Frontline leadership

After more than five years with the National and ANZ banks in ICT-related roles, Victor Vae'au decided, in 2007, to "round out" his career with some public-service experience. He applied for an applications development post in the NZ Defence Force and was told of an opportunity as operations manager.

That fitted his expertise profile very well, he says. Now, another five years on, he is NZDF's chief information officer.

While he had not gone looking for a Defence role in particular, Vae'au "had a personal passion for the military," he says; "I had admired them from afar. I quite like their values and decided it was a place I could work for and make a difference."

Defence is naturally a very different environment from the private sector, he says. "In the private sector, business is about making money; it's measured in the end by the bottom line. In Defence it's about New Zealand." NZDF provides the country's "insurance policy", he says; ensuring its people are well-trained and ready to respond to New Zealand's needs in differing roles.

"It makes for a challenging environment, a complex organisation with a raft of national and international obligations."

Read about the NZ Defence Force in the 2012 MIS100 report on the top ICT using organisations in New Zealand.

This means, among other things a need for interoperability in to ensure information flows seamlessly to enable command decisions. "ICT is in the middle of that, whether it's interoperability or the obtaining and sharing of information," he says, "and obviously it's in the theatre of operations; where we do our bit to enable the war fighter."

There are environmental differences in the Navy, Army and Air Force that come together to deliver Joint Operations. "One thing I found very challenging, exciting and rewarding is to try to knit those capabilities together," so as to "get the best output" to support our people.

"I have an ICT organisation that's trying to do everything in all domains," he says. "My focus is to shift [more of] our productivity into the war-fighting domain to focus on those core military services."

"That's where we should be focusing, because that's our point of difference. That's what we invest our people in and that's what matters most, whether it be in readiness for operations, humanitarian assistance or disaster relief"

The CIO of NZDF should be focussed in supporting those key unique services, Vae'au says. "There are a myriad of opportunities [elsewhere] where industry can supply services for us." We will be looking for commodity services to be provided through industry in the future.

NZDF ICT is going through a major programme of work to replace its datacentres, modernise its ICT infrastructure including upgrade of its systems through a combination of all-of government frameworks (such as IaaS) or leveraging its existing industry partners. The policy direction is set out in the Defence white paper published in 2010.

NZDF is taking the opportunity to leverage such technology as cloud computing and has delivered its private-cloud capability -- "replacing the datacentre, modernising our infrastructure and upgrading our software stack is the challenge we are navigating our way through".

Vae'au expects the main workload to be in the new primary datacentre by July 2013," though he acknowledges that confident deadline statement might worry his project manager. This is, according to Vae'au the first step of his strategy to utilise industry to deliver more commoditised ICT services in the future "I don't think Defence should run datacentres -- there are experts who do that, we should be the experts at Defence systems and therefore focus on delivering those services".

Defence also has a role to play across government and is leading some developments in cross government services particularly in telecommunications, mobility and secure networks. "Interoperability and security in a very information rich world is vital, and a very complex given the nature of how consumers receive, consume information in an ever growing risk of cyber threat."

There are also critical programmes in NZDF that Vae'au's team is supporting and enabling over the next while. There is the Information program that is developing digital collaboration, publication and electronics records management, the development of shared services channels through the internet and major transformation in the human resources (HR) area.

"We are making a significant transformation in our HR area. We are implementing an HR Management Information System (HRMIS) that will deliver a more modern platform that can help us transform the way we manage our people, and streamline the business processes involved."

Vae'au has about 280 staff reporting directly to him, and another 300 to 400 in ICT roles in the three fighting forces and the civilian teams. "From the people perspective my aim is to create an environment where our military and civilian ICT specialists can come together and grow as one and become an effective operational unit," he says.

"That's one of the biggest challenges," he says, "while we have to respect the different aims of intelligence, military and corporate domain within the Defence Information Environment [NZDF's terms for its whole ICT resource], we are working hard to ensure we approach the challenges as one community."

"It is a cultural shift" says Vae'au. He is very keen on doing things differently and taking the time to get the right things right -- and culture is right up there with Vae'au.

How does he go about bringing the different teams of ICT people together with the operational people? It's about influencing -- a key leadership skill -- and about engagement, he says, "keeping an ear on the ground; listening to what your customer is saying. But you have to make that a two-way street; we've also got to be constantly informing them."

Sound facts are a basis for good dialogue, Vae'au says. "We must ensure we're making decisions and sticking to them. Ultimately it's about delivery; that's what influences credibility with my peers in the military and my staff at the technical level; delivery of the outcomes will be the ultimate celebration for us all."

What is his definition of leadership? "For me leadership is about people; about having an authentic approach to people: integrity, comradeship, courage and commitment are words to describe it.

"We have to make all sorts of decisions; If you can communicate with clarity, connect with people and make decisions in a timely fashion, but also have the courage to change them if they're not the right decisions, I think you build a good credibility with your folk."

Stephen Bell (@stevebwriter) is a reporter for CIO New Zealand.

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