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Reality Check: Kordia's Aaron Olphert

As part of Idealog's Technology Month, we've picked the brains of some of the movers and shakers in the industry to find out their favourite tech-related things, their biggest fears for the future and what other companies and individuals inspire their work. Here's Kordia chief digital officer Aaron Olphert.

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

My Plex media server. Although my wife and kids don’t seem to subscribe to my view of what good music is, I love chilling out to the hundreds of CD’s I’ve copied onto the media server that make up my eclectic collection. The beauty of Plex is that I can cast what I want to listen to, at that point in time, to any speaker system in the house without having to physically load the CD from my music library or change the input source.  

Underrated or old technology?

Valve-powered audio equipment. This is the perfect combination of purity of sound, nostalgia and a piece of tech art. A caveat to the purity bit is that I have a plan to bastardise the vintage radio I have by kind of “steam punking” it with a RaspberryPi streaming modification.

New Zealand tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

Industrial Internet of Things has the potential to create substantial economic benefits for businesses, create more sustainable cities/environment, and open up new global export markets for our tech industry. There are some really talented and innovative start-ups like Motiv and Tussock Innovation that have been able to develop and launch solutions in a short space of time. Motiv has built a solution to monitor and control speed safety signs outside of schools and Tussock Innovation has developed a storm water sensor to remotely provide flood warnings. The energy and speed at which these companies can concept and then develop prototypes is amazing.

Global tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things?

A bit of a cliché but it would be Elon Musk. You can debate the economic viability of his companies and whether he should receive the subsidies he gets. You can’t debate that he comes up with some fantastical ideas that challenge the status quo, which even if they don’t come off, do force the rest of each associated industry to adapt.

Tech project or product you’ve had a hand in?

Over the past 12 months Kordia has placed a focus on being an “IoT Evangelist” here in New Zealand. A key part of this was firstly forming a partnership with Thinxtra for the national deployment of a SigFox low power wide area network (LPWAN) and more recently doing similar work with Spark around their LoRa LPWAN ambitions. Both of these projects remove a fundamental barrier to Industrial IoT adoption through solving national connectivity needs. Now the focus can go on device makers and big data analytics providers creating end-end solutions. 

Tech project or product that isn’t yours, but you’re envious of?

RaspberryPi is an amazing concept as it opens up tech to a broad base of learning and can also be used for hobbyist and commercial applications. The basic solution has also opened up an ever expanding ecosystem of add-ons, projects and concepts. If I wasn’t working for six months I would hide away in a workshop and just build RaspberryPi based toys, from a retro arcade machine through to robots.

What first drew you to this industry?

Since I was young I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work, by deconstructing them and then trying (normally unsuccessfully) to rebuild them into something better. When I was about seven or eight I ended up giving myself several electric shocks trying to fix an old record player - most sane children would have given up after the first shock whereas I belligerently carried on. It was a natural extension to move into the telecommunications industry, where I was able to build things like mobile phone networks and television broadcast systems and have the joy of seeing the end solution working and delivering a benefit to someone.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

he pace of technology change is astounding and so there is always new things to play with, new business models to develop, and new conversations to have with customers.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

It’s very healthy. Due to our relatively small population and small geographic area everyone sells to everyone, everyone competes with each other, and everyone is comfortable having a beer with each other. ‘Co-opetition’ is a great descriptor and New Zealand is lucky that in general we have this play hard/play fair mentality to business. Overseas this isn’t the case and even in Australia you will rarely see competitors having a beer and a laugh together.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

My father left school without any qualifications and still managed to achieve great things and ended up in senior management positions. From a young age he taught us that there is no limit to what you can achieve, and the limiting factor is yourself. If you treat others with respect, you work hard and you constantly challenge yourself you can do anything and get anywhere in life.

Reality check

How has tech impacted on your work?

How will it impact on it in the future? As a service provider, my life is consumed with keeping at the front of the digital technology curve. Tech allows us all to work more efficiently, scale our businesses without a linear increase in workforce and deliver innovation to our customers. I have a fundamental belief that you can’t hope to solve any problem or improve any situation without data and the ability to stress test options against that data. The future benefits of collecting more seemingly disparate data sources and using machines to identify trends will empower all of us to make smarter and more real-time decisions regardless of our industry.

What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience? Getting something done requires affected individuals or groups to be aligned. Regardless of whether this involves internal teams, customers, or supply chain, the only real way to achieve this is interpersonal communication. Email and other electronic messaging solutions have brought huge benefits and removed the barrier of distance, however, the downside is a substantial reduction in the ability of people having direct relationships. If you need to solve a problem or move something forward the best way is still a one to one discussion over a coffee.

How would you describe your relationship with technology?

Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it? My daughter told me a couple of years ago (when she was three) to give her the iPad as I didn’t know what I was doing. This probably sums up my love/hate relationship with technology and in particular IT. I love gadgets, learning about trends and helping customers gain benefits from technology but I would gladly give up my computer if I could.

Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

It’s a fantastic way to keep in touch with distant friends and to network with business contacts. The downside is that it creates the vocal 0.1% who purport to represent the views of the majority and it also creates an echo chamber for those with like-minded positions on topics. The risk is people within an unhealthy position on a topic having this reinforced as acceptable by like-minded individuals.

Do you think technology needs more laws surrounding it, or a form of resource consent regulation?

As a liberal I’m generally against any form of regulation or unnecessary laws. I don’t see any use in adding regulation or control. However, I do believe that society - and the tech industry as a whole - has a role to play in ensuring that no one becomes a digital refugee through isolation from (whether that be caused by poverty, circumstance, age or education) technology.

What needs to be done to tackle the diversity issue in tech?

In my view, there is not so much a cultural diversity issue as with Kordia - and any other tech company I know - we have great people from all different cultures, nations and backgrounds. The issue is the dearth of females in technical roles – something the industry is aware of and is working to address and rectify. I believe this comes down to two things: the culture of our workplaces and the fact tech is not necessarily promoted as a valid career prospect in schools; and because of this a lot of STEM type subjects tend to be dominated by one sector of society (males). The tech industry and the education sector need to come together to highlight and promote the opportunities for women in tech and the great jobs available.

What worries you the most about technology?

Hype and fear versus benefit. Vendors spend a lot of money creating products and services that don’t solve an actual problem and therefore provide no real benefit. Within the tech industry we are good at over complicating things and confusing the market and customers. We need to be constantly vigilant that we don’t push customers into purchasing hype.

What’s your scariest prediction for the future? Will the robots kill us all?

I’m a big Sci-Fi fan and so I need to temper what I enjoy being entertained by, versus what is actually probable. One of my favourite movies is Flash Gordon and if we believe that, Ming the Merciless will try to crash the Moon into the Earth. In reality I believe humans are more likely to do something utterly stupid that puts the rest of us in jeopardy before any robots, aliens or other technology has the opportunity to kill us off. A more likely scary scenario could be half a dozen mega-corporations gaining total control of our end-end food chain and freshwater supplies.

What will New Zealand look like as a country in 2037?

In 2037 New Zealand will still be the best country in the world to live in. We will still have access to fantastic natural resources and picturesque landscapes, but would have learnt how to look after and utilise them better. Our cities will also be melting pots of culture and experience. The main noticeable differences will be that our architecture will have form as well as function, transport will be automated and efficient, and everything will be digitally connected.