Sealord IT manager Dave Thompson talks to Heather Wright about industry hype, mobility, business intelligence and netting the right staff.
Mobility has been something of a catch phrase in recent times. But when your business relies on a catch hundreds of miles out to sea, it’s more than just a buzzword, it’s a crucial part of business.
Sealord IT manager Dave Thompson’s ‘network’ covers servers and infrastructure on a fleet of fishing vessels trawling the oceans, along with landlubbers, including forklift operators moving between wharves and the -25 degree Celsius cold stores, and the more traditional mobile sales reps and executives.
Vessels use satellite communications at sea, automatically switching to 4G when in range and passing to Wi-Fi when they dock, for speed and cost advantages.
Forklifts are equipped with touch screen computers and scanners running on the company’s Wi-Fi network and enabling data on the catches and inventory in hand to be quickly and efficiently fed back into the company’s Microsoft Navision (now Dynamics NAV) ERP system.
Sales teams take Surface Pro tablets out to customers for quick ordering and collection of customer 'sentiment', all fed back into the CRM system.
“Can we do more and better [in mobility]? I think we can,” Thompson says. “If we are going to do new systems, compliance, selling into new markets, we have to look at how we can make sure solutions are mobile and people are not tied to their desks.”
Just weeks into his job at Sealord, Thompson says mobility, along with CRM and ERP projects, are high on his priority list for the coming year.
“I don't think of mobility as a buzzword. Most of our operations staff move around in the supply chain, and they don't want to go back to the office to enter data, so access to our inventory management systems on the road is essential.”
Getting Sealord more business intelligence driven is also ‘right near the top of the pile’.
“You might think fishing is simple. But it’s really not,” he says. “It’s reverse manufacturing in many ways. You take a product and disaggregate it.”
Quotas need to be adhered to and compliance requirements are high, fishing vessels need to be tracked, then there’s ordering, and suppliers...
Adding to the complexity are EU regulations coming into force in December, requiring complete tracing of fish sold in Europe back to where it was caught, on which voyage and vessel, and when it was frozen.
“Bringing all of that information to one place of truth is important," Thompson says.
“We already do some BI today, so we’re not talking big bang, it will be evolutionary. We need to do some infrastructure and architecture things in terms of bringing data together and how we leverage that data to be more competitive.
“It’s a big project.”
Despite the company’s use of mobility and business intelligence, Thompson has reservations about the hype that surrounds the current 'hot' trends.
“There’s a lot of hype out there around things people do not really understand and they think it’s the holy grail to saving business.
“Trends like big data and business intelligence are great, but have been over-hyped and are often misunderstood by businesses.
"You can be in the cloud and still screw it all up.”
He notes that many of the current ‘trends’ are simply more interesting names for offerings that have in fact, been around for years. “Sometimes, things are solutions looking for problems to solve.
“That’s not to say I don’t believe in things like business intelligence and big data, just that they’ve been over-hyped, taken out of context and misunderstood.”
It’s just as well Thompson does believe in business intelligence - prior to joining Sealord in June, he was the head of business intelligence for BNZ.
His career has seen him working across a range of sectors starting in the mid-80s on an Air New Zealand trainee programme, straight out of university with a computer science and physics degree in hand.
From there he hit the banking sector as a project leader at NZI, before moving to what is now TelstraClear, but back then was known as The Alternative Telecommunications Company, and later Clear Communications. His work there, ‘was all around the cost of toll calls’. It was the early 90s and mobilility, afterall, was in its infancy.
Microsoft beckoned next, with Thompson spending 13 years with the vendor, including five years as director of the services division.
It was at Microsoft that Thompson began to make the move into people management. “I learned an awful lot from Microsoft,” he says. “Both in ways to do things and ways not to do things.”
Microsoft, he says, also taught him about project and change management - and why some projects go well and others don’t.
“And the ones that don’t go well are the ones you learn a lot from. I’ve seen some project go really well, and I’ve seen some spectacular failures.
“My time at Microsoft, and the first CFO at BNZ, helped shaped me and my views on tech leadership.”
Making techies tick
“One of the things I’ve learned is the need to spend a lot of time in the recruitment process and hire the right people,” he says.
Thompson says too often companies rush their hiring process, rather than doing detailed testing and in-depth reference checking.
“It may take longer, but it minimises the chances of hiring a lemon.”
It’s a lesson he admits has been hard learned. “At Clear I hired some people I shouldn’t have and it took a long time and a lot of effort to get them out or manage them up.”
And it’s not just about skills.
“It’s all about attitude. They still have to be good enough, but attitude can make the difference. There are some fantastic engineers who are hopeless working in a team, for example.”
Once you’ve selected the right person for the role, there’s still some work to be done, Thompson says.
“Then you’ve got to make sure you try to create a culture where people want to do their best work and where excellence is cultivated and rewarded.
“A lot of people don’t understand what makes techies tick, yet these are people who can really have a major impact on your business. They may be in the back office, but they’re keeping your systems up. They need to be motivated and happy.”
Thompson says get the right person in the job, and have the right environment for them, and the rest takes care of itself.
“You don’t have to focus on the numbers when you hire good people.”
He says in general many executive teams don't understand the dynamics and levers of technology.
“Too often, it's seen as a cost to be controlled. There's a lot of great governance for executives around balance sheets and P&L, but there's not enough around technology and I don't think IT people spend enough time educating [executives].
“You have to find stories and analogies that make sense to them. We need to help educate them to understand the value of technology.”