Ted Pretty has had a long and celebrated career in the Australian tech sector. The current CEO of data-centric security firm Covata has also held senior positions at Telstra, Fujitsu and NextDC, as well as taking on the role of CEO for Hills Industries, turning the venerable maker of backyard washing lines into a technology services business.
He has seen everything when it comes to the war for talent in the tech industry, something that is especially vexing for the sector right now. However, according to Mr Pretty, the current skills shortage, particularly in cyber security, is something that should be viewed as a ‘glass half full.’
“It’s a great thing that we have demand for skills,” he said. “However we need to have the right educational approach, as well as good government policy, skilled migration and R&D incentives. The reality is that if it is hard to do development here, it will go offshore.”
Mr Pretty said that many countries would give their right arm to have the level of demand currently being experienced in Australia, but noted that Australia needs the right policy framework in order to support that demand in order for the industry to grow.
One of the key issues, he said, is connecting the academic and commercial environments. This is not just in terms of educating people with the right skills, but also spinning out academic research into commercial ventures.
“This will generate [economic] activity and innovation, and the more activity you have, the more people you attract,” he said. “It’s a virtuous circle that creates an ecosystem.”
One of the most controversial issues for Australian companies with the demand for talent relates to the government’s restriction on 457 visas. Mr Pretty said we need policy around skilled migration, and that having people come in from overseas is a positive thing.
“The discussion around 457 has put people from overseas off from applying for jobs in Australia,” he said. “We need to be expanding 457, not contracting it.”
Related to the issue around 457 is also the funding that SMEs and start-ups are able to attract in Australia. Overseas candidates wonder if Australian companies are well-funded enough to pay competitive salaries, and whether they have the funds to offer long-term job security.
“It’s a question of whether the candidate can be paid a rate that is competitive with other markets, and what the level of job security is,” he said. “And that all comes back to funding issues here in Australia.”
Related to the issue of funding and remuneration is also the way in which Australia handles things like providing equity in lieu of higher wages, he said.
“There is a bidding war for talent, and it’s hard for small companies because we can’t always offer the same base salaries and incentives,” he noted. “We need to have share plans, and a system more like it is in the US, where robust equity participation is more meaningful for employees.”
Australia hasn’t been aggressive enough about equity, he continued. “We need to push back against the amount of restrictions and hurdles around employee share plans. They have to feel they can earn equity and have a stake in the business.”
However the skills shortage locally doesn’t just come down to whether or not Australia is training enough technical professionals, or whether we are able to pay them enough. According to Mr Pretty, development skills need a host of ancillary jobs and skills surrounding them in order to create viable businesses and products.
“It’s not just about developers and developer operations,” he said. “You also need technical pre-sales, marketing and product management talent.
“I don’t think product management is as well appreciated in the Australian market, but that is what drives development – quality product management and quality marketing,” he continued.
Skills that are associated with product development aren’t just traditional marketers or brand experts. They need to have familiarity with the technology, and have the ability to understand and promote it.
It even comes down to the ability to prepare products for marketing overseas. In the past, said Mr Pretty, Australia was pretty much a sales outpost for overseas companies. Now there’s a vibrant development community in Australia, but to tap overseas markets, products and materials all need to be translated into different languages and be appropriate for different cultures.
“We need to be adept in marketing to overseas countries,” he said. “There’s good demand from places like Japan, the Middle East and the EU, but we need to have the right skills mix to take advantage of those markets.
“In the end, the shortage is there,” he continued, “but it’s an opportunity to hire, to attract people and to feed demand.”
InnovationAus.com has joined with Covata as a presentation partner for the upcoming Cyber Security: The Leadership Imperative forum in Melbourne on October 26. You can secure you seat at this important event here.