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Reality Check: Xero's Anna Curzon

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 Xero managing director Anna Curzon.

What’s your favourite…

Technology you can’t live without?

I couldn’t do without the camera on my phone! Not so much for taking pictures of my favourite sausage rolls but as a running to-do list or record of stuff. I’ll snap a picture just so I’ll remember something to do later. It’s also great for practical stuff, like showing the guy at Bunnings exactly the type of cistern I have so I don’t go home with the wrong loo.

Underrated or old technology?

The humble transistor radio. Yes, I admit it, I listen to talkback when I’m out walking. And yes, I could do this through the iHeartRadio app but then I’d be chewing through data.  Love the mono sound too, from AM radio… will it experience a renaissance just like vinyl? Look out!

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

I am a huge fan of Alexia Hilbertidou, who founded GirlBoss. They’re an amazing organisation that’s working hard to empower young women and girls to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths.) It’s vital work and I’m so impressed when accomplished women see an opportunity to make change, and pick up the ball and run with it.

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

I love Tesla, but not just for the awesome cars - I really love their battery project. Getting home power batteries into mass production will completely disrupt the power industry, and makes renewable power at scale a reality. For an individual, I’ll cheat and say Peter Beck from Rocket Lab. Sure he’s a Kiwi but much like Xero they’re quickly going global using NZ as a launchpad - in more ways than one!

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

We are almost finished our beta of Xero HQ. It’s a massive update to our accountant and bookkeeper practice management package. We’re really excited - it’ll totally revolutionise the space and make it so much easier and more efficient for our partners to run their practices.

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

RocketLab, again. There’s no real need to send accountants into space at this point in time, or we’d be building rockets as well - but I’m so impressed by what they’ve accomplished in such a short time.

What first drew you to this industry?

I’m passionate about digital transformation - I believe tech can democratise success by giving everyone the tools, knowledge and platforms that used to be reserved for big business or the privileged few.  The cloud will offer small businesses opportunities, in New Zealand and globally, to markets they’d never dreamed of. It has the potential to fuel the New Zealand economy in a way that’s never been done before.  Xero is all about helping businesses and their advisors achieve that digital transformation, while continuously innovating and transforming itself, and for me that’s the biggest drawcard.

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech?

The culture. Yes, tech businesses have huge cultural challenges all over the world, particularly around diversity and inclusivity, but that’s a big part of what I love so much about Xero. As a founder-led company, we’re able to take culture into our own hands, and build something that’s truly inclusive, genuinely diverse, and that we can all be proud of.

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

Great. There has never been a better time for  STEM to thrive in New Zealand. Our tech sector is booming, and software is set to be the core of business. We have to make sure that as a country we give tech the boost it needs to give New Zealand the leadership position it absolutely has the potential to have.
 

It’s great to see Nikki Kaye’s recent announcement for more digital education in the school curriculum, but let’s set ourselves some goals as a country - like having the most digitally literate kids in the world in five years.  Then set about working together in public-private partnership to make this happen.

Where does inspiration come from for you?

Our people at Xero, our small businesses and our partners. This Xero community is smokin’.  We collectively get up everyday to have a positive impact on the world by helping small businesses to succeed - because we know that will lead to more jobs not just in the big cities, but in the small towns right across the globe. As a leadership team it’s important to us that Xero people feel like they are doing the best work of their lives.  We work hard to cultivate a rich and diverse team of people because we know better we’ll make better decisions if we have different lenses looking at an opportunity or problem.  One of the key values here is #Human - that we really appreciate the different people who work for us.  We don’t mind if they have a sideline or something they’re passionate about or work on in their spare time - in fact, we actively encourage it! We have so many amazing people here. We’ve got people in chart-topping rock bands, best-selling authors, actors, singers, people with really innovative small businesses - they impress me every day.

Reality check

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

As Xero has grown into a truly global company, with offices all over the world, tech has meant that we’re actually more connected than ever. A normal day for me, and for nearly everyone who works at Xero, has meetings with people all over the world, all collaborating in real time over Google Hangouts. There are people working from home in Hawke’s Bay, people in offices in London, people tube stations in London, people fresh off the slopes in Colorado. We’re everywhere at once. It’s normal now, but still mind-blowing when you think about it. I think we’re only going to get more connected as technology like VR and AR take off - there are some huge developments in that area just around the corner.

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

Ironically, after my last answer - it’s definitely possible for people to be tied to screens for too long. Too much of a good thing never ends up being good. I think the trick is, yes, let’s use screens, use this amazing technology, but let’s take the time to get outside, appreciate the environment we all depend on, connect with the earth and just be human.

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

I’m definitely very hooked into my phone. I’d say that I depend on it - for work, for social things. But addiction implies that you can’t put it down, or that you get withdrawals when you do. When I’m with family or friends, I try and purposely put down my phone and turn attention to being present in the moment (yes - this is easier said than done!).

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

It depends. I see social media as an amplification of human behaviours both good and bad. There are some horrible impulses you can see all over social media - group attacks, bullying - and it certainly brings a lot of unsavoury elements into visibility it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also amplifies so much of of what’s good about people. It gives a voice to people who simply wouldn’t have had one before, and it allows that voice to be amplified. It’s still absolutely in its infancy. We have a lot to work out. But ultimately I think it’s a blessing.

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

It depends what you’re asking about. I think law, in a number of ways, has to catch up with technology. People within the legal and legislative framework need to work closely with people who know tech to make sure that, when it comes to tech, we make law that works well in the modern world.

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

This is tough because it’s very tricky to, say, hire 50/50, based on the very fact of historical and societal biases against people who are not white, straight men. That is absolutely a problem. But it’s a solvable problem and we have to solve it. The main reason it’s a problem is that it tends to be self-perpetuating, and because it is proven - 100 percent proven - that diversity is helpful to organisations. Put another way, if it’s hard to be diverse, it’s hard to be performing as well as you should be, as a company. I think the way to tackle it is for tech companies to support and boost programmes, as much as possible, that aim to actively train up diverse people who have traditionally been excluded from tech. We need to offer internships to people that are under-represented in our teams. Once we have better diversity of people entering tech, we’ll have better outcomes for everyone.

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

My scariest prediction is that we get scared of the pace of change, and turn to an imagined golden past to solve the problems of today. That won’t work. On things like climate change, we have to act, not sit on our hands - and tech will be needed to help us act. I don’t think the robots will kill us all. I think AI and machine learning will help us. I really believe that, problems notwithstanding, we have it in us to use tech to build a better world.

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

I see a country less dependent on commodity exports and more invested in long-term value. It’ll be vastly more diverse. And none of the cars will have drivers, except when we really want them to. Tech will be our biggest exporter, and kiwis will be in hot demand globally because they were brought up learning about tech in their first year of school.