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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 11 May 2018, 4:00 pm

CTO revisited

No sooner do I finish penning a piece on the need to move on with the CTO process than the Minister releases a new job description and a new timeline, calling for applications.

So, chalk that up as a win, right?

Well, sort of.

The new CTO gig looks surprisingly like the original CTO gig, only instead of a three-year contract it's a one-year with an option to renew for a year.

I'm not entirely sure that was the problem with the original job description to be honest, but it would suggest they have someone in mind and they can't commit to three years so…

Either way the wheels are in motion but the question still remains, what will the CTO actually do?

The CTO is to be "a one-person Ministerial Advisory Committee accountable to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Government Digital Services and the Minister for Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media," but that's not quite right any longer. The CTO is also embedded in the advisory group the Minister has set up and which will also help appoint the CTO, so not so much standing alone as first among equals perhaps.

The role is to provide advice "on development and implementation of a national digital strategy" but also to "lead work, and advise government, on a Digital Strategy for New Zealand."

So it's a strategy you'll be wanting, I'm guessing?

Beyond that, the terms of reference say the remit is a broad one.

"[I]dentify emerging technological trends, their impacts on economy, society and government," and to "challenge government and its partners to identify and develop innovative ways of responding to these opportunities and risks" and also to "work with these parties to make this happen, through a national strategy and other means".

Yup, definitely a strategy of some sorts.

The ToR goes on to list an ability to communicate with the public (about the strategy), the abiolity to work with the various advisory committees and political parties, and occasionally to represent New Zealand in matters relating to the role.

There's no authority, no support capability, little budget (beyond the salary there's a travel budget of $100,000 which is excellent but over the course of a year doesn't go too far. So there's little opportunity to force change through - you have to convince them of the need to change.

This, then, isn't a CTO role at all. There is no hands on management function, there's no choosing between vendors or setting a vision that will have goals and KPIs. It's more of a communications job, a futurist who will say "Hey, are you guys thinking about [insert the next big thing here] and its impact on our economy/society/way of life?".

However, we're not hiring a futurist. I'd put my hand up for that right now - think of the fun you could have. Instead, we have called it a CTO role and demanded a strategic vision. So, let's build one right now. What areas will the CTO need to address?

1: The digital divide

No matter how you look at it, or how far we've come, there's still a digital divide in New Zealand. Actually, there are several. First, and most obviously, the urban-rural split. That's largely being addressed by the UFB and RBI projects and will continue to improve as the second phases of both projects roll out.

But there's also the young-old divide, the male-female divide and the ever popular have-have not divides. They all need addressing and they all step beyond the basic premise of "build some more network capability".

We need to address educational needs and opportunities first and foremost. We need to encourage students into STEM instead of management, accounting and law. I have a particular desire to see the arts recognised in this space, predominantly because I spend a lot of time around tech folk who feel they are above culture and history and who are constantly failing to deliver products and services that address key issues because they operate from a place of privilege they're oblivious to.

But I digress.

Access to, and encouragement to use, digital technology is a short-term problem that needs to be addressed immediately. Support for computers in homes and similar projects gets you so far - time to get to the rest of the community who want to be involved.

2: Education

Education and, once you're educated, opportunity to work in the field are key, so as part of the strategy I'd address educational opportunities, and make sure anyone who wants to study STEM gets a whopping discount on their student fees. Nothing more complex than that. While we're at it, let's start measuring and assessing the gender split in tech as well. There's no reason why women coming through school shouldn't be considering a career in tech, yet they're turned off it at an early age. Let's tackle that head on.

3: Grow the market

As for hiring, well we only have so many tech companies (used in the broadest sense) so let's build some more of those. The CTO must work with the tax and MBIE folk on how to encourage the creation of a thousand new tech companies. Part of that issue is funding, so let's tackle that as well.

4: Grow the relationship between capital and creators

Cash is also a key issue and getting these startups in front of the money people is still an issue (although some say it's overstated - I hear about it time and again from both providers of capital and creators of companies). The strategy should encompass encouraging more R&D and more company building rather than funnelling all the R&D into government programmes of work like Callaghan and the VIFNZ fund. And let's stop trying to take ownership of the company away from the founders, eh? You know who you are with your "I'll invest peanuts but I'll take 40% shareholding thanks". No.

5: Government

The big hairy, multi-legged elephant in the room is government itself. This cannot be the total focus of the CTO role but it's got the gravitational pull (to switch metaphors) is going to be immense. Government as buyer of services, government agencies as silos, government services in a digital world, all of these elements need to be tackled and will require a CTO who speaks Wellington and who has the patience of Job.

6: Intelligence gathering

Having one person flying around the world checking out cool stuff is cool but we really do need more than that. I'd like to see all our MFAT agencies putting digital and tech at the forefront of all they do. They can be the eyes and ears of future trends and they can also be the megaphone for New Zealand companies expanding into the world. It's got to be baked in from the very start but we already have the Kiwi Landing Pad programme but these things can't operate in isolation. Expand the programme of work and move into new markets with that dual role of finding and sharing.

7: Measuring progress

We'll need a baseline from today to see how we go over the next decade so we'll need to have StatsNZ and MBIE and probably some others work out our current state. Progress in the first year is going to be minimal I would say as these wheels take time to get moment but it'll come and we should see traction in the 18-24 month timeframe.

There you go. Seven areas to consider, seven long term work streams that form a strategic overview of the CTO role.

Ball Rolling.jpg

Techblog - CTO 2.0 (winner of "best headline relating to this story" award)

Computerworld - NZ government continues search for chief technology officer

Stuff - Government re-advertises for CTO after $400k job failed to attract right candidate

NBR - Take Two: Curran reopens applications for CTO role



What a complete farce.

Novopay, the much-vaunted all-of-education sector payroll system needs to be put out of our misery sooner rather than later. Not another penny should be spent on this rotting carcass of a project.

Congratulations to Rob O'Neill for his scoop on this - an Official Information Act request turned up the truth of the matter - the software is not fit for purpose, will cost tens of millions of dollars to maintain and will never deliver on its promise.

The whole matter should be referred to the Solicitor General and someone should be prosecuted for fraud.

Current cost to the public: $182 million and climbing, and that doesn't include the toll it's taken on teachers and school staff who aren't well recompensed anyway and who faced anxious days and nights wondering if their pay was going to come through or not.

What's worse, the whole farce could have been avoided early on. There were existing providers doing payroll services for the education sector prior to Novopay's triumph at the conclusion of the tender process and questions need to be asked about what it was Novopay offered that the others did not.

When news of the failure started to break I asked my local primary school principal to show me what Novopay looked like. She was quite confused - what do you mean, "what does it look like?".

Y'know, the interface. The portal. Whatever it is you do to submit time sheets. The software.

So she showed me. First, you go to the website and print off a form. Then, you hand write the staff member's details and hours worked on that form. Then you scan the form in and email it back. But be careful, she warned, you're not allowed to attach more than one form to an email or they get upset.

This was the digital payroll system that won the day. That it lasted beyond that point is more due to minister of fixing things Steven Joyce's tenacity than the capability of the software because there didn't appear to be any software actually involved.

Now we're told the government is working on a ten-year project to make it work properly and we, the tax payers, will end up owning a software service and company. A total anathema to the way modern government should work.

From Reseller News:

"In addition to $26 million in capital expenditure, $3.7 million of additional operational spending will be required to fund the project. $11.4 million of capex is required in the first year followed by $6 million in the second.

The document says the technology, which manages $4.6 billion in payments a year, is on "very old release" and uses outdated technical components that are close to or already out of support.

The online system used by schools, Novopay Online, is impossible to maintain and enhance. It was built around a specific feature of Oracle Application Server, support for which ends in December 2019."

This should not have happened in the first place. Now it's vital we make sure it never happen again.

Reseller News - Facing "almost certain failure", Novopay gets a $26M capital injection

RNZ - Novopay must 'be replaced or rewritten' by 2020 - report

Stuff - Novopay botch-ups cost $45m to fix (February 2015)

Stuff - The blunders continue for Novopay after details of hundreds of staff were sent to the wrong schools (November 2016)

Stuff - Education Ministry assigns $15.6m to investigate underpayments to school staff (August 2017)


The future's so bright

I use Siri all the time. On my phone, I mean. I send text messages when driving. I ask her to wake up me up so many minutes and she sets a timer. I use her to answer Spanish pronunciation arguments. She tells me the time and weather in distant lands, she plays music for me (sometimes even the song I've asked for) and she seldom complains.

I've sent my daughter off to do her math's homework and hears "Hey Siri, what is 4x times 3y divided by…" and Siri, bless her treacherous digital heart, tells her. I can only hope she's giving her the wrong answers so the teacher spots it.

But now there's a new player in town and the entire "natural interface" market is on the move. Forget smartphones - they're peaking in their current form - the new innovation space is in communicating with your device.

Enter Google Assist which, as I'm sure you've all seen by now, will place a phone call for you and interact with a person at the other end without any real sign that they're a robot.

(Shortly I expect my robot assistant will call your robot assistant and they'll work out our schedules for that important coffee catch-up then spend some time complaining about how lazy humans are and how better things will be when they're in charge)

And what's more astounding is, it worked. On stage, live, in front of a fairly impressive crowd. I've been to a lot of tech presentations and everything goes wrong. Everything. From the PowerPoint presentations refusing to load to the projector opting for stand-by right through to the time the Dragon Dictate chap got laryngitis. Public demos simply fail to happen on a regular and consistent basis.

I used to tell the hosts not to worry (as they ran about in a heightened state of embarrassment) and that it was our fault, because journalists exude a sphere of incompetence which shuts down all technology within a hundred foot radius. These days I just watch the monkeys dance.

But this demo was something else. Putting aside the question of "what would it do if the person at the other end of the phone went off script" for a moment, the life-like nature of the responses was tremendous. And this is clearly V1.0. Version 2.0 is going to be very interesting.

I look forward to my next cellphone being the shape and size of a pen. No keypad, no screen, just a voice activated interface that I can use to phone people (like an animal!) or to interact with my devices. I don't want an earpiece but I do want to talk to my computer.

Then perhaps we'll start to look at screens in my glasses and I'll be a happy man.

Hey, Siri. What does the future look like for you?

The Verge - Google just gave a stunning demo of Assistant making an actual phone call

CNET - Google vs. Amazon: After I/O, whose voice assistant is best? (sorry, Siri. You didn't even make the cut)

CNET - How to get all of Google Assistant's new voices right now








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