‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.
This week, we speak with Brian Finn, aged 85, from Hope Island Resort, Queensland.
Where did things start for you?
I’m actually a proud Geordie, being born in Newcastle upon Tyne in England.
After finishing school at St Cuthbert’s Grammar, I jumped straight into the workforce as a costing clerk with an industrial firm.
This was my first exposure to the punched card accounting machines that would later be replaced by computers.
My time in that role was cut short by having to do two years of National Service with the British Army, where I ended up managing an ammunition reconditioning team, which was an exciting and challenging role that taught me a lot about working with people.
After the army, the prospect of returning to a desk job as a costing clerk was so unappealing that in 1959 I applied for a job at the world’s biggest computer company: IBM.
How did that work out?
Better than I could ever have expected.
The role was called “systems service” (it was before systems engineering had been invented) and involved building and installing customer business applications on the punched card accounting machines and ensuring they worked correctly.
For the next 14 years I worked in a range of roles across sales and marketing with IBM UK and acquired terrific experience, backed up by extensive training programs.
My role changed every few years and in 1974 I was invited to transfer to the IBM Federal Systems Division in Texas (US) as a software development manager.
What did this role involve?
It first involved moving the wife and kids to Houston, for which great support was provided by IBM.
The main part of my work at the Federal Systems Division was overseeing a large software development project to automate two Exxon oil refineries through a real-time operating system.
In those days computing was all done by batch processing, so this was a huge innovation.
After the success of the project I was encouraged to take on more senior corporate roles and to further expand the company internationally.
Still based in the USA?
No, I was moved to New Delhi to run IBM’s business for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and did that for a few years.
Then, in 1978, I was moved to Hong Kong to continue this role in the South East Asian region, with countries including Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
That sounds quite challenging, how did it go?
Overall, very well, to the extent that in 1980 my boss asked if I could run the business in Australia and New Zealand as the chief executive officer, based in Sydney, and I’ve been here ever since.
Tell us about the Australian experience.
It’s been amazing, and I was in the role for 13 years, until my retirement in 1993.
One initiative that I’m especially pleased to have been part of was the expansion of the IBM Australia Manufacturing Plant in Wangaratta, Victoria, which was opened by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1991.
More than $15 million had been invested in the plant at the time, which went from being a small typewriter factory in 1976 to a world class supplier of state of the art computer equipment.
We were able to deliver the PS/2 computer into the Asian region at a lower price than any other IBM plant around the world and sold the IBM Kanji display controller (which supported Japanese language processing) into the highly competitive Japanese market.
The plant also manufactured RS/6000 computers and was one of only two factories outside the USA to do this.
Another achievement that I’m proud of is having been made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1990 for services to Business, Industry and Education.
Do you consider yourself to be more technically or people oriented?
I’m definitely a people person.
While technology provides amazing capacity, most things in life are mainly about the people, their capabilities, the way they conduct themselves, and ethical standards.
One of the challenges of executive management roles is being limited in whom you can discuss difficult issues with.
When problems are caused by staff or management, the options for open discussion can be limited and some people think talking to the boss can indicate weakness.
What most CEOs struggle with are issues related to the management, motivation, and energising of people.
That comes in many different forms and varies in its manifestation across different industries but the fundamentals are the same – it’s all about guiding, inspiring, and taking care of people.
It’s also very important to be approachable, and I’d usually have lunch in the staff canteen with my managers so we were available and part of the same team.
Do you have any concerns about the current state of the IT industry?
I’d like to see companies invest in upskilling their local talent more, rather than importing labour.
This was something IBM did particularly well.
We’d hire about 300 new graduates per year, and then train them up for 12 months before they were given significant responsibilities.
Throughout their careers, as they rotated through a range of roles, they were constantly upskilled.
I feel that the focus on hiring staff should be to find people with the right attitude and capability and supplementary training can then be provided.
In 1991 I was the chair of the Australian Education Council Review of Post-Compulsory Education and Training, which produced a comprehensive report that focussed on giving young people pathways other than university to build their skills and remain in the education system.
What has life been like since retirement?
Since the sad passing of my wonderful wife three years ago, after more than fifty years together, I live on the Gold Coast with my two dogs and receive regular visits from family.
I actually embarked on a second career, post-retirement, as a “professional company director” by accepting chair and directorship roles across a wide range of organisations.
Although this had no direct connection with technology, with my long background in executive management I found it extremely interesting.
For 15 years after retirement I also ran a seminar program for a group of a dozen CEOs under the banner of the “CEO Institute”, in Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
What surprised me is that the problems the CEOs were dealing with were no different from those I’d struggled with as a CEO myself, and it was always more about the people than the machines.
I’m grateful that I’m able to share my background with others and that, being a Fellow of ACS, I’ve remained connected to an industry I love.