Sandy Plunkett on tech & culture

James Riley
Editorial Director

Sandy Plunkett has had several careers in the tech industry. I first met her in the very early 1990s when she was a reporter covering the technology beat for Business Review Weekly way back in pre-history when business magazines were large and influential.

She spent ten years as a reporter, before jumping into Australian VC pioneer Allen & Buckeridge and heading to San Francisco. From there she jumped into a Silicon Valley startup and rode the roller-coaster through the first dotcom bust.

Sandy has spent time in the industry in Sydney, San Francisco and Los Angeles. She returned to Australia five years ago after 15 years as an expat. As founder of Innovation Clearinghouse she is a consultant and adviser on innovation, entrepreneur and ecosystem issues.

And here’s the thing with Sandy Plunkett. In an industry where everyone has an opinion about the ‘ecosystem’ issues, she is an original thinker. In Australia, it is a lot harder than you might think to find these original thinkers.

Very often, where there is a tired prevailing view, she will apply a different filter to deliver significant insight. This does not always go down well, especially within an Australian cultural system that is both conservative and conformist.

In this podcast, we really talk through issues of technology, ideas and culture. And this is really the filter that Plunkett applies: When talking about the technology industry and Big Picture ideas, she applies a cultural context that is sometimes confronting.

It’s always interesting. And when we talk about developing an Australian industry, cultural influences are central. Tech and culture is at the centre of a book Plunkett is writing, tentatively titled ‘Reckoning.’

Last week, Plunkett wrote a piece for that sketched an outline of the Australian industry’s disturbingly government-centric thinking. As much as the tech and startup sectors have gathered incredible momentum in the past two or three years, our cultural instincts tell us to look to the government to “do something.”

This is counter to the entrepreneurial thinking prevalent in successful ecosystems elsewhere. Of course public policy can set direction, but people don’t hang around waiting for government to do something. And that’s cultural.

“We have never really felt a sense of urgency here. I mean look around! [Australia] is a pretty nice place to live, and we’re endowed with natural resources. So there just isn’t the kind of urgency [or necessity] that is felt elsewhere,” Plunkett said.

And this is really the issue right now, as we wait for Innovation and Science Australia to complete its 2030 Strategic Plan for the Australian Innovation, Science and Research System by the end of the year.

“In my work lifetime, I think there have been 20-30 [of these reviews]. And I really wonder what is required to really move to a point of action” from a cultural perspective.

For all the talk about the challenges in preparing for the jobs of the future – and the impact on jobs of automation technologies – there is little action. And that is a consequence of an Australian culture that is kind of slow to get moving – even though the amazing quality of life we have in Australia is under foreseeable threat.

“The reason I am putting myself through the torture of writing the book is that I am trying to understand – and I do think about these things deeply – things about Australian culture that I am only now noticing,” Plunkett said.

“Is it because I am older? Or because I’ve returned from overseas? Those things are interesting and vexing to me. Because we are not walled off by any means. We are literally competing for jobs and talent in a global market.

“Australia is not too shabby … we have got some amazing qualities. But I am wondering whether than quality of life and that sense of egalitarianism that we value so much – and with good reason – I am wondering whether that’s now vulnerable,” she said. “Vulnerable to global competition.”

“I’m saying that even with all of our good intentions that it is possible we are still not moving fast enough. And that makes us vulnerable.”

Plunkett has also weighed in on the recent revelations of high profile cases on sexual harassment in the VC sector in an article titled Beware the wolves of Silicon Valley.

“The ‘wolves’ reference was really about what I think has happened to Silicon Valley tech since the Internet has matured,” Plunkett said. “That it’s very data-driven, of course, that there’s lots of money at play … so it’s a lot like Wall Street.”

“Silicon Valley insiders will [tell you] that those cultures are kind of merging – that is Silicon Valley and Wall Street cultures [are merging],” she said.

“Australia has got a whole different set of issues. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the tech sector, and we making big progress in tech, but we are quite a bit more provincial.

“We are less globally aware and less competitive. We have a long way to go … and yet there is a problem with misogyny. Quite a bit I think.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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