Where can you find New Zealand's "best" IT architect; and software firm ClearPoint's agile ways

When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Guy Haddleton wanted a techie to build the platform for his new venture Anaplan, he asked who New Zealand’s best IT architect is. That led him to ClearPoint, a high growth software service company co-founded by Phil Pietersen and Bain Hollister.

 

(L) Phil Pietersen, Bain Hollister

It just so happens that the country’s best software architect, according to folklore in software-dom, is a guy called Jonathan Ackerman, who built his first code when he was 7 years old.

Anaplan, by the way, is a hotshot Silicon Valley company who had caught venture capitalists’ eye. In May this year, the company raised US$100 million in funding to pursue its growth. It is valued by analysts at around US$550 million.

Haddleton, formerly a Xero director, and Michael Doug, an enterprise project management expert, founded Anaplan to help do away with “silos” of information. Its aim was to help businesses draw crucial information from multiple data sources, to help provide business analytics.

ClearPoint managed to, at that time, convince Haddleton to give the company the opportunity to help build the platform, co-founder Phil Pietersen told Idealog.

Haddleton flew Anaplan’s main IT guy half way around the world for the meeting. The meeting took place on Friday, by the following Monday, ClearPoint had a team ready, to engage.

ClearPoint helped build a new service delivery platform for clients to interact with Anaplan’s new technological platform.

Haddleton was completely satisfied. The project was delivered on budget, on time, without bugs. The Anaplan project in 2008 gave ClearPoint – which started trading only in 2007 -- just the CV it needed.

ClearPoint defied the odds of crumbling under the tempest triggered by the global financial crisis.

It has grown without outside funding, according to Pietersen . Its first client Auckland Transport, followed by TVNZ. Within three years of being in business, growth reached 800%. Over the last 3 years, the company grew over 100%. ClearPoint reached Deloitte’s Fast50 (on the 6th spot) in 2010 and was number 30, in 2011.

Its current client list is impressive. Besides Fonterra, one of its Australian clients is Future Funds, which manages just under  AUD$100 billion per annum; a piece of work it acquired via word-of-mouth. This was after ClearPoint built ACC Investment’s mid-office platform. Its utilities clients include Mighty River Power, Vector and Genesis. It also has a string of CVs dotted with clients from the financials services industry.

Pietersen attributes ClearPoint’s success to “a combination of hard work and serendipity.”

Having been in the IT industry, Pietersen and Hollister were keen to shake up the prevailing practice in the industry.

He recounted that when he tried to get Vodafone as a client, people told him, it was impossible. It wasn’t too long before ClearPoint had over a dozen people working on a Vodafone project.

Disruptive

“When we (he and co-founder) started the business, we were kind of unsatisfied with way a lot of software companies were approaching the market.

“We wanted a new approach that was disruptive, one that would resonate with the customer -- where our key values would be that by looking after our customers’ need before our own needs, we would be successful.”

This meant working on being easy to do business with, from communications, to sorting out the nitty-gritty of contracts, and the methodology used, Pietersen says.

“We made sure our contractual agreements should mirror what those (client’s) needs are. This enabled us, from day one, to have a clear vision of how to build the software and deliver it.”

Using the Agile software development principle, ClearPoint was able to ensure customers have the ability to assess and change the product every two weeks.

Kudos from Fonterra

The latest high for ClearPoint was winning Fonterra’s Innovation Award – it was a competition ClearPoint didn’t enter, but won anyways, due to the high bar it set.

ClearPoint built the online system that supports Fonterra’s multi-billion dollar global dairy trade (GDT).

The system pools together information from buyers and sellers, including registering interests of buyers and sellers; the volumes that are on offer, or for purchase; the shipment, and the rules associated with the trading. This information is then fed into the trading ecosystem of users including banks.

The main challenge for ClearPoint at this stage was, there was no precedent to build the project on. Prior to the GDT, there wasn’t an open market place for dairy trading.

“The support system for GDT is a large and complex system that operates in a reasonably dynamic trading environment – the system had to have the flexibility that matches that of the customers trading within it,” Pietersen says.

ClearPoint assembled a highly experienced multi-skilled team for the job, harnessing the power of Agile to continually review, and deliver results.

“In the past, developers write huge scoping requirements, sign the contract and back two months, maybe six months later, tell the client ‘here’s what we have’. The customers would say, ‘This is not what we need’.”

The best softwares are developed through very close and regular interaction between the developer and the client on a daily basis, he adds.

“A central piece of this thinking is that when a software is built and engineered, it is fit for the purpose of today, with the realisation it can be reengineered for the requirements of tomorrow.

“We ensure that our teams who build software are not overbooked so they can maintain the velocity of building the software right to the very end. In the past, when a project is nearing its end, you have people working 20-hour days for the last two months.”

Agile but disciplined

Pietersen says out of the various techniques that Agile development is built around, ClearPoint favours the FDD (feature driven development) variant, which has been used very successfully by its client, Air New Zealand. The FDD technique spells out the critical features that would underpin the design and development of software.

ClearPoint, he adds, is very disciplined about applying the principle of Agile in its development process.

In September, ClearPoint celebrated its 7th birthday with a 70s sort of theme party, complete with a stage brought into HQ at Fanshawe Street for the party.

Check out the 70s theme party pics below

 

Pietersen’s advice for startup companies building softwares is to focus on building softwares as an enabler for business.

“Focus on building a business where there software’s focus is laser sharp on assisting customers to build their business. If you use the software as enabler for their business growth; you will be successful.

“If you build software for any other reason besides that, you need to think very carefully whether you are building technology for the sake of technology, rather than focus on technology as an enabler.

“I also think you need to have a bit of a differentiator in the way you run the organisation -- what is it you are doing that is a little different and a little better than the guy next door. It’s another way of saying – look after your customers first.”

Pietersen came to New Zealand in 1997. He grew up in Zambia, experienced the civil war there before studying chemistry and computer science in the UK.

He loves gadgets and tinkering around but struggles occasionally with the hard science questions asked by his primary school kids. Given another chance, he would, he says, do computer science all over again.

ClearPoint, he say, has the opportunity to set up in California but prefers to focus developing Australasia.

For now, the company will focus on honing its Agile skills here for delivery to the rest of the world.

ClearPoint now employs more than 130 talented people and has opened offices in Auckland, Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.