing experience, and I speak as someone whose life was definitely changed by being part of this program.
It's a while ago now, but I vaguely recall participating in a ceremony much like this one back in 1997 - having just met and started to get to know my fellow co-ops at that point I had no idea that this group would become so important to me - since then I have lived with some of them, worked with many, started a business with one, and been in the wedding parties of two, just to mention a few key events.
The brief for this evening was to share the story of my career and any pieces of wisdom that I have picked up along the way that might be useful to new scholars. I feel uncomfortable describing anything I have to say as particularly 'wise' - I have done much, and learnt much, but there is so much more to do and learn and everyone needs to find their own path to peace, success & satisfaction in life. But I will intersperse the story of my career with some things I have come to consider to be true and let you decide if they are wise or not!
The first, speaking of the lifelong friendships formed in the co-op program, is that I have come to consider that everything is relational. This is a complex word, and it means many things. I mean it in the human sense - that the relationships with your peers in the program, with your sponsors, with your teachers and staff at the university will all be foundational to your lives. I also mean it in the technical sense that as engineers, technologists and business people you will be designing, building and engaging with systems & processes that exist in a context - the value of those systems will lie in how they relate to the broader world, and in the internal relationships between the components they are comprised of. Finally I also mean it in the socio-technical sense - technology is shaped by society, but it also shapes it - sometimes for the better as in how it helped us adapt and stay connected through a global pandemic, not to mention the rapid production of the vaccine. But sometimes in less positive ways, from the impact on mental health and widespread disinformation caused by the rise of social media through to the devastating environmental impact of technically exciting innovations like cryptocurrencies and blockchain which are exhibiting burgeoning energy consumption. Everything is connected, everything is relational.
But back to my career - I studied Electrical Engineering and enjoyed a nice mix of industry placements. The first was over the summer after first year with a firm called JTec which was building pioneering high speed internet (for the late-90s) - I wrote some programs that helped speed up some of their circuit board layout design & manufacturing processes, which I really enjoyed as I was working beside the users of the programs and I got to see the positive impact it had on their lives immediately.
After 3rd year, my first 6 months were at a company that is now known as Dematic. This was by far the most impactful for me - I worked part time for them through 5th year, and then seamlessly transitioned into full time work after graduation. The technical work was interesting - we were designing automated control systems for the logistics industry - programs that would, amongst other things, sense the movement of packages around conveyor belts and instruct actuators to send particular packages down particular conveyor belts into the backs of waiting trucks. All of this was cool, and I loved contributing to a technology that was so useful to society, but if I'm honest, it was the people and culture that I really loved, and which made me confident that I would enjoy my time there.
In between Dematic and 5th year, I also spent 6 months at Alcatel - another telecommunications firm, and once again I found myself working on systems that were helping to roll out "high speed" internet. At the time, Alcatel had the primary contract with Telstra and the components we were working on were being deployed into the green telecommunications boxes that you see around the city providing some of the very first ADSL connectivity - how exciting it was to feel I was contributing to a service that was so valued by the community.
Following graduation, I ended up back at Dematic full time, and after less than a year, they asked me to relocate to the US - Grand Rapids, Michigan, to join a global Research & Development team helping to design the next generation of automated conveyor systems. I had always loved travelling and couldn't say no. I landed in the coldest December I had ever experienced and had an absolute blast. For a time I'd spend my days working on interesting technical challenges, and my evenings night skiing at a small hill 1/2 hrs drive from the office. A bizarre juxtaposition for an Australian!
Professionally, it was also a fascinating experience - while the Sydney office had felt like a small family business, the US office felt very much like a division of a large corporation. I made some more amazing friends there, some of whom I'm still in touch with to this day and we did some great work together on this new product, but it helped me understand something about myself, which is that I'm very much a 'small business' type of person.
I greatly respect the things a large corporation can achieve, and the people who can work together across multiple distributed teams to make it happen - but it had become clear that that wasn't for me.
After two years, the Dematic office in Sydney asked me to return to be one of the first engineers in a new department called Systems Engineering. This was another amazing opportunity, and I learnt some important skills in that role, including an understanding of some of the engineering & project management practices used to build incredibly large systems, with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the great things about returning was reconnecting with Steve Austen - a fellow Co-op scholar who had also joined Dematic after graduation and who was still in the sydney office. We'd head out for lunch every day and gradually our conversations turned to aspirations of doing something novel - starting a business together. Steve's older brother Geoff had had a successful career in Finance and thankfully decided that funding us was something he was keen to do, and before we knew it we were in business together. It was difficult saying goodbye to Dematic, but they were very understanding and I'll always be grateful to the incredible colleagues & mentors I met there.
Somewhat predictably, given that our startup conversations had been over lunch, and the Dematic sydney office was in French's Forest, a place with no particularly good lunch options, our initial startup idea was to setup an online lunch ordering service. The concept was that you could punch in a lunch order online, it would be sent to a local cafe or restaurant, and by setting up relationships between the cafes and companies, the cafe would get to deliver a larger volume of meals in one go. Geoff, having worked in Finance was aware of a tax benefit scheme that meant you could pay for meals provided at work from your pre-tax pay, and bam, we had our business, launched in 2005 - only 4 years after graduation. It was called FlexiMeals and within 2-3 years it was well on its way to being highly successful - we had about 12 staff, and almost 20 client companies, some of which were quite large, including Macquarie Bank & IAG insurance using our services in their CBD offices.
Being such a small business, I really felt in my element. One minute I'd be writing some code, the next helping answer a customer service call, and in the afternoon making a sales call to a prospective client. I loved the diversity and the excitement of getting to see something that had started as an idle thought become tangible and generating a strong buzz and positive response from our customers.
Unfortunately, in 2008 the government changed the tax legislation and the pre-tax benefit disappeared. Many of our clients who had engaged us to offer a benefit to their staff felt that the value had gone, and dropped us overnight. It was a difficult time, but thankfully we had recently had some feedback from a customer that they would love to use our service to order their children's lunches at school, and we had just started our first pilot school when the tax laws changed. We decided that the time was right to pivot hard towards that opportunity, and a new business, Flexischools, was born.
Flexischools took off like a rocket - by the end of that year we had 10 schools, the end of the next year about 40-50 and a few years later several hundred. Today, Flexischools services almost 2,000 schools around Australia, hundreds of thousands of families at a time, processes almost 200,000 lunch orders a day - most of which are placed on our systems at almost the same time - around 7:45am - a fascinating engineering
challenge. And finally, with my daughter having just turned 6, I'm actually a Flexischools customer myself, and placed a sausage sizzle order for earlier today.
This is a good time to mention another thing I have come to consider to be true: perseverance and resilience are some of the most valuable qualities you can develop. When the tax laws changed, or when any number of other challenges threatened to derail our goals, we never once considered stopping. Our attitude was always 'well, this way isn't working, what other things can we try?'. The assumption that we would one day be successful was never questioned, and although it did take us quite a while in the end, I feel very proud of where this business has arrived at today.
I have to say, while that moment in 2008 was a crisis at the time, it was really a blessing in disguise. While FlexiMeals had been interesting, I had always somewhat questioned the value provided by helping high income financiers and insurers in saving a few dollars in taxes off their lunches each day. After launching Flexischools, one day we got a call from a school telling us that thanks to Flexischools, their canteen had switched in one year from needing parent fund-raising activities to stay open, to being able to donate money back to the school, which was spent on a new playground for the kids. Needless to say we were thrilled, and I once again felt the purpose in our work.
So - another thing I have come to consider to be true: there are at least three properties that need to be satisfied to be fulfilled in your career - you need to find the intersection of the things where 1) you enjoy the doing of the work itself - it's essential that the actual day to day is a pleasure and not a chore; 2) you need to find the things that you are actually good at and can do well and 3) you need to find the things that fill you with a sense of purpose. Work that satisfies all three is truly the most rewarding, and the work at which I believe you will be most successful.
The next major milestone in my career was in 2015. Flexischools was thriving, and a new opportunity landed on our laps. Although Flexischools was oriented towards school lunches, what we had built, in effect, was a general capability to handle complex multi-party transactions in high duty of care environments - unlike a traditional purchase between a buyer and seller, Flexischools had to handle purchases between a buyer (the student), the seller (the canteen or uniform shop), the funder (the parents) all through the lens of the rules and constraints setup by the school.
An analogue presented itself in the form of the National Disability Insurance Scheme - a new government initiative for helping people with a disability have more equitable access to life's opportunities. The vision was to invert the traditional funding model, where people with a disability were told what services they could access and when, without regard for whether the services were actually assisting them, into a model founded on the principles of choice and control - where participants in the scheme would be given access to a budget, and given sliding scales of freedom and autonomy to spend on the services and providers that would work for them - with the budgets oriented around individualised life goals.
It was clear that this was something we wanted to help with - although we were new to the field of disability and health support, we felt we had the technical skills to assist, and the desire to make a positive difference. We launched a new product called LanternPay - by this time we had a team looking after the Flexischools technology, and so I threw myself back into the space I love the most - early startup land, creating something real from nothing more than an idea. We built LanternPay from scratch, grew the team, and over the last 6 years it has helped 10s of thousands of people with a disability access a wider range of service providers as well as streamline payments and reduce the overheads of operating in the scheme. On top of this, we've expanded into the broader healthcare insurance landscape, helping tens of thousands of people who have been victims of traffic accidents or workplace injuries receive care when funded by state government support schemes and more recently expanding into private health insurance for some of the types of care which don't currently have electronic payments.
This was a very different journey to Flexischools - we were well funded from the beginning and playing in a different league - engaging with government and enterprise, and needing to really put on our grown up pants. But, it has been an immensely rewarding journey, both in terms of the impact we have had, and the fact that last year LanternPay was acquired by National Australia Bank to join forces with their existing healthcare claiming product, HICAPS.
The timing was a co-incidence, but the acquisition has certainly helped with the most recent career change for me - last year I decided that after 16 years of being on the coalface, a hands on CTO (I was writing code until the very end, as well as leading and managing a growing team of engineers) it was time for something different. We had luckily found a very skilled person to take on the CTO role, which allowed me to transition into being a non-executive board director which means I get to stay closely connected to the company and the people I love, but freed up my time to launch something new.
That something new is an independent boutique technology advisory service. I support a range of startups around Australia with technology strategy and advice to help them launch their great idea, mentoring and coaching their engineering teams and just generally trying to be helpful. Frankly, I'm loving it - this last year has been the happiest time in my career. I work part time - usually 3 or 4 days a week, so I get to spend much more time with my children and my hobbies (including contributing to open source projects, and some home automation engineering), and the rest of my time meeting and working with a huge range of energetic, passionate and creative people working on the next generation of great startups, teaching them, yes, but also learning from them, in a symbiotic relationship I value enormously.
And this brings us to the present day, so I'll close with a few more things I have come to consider to be true:
Learning beyond your degree is immensely valuable for many reasons. Reading literature, engaging with the arts, seeing live theatre and music, studying history, learning about the history of your field, but also the history of humanity - they will all furnish you intrinsic delight in their own right
They will help you become a student of humanity: human nature being what it is, patterns repeat and observing and identifying those patterns as they recur is incredibly powerful.
And they will help with another skill I have come to value highly - the skill of empathy. In the modern era where organisations are increasingly aware of the importance of psychological safety - that fortunate condition where those working side by side are not scared to speak candidly about issues, are empowered to try new things and experiment with solutions - in this world, empathy is becoming a more prized skill than any technical capability. Having empathy for your colleagues, for the people who came before you and the people who come after - having empathy for your users, for your customers, for those affected by hidden externalities in the systems you build and the systems you engage with - all of these will make you a more fully present and intentional contributor to your workplace and society.
Once again congratulations to all the new scholars - I wish you all the best with your degrees, your industry placements, and your careers wherever they take you - but most of all, I wish you the good fortune I have had, that you can say in 20-odd years that you are a lifelong learner - still learning, still discovering and still filled with excitement and anticipation for what you will get to learn next.