In the third and final blog in our series on the finalists for the New Zealand IT Professional of the Year, I met with Simon Ferrari of Datacom who shared views on how to progress a successful career in IT, and much more.

How did you get into IT and what has your career path been?

I loved coding; that is what got me into IT, although I was probably a pretty average software developer. I got promoted into roles that required other skills, and that took me away from the code. Project Management was a key step in my career path, and a role I liken to leading a group of people into fog, with a promise of success out the other end. You need to influence and convince. Sometimes you won’t know how long the fog will last or exactly what it’ll look like once it clears, and it’s a real skill to encourage your team into that fog.

I love technology, and I’m a computer scientist by trade. I’m detailed, but I’m also people focused, and enjoy writing blogs on culture, career development and related topics.

I’ve been at Datacom for 17 years, that’s a large part of my career so far. And although I sometime fear I’ve “drank the cool-aid”, I’ve actually worked out why. It’s about working within compatible values, and I’ve been lucky that Datacom’s values and culture are fairly well aligned to mine. I’ve also worked with and recruited many people who I respect and have become friends. So while I continue to feel that way, why change?

Why do you think you have been nominated?

I am just one of an estimated 120,000 New Zealand IT professionals and feel there are probably more deserving, but recognise that I do play a part in the wider industry and I’d like to think I add value there.

I’ve been involved in the TechHub Programme since the 2009 pilot and am a champion for that and related programmes both inside and outside work. In a company of over 2000 NZ employees, there are plenty of colleagues to coerce into these programmes, and make a real difference. To their credit, Datacom has been a strong supporter of these programmes that are designed to build the future ICT labour market.

I also sit on two Industry Advisory Boards: the Wellington ICT Graduate School and Otago University’s Information Science Department. These roles provide great opportunities to build bridges between the organisations who are fueling the future labour market and organisations who are delivering ICT with talent from the labour market.

These activities are natural areas of interest for me. I love the idea of interesting a high school student in an IT career when they have actively discounted it before hearing me speak. Last year for example, when I was on a TechHub CREST Challenge judge, my favourite quote from a year 10 female student was “I really, really love coding”. When I asked her if she’d done any before the challenge or believed she could love coding, she replied “No, never”. This is gold, and why I do this work.

If you were 18 what advice would you give yourself (i.e. is university important)?

Tertiary education is really important as it lets you mature and gives you crucial time to think about the career options you have.  But you have to put the time in and be passionate about your studies – ensure you are taking subjects that allow you to naturally do this. As for courses, other than the obviously IT relevant degrees available today, I would encourage them to consider psychology and economics.  It is essential to understand how humans work and what makes a business tick, as without this knowledge it’s much harder to be successful in any profession. These subjects will also provide a different perspective. 

What impact do you predict technology will have on ICT careers?

There won’t be mass job losses, although the nature of our work will certainly change. We’ll remain differentiated from the virtual workforce (Bots, Virtual Assistants and Robots etc) by our EQ (Emotional Quotient) and soft skills. That is until we develop a way to fully replicate the brain! We can code empathy now, but it isn’t human yet. So, in short, the answer is that soft skills are key to a good career. We don’t need to fear being made redundant by machines and should cherish our human points of difference such as curiosity, creativity and imagination. I have written about this in LinkedIn: “Hard Facts About Soft Skills”.

Innovation has a key role in the future. It’s always had a key role. There is a risk Innovation becomes an overused cliché. It’s simply about identifying problems and solving them creatively. A special ‘wheel innovator’ didn’t come along and innovate a wheel. The challenge of shifting things with reduced effort existed. A bunch of people evolved ideas relating to rolling things, and the wheel was eventually conceived. Let’s identify what problems we will need to solve next and evolve some novel ways to solve them – that’s simply innovation!

I enjoy reading; business topics as well as science fiction. An old favourite is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, who has the protagonist jacking into a virtual world called the Metaverse – not far from a virtual reality Internet.  When you consider this was published in 1992, it really gets you thinking. I’d encourage that 18 year old to be a futurist and fuel their imagination by reading as much as possible!

 Do you need to have a degree?

It all depends on the job and the company. Many large corporates have minimum standards as a way to filter candidates. The degree will help you grow and learn though. In my opinion, you are more mature and have more extensive skills after 3 or 4 years at University, and many people exiting secondary school need that personal development. That said, if you are mature, have the necessary support around you and a keenness to launch into a career from secondary, it may be a good option.

How do you personally balance learning and leading?

I’m notorious for divergence. Why do I need to balance these? I don’t think they’re on the same spectrum. You can lead and learn without conflict. Perhaps ‘command and control’ leaders may struggle with balancing these. I’d like to think I’m always learning. I was with a younger member of my team just today, trying to find a solution for a significant problem we had. He came up with a great idea, it wasn’t the whole solution, but it was the icing on the cake. While I was the senior in the room leading the client meeting, he aced it with his suggestion. Here I was, leading the client meeting yet learning from a direct report at the same time. I’ve been involved in graduate recruitment for a while and designing ways to identify and talent. I’m always looking for curiosity and creativity as these are the building blocks for solving clients’ issues, and often it’s the young talent that gets you thinking differently and challenging the norms – providing plenty of learning opportunities for all!

What are the challenges you see with identity and the use of personal data in government?

Data matching occurs under legislation that enables it, for good. RealMe is an interesting system that I believe was 5-10 years before its time. I know how privacy has been designed into the solution to protect users’ data, and we are safe. The original privacy design won international recognition for its world-leading approach to the treatment of user-centric privacy and metadata before metadata became a dirty word. I would like to think here in New Zealand there is no big brother risk. Privacy and security are taken really seriously.

In summary, it was a pleasure to meet Simon, who genuinely expressed that without the support of so many people he wouldn’t be nominated for such an award.  He was quick to point out that he feels fortunate on many fronts and that the support of his wife, has helped him achieve what he has. He has a passion for technology but specifically technology that makes a difference to people.  He used one of his favourite words – Intrinsic – and I feel this sums him up perfectly.