The Outsiders: Our Class of 2015

James Riley
Editorial Director

In the tech and innovation sectors, there are three high-profile names you will see popping up again and again. Paul Shetler, Adrian Turner and Alex Scandurra are outsiders, recruited from offshore in 2015 to drive cultural change, improve innovation outcomes and ultimately build better economic performance for Australia.

All three arrived with a huge task in front of them, and each brought massive ambition to the role. They have attracted both admirers and critics. They have charmed and cajoled. They have annoyed people.

Each has the solid backing of the Prime Minister. All three will be fervently hoping Malcolm Turnbull is returned.

They are doing things differently. So far, it seems to be working out pretty well for Australia, but there are huge challenges and it may yet end in tears.

The Digital Transformation Office’ chief executive officer Paul Shetler was recruited from the UK and started work in July last year. ( wrote about him in the first newsletter we ever published.)

Data61 chief executive Adrian Turner returned to Australia last August after a whole career in Silicon Valley. Like Mr Shetler, he brought with him a different way of thinking about collaboration, about commercialisation and internationalisation, and about ambition.

And Stone & Chalk CEO Alex Scandurra – also an Australian national – was recruited from London, where he had most recently been running successful innovation strategy at Barclays Bank.

These are three very different men. But they share common traits, not least of which is that they are intense personalities.

So here’s the thing. I have been thinking a lot about the cultural change underway right now in Australia, and the people who are driving it, and there are many.

The prime mover is, of course, is the Prime Minister. Ever since that first press conference after the late night spill that made him PM-designate last September, Malcolm Turnbull has given people permission to go for it.

Every time he says it’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian – while addressing issues of disruptive change – he is giving people permission to BE excited about the opportunity rather than daunted by the challenge. And to express that excitement.

As we know, culture flows from the top.

Paul Shetler, Adrian Turner and Alex Scandurra have taken Malcolm Turnbull at his word. They took on roles as outsiders – literally recruited from outside Australia in an exercise in skills technology transfer and skills transfer – and they are absolutely going for it.

They were all appointed before Turnbull became the Prime Minister. But the change at the top lit a fire under each.

We have entered a period of quite radical cultural change in Australia. The centrality of innovation policy in the economic story of this government has not yet taken hold in the mainstream.

If you think about the three domains these blokes represent: Shetler as a public servant; Turner in institutional, publicly-funded research; and Scandurra at the pointy-end of tech/commerce and finance. These are key areas of strategic focus for to the Prime Minister.

That is, public sector efficiency improvements with government as an exemplar for Shetler; driving better commercial results for Australian research excellence for Turner; and improving mainstream business traction and regulatory change in the FinTech sector for Scandurra.

If there is a fourth area, it is perhaps cyber security as both a challenge and an opportunity. And with the Prime Minister last week unveiling government’s cyber security review and its recommendations today (Wednesday 21 April), we may yet see another outsider brought in to drive change in this sector too.

This is not meant to be an Ode to These Three Blokes. But there are very specific cultural challenges – if not institutional challenges – that each is in the process of pushing through. It is interesting to watch, because they have now started to collaborate – formally and informally – playing off each other’s strengths.

This is the mystical ‘ecosystem’ in action. These guys are not necessarily mates (did I mention they are very different?).

But Mr Turner says they’ve each adopted a kind of pay-it-forward attitude. They pick up the phone is one of them calls, and they’re open to ideas about collaboration, about moving something forward together.

And so Data61 has sat in on a couple of projects at the DTO – small collaborations that both sides seem to want to extend into other areas. Both Mr Turner and Mr Shetler have lamented the lack of Product Management skills in Australia, and both are working way to improve it.

The DTO has worked with Stone & Chalk. Most recently, Paul Shetler launched his very slick GOV.AU at Stone & Chalk co-working space in Sydney, bringing with him the newly appointed Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor.

Stone & Chalk are strategic partners with Data61 – as are other incubators – but have also teamed with Data61 to curate next week’s National Cyber Security Summit being held at The Ivy Ballroom in Sydney.

Paul Shetler, Adrian Turner and Alex Scandurra are notthe only outsiders driving change within the Innovation space. (Larry Marshall as CSIRO chief is from way outside the cultural norms of that institution, and David Thodey too was brought in as chairman of the organisation to bring about specific cultural change.)

But the three I have focused on from the Class of 2015 are the most interesting to me.

Adrian Turner has designed Data61’s structure that make it a catalyst for potentially quite dramatic change across the CSIRO, but also has built-in ambitions to catalyse increased international research investment in this country.

Paul Shetler has built a Digital Transformation Office that is supposed to be the harbinger of doom for the “Business as Usual” approach to government service delivery. They don’t call it’s a ‘transformation’ for nothing.

Alex Scandurra’s role has been slightly different. He was brought in by mainstream interests (the Big End of town, broadly) to capture the disruptive initiative of an already active FinTech community of guerrilla startups.

This is the main criticism I have come across of Stone & Chalk. But I argue would that this is exactly the outcome we are looking for. That’s the whole point – making this stuff mainstream. It is certainly no different from Paul Shetler. He is bring the same thinking to mainstream government that a small band of guerrilla public servants have been fighting for inside government for years. Think Gov 2.0.

Stone & Chalk has moved well beyond its very early brief to cement Sydney as a FinTech hub for the timezone. It is building out a regional network of partnerships and expertise. And it is moving into the cyber security space.

Without wanting to put the mockers on them, these blokes are so far working out rather well for Australia. (Part Two of this feature will be published next week.)

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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