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AIIA members, representing organisations small and large, were recently invited to accompany the Hon. Michael Keenan MP, Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation, on his study tour of the US this month. Accompanying the Minister, were the CEO of the Digital Transformation Agency and the CIO of the Department of Human Services.

To kick off our tour on the West Coast, we stopped off in Seattle and San Francisco, where the delegation visited Amazon, CISCO, IBM, Infosys, Microsoft, Salesforce, SingTel Innov8, and Wipro. Other site visits included the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Code for America, the San Francisco Landing Pad and the Berkeley SkyDeck. Contrasts and similarities abound. Contrasts were in the area of corporate culture and branding. A strong common theme was taking risks and feeling comfortable to fail.

Three objectives were identified by industry members:

  1. Draw insights and learnings from the world’s best technology innovators
  2. Network
  3. Achieve a new deal or partnership

However, participant expectations were exceeded and included:

  • New friendships;
  • Intel sharing and networking during long bus rides, drinks and dinner;
  • The learning that it is important to step away from one’s own organisation to see what else is happening;
  • Identification of whose foreheads – yes foreheads – are better for future tech;
  • The insight that Australian engineers are highly respected in the US;
  • Confirmation that Australia has some fabulous young entrepreneurs;
  • Hotels are %%%#@** expensive in San Jose and even then, the lights in your room may not work;
  • payWave and Apple Pay don’t work in the West Coast, so don’t forget to pack a credit card when traveling to the US;
  • Everything is BIGGER in the US; and
  • The realisation that our coffee is indeed much better in Australia!

Some key messages from the West Coast are:

  • Take risks and be prepared to fail and fail again;
  • Partner with others to accelerate delivery time frames;
  • Iterate quickly, i.e. release software updates every six months;
  • Develop trust with customers through transparency;
  • Don’t forget your staff – develop a culture that will help maximise retention.

The tech firms in the West Coast impressed us with their campuses, views from their towers, innovation labs, invisible screens and organisational culture, and the Aussie startups just made us proud to be Australian.

Next stop – the Big Apple – which dazzled us with its light and furtive pace, and risked diverting our jet lagged attention from the main game – our tech pilgrimage.

IBM Watson overwhelmed us with its processing prowess, and the IBM Immersion Room had some AIIA members closing their eyes at the peril of stimulus overdose. Having to train the AI against bias was also an eye opener. The impressive breakfast bar provided us with comfort and reprieve from the immersive room experience and the knowledge that others may know more about us than we know about ourselves thanks to the power of IBM Watson. The gender parity in the IBM team presenting to us also did not go unnoticed. Attracting women in senior IT roles is as much a challenge in the US as it is here in Australia.

Qlik continued the theme of what can be achieved by data and data analysis, and opened our eyes to the world of data visualisation and what can be achieved through partnering with the right vendors. We were introduced to the term ‘data swamp’ – just when we thought we had our head around ‘data lakes’. The benefits of using data to provide targeted social services was made evident in the presentation. Thank you Qlik, also for sponsoring the Mexican dinner for our delegates in New York.

We experienced the NY traffic first hand and arrived very late to the meeting at the NY Mayor’s office in Brooklyn. However, we did get to travel over the Brooklyn Bridge. While initially thrown by the manual security check at the building entrance, we were “wowed” when we made it into the operation centre and felt like we were in an episode of NYPD Blues. We were surprised to learn that not all New Yorkers have access to Broadband. The City of New York intends for all its residents to have access to broadband by 2025. In the meantime, agencies maintain multiple shop fronts across New York. If there was ever a city that needed to go digital, noting the traffic congestion, surely it is New York.

A train journey from New York to Washington DC slowed the pace a bit and saw us arrive in the US capital early evening, at the city’s magnificent train station. However, our awe of the station was later to be countered by our surprise at the small size of the White House. Thank you MXA for a very sophisticated dinner in Washington DC, followed by rounds of drinks from KPMG.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) brought home to us the progress we have made in digitising government services in Australia. Political appointments of Agency CIOs in the US Federal Government, together with a decentralised approach in government digitisation, means that Australia is leading over the US when it comes to realising the benefits of government digitisation.

Oracle provided us the with the opportunity to step into the State of Virginia and learn what it is that differentiates their products from the competition, as services in the cloud becomes the new norm. Not surprisingly, security is key for competitors in the cloud domain.

And then, all too suddenly, the tech pilgrimage was at an end. There were hurried good byes, last quick photos, drop offs at hotels and airports, and then we were at the end of our trip.

Reflections on the objectives of the trip:
Returning to the three objectives that were identified by industry members at the beginning of the trip, here is what some of the delegates thought by the end of the trip:

1. Draw insights and learnings from the world’s best technology innovators
Don’t forget the things that are happening in our own back yard, as evidenced by the Aussie startups. We should be doing more to retain talent.

2. Network
From an agency perspective, the challenge is to maintain the collaborative spirit achieved during this trip across suppliers when it comes to delivering government outcomes.

From an industry perspective, it was great to find out what peers were doing and to spend time with Agency Senior Executive Staff and the Minister, and learn about their priorities in the coming months.

3. Achieve a new deal or partnership
A lot of business cards were exchanged, a startup or two were purchased by an AIIA member organisation, and SMEs identified opportunities to work with each other in the future. AIIA looks forward to hearing about its matchmaking role by facilitating this trip.

Some of the key social highlights in the East Coast included:

  • Blisters for most delegates from walking from the 5th Ave and 55th intersection all the way across New York;
  • Some found time to get bargains at the Columbus Day sales; and
  • Dinner at the Benjamin Steak House was a scrumptious meal of steaks. Kishwar’s rack of lamb was much admired too. Thank you Telstra for this experience.

Thanks also to Ben Mason and the DHS staff (Sarah, Fiona, Antony and Mark), who managed the logistics of getting the delegates around the various cities and scheduling the site visits. They did an amazing job and the trip would not have come together without their input and dedication.