Doug Wilson's passion for technology hasn't dimmed through his 40 years in the sector. AA's CIO talks to Heather Wright about IT's role in business, serving the customer and outsourcing shamelessly.
Doug Wilson graduated with one of New Zealand's first computer science degrees, back in the 1970s.
Forty years down the track, the grandfather of seven is still passionate about technology.
“I love it. I don't know how many computers I own but I've got a few. I try to keep up,” he says.
And it's not just the computers. Wilson, AA's chief information officer and Tuanz deputy chair, is a device fan too and is the proud owner of a Pebble watch.
“It's a device you can use and no one knows you're using it. Texts come in, and emails, and its fantastic for reminders because it vibrates. You can be sitting in a meeting and you look at your watch and people think you're looking at the time when you're actually looking at email, Facebook,” he says, laughing.
“It's a bit gimmicky, but I needed a new watch and I was in China so I brought it.”
Then there's the UP fitness band, the iPhone, bluetooth headphones...
“I tweeted the other day that I had a bluetooth watch, a bluetooth UP band, a bluetooth phone, bluetooth headphones – if bluetooth is cancerous, I'm buggered!”
Wilson is also a fan of outsourcing wherever possible - a model he inherited when he joined AA in 2007, but one which he also firmly believes in.
“I've come from the supplier side of the business, so I have an understanding of how commercial operators can operate and I believe in shifting as much of the risk to them as possible and having as small a team as possible.
“At this stage of my career, I'm not interested in building an empire,” he says, laughing. “I've been there, done that.”
AA has a number of close partners it works with, including Datacom, SAS IT and Face - recently acquired by Trade Me.
“And it works pretty well,” Wilson says. “We outsource shamelessly!”
However, he acknowledges that there are dangers, including ownership changes for outsourced partners.
“They may sell to a competitor, they may sell offshore - we certainly don't, at the moment, want our records stored offshore - they could sell to someone who goes broke...
“You have to make sure you have bloody good contracts to protect you as far as possible.
“They won't entirely save you but they save you as much as possible.”
Wilson says having run companies that have been sold 'I'm aware of what can happen'.
“The new buyer may decide that your piece of business is not strategic to them, or that they're not making any money out of it, so they stop it.”
But the pros, he says, outweigh the potential dangers.
“The pros come around the 24-hour service, not having to have those difficult to manage people on your own team, and giving the business to people whose livelihood depends on it – they stay up to date more than you could. You can deal with specialists, rather than generalists, which tends to happen in teams like ours.
“You know how much it is going to cost you so it's much easier to budget.
“It makes extreme sense to me.”
From vendor land to CIO
Wilson's career has seen him traverse 'the other side' heading up Wang NZ (later Gen-i and now Spark Digital) and Gateway New Zealand, among others, and holding senior management positions at companies including Microsoft – where he was director of public sector - and EDS.
Today, as CIO of AA, he's responsible for a team of 20 working across all areas including AA Smartfuel, AA Tourism and the Driver Education Foundation.
He says the bulk of AA's development money is spent on 'web stuff' and the web team makes up a large proportion of the overall IT team.
“Web is just a delivery mechanism now for us.”
The company recently redeveloped its life insurance site and is about to redevelop its travel site to bring it up to date and make it compatible with different devices.
“The original site was done in the days before [smartphones] and it doesn't scale down well,” Wilson says.
“I'd like to be known for creating a web environment that really supports our business so that all transactions people want to do at the AA can be done remotely. We're working on making that experience as good as possible,” Wilson says.
Making the experience as good as possible also extends to ensure service officers are appropriately equipped and tablets are now being rolled out across the team.
“When I came here they were using Panasonic Toughbooks, a GPS device and a phone. And that combination cost about $10,000,” he says. A move to Netbooks, with communications and GPS built in, saw that cost drop to $2000 and staff were happier, Wilson says. The tablets can do 'a lot more', and can be used at home, and will cost about $1200.
He says his ultimate dream is to get to a point where when someone contacts AA – whether by phone, app (AA has one app for road service) or web – AA could tell them exactly when a person will arrive to fix the problem.
“It's not as simple as you might think,” he adds.
But it's the introduction of the AA SmartFuel loyalty programme, which Wilson names as the biggest thing AA has done over the last couple of years.
“It's been really successful, but it's big,” Wilson says of the programme, which requires the organisation to have the system running 24/7.
A joint venture with a Palmerston North company who initially developed the loyalty programme, SmartFuel is available to AA's one million members, along with 500,000 SmartFuel only members. About 50% of all retail transactions in service stations go through the network. And yes, an app is being developed for SmartFuel, to enable customers to check where their nearest SmartFuel partner is, and recent transactions.
AA bought the software and contracted the company that wrote it to run it for them. It hasn't been without teething problems. It was initially planned that transactions would be sent back to AA to find out the person's details, as part of the transaction process.
“It was too slow though and we had to put a copy of parts of our database on their machine,” says Wilson. “But that's a restriction that will probably disappear with time and better communications.”
The copy is not updated, he notes, with the one version of truth remaining with AA.
“The retailer is quite demanding around what information they want from the system in terms of who is using it, where, what times are they using it. It's a very big tool, in particular for the two petrol companies.”
The system is proving so popular, AA is now looking a selling it into Australia and the UK.
Wilson is adamant he doesn't want his team working on anything that isn't giving a benefit to one of AA's businesses or one of its members.
“I think if I've done anything here, it's to focus all of the people who work for me on that. It's so easy for people involved in IT to be working for IT and not the business.”
He also expects business groups to drive the IT development.
“The best people to run businesses are the businesses. They are obliged to solve their problems or at least come to us with the problems.
“The different businesses have to work out what they want and we try to solve it together. I don't go to them and try to innovate with them. They're running their own business, you can't delegate that upwards,” he adds.
As the deputy chair of Tuanz, Wilson is passionate about keeping the communications industry competitive, echoing many in the industry in saying he never wants to see the duopoly back.
He's also passionate about education and encouraging the next generations into technology.
“I'm a great fan of the possibilities our industry has to make New Zealand an attractive place to live in and grow.
“We're starting to make good progress but we need to do better in terms of educating our young. And if there's one thing I keep saying, it's that we've got to teach parents that a career in IT is as good as, if not better than, a career in law, medicine or accounting.
“I'm passionate about that,” he says.
“We have to get teachers and parents to acknowledge that while these old professions are important, our best and brightest should be going into other things.”