Tech Council CEO Damian Kassabgi on the policy agenda

James Riley
Editorial Director

Freshly appointed Tech Council of Australia chief executive Damian Kassabgi has renewed the organisation’s commitment to building tech skills within the Australian workforce and is pressing for policy reform to accelerate the process.

Mr Kassabgi used the organisation’s flagship event at Parliament House in Canberra to highlight the massive economic opportunity presented by the adoption of AI-based products and services, and to light a fire under the policy response needed to help build an AI-capable workforce.

Australia will need 200,000 AI workers by 2030 to realise that opportunity – up about 500 per cent the 33,000 AI workers right now. The opportunity to the economy is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Skills have been the central, public-facing policy agenda of the Tech Council since it was established three years ago under founding CEO Kate Pounder, and this remains the focus under Damian Kassabgi.

Tech Council chief executive Damian Kassagbi. Image; Supplied

Which of course makes sense. You don’t have a competitive tech sector without a skilled and creative workforce. Building product, building new industries, building wealth for the economy. It’s a people business.

And that’s the tech sector’s calling card when it visits the nation’s political leaders: A high-growth industry, creating fast-growing numbers of high-paying jobs and high-value products.

Speaking to on the sidelines of the Tech Council’s Showcase event held in the Mural Hall at Parliament, the new CEO is both familiar and comfortable with both the environment and the people in it.

He spent time as a senior advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – including advising on the digital economy and communications – before joining public policy teams in the tech sector, first with Google in Sydney and then Uber in San Francisco and finally Afterpay and Block.

So yes, joining the Tech Council was familiar territory. He was at Afterpay working in public policy and was involved in helping to bring the resources of its founding members together to get the TCA under way.

“When I was at Afterpay, it was very clear to me being in an Australian tech company and having worked overseas, that there was no industry body focused on Australian tech – and that cared about the Australian needs in the market,” Mr Kassabgi said.

“And that’s why Atlassian, Canva and Afterpay got together at the time and were part of the founding board member group of Australian tech companies, with Australian founders, to think about tech interests,” he said.

The Tech Council has been something of a revelation. Kate Pounder built the organisation from its standing start three years ago – albeit back-rolled initially by a small cohort of Australia’s most successful tech companies – to more than 150 members.

The core focus of the TCA remains the same. It is an advocacy organisation for tech and for innovation, for companies creating jobs and skills and science emanating from Australia, and for companies investing in Australia.

“And I’m excited by the fact that on the agenda that Kate [Pounder] had been working on are things like quantum computing and AI, and there is no doubt that these are obvious areas of continued focus,” he said.

The tech sector is horizontal. It’s a broad church. So, you can take your interests where you want in the application of technology.

Mr Kassabgi says his career background means he sees huge opportunities in the FinTech sector, where Australia is right now “producing a lot of new technologies” underpinning first-in-the-world products and service.

He cites local startup Zepto’s instant payments and bank to bank transfers that are outside of the Visa and Mastercard rails as an example of exciting Australian innovation.

Cleantech and the energy transition are already attracting a lot of attention from Australian entrepreneurs and will be keenly followed and promoted by the Tech Council.

Much of the attention of government policy is on the physical manufacturing through initiatives like Future Made in Australia and the National Reconstruction Fund, but it will be software that extracts value and efficiency.

Whatever natural advantages Australia has to become a green energy superpower also provides the foundation for tech sector opportunities to build intelligence into the energy networks (and thereby create products for world markets).

There is a “meat and potatos” challenge that will attract both policy attention and the focus of our entrepreneurs and technologists. Data centres are a largely unseen critical infrastructure, largely outside of the public consciousness.

But AI is driving voracious demand for new data centres capacity and the electricity to power it. This is a growing issue.

“Whether it’s AWS and Microsoft, or AirTrunk and other Australian startups, we have created very, very valuable data centre infrastructure capability in this country, either through multinational investment or through our homegrown talent,” Mr Kassabgi says.

Maintaining that capability has to be a first order priority for the national economy. Doing this in the context of the energy transition is a huge challenge.

“That’s something that we haven’t solved yet. It’s an important piece of the puzzle for the Internet and tech to work properly,” he says. That makes it another Tech Council priority.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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