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Reality Check: Trade Me's Nick Parfene

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 Trade Me's head of mobile Nick Parfene. 

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

I can’t live without my iPhone but in my role, I can’t be biased about platforms. I work with Android and iOS all the time. My personal choice is the iPhone and I find myself using it all the time: it’s easy, intuitive, and makes my life easier.

Underrated or old technology?

Radio. Even in the internet age radio has translated so well to the digital world and expanded its listener base. I’m Romanian and I can stream stations from home when I feel a bit homesick.

Also, I’m fascinated by the power of learning by listening. Whether that’s podcasts or radio or something else. I built a radio as a kid - it got me interested in a bunch of things I’d never have discovered otherwise.

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

Natasha Lampard (founder of Webstock) is doing amazing things - she’s an enabler, she creates the opportunity via Webstock for people to exchange ideas, talk and create things that make the world a better place. She’s an inspiration.

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

Elon Musk - I particularly appreciate his transparency in the way that he does things. He communicates his plan and then he goes and does it. He’s inspirational, he thinks outside the square, but more importantly, he delivers on his vision and he is thinking about the future of humanity. He’s also thinking about the future of AI, and while I don’t always agree with everything he says, he’s challenging the status quo and he’s making us think.

He seems to care about more than just the businesses he’s involved in. He makes me challenge what I thought was possible.

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

Home automation is something I’ve been working on. HomeKit, an Apple product, has been my platform of choice, mostly because of its security. I’ve connected my lights, heat pump, coffee machine, TV, and so much more. It’s something fun but it also makes my life easier. If I need the house warm before I get home it’s all at my fingertips. Also, I have a new baby on the way, so I (and only I) will be able to see my child when I have to work which is really cool to me. My efforts in the space have been around adding backwards compatibility (and, implicitly, increased privacy and security) with HomeKit for devices that have been on the market for a long time.

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

There are so many! I’m really mesmerised by many of the machine learning products that are out there. They can make life easier by better prediction and understanding of complex decisions. I think they will make things like driving safer. I wish I had more time to invest in that field.

What first drew you to this industry?

I was into mathematics as a kid but I needed something more applicable. I wanted to do something that showed me the impact of my actions - I think working in technology lets you see tangibly where you’re making people’s lives better/easier, I moved into computer science at university and that was it for me.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

The fact I can make people’s lives easier with the work I do.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

I emigrated to NZ in 2005 - I feel very privileged as it’s a very open-minded and inclusive culture. As a minority I’ve never felt discriminated against. As a fully assimilated citizen I believe there’s more we can do in a diversity sense.

We’re a technology sandbox for much of the world, with lots of products being trialed here,  but there is an issue with our distance with the lack of venture capital in New Zealand. Sometimes it’s harder to get a great idea off the ground here. We’re lucky in many respects,  but there’s room for improvement.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

The world around me. I’m a positive person, I don’t take things for granted and I realise the things that bring me joy today were mere ideas yesterday so that forces me to pay it forward.

From working in NGOs back home, I’ve looked at ways I can do my bit for the community. I believe constraints are instrumental to creativity…I also have a need to give back. That’s a selfish need, as I feel like I get more joy than the people who I give to.

Reality check

How has tech impacted on your work? How will it impact on it in the future?

Tech is my work. It’s going to evolve and I have to evolve with it or be left behind. You can never settle, with technology there’s always room to improve. My dad used to use punch card computers that filled a building and now I have a more powerful computer strapped to my wrist. It’s shaped my life and it will continue to do so.

What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience?

I get scared when I see people engaging more with a device than with the people around them. One of the risks is that it can make us less human. Computers should be there to make life better, not less human.

But there are so many things that bring us closer - I can FaceTime my little girl when I can’t be with her, so if it’s used correctly it can bring us closer.

It makes me sad to see a group of friends at a cafe staring at their phones rather than enjoying each other’s company.

How would you describe your relationship with technology? Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it?

I think I’m at least partially addicted. My morning routine includes my iPhone. I get a sense of withdrawal if I forget my headphones for my commute because I listen to podcasts and interviews. I like to think that I’m learning when I have my phone - my gaming console on the other hand isn’t the same...

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

It’s not black and white. Social media creates echo chambers and you need to be proactive to avoid that. It’s also made me judge my friends more and dislike them a little if they overshare.

There is a slight “conflict” between social media and democracy - progress happens through debate not by confirming what you think. I use Twitter - it exposes me to people I may never meet and I get to share ideas and conversations with them. It’s very accessible too, no matter who you are or who you know.

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

I grew up in a communist country and I saw some terrible things so I have a bias against regulation. At the same time, I’m concerned about people posing as truth-tellers with no fact checking - it feels like there needs to be a better balance there. Maybe machine learning will help us with that.

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

Everything. I saw a quote recently that says it better than I can: “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

We need to be proactive - we have to accept that there is a problem and all agree then we need to agree to tackle it. Not enough is done and it’s an awareness issue. There are small steps we could take - eliminate names and dates on CVs for hiring managers, make sure job ads don’t have an unconscious bias with male-dominated interests or words.

We can also own up to our mistakes - if we realise we’ve done something wrong, correct it and own it. There’s no shame in making a mistake but there’s shame in not correcting one we know about.

Apply the right values. It’s not just gender of course, it’s also race, sexual orientation, religion and so much more.

We all benefit, we really do.

What worries you the most about technology?

I worry about technology’s contribution to making people less sociable and human. I also worry about tech becoming self-aware and I worry about pay gaps. We’re in a well-paid industry and it can create misconceptions about affordability between friends, family, and community.

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

Technology can allow us to work less and help us achieve more happiness, if we’re driven by a good ethical compass we’re going to be fine. If we’re overly selfish then we might be taken over by our creations.

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

I would like to see a country with no more petrol or gas vehicles, self-sufficient with food and using totally sustainable electricity thanks to technology. I don’t expect that all to happen in 20 years but hopefully we’re far down that path.