Careers Q&A: Internode's Simon Hackett

From owning one of Australia's only all-electric Tesla Roadster sports cars to inventing an internet-controlled toaster in the 1990s, Internode's managing director, Simon Hackett, isn't an ordinary pluck from the IT crowd. Instead, the ISP's founder has managed to get through life having only had one job interview, and has witnessed the internet landscape in Australia go from birth to maturity over the past 25 years.

Hackett talked to Computerworld Australia about the magic of the Apple II, working in the university internet sector and why his success story is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

What caused you to get into ICT or telecommunications in the first place?

I seemed to have an aptitude for it.

While I was at high school, around 1981, an Apple II turned up on loan from the Angle Park Computing Centre (an SA Government initiative which was a catalyst for a number of future IT Entrepreneurs in South Australia). Other students started playing with it to see what games it seemed to come with. But I picked up the book that arrived with the machine, containing the ROM Monitor manual and 6502 assembly language guide, and started writing little programs in machine code for fun. It seemed easy, because nobody had told me that it was supposed to be hard.

Some years later, I took on a job at Adelaide University right when AARNet (the university precursor to the commercial internet in Australia) was being created by the university sector. It was the first (and last) job interview I've ever had with anyone! As part of that team of people, I picked up the way the internet and TCP/IP worked just as I had picked up Apple II machine code - by rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty and just... doing it.

It became clear to me that my professional future was going to be intertwined with the use of networks to get computers to do useful things for people in the real world.

Why did you make the switch from AARNet to forming your own ISP with Internode?

I had had a long-term drive to start my own company doing something in the IT sector, ever since I first laid hands on that Apple II. So I resigned from the university and started Internode.

I bootstrapped Internode by winning the Australian support and sales rights for TGV, a Californian company that sold and supported TCP/IP software for high-end computers of that era (Digital Vax/VMS systems). In 1994 I decided to take the profits earned from that work and reinvest pretty much 100% of them into becoming an ISP.

I did that too late to become the next big dialup ISP, but in 2000 when the ADSL era commenced, we were absolutely ready for it, and we've gone from zero to almost 200,000 broadband customers in the decade between then and now, almost entirely through organic growth.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in IT during your career?

Managing a high growth rate company creates enormous challenges on systems, staff, and priority management.

The largest non-technology lesson I have learned is that hiring the wrong people is the easiest thing to do, and the hardest thing to undo. Hiring the right people really is the critical success factor in any growing business. It's better to suffer from having too few staff, than to hire the wrong people. If you can't find the right ones, don't settle for second best. Keep looking.

Conversely, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges faced by the ISP sector at the moment?

The ISP sector is in the midst of a consolidation phase, and it is also suffering the recurrence of a Vertical Price Squeeze from our designated monopoly (Telstra). You can understand the story there in more detail by reading something I wrote about it lately. Vertical price squeezes are an annoying and unfair distraction to an industry that thrives on innovation which is, in turn, only possible when the rules of engagement are being fairly respected. That's not the case right now.

The medium-term challenge for the industry, of course, is the National Broadband Network (NBN), and that challenge is currently muddied somewhat by continued uncertainty about many specifics around exactly how and when and where the NBN will roll out. We hope to see more certainty in all of those respects in the coming months. The NBN represents a huge future opportunity for Internode, because it will let us showcase the speed, reliability and scalability of our national and international networks, without ADSL as a bottleneck for many customers. Likewise it will provide the right platform for advanced services such as our FetchTV IPTV service - which is good on ADSL2+, but simply great over fibre.

Do you think it's still possible to replicate your success in the sector from scratch in today's market?

No, I don't. I think it's far too late to become a new player from scratch in this sector. In a consolidating market, it's all about scale, reputation, and your existing market presence, as the keys to providing a viable chunk of the future business available over the NBN. The only rational way to become a player in the ISP industry in Australia right now is to already be one, or to buy into someone who is.

Do you feel you gained most of your knowledge through self-experience, or did you align yourself with mentors to get that knowledge?

The majority of my early IT experience was gained through self-experience. I have gained, and continue to gain, a great deal through collaboration with other like-minded members of the industry (both within the ranks of Internode and in other organisations who share our sense of fairness and collaborative growth in the sector). Collaboration has driven a huge amount of innovation and growth in this sector. We have a shared sense of wanting to improve the outcomes that we can offer, as an industry, to consumers and businesses in Australia.

It's important to appreciate that I believe strongly in the value of training and personal development courses, and approaches, as well. I've sent myself on training courses when I've felt the need, and I support all of our staff doing that when they identify a gap and they feel a need to fill it. It is, however, difficult to go past the depth of knowledge gained by actually doing things yourself.

For aspiring IT workers looking to get into the field or move up the career leader, what are your suggestions?

Get your hands dirty. Believe in yourself. Take (educated) risks, frequently. The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Are there any specific ways to really stand out from the crowd?

For me, what has worked is to be honest, transparent, inquisitive, and open in my dealings with others (staff, industry colleagues, customers). I continue to engage in public conversations with our customers (and potential customers) in public Internet fora, and I've been doing that for a decade longer than the phrase 'social media' existed.

Being a part of the 'social media' conversation is very important in the modern world, but it only works if you are a real person doing transparent, real things, in your own real name.

Most of Internode's customers come to us because they were recommended by an existing customer. That sort of credibility is something you have to earn, you can't buy it.

We've spent almost two decades becoming an overnight success. And we're proud of what we've achieved.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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