A conversation with David Carter, Chair of Canterbury Tech

In the leadup to Techweek ’18 Christchurch based Seeds Podcast caught up with David Carter about the origins of Canterbury Tech, the annual Tech Summit, what makes Canterbury unique and the future of tech here for the next generation.  This is an extract from a 50 minute podcast interview which also went into David’s early life in South Africa, getting into the tech industry, what makes a good manager and how you hire the right people to join a team.  You can access the interview in most podcast apps by searching for “Seeds” and it is also available at www.seeds.libsyn.com where there are more than 40 other interviews as well.


Seeds Podcast: … so, I’d love to talk about Canterbury Tech now – when did you get involved in that?  Also, can you set the scene for what it is because there will be people listening who don’t live in New Zealand or who live in Auckland or Wellington or other places so maybe set the scene and how you got involved?

David Carter: Canterbury Tech started 15 or 16 years ago where it was a group … who would get together on a Friday – they were all software business owners – and they would just chew the cud and talk about their business problems and basically just support each other.  I think it was probably quite hard in those times they probably all felt like they were unique and facing unique problems but in fact, once they got together they really enjoyed it.  So they started to formalise that a bit more and they came up with the Cluster, came up with a constitution etc, started to have these meetings – monthly meetings and put a committee together all that sort of thing.  So, I got involved about 4 years ago … I had been running the local Microsoft .net user group and that was really my first foray into the whole community aspect of things.  I was invited to talk there and do a presentation and I went there and did this presentation and I was really nervous beforehand but I loved doing it – I really enjoyed it.  So when the user group leader stepped down he said, “do you want to do this”, so I said I would take it on and at the time there were about 50 members and over the next couple of years I grew it to about 500 members and I really enjoyed that building and growing the membership and interacting with the people it was really a lot of fun – it took me about 2 or 3 years to do.  So based on that I was invited to join the committee of Canterbury Tech about 4 years ago – and I was voted on to the Committee and spent two years on the Committee and then had the opportunity to run for Chair, which I did – once again pushing my boundaries, I had never been the Chair of anything, it was the first committee I had been on.  It was daunting, but my Father tells me, “you can always do more – you should always push yourself” – so that was my stretch challenge and I’ve loved it, it’s been a lot of fun over the last two years.

That’s great.  Michael Trengrove, I think he was Chair before you, I interviewed him about Code Club which is one of the things he is involved in – it was interesting talking with him … and one of the things in that interview if people want to listen in, we talked a bit about the Canterbury Tech event that you run every year, can you just explain a little about that as well?

Yea, I think you are referring to the Canterbury Tech Summit. Our remit is really to connect, grow and inspire Canterbury companies.  It used to be Software companies but now it is Tech companies as that line between technology and software has become blurred over time so we just opened up the membership more. So currently we have a couple of hundred corporate members and a couple of hundred individual members.  We cater for those members by having a monthly event which is typically at a company in Christchurch and we put on two speakers – a business and a technical speaker – and we have drinks and networking etc.  On top of that we have this annual event which is the largest technology event in the South Island.  That is run every year and we get speakers from all over the world. The idea is once again to inspire and try to help educate and give people an opportunity to network as well.  So that is every year at the Air Force Museum at the moment. We are kind of limited by venue size and space available at the moment so it is limited to about 800 people but we get world class speakers and we have a number of streams of those speakers throughout the day.

Yeah it is a great event – I have been the last two years and really enjoyed it.  Like you say, people flying in from all over the world flying in to present on their specialty area which is amazing.  So have you seen that event grow – like if we dial back to when you first started getting involved has it grown or pretty steady?

It has grown a wee bit, I think when I first came it was about 500 people and it has grown to about 800 people.  I think when we actually get the new centre online where we can host these types of events which is currently an events centre that is being built, we will then have to make the decision about whether we try to expand this to 2-3,000 people or do we keep it the size it is, but that is a decision we will have to make.

Oh, that’s good.  If I was talking to someone in a city or region who was involved in technology and promoting it, they would probably say that their region or their city was uniquely different and probably that it was world class.  I think, my feeling living here in Christchurch and Canterbury is that there is a lot happening.  Can you just set the scene in terms of the culture and what is going on from a business point of view?

Christchurch and Canterbury is the second largest tech sector in New Zealand now.  I try and get that into every conversation I have with someone now because I think it is so important and so amazing that we realise that.  You know, that we are ahead of Wellington that has traditionally had Xero and all the Government work – we are actually larger than them.  We have an amazing ecosystem – so we have really great grassroots support for entrepreneurs and innovators coming through and the City Council is all behind that and they want us to be seen as an innovation hub with the like of self-driving cars and flying taxis and all that sort of stuff.  Which is great.  I think from the perspective of putting Christchurch on the map it makes great press stories and so that is very, very important.  But it is not just about that innovation it is also that we have some very established companies in that mid to larger size – companies that have been around for many, many years and are world class leaders in what they do – we have companies doing amazing things all over the world.  I don’t think it is any coincidence that a lot of American companies have their software development headquarters in Christchurch and I think it is important to appreciate that.  Part of the reason is that we have got great tertiaries – we have got the University, we have got Ara, which is fantastic and also it is just a great place to live, and it is actually affordable, and it doesn’t take an hour to drive to work.  So we have got all these environmental and physical attributes on top of having great software companies with great jobs.  So I am very positive about Christchurch and where we are going to go.  We just need to tell the story…

So just in terms of telling that story can we dive a little bit deeper in terms of examples of companies that are based here that people may not even have realised?

A great example the other day was Telogis, and they have been sold to Verizon and they are Christchurch grown and bred. They did work around routing software for delivery companies and became a world leader in what they do.   Sold to Verizon and did remarkably well.  Sunguard was another example of a company which did financial software which was sold to FIS and various other companies over time.  But once again that was a home bred success story.  Companies like diligent board books who listed in the US and that was grown out of Canterbury.  Cequent Projects who were Leapfrog Geo, doing amazing stuff in the Geo space and they are going really well.  Companies like Orion Health in the medical space.  There are so many examples and there will be so many more that I don’t even know about – companies in people’s garages turning over hundreds of millions of dollars that we don’t even know about…

Staying under the radar.  I think it is fascinating and I love to trace the history of movements and how things start.  And I think in Christchurch – Canterbury – there is actually a legacy if you back even much further and I am thinking in particular about Sir Angus Tait and Tait Communications which has for decades has been a very large company and I think that it actually – because it has employed many people who have gone on to have their own start-ups.  It’s just fascinating think – I am researching his life which is why I have this special interest but he came back from World War II and had this special interest in radios and started to build these ways to communicate, you know, in taxis – and this is like disruptive technology of its day because there weren’t really handsets in taxis or ways of communicating and in the 1950s he is there pushing the boundaries based here in Christchurch.  Isn’t that fascinating you know, like literally 70 years ago he is working away and I just wonder if people like that – I am sure there are other examples – were kind of becoming models and setting the patterns for what we are now seeing, generations that have learned from people like that.

Absolutely.  And I think Kiwis are very good at disruption and thinking outside the square and coming up with new ways of approaching things.  And that is something that we need to get into our kids as well.  I really believe that the future of Christchurch and Canterbury is around Tech.  We are doing this pivot from being a typical agricultural based economy with farming, with dairy, with tourism – making use of our natural resources.  Unfortunately that is limited with what you can do there – it is not scalable.  So Tech is the obvious answer to that as a scalable future for Christchurch.  So I think we need to encourage our kids and more importantly their parents, to understand that, and to understand that Tech is I believe a way forward for them to have a prosperous future.  And Tech is not – there is this mind-set that Tech is about teenage boys sitting in a corner playing on a laptop.  That is not what it is, there are so many different avenues into Tech – there is the marketing of Tech, there is design, there is graphic design, yes there is programming, there is project management – there are so many different aspects to it that people can fit into.  We need to get that into schools and we really need to get kids and their parents understanding that.  And part of that is telling the story because even parents locally don’t know about these success stories and they don’t know that technology is this great pathway for their kids so that is part of the challenge.

Which is why something that I mentioned before like code club – teaching primary school kids to code.  That is kind of that mind-set shift isn’t it.

Oh absolutely, I actually went into my daughter’s school and taught code club for a semester because I wanted to get it into the school and no one was going to do it.  Unfortunately I discovered that I am not very well suited to teaching Children – I probably would have killed one of them if I had stayed much longer!

That would have been counterproductive!

So yea, I stopped that but I saw the results over the semester or two that I spent there – the kids picked it up so quickly and the loved it.  And their parents got it as well – and that is one of the most important things – they saw their kids programming and they went, “hey, my kid can do it”.

Seeds is a podcast which has more than 40 episodes released and a new one each Tuesday talking with inspiring people making a positive impact with their lives. You can access the interview in most podcast apps by searching for “Seeds” and it is also available at www.seeds.libsyn.com.