Westpac’s outgoing chief information officer, Dave Curran, has warned that so-called “Big Tech” vendors need to seriously lift their game to be considered true business partners, comparing them to “the hippos of the banking ecosystem”.
Addressing the Trans-Tasman Business Circle in Sydney on Friday, Curran’s equivalent of a 30-year career valedictory saw the highly-regarded technologist caution Australia’s business community, regulators, government and educators must urgently coordinate their efforts much better to stop the nation from falling behind of the skills and capability front.
"We have fallen well behind where we need to be as a nation," Curran said.
"Even though I am an eternal optimist, I still worry about how Australia will fare in this new tech-driven world.
"Australia’s economic prosperity is critically dependent on having a world standard tech capability that informs everything that we do – from mining to agriculture, retail to manufacturing, finance to media, architecture to entertainment.
"Technology will need to be deeply integrated with people and processes."
While Curran stressed that all stakeholders in Australia’s technology ecosystem needed to coordinate their efforts much better to realise Australia’s national opportunity, the behaviour of large vendors came in for special attention, especially their tendency to focus on sales rather than delivery.
He should know too. Curran’s former boss, Sir Ralph Norris, as CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia described him as a poacher turned gamekeeper thanks to his long stint at Accenture.
“Sometimes global tech companies don’t give Australia the focus we deserve or need,” Curran said.
“I can turn up after a weekend and discover that 30 staff who were working with my team on Friday aren’t there on a Monday, because of a decision we didn’t know about made in some offshore intergalactic HQ.”
Curran said that some “Big Tech providers will sell different kit into the business that isn’t compatible with Westpac’s overall strategy or systems. Hippos can take a big bite,” Curran said.
The candour of Curran’s comments confirms a growing anecdotal sentiment across large enterprise and government customers that many US-centred firms has reverted to ink-and-run tactics on trophy Australian accounts rather than forming longer strategic partnerships.
Curran’s comments elicited strong and visible empathy from fellow buyers while rattling many suppliers in the room.
Maintaining his trademark diplomacy, humour and upbeat outlook, the tier-one CIO didn’t hold back on what needs to change.
“Salespeople are great at sales, but that’s all they focus on. Big Tech companies sometimes complain that we call them suppliers rather than partners, but we do this because it’s true. We are treated as customers, not rue partners and long-term collaborators,” Curran said.
Comparing the business of banking technology to a dancehall full of animalian protagonists, Curran said that “Big Tech are the slam dancer at the dance: showy and consequential”.
There’s clearly room for improvement in terms of technique.
“I’d like to see Big Tech genuinely transform and become less of a performer and more of the partner they claim they want to be; responding to our aspirations, becoming more flexible and aligning more closely to our strategic goals,” Curran said.
“In my five years at Westpac we’ve spent over $10 billion on technology… The problem I see is that the players in the ecosystem are often out of step with each other.
"We are like a bunch of diverse people at a dance. But each dancer has a different tune in their head and moves to their own rhythm.
“It’s not enough for everyone to do their own dance well. Each participant must contribute to the effectiveness of the overall system,” Curran said.