by CIO New Zealand

CIO100 2018 #31-100: Michael Whitehead, WhereScape

Mar 28, 2018
Technology Industry

Last year Michael Whitehead split his company into two and moved a number of senior roles to the US.

“Our company had become two businesses – a global software company and a New Zealand based consulting company. We had previously run on common systems and it was clear we needed to separate, so that both businesses could achieve to their full potential.

“With an entirely cloud-based infrastructure the transition was technically simple, with the exception of the reporting infrastructure. This needed to be completely reoriented to be able to produce different KPIs and reporting packs for NOW consulting and WhereScape Software, as well as cut-down consolidated information. Here the use of a data warehouse was invaluable, with its inherent ability to recast historical information into different structures,” he says.

“The other challenges were largely cultural. How do you go about securely separating two businesses while still providing access to shared information without creating a us and them problem? We solved this by adding an additional cloud based system into the mix, a partner management portal from US company Allbound.

“By creating a purpose built externally focused portal we were actually able to provide better information for NOW Consulting than they had when they accessed internal systems. It will be no surprise that a focus on presenting information (as opposed to focusing on how to store it) is a huge value add activity,” Whitehead says.

The company is a hackathon convert, he states.

“Data is one of the last areas to move to the cloud, and most organisations are only now looking at how to leverage cloud based offerings from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Snowflake. Vendors are happy to provide references of successful migrations, but we all know the stories are, to say the least, edited. Every project has issues, and the tricky issues are generally to do with an individual organisation’s idiosyncrasies.

“Hackathons are a great way to expose the idiosyncrasies, the risks, and issues at the start of the project – when everyone is still friends.

“The costs of a hackathon is relatively minor – they need to be completed in a day or two as people cannot sustain the energy much longer. But the impacts on the budgeting process are massive. Now we really do know which problems we will encounter and will add to the cost.

“It’s very common that the scope of the project changes during a hackathon. When a team with multiple disciplines hits a problem, they focus on the problem not whose fault it is that the project is missing a deadline. As well as new insights being incorporated, goal posts get moved and compromises made resulting in a better project with a greater overall chance of success,” Whitehead says.

Whitehead’s roles are those of “president” and “chair”, and that means taking a completely different approach to leadership he says.

“A board is a strategic, not an operational body. It is OK to make suggestions, it is OK to be a sounding board, but the management team is there for a reason – they are the best people to lead and manage the organisation.

“This doesn’t mean you can’t utilise your particular areas of expertise. Having a technical background means you can offer particular insights. There is a skill to leveraging your expertise without dictating,” he says.

“Leadership at the board level is more effective when in “ask” rather than “tell” mode. You are not responsible for the technical decisions made, but you can certainly ask the right questions to ensure everything is considered!”

“While technology plays a big part in how we communicate from weekly newsletters to social media and taking part in online team competitions like the Virgin Global Challenge, we are aware that nothing beats face to face discussions. Sometimes the old ways are the best.”

Employ for aptitude and attitude over skills, and look for people who are smarter than you are, he adds.

“We started the business from nothing and could not have achieved a quarter of what we did if we didn’t leverage the talents of the team. It isn’t about core skills. If you take a long term view then skills can be learned if the raw material is there.

“Early on we employed the best people we knew in the data warehousing and business intelligence world. Many of these people are still with us in vastly different roles. Great people are able to grow with the organisation and provide the ability to scale,” he says.

Michael has built a very successful international business with turnover in excess of $45 million,” says John Quirk, chair of WhereScape. “He has created a business that is both architecturally and culturally diverse. Systems and people are best of breed and integration is critical to success.

“NOW Consulting is a new organisation with a long history. It has a fantastic set of leaders and managers that are extremely customer focused. Michael always likes to claim all the credit for recruiting such a great team, but in reality his key contribution is to be the keeper of the culture and to ensure the company always stays focused on doing the right thing and putting others first,” Quirk says.