Mission reset: Chris Vein on the ACS turnaround

James Riley
Editorial Director

When the Australian Computer Society went looking for a turnaround specialist to guide the organisation out of a period of unprecedented turmoil and controversy, it sought an ultimate outsider.

American Chris Vein was appointed in March, landed officially at the ACS in the first week of July, and has been running ever since.

The Australian Computer Society is a 57-year-old goliath with annual revenue of about $50 million, making it by far the best resourced of the tech sector’s not-for-profit representative organisations.

But for anyone who was watching from the outside – and we were – the ACS had lost its way. Its internal focus had become so intense, and so toxic, that a group of its own members took Federal Court action against the society over plans for a controversial and ultimately botched corporate restructure.

If big challenges mean great opportunities, then this was an organisation filled to over-flowing with opportunity.

Australian Computer Society CEO Chris Vein

Chris Vein was appointed not just from outside the organisation, but from outside the country. He is a former CIO of the City of San Francisco. He has worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations in tech roles – the latter as deputy chief technology officer for government innovation.

He was chief innovation officer for ICT development at the World Bank, and more recently run the global Government Digital Transformation practice for PwC as a partner out of Sydney.

Mr Vein spent the 90-odd days between being appointed to the role and being granted a work visa looking under the covers of the organisation and consulting widely with members, stakeholders and employees on the challenges that lay ahead.

When he formally arrived in July, he had settled on three primary goals.

The first and most immediately important priority was to re-orient the ACS back toward a focus on its members, he said.

The second priority – which was a necessity to achieve the first – was to reinvest in building capability and capacity within the organisation, to improve the efficiency of the services it delivers.

And thirdly, if the ACS could achieve some success in those first two priorities, it would focus on elevating the role that the Australian Computer Society can play in the market.

“Because I have felt – and still do – that ACS could be doing so much more than it actually is doing,” Mr Vein told InnovationAus.com during a sit-down interview in Canberra at the end of 2022. “It tended to be rather inwardly focused.”

“I want to really exercise what I think is the potential for a leadership [role] by the ACS, whether it be in the government marketplace, or in business, academia … or just across Australia as a whole,” he said.

The seven months since July has been a sprint for an organisation better described euphemistically as “venerable” than “nimble”.

Having already had a good look at the ACS while waiting on a visa, he spent the first month developing a new strategy for organisation and its affiliates, and then the second month building a new financial plan to meet that strategy.

By the third month he had begun a structural reorganisation, quickly followed by the start of a business project re-engineering project. By November and December, actual changes to processes and procedures had begun to be enacted.

The vast majority of the ACS $50 million revenues is generated through skills accreditation services for individuals applying for a temporary or permanent migration visa to Australia. The ACS is an assessing authority on behalf of the Australian Government.

The reengineering of the ACS back-end machine aims to safeguard that revenue base, and to “build a new baseline” on which the organisation can deliver value to Australia.

“We are a charity, we are a non-profit [organisation],” Mr Vein said. “And in my opinion, while the ACS had not forgotten about that, we perhaps hadn’t emphasised that part of our organization as much as we could or should have.”

The outward-facing Australian Computer Society that the new CEO says he is building is settling on a tagline that reads ‘People plus technology equals impact’.

“It doesn’t sound particularly exciting. But for the ACS it captures three very important roles for our organisation.”

The first relates to skills. The ACS Digital Pulse report in 2022 found that 1.2 million technology workers would be required to meet Australia’s needs by 2027. The Tech Council of Australia put forward a broadly similar number (it talked about 1.2 million by 2030).

“The point is that we have a lot of work to do as a country in order to bring in enough people to meet demand, and for us [at the ACS], how are we as an organisation going to help to do that?”

The Australian Computer Society has kept a tight focus over the years on ICT – information and Communications Technologies – even in the more recent decades of software eating the world and generations of digital transformation.

Mr Vein says the rethink at the ACS will broaden that focus, particularly to cover the skills in critical technologies that the federal government has identified as priorities. Add to that list artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum sciences and even emerging technologies like Web3.

“We are about making sure there are enough people with access and training in the right technologies to actually have social impact.”

He says a major area of focus for the society – where it believes it can provide leadership – will be around the environmental impact of technology, and in steering work on how to reduce that environmental impact.

The third pillar, he says, “is really about revisiting something that isn’t particularly sexy, but is still a big issue” – and that’s all about digital inclusion. This is quite simply, he says, about finding ways to make sure that technology is available to the full spectrum of people across society.

It means ensuring that the benefits of new technology, including access to the high-value jobs in the industry, are available to all Australians.

It’s two years since a group of the ACS’ own members took the organisation to the Federal Court to halt a controversial restructure. The society has quietly moved to change, first under the steadying leadership of interim-CEO Rupert Grayston and more recently through Chris Vein.

The crisis at the ACS has loomed as an existential threat for the organisation. The changes that the shock of a Federal Court induced are not complete.

Recommendations for corporate structural changes have been handed to the Management Committee after lengthy and detailed discussions co-led by current ACS president Nick Tate and the chief protagonist in the Federal Court action, Roger Clarke.

Some decisions based on these recommendations are expected to be made at the Management Committee – the equivalent of a corporate board – in February, regardless of the difficult relationships that remain on the committee.

In the meantime, Chris Vein effuses an air of humility when he talks about the Australian Computer Society and the contribution that he hopes the organisation can yet make to the nation.

It’s a refreshing change for an organisation so badly marked by hubris.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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