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A technological solution

Did technology provide a solution to the COVID-19 crisis?

Contributed by:

Matt Smith

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Matt Smith

Lockdown saw the rapid move to technology-enabled flexible working arrangements for many and helped relieve the economic burden on many industries and sectors. We asked Paul Matthews from IT professionals to comment from the IT industry perspective.

Covid-19 has presented businesses a number of challenges, some of the first and most pressing being to switch to remote working en masse and to add e-commerce and/or contactless supply models. Clearly technology and its industry experts have played a key role in enabling these changes.

And now, as we work towards the economic recovery and bedding in or adopting new practices needed to operate alongside Covid, technology will again be instrumental.

So, how well has New Zealand’s IT infrastructure coped during these transformational times?; and as we look forward, where do the key opportunities, obstacles and risks lie?

Commentary by Matt Smith, Partner.

Covid-19 saw people working from home, the promotion of new technologies from electronic signing to Zoom, and a ready acceptance of technology in our working lives. Are the members of IT Professionals NZ finding that there is an uptake of technological solutions? If so, are there hidden risks with this boom (i.e. security)?

One of the silver linings of the Covid cloud was the rapid move to technology-enabled flexible working arrangements for many people; and the subsequent realisation by employers that – in many cases at least – these changes not only worked, but often led to increased productivity.

Most of the tools and technologies used weren’t new per se, however both employers and staff had been a little hesitant to adopt them at significant scale previously. The Covid pandemic has changed that and led to a rapid adoption of technology for remote working, meetings and other tasks.

In this context, we’re very lucky in relation to the timing of the Covid pandemic. If it had hit even 5 years earlier, New Zealand wouldn’t have had the technological infrastructure in place to deal with it as well as we have. The scalability of cloud-based solutions developed by the tech industry over the last 5-10 years also meant much of the technology needed was able to scale to meet our needs super-fast.

The security aspect of these changes has been one significant area of concern to IT professionals. Unfortunately the disruption caused by the rapid move to new technologies did create an opportunity for those looking to take advantage. A number of large companies fell foul to ransomware attacks and data theft, in some cases costing billions of dollars of damages.

One key to protecting NZ companies is to ensure that systems are reviewed by qualified IT professionals. While many cloud-based tools seem easy to use, sometimes small configuration deficiencies can leave systems vulnerable. We recommend system configurations are independently peer reviewed by senior IT professionals (such as Chartered IT Professionals, CITPNZ) and we also strongly recommend companies hire security consultancies to undertake vulnerability assessments.

Much of New Zealand’s technological hardware is imported from other countries. Did the unpredictability of the supply chain (or shortage of parts/equipment) cause concern? Are there calls for more manufacturing to be done locally?

Yes, supply chain issues did cause concerns – especially early in the pandemic where most China-based manufacturing was temporarily halted. This had the potential to significantly impact technology hardware assembled across the world, as many of the world’s computing components are manufactured in China.

As it happened, supply chains were managed very carefully and some component manufacturing was able to be ramped up in other places. While there was an impact, by and large it was fairly minor.

While it’s not particularly economical to manufacture mass-produced components in New Zealand, we actually have a strong and flourishing broad high-tech manufacturing industry. From rockets to world-leading weighing technology, high-tech manufacturing is one of the fastest growing industries in New Zealand and will form a big part of the post-Covid recovery.

The border closure has meant that a great many industries are unable to access the level of skilled staff they require. The recent and upcoming changes to work visa and resident visas requirements are also affecting people’s ability to remain in New Zealand. Is this an issue for the IT sector? Additionally, have organisations and businesses developed a strategy to manage this situation and keep abreast of immigration changes and how they can support their employees?

This is a massive challenge for our sector. It’s not unusual to find more than half the members of larger development teams in New Zealand born overseas and the skills pipelines in New Zealand really haven’t kept up with the explosion of growth in the industry.

Up until recently, the gap between the skill supply and demand in New Zealand has largely been plugged by immigration and while this will always form part of the solution, the halting of most skills-based immigration is beginning to have a big impact.

Part of our challenge is that most of the areas of shortage in New Zealand are in more senior professional-level roles, such as senior developers, architects, project managers, security specialists, data analysts and other roles that need a high level of both experience and education. This makes it very difficult to address in the short-term.

As an industry, we’ve traditionally been very poor at developing our people. As opposed to other professions such as Accounting, Engineering and Law, IT professionals don’t have as clear a framework to advance, and the result is it takes far longer for professionals to move into the more senior roles where the greatest need is.

Through the Digital Technologies Industry Transformation Plan, and other initiatives such as the Digital Skills Forum, ITPNZ and others are putting together a much more cohesive industry skills plan, focusing on rapidly increasing the development of mid-career professionals and creating clearer pathways into roles in demand.

This isn’t going to solve the immediate problem, but the pandemic really has served as a catalyst for industry to take greater ownership of the challenge and Government to hopefully invest to a greater extent than it has in the past.

The pandemic highlighted gaps in our IT infrastructure. Where do you think the greatest advances need to be made to plug these gaps?

Broadly speaking, the overall technology infrastructure in New Zealand is world-leading. Given our low population density, the fact that gigabit Fibre is available to 81% of New Zealanders is phenomenal and leaves many other countries in the dust. We are the absolute envy of Australia in this regard.

By and large, our infrastructure held up very well during the Covid lockdown.

The biggest challenge is New Zealand’s geography. 81% availability still means one in five New Zealanders don’t have access to ultrafast fibre and with the growth of tele-medicine, ideal for isolated rural regions, and agritech on our farms, this will continue to cause issues for our rural communities.

While a lot of investment is going into the latest version of the Rural Broadband Initiative, this is where we need to see an acceleration of effort. We need to see the rural/urban digital divide significantly reduced, which will also help ease the general infrastructure strains being felt in many of New Zealand’s cities by allowing more people to work effectively remotely. Covid has really highlighted this.

What in your view represents the greatest opportunity and threat for the IT sector in the next 12 months? 

Our sector is growing rapidly – it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in New Zealand. In addition, technology drives many of our most successful non-technology companies, meaning the overall contribution to New Zealand’s GDP and growth from the tech profession is massive.

Given the comments above, it’s probably not surprising to hear us say that the biggest threat to our sector is skills. With immigration on hold and no quick fix in terms of the areas of greatest shortage, this is the largest constraint on our industry by a long shot and threatens New Zealand’s ability to grow our way out of the Covid economic downturn.

In terms of opportunity, where to start!

The contribution technology is making to food production through agritech innovations takes real advantage of one of New Zealand’s traditional strengths. This is becoming more crucial as the world becomes more concerned about food source and quality, creating a huge opportunity for both New Zealand’s food producers but also for the sale of some of the tracking and other technology to the world.

However our sector’s biggest opportunity is in enabling the broader economic growth of New Zealand post-Covid. While our industry’s own exports are growing fast – now New Zealand’s third largest export sector – it is technology that will enable the rest of New Zealand’s industries to prosper and accelerate their growth as well.

Covid has been a dark cloud on New Zealand, as with the rest of the world. But the silver lining is more flexible work, strong digital infrastructure, and an opportunity and general willingness to use technology to massively accelerate New Zealand’s economic growth going forwards.

If we get it right, it’s going to be an exciting few years.

Paul Matthews is the Chief Executive of IT Professionals New Zealand, the professional body for those working or studying IT. Paul has overseen the implementation of many sector-changing projects and is regularly asked to contribute to the national media. For information on IT Professionals, click here.

Disclaimer: The material contained in this document is provided only as an information source, and is correct at the time of writing. The material is a generalised summary of the key issues and is not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice and should not be relied on for such a purpose. Independent professional advice should be obtained before relying on any aspect of this material and we would be happy to assist in this regard.

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