CompCon2015 kicked off last weekend at the University of Queensland

After running from CodeBrew to VT League, jumping on a plane, playing UniGames, staying up all night and catching a train to Brisbane, I found myself at Queensland Uni for the National Computing Students Conference. Did I mention I was MCing this conference?

Arrived at UQ just in time to go over the run sheet with Peter Phillpotts (2015 Convenor). Photo courtsey of Steven Cooper
Arrived at UQ just in time to go over the run sheet with Peter Phillpotts (2015 Convenor). Photo courtsey of Steven Cooper

Before I dive into an inspiring weekend (plus 1 day – yeah they didn’t have daylight saving or AFL public holiday but they had a public holiday on Monday) let me just say what a beautiful campus UQ is. The grounds are immaculately kept with tonnes of greenery and the buildings rival those at Melbourne Uni with their sandstone architecture. Oh, and they have a pond and massive water fountain!!!

Anyways, back to the conference. Participants were treated to some of the best the IT world of Australia has to offer, with a fantastic line up of speakers from Braintree, IBM, RedHat, Technology One, Boeing, Tanda, OracleHSK Instruments, Atlassian and more. Talks were diverse and broad with topics such as getting from university into industry, internship experiences, mobile innovation, open source software, data visualisation, kernel hacking, Linux, DevOps, cognitive engineering, IoT, Lego (yes this made an appearance, although I was sorely upset by the lack of “Everything is Awesome”), machine learning, careers, Minecraft (it’s amazing what you can learn from it), UI, code, augmented reality and of course hackathons (a panel with myself, Matt Rossi and Terence Hyunh). These were followed by a series of Lightning Talks were any participant could get up on stage and talk for 5 minutes on anything they wanted.

With all the sweet things being discussed, it’s almost impossible to cover them all in this one post. I thought I would therefore cover just two main topics our speakers presented on. These aren’t from one talk but were two key themes I drew out from the weekend… Culture and Innovation.

Culture

I’m going to start with the culture aspect of the weekend as I feel it is something very important but also highly underrated. Firstly, what exactly IS culture? It’s a behavioural trait or set of practices characteristic to a specific nation, race, religion, institution, or in this case, a workplace. Andrew Hatfield from Red Hat spoke about the culture of an organisation and the relevance of it in the office. The culture of a company highlights its values, mission and vision. It is often an extension of the founder as Javan Wood from HSK Instruments described it. This is one reason why teams make companies! A team has a common goal, common mission and usually common ideals. For a business to be successful you need to work as a team, a team that is smart, competent, driven, determined, risk tolerant, good communicators and above all fully awesome, fun people to be around. Javan outlined these as key traits to any great business and are vital for startups. You won’t get far without a solid team around to support you and work together.

Bringing us back to culture… why is it so important to have  culture, and a decent one at that? Culture, as outlined above, emphasises a common mission and value. If you have a common goal, then everyone in your team, your organisation is working towards that goal. Culture is the glue binding your employees. It doesn’t just happen. You have to work to create culture. This can be as simple as Friday night drinks – getting together and celebrating the end of another successful week (or not so successful… but hey, it’s success if you learn from it), bowling nights, movies, outings, winery walkabouts, laser tag, Mario Kart evenings, the list goes on. There is so much you can do to create culture in your workplace. You don’t have to go out either. Shared spaces such as kitchens, dining rooms and breakout areas are awesome places to encourage culture, collaboration and sharing. Pixar’s head office is designed in such a way that people have chance encounters. Model your workplace to be like this – have a morning tea and invite everyone along. Organise some lightning talks at the end of the week or get together over lunch. These are simple, easy ways to spark the culture and life within your workplace.

What about established organisations? Big companies will already have a strong culture surrounding them. The question is, will you fit into that culture? The majority of people either leave or are fired from work not because they are incompetent, but because they do not fit within the culture. Isabelle Flores from Atlassian spoke about the importance of getting to know the culture of the companies you wish to work for. Internships, work experience or placements are fantastic ways of not only bulking out your resume, but also for getting a feel for the way the organisation works. If it doesn’t seem right and you don’t quite fit, don’t apply. Try somewhere new and see where you sit best. Companies don’t just want people with great skills, they want employees who have great teamwork and will embrace the culture. Even so, all workplaces are evolving and dynamic, thus there is no reason why you can’t help create or contribute to the culture. Be an intrapreneur! Take on the “responsibility of creating culture and innovation” in your workplace (Oifford Pinchot 1984).

Innovation

This brings us to the next theme I want to tackle – innovation, especially in Australia. Part of being innovative is breaking out of your comfort zone and embracing change. Technology is moving so quickly these days that we need to take it as it comes, learn new skills on the fly and come up with solutions to pressing problems. Mike Hideo from Red Hat said “innovation is the most important sustainability topic” we have at present. Innovation is about ideas and knowledge not simply hardware and products. To move forward in society we need to be innovative and sustainable – we are not sustainable right now. Soft products are driving the economy (apps, technology, data). Don’t forget that Australia’s biggest export is not product, but education. We can use this to our advantage.

Australia is such a diverse and multicultural country, we can essentially communicate with our neighbouring countries to bring new ideas to light – China, Japan, America – we have the tools, resources and people to sell to the world, not just our backyard. With the internet being widely available the market has shrunk and so have our six degrees of separation. We can connect with people on the other side of the world at a touch of a button. This sets the scene for startups to have a massive, immediate impact.

Javan spoke about the startup culture and what to expect from it. He hit the nail on the head as he outlined what a startup is – a solution to a problem you are passionate about, where a startup is the only way you can solve this. Lots of people fall into the trap of “I’ll run a startup, because it’ll make me money… fast”. There are tonnes of faster, easier ways to make some quick dollars, so if you are in it to be a billionaire stop thinking about startups NOW.

Startups are a challenge, they are high risk, but if you are passionate and persevere then you will see great results. Developer Steve and Javan pointed out how Colonel Sanders (think KFC here) had 1008 rejections before he finally sold the idea (no wonder those secret herbs and spices recipes are kept under lock and key).

One of the keys to innovation is traction – making sure people love your product. This means sales! If your product is selling then people love it. Remember to prove your idea first. It’s easy to start small, create super quick feedback loops, get a good product, then scale it up. Javan also talked about the importance of timing in innovation. Timing is incredibly important and will determine the success or failure of your idea. You need to be able to justify the timing of your solution. Is it too early? Have you already missed the bus? Why is now a good time?

Saying that though, if you have an idea and you are passionate about it, then go for it! Try it out, de-risk it as much as possible then dive in. As a founder you can expect anywhere from 3 years to a lifetime, therefore passion is vital! If you don’t have it, then you won’t have the drive or the motivation to continue each day. It’s hard work so don’t just go looking for a startup idea. Find a problem you are passionate about and come up with a solution.

You have the idea… now what? Where do you go from there? Well there’s always hackathons, CodeFests, Startup Weekends, SharksDens, Innovation Challenges, incubator programs you name it. Australia (and in particular Melbourne) is fueling the startup landscape with a huge number of events and opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. Follow me on Twitter and check on my Facebook for events coming up. Meetup.com is also a good way to find events to attend.

Thanks for reading. I had an amazing time at CompCon2015 and I hope to be around for the next big conference.

Those who hung around for the whole conference got in the picture! Photo courtsey of Steven Cooper
Those who hung around for the whole conference got in the picture! Photo courtsey of Steven Cooper

Look out for my next blog on the 3D printing innovation showcase.

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