I wear multiple hats, solve broad problems, find insight in the chaos. I work best with people, technology, start-ups and complexity.
This very, very, very, very long bio explains my journey so far. It's a work in progress as I try to distill some of the experiences that led me here. You probably don't want to read it. See the short bio instead. Life would be easier if I fit a specific position title, like most people. I wrote this long bio remind myself to love the path I'm on.
Born in Western Australia in 1977. My mother was a primary school teacher and my father a mechanic. If I could distill the main influences from my parents they are my mother’s excessive commitment to her work, and my father’s attitude that he can build and fix anything.
My brother and I were fortunate that our parents kept us active. In our childhood we’d been brought up learning electronics, helping fix cars, using tools, learning to write stories and be creative. We were introduced to programming when we got a Commodore 64 for Christmas. We loved the games of course, but a family friend introduced us to programming the ROM BASIC, cracking and copying games and what made the pixels move about on screen.
With luck and my parents’ persistence, when I was 12 I was fortunate to be accepted into a computer scholarship at my brother’s high school. I only made the B-list on the entrance exam but fluked it through. For computing, the school was amazing; five dedicated rooms of Nimrod PC/XTs, a bus network and classes twice a week where students learned pascal programming and databases. The norm then at other schools was two shared PCs per class room. I remember the first day of my first computing class; the teacher was disappointed I didn’t know how to reset a PC (Alt-Ctrl-Del). I don’t think I’d even used a PC before.
Within a year or two we’d formed a posse of programmers at the school, including my brother, that could run rings around most computing teachers. At the time it was very uncool to be interested in computers, so our awesome activities were largely unknown (a more prestigious path was the basketball scholarship). Nerds didn’t rule the earth yet. Almost every day after school we’d meet at the computer rooms and work on coding our games or demos. We’d switch the lights and VGA monitors off when the security guards approached so we could stay behind. I remember we’d get in trouble for setting off the school security alarm, but don’t remember our parents being unhappy we were getting home late. I guess there’s worse ways to spend your time as a teenager.
At the end of year 10 I won a computer scholarship sponsored by a local computer store. The applicants had to complete a programming test in Turbo pascal that involved reading a text file, sorting some values depending on user input and outputting the result. At the time we couldn’t rely on external libraries (or I didn’t know they existed) so I remember implementing a simple bubble sort from memory. It had a bug, but it was a good result for an on the spot test. I use a similar test today when hiring graduates into junior programming roles to see if they know the fundamentals.
For my last two years at school I mainly focused on computing and tennis. Our class formed a pseudo-business to create apps for the school like printing the ID cards and improving software to manage school carnival results. Some of the other kids in that class were extremely talented programmers, but we were isolated to our internal network and a few local call dial-up BBS’s. It wasn’t until uni (college) that we discovered the broader internet and world wide web. I finished school as joint-dux (top) in computing and dux in applied computing.
Towards the end of this year we will purchase a CD ROM and Sound Blaster card to allow upper school students to produce presentations and programs for Multi-Media, a very exciting and ever expanding area of computing.
For the holidays between high school and college I took my first real job for 2 months; packing clothes that had been donated to charity into hay bales and carting them around the factory. It was hard, uninspiring physical work, but good for me.
At college, as with high-school, I was back on the B-list behind everyone else. I was intending to study
computer science, but made a last minute change to my application. Instead I was accepted into computer systems engineering without the prerequisite chemistry and maths classes (as I studied computing instead).
At uni I had to take bridging chemistry and maths classes for 2 years to catch up with everyone else. Largely, I loved it. While the programming was pretty elementary for the first few years I loved learning the electronics, embedded software, artificial intelligence and mechanical engineering. It integrated the topics I loved, and gave me plenty of ideas to work on at home. For my 2nd year summer vacation I worked at the Australian Telecommunications and Research Institute (ATRI) were I developed a pi/4 DQKSK modem running on a Texas Instruments DSP. For another holiday I developed a high voltage motor control system used by the uni. For class, a self-learning feed-forward neural network backgammon game with some exceptionally talented team mates.
My final project at uni was part of the international Robocup competition, a competition that advances AI by getting autonomous robots to play soccer. We purchased a team of mini mobile robots from MIT. My project was to write a mobile robot path planning and control algorithm that could manoeuvre the soccer playing robots along a spline curve. It was fun. I finished uni with joint-top student seminar, first class honours, on the VC list (top 1%) and with a 96% result for my thesis.
I miss robotics.
After graduating as an computer systems engineer I accepted a role at an organization that performed submarine research and development for the Australian defence organization. We worked on an island. As soon as I joined I was thrown into writing user interfaces for 16 channel lofargram analysis. We had a lot of freedom about what we were working on (great stuff), within a team focused on the practical needs of the customer. My role was to create the real apps or gadgets (“concept demonstrators”) based on the theory of the researchers.
I still did a lot of programming as well as electronics work there. Submarines and the underwater environment are incredible complex that few people even think about. One of my favourite outcomes was some hardware and software that could intercept serial data lines and inject messages to change the behaviour of the systems. Nothing nefarious, genuinely useful, that spent many years in-service on the submarines and was commercialized by Raytheon into a real product.
In my spare time I also wrote software to perform technical analysis of stock market trades. After reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad I’d become interested in investing. I’d get up 6am and code for 90 minutes before driving to work. I made a little money trading with it. Not much. After a tragic HDD failure and idiotic attempt to restore it I wiped all my code. Everything I’d every written. Distraught, I didn’t code at home again for another 2 years.
It still makes me sad to think of that lost code. Yes, it’s a nerd thing.
After a few years with the organization it was clear I had a strength working across complex systems that involved software, hardware and people. I was seconded into a role as a systems architect for the integrator for a major upgrade of the combat system of the Australian submarines. We were purchasing a largely US-suite of components (or rather, becoming a variant of their AN/BYG-1 program), integrating it to a our French sonar and adapting the Australian systems and new equipment to make it happen. For me it was the perfect combination of complex software, hardware and politics. Over this period I regularly worked somewhere between Perth, Sydney, Canberra and the USA as part of the program office for design reviews, integration, requirements and modelling.
By 2004 I’d started another programming project in my spare time, having mostly recovered from that epic data loss. I’d bought a house and, as I was interested in property investment had written a program that would scrape the national property websites and analyse them for investment opportunities. It searched for properties by their projected cash-flow based on deep analysis of property attributes and searcher’s finances.
I left the defence industry and founded my first company, Blue Sky Minds, in 2005. The plan was that two or three days a week I’d consult to businesses to apply some of my integration and engineering knowledge (to pay the bills), and the other days I’d work on the search engine (called HousePad). Through friends in the defence industry I was introduced to an enterprise software company working on sales order automation that needed help designing their domain model and processes. When they realized I could also code in Java I was also drawn into implementing it too.
On the other days I continued developing HousePad. I didn’t have all the data I needed to complete the cash-flow modelling accurately; the two most significant gaps where depreciation and land tax. I reached out to a business called Depreciator that specialized in developing depreciation schedules for properties and landed on an opportunity to write a tool of them to estimate depreciation that would let me apply the same models within the search engineering. I wrote it in .Net for free as a mutual IP exchange, with a trailing commission on their sales that still trickle in today. I also created “landtaxapp” that could lookup the land tax valuation from the government authority (which turned out to breach their Ts&Cs).
In 2007 the enterprise software company I was contracting to went into liquidation. They had severe cash-flow issues, using the cash from the next customer to fund the work for the previous, until the next customer said no. I was a creditor unpaid $35k. There I learnt a lesson about trust, but I also found it fascinating to learn what happens (technically and behaviourally) when things go wrong at a business. The other upside was that a few of us saw the opportunity to wrench one of their clients from them to take on the project directly. That’s when I began working directly with PeopleInsite, a document automation start-up at the time that would later become enableHR.
I continued contracting to PeopleInsite a few days a week and HousePad on the other days, but a pattern emerged that I would also put other customer’s projects as I higher priority than my own. I was a far better an engineer than a business person. For the thousands of hours developing Housepad between other project, I’d never once put it in front of a real customer. That’s stupid (see the Lean Startup Methodology.
Over this period of my life I started getting a lot more interested in entrepreneurship and business. I signed up for Bootup camp, a “startup weekend” formula that spanned a full two weeks so the teams build something valuable. It was a fantastic way to learn to ship code and talk to customers. We formed a team called OpenOnDemand that would deploy on-demand open-source cloud-based applications. The best thing about start up weekend is that it forces you to focus. It makes attendees realise how much they can achieve quickly.
Shortly after Bootup Camp I was asked to become a shareholder and full time employee of PeopleInsite. This coincided with a realisation I needed to focus, and that I needed real experience running a business with people that had done it before, instead of being a solo engineer. I dropped my HousePad “project” and leapt in with them. I also decided that instead of continuing to read the latest business books and articles, I’d sign up for an MBA and “formalized” my business knowledge in my spare time while actually applying it.
My first week as an employee of PeopleInsite was a shock. I’d spent all my career working with engineers and technology and found myself in an environment literally surrounded by boxes of paperwork, lawyers and people that organise boxes of paper. PeopleInsite was seeded by a law firm and we were sharing their office. It was so simple working in engineering organizations because the norms and culture were familiar. Being the sole engineer within the space shared by a law firm was a world away. Many of the papers I wrote during my MBA were about understanding myself and my interaction with other people. He had just three employees, the MD with an industrial relations/commerce background, myself for all-tech, and an operations assistant.
Early in 2010 we pivoted PeopleInsite into enableHR, a SaaS HR system that combines HR tools with the HR content and advice. It focused both our technology strengths and partnership with the law firm, and worked really, really well. We grew it from a 5 person team with a handful of customers to 16 employees and thousands of customers in the Australian and NZ markets. The MD focused on the sales, marketing and finance, while I focused on the development, operations and support.
Ready for a new challenge, at the end of 2014 I sold my shares in enableHR so I could focus on something new for 2015. Let’s see what’s next.