Waking up in an airport is a strange feeling. Those compulsions I usually have when catching flights were strangely absent since we were already checked in, been through security enough times and, if we were lucky, our terminal would be a 5 minute walk from where we were. Still I didn’t leave much to chance, giving us a full hour before the flight was set to board. Talking to the receptionist as we were checking out we were informed that we just needed to take a short train ride to get to our gate, the time we had more than sufficient to get there. Satisfied we made our way down and, surprisingly, didn’t need to ask anyone else about how to get where we needed to go.
Maybe it was just the random wing of the airport we arrived in yesterday. Who knows.
I grabbed a coffee and my wife a coconut water, hoping that something light could quell the rumblings in her stomach. We sat down in the gate area, figuring we’d while away the remaining hour before boarding by reading or otherwise entertaining ourselves. To our surprise they started boarding people not too long later although as it turns out it was something of a two stage boarding process. First we’d have to go downstairs to go through another security check, one where they’d rifle through our carry on bags. They, of course, found the duty free in mine and informed me that they needed to put it in a box and would also need my boarding pass. Confused but not wanting to make a scene I handed them both over and kept a keen eye on the guy who had made off with them. As it turns out this is just the process for any duty free that contains alcohol coming out of Dubai and instead of it being handed to you when you exit the craft it comes out with your checked luggage. I guess all airports have their foibles.
We boarded on the plane, the glorious Qantas A380-800, which I had hoped would provide a better flight experience than some of the other jets we’d been on so far. Whilst the set pitches were a little better the uber-reclining chairs did make it a little awkward to get in and out. My wife did secure her favourite window seat position however, this being a 3 abreast seating configuration, meant I had to pester the poor woman beside me every time my wife wanted to get up. Overall it wasn’t too bad but it has made me wonder if paying the additional for premium economy might’ve been worth it for this trip.
Our flight was delayed due to a computer issue on the flight controller’s end which led to a backlog of flights that needed to be cleared before we could go. After we got going I looked at our tickets back to Canberra and realised that there was likely no way in hell we’d make the connection. I’ve been in this position before however and Qantas has always done right by me. I told my wife much the same and we both agreed to not worry about it until we landed.
Arriving in Australia as a citizen is by far my favourite airport experience, the automated systems streamlining you through all the way to your baggage. The longest part about the whole endeavour is the walk to get to the passport control gate. It did take some time for our luggage to arrive however, something that was exacerbated by the fact that we waited to see if our duty free would come through. As it turns out the duty free from Dubai does not come out with your checked luggage, it gets routed through to oversized luggage. After finding this out from a fellow bleary eyed traveller I wandered over to the oversized luggage section only to find various bits of luggage strewn around randomly, including a few duty free boxes. After figuring out that no one was actually claiming anything I went up to the two remaining boxes and searched for mine. Then I simply walked away with them.
Great system guys, really.
Walking over to the Qantas domestic transfer desk we were greeted with a massive line, one that was moving relatively quickly however. Walking up to the check-in counter we mentioned our flight being delayed and not 2 minutes later were we booked on the next flight down and our bags checked, no questions asked. After the experience I’ve had on some other airlines in similar situations it’s things like this that remind me way I sometimes pay a premium to fly with Qantas as they really do take a whole bunch of worry out of the equation.
The flight back was short and uneventful, the lovely modern Boeing 717 getting us there smoothly and swiftly. Indeed it’s the first one of these such flights where I haven’t felt dreadfully ill right at the end; the usual DASH-8 rattling my bones and my head until they both feel like jelly. My wife said she might try to snooze on the cab ride home although then remembered the usual state of Canberra cabs. So instead we got ourselves an Uber and found the awesome express pick up location that’s in the Canberra airport car park. We were picked up by a lovely older German fellow who had some lively banjo music playing.
Shortly we found ourselves back home and noted all the work my mum had been doing to the place while we were away. New flowers were planted in some of our pots, the roses trimmed, the interior of the house cleaned. the entry way decorated with a welcome home banner and balloons and, to our delight, the heater running. We started the process of unpacking and re-entering the lives we left behind 5 weeks ago, the pile of mail (both physical and electronic) requiring attention. The rest of the day blurs out from there, spent mostly in a semi-surreal daze.
I’m still processing a lot of thoughts from that day, and the ones that have followed it, so I’ll leave it there for now. Look for a wrap post in the coming days where I’ll sum everything up and talk about what I think this trip means now that it’s done.
Canberra is a weird little microcosm as its existence is purely because the 2 largest cities in Australia couldn’t agree on who could be the capital of the country and they instead decided to meet, almost literally, in the middle. Much like Washington DC this means that all of the national level government agencies are concentrated in this area meaning that the vast majority of the 360,000 or so population work either directly or indirectly for the government. This concentration of services in a small area has distorted many of the markets that exist in your typical city centres and probably most notable of them all is the jobs market.
To put it in perspective there’s a few figures that will help me illustrate my point more clearly. For starters the average salary of a Canberran worker is much higher than the Australian average even beating out commodity rich states which are still reaping the benefits of the mining boom. Additionally Canberra’s unemployment is among the lowest in Australia hovering around a staggering 3.7%. This means that the labour market here is somewhat distorted and that’s especially true for the IT industry. However, like the manufacturing industry in the USA, there are still many who will bellyache endlessly about the lack of qualified people available to fill the needs of even this small city.
The problem is, as it always has been, simple economics.
I spent a good chunk of my career working directly for the public service, jumping straight out of university in a decent paying job that I figured I’d be in for quite a while. However it didn’t take long for me to realise that there was another market out there for people with my exact same skills, one that was offering a substantial amount more to do the same work. Like any rational person I jumped at this opportunity and have been continuing to do so for the past 6 years. However I still see positions similar to mine advertised with salaries attached to them that are, to be fair, embarrassing for anyone with those kinds of skills to take when they can get so much more for doing the same amount of work. This has led to a certain amount of tension between Canberra’s IT workers and the government that wishes to employ them with many agencies referring to this as a skills shortage.
The schism is partly due to the double faceted nature of the Canberran IT market. One the one hand the government will pay you a certain amount if you’re permanently employed with them and another if you’re hired as an outside contractor. However these positions are, for the most part, identical except that one pays an extraordinary amount more at the cost of some of the benefits (flex time, sick/annual leave, etc.). It follows that many IT workers are savy enough to take advantage of this and plan their lives around those lack of benefits accordingly and thus will never even consider the lower paid option because it just doesn’t make sense for them.
This hasn’t stopped the government from trying however. The Gershon report had been the main driver behind this, although its effects have been waning for the past 2 years, but now its the much more general cost reductions that are coming in as part of the overall budget goal of delivering a surplus. The problem here however, as I mentioned in the post I just linked, is that once you’re above a certain pay grade in the public service you’re expected to facilitate some kind of management function which doesn’t really align with the requirements of IT specialists. Considering that even outside of Canberra’s arguably inflated jobs market such specialists are able to make far more than the highest, non-managerial role in the government it comes as no surprise that the contractor market had flourished the way it did and why the implementation of the Gershon report did nothing but decimate the government’s IT capability.
Simply put the skills/labour shortage that’s been experienced in many places, not just Canberra, is primarily due a disconnect between the skills required and the amount organisations are willing to pay for said skills. The motivation behind the lower wage costs is obvious but the outcome should not be unexpected when you try to drive the price down but the supply remains the same. Indeed many of the complaints about a labour shortage are quickly followed by calls for incentives and education in the areas where there’s a skills shortage rather than looking at the possibility that people are simply becoming more market savy and are not willing to put up with lower wages when they know they can do better elsewhere.
I had personally only believed that this applied to the Canberra IT industry but in doing the research for this post it seems like it applies far more broadly than I had first anticipated. In all honesty this does nothing but hurt the industry as it only helps to increase tensions between employers and employees when there’s a known disconnect between the employee’s market value and their compensation. I’d put the challenge to most employers to see how many good, skilled applicants they get if they start paying better rates as I’d hazard a guess their hit rate would vastly improve.
I’m a very firm believer in the adage of “either put up or shut up”. I often talk with people about their ideas for things and how much better they’d be than what’s currently available. My usual retort is that should then go ahead and try to do that (usually not facetiously) otherwise they should just stop talking about since an idea without action doesn’t do anyone any good. Of course I’m not one to let people say the same thing to me so the vast majority of ideas that I have for a product that I talk about have usually undergone at least some preliminary work to make sure the idea is viable, just so that I don’t feel like I’m talking out my ass.
The problem I’ve often found though is that it’s easy for me to get excited about an idea that I’ve had but it’s 100 times more difficult to get someone else excited about the same idea. I can hear you saying now “well if it was a good idea anyone would be excited about it” but the problem is that since pursuing such ideas is inherently risky people tend to err on the side of caution instead of wanting to get involved. The second you start mentioning dollar figures (whether costs or potential revenues) it gets even worse as people have seen enough seemingly rock solid business go down in recent years to be wary of anyone coming to them with some outrageous idea.
If I’m honest I’m really just generalizing my own personal experiences here and depending on who you are and where you grew up the experience could be quite different. Canberra, and the majority of Australia for that matter, are a risk adverse lot tending towards proven ideas rather than new risky new ventures. This is especially true with the majority of investment in Australia with many choosing the “safe bet” of property rather than investing in new ventures. Thus for any of us wanting to lash out on our own we’re more or less isolated in a community of risk adverse people, and that makes developing a new idea inexorably hard.
I found this a lot when working on many of my previous ideas. Sure there were many times when I’d discuss an idea and its potential with people and receive amazing feedback, but should I ask more than to try it when I finally released and I’d be met with non-committal responses. There’s also not much of a start up scene here in Canberra either since 90% of the people employed here are public servants or working directly for the government. Sure I could probably travel a bit to get involved in say Sydney or Melbourne however the only time I currently have to spare is spent on working on my product, and the potential to find (and convince) someone else to work with me on my ideas seems small enough as to be a waste of my time pursuing it.
Thus for my first couple ideas (and application to Y-Combinator) I decided to go it alone as a single founder. Now the odds are really stacked against you if you go this route, both for start up accelerators like Y-Combinator and the real business world. Many people liken it to raising a child, sure you can do it yourself but its a much greater burden to bear and you’ll need to put in so much more effort to achieve the same results. For someone like me who’s in an environment that’s not conducive to pursuing new ideas sometimes the only option you have is to go it alone, lest you never go at it at all. Of course the simple solution here would be to then put myself in a more conducive environment, which I am looking to do within the next year.
This all being for my 2 most recent projects I have been able to find people who are interested in the idea that I came up with and have been willing to work with me on them. I think I can attribute my success in this regard to finding an area of common interest that we could then expand upon, each of us being able to have meaningful input that will sculpt the end product. I’ll admit it’s a lot easier when you’ve got someone to lean on, even if they’re not technical as that back and forth helps solidify your idea, keeping your eye squarely fixed on the end goal. I’m hopeful that these ideas will turn out a lot better than my last couple ventures, not least of which I’ll hopefully be able to credit to sharing the load with someone.
Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to be involved in a piece for the Canberra Times on salaries in the ACT, thanks wholly to my journalist friend who set up the connection. Whilst the online version doesn’t show me in it (you’ll have to buy the paper for that!) the main thrust of it was that, for men at least, the highest paying industry you can be in is ICT. Whilst my part was merely to put the human element into the story it got me thinking about my career to date and why the IT industry in Canberra has been so lucrative over the past half decade or so. As far as I can tell it’s a local phenomena to Canberra thanks to a few obvious factors.
I’ve always been interested in computers but when it came time to choose my career I wasn’t really looking to end up where I am now. By training I’m technically an engineer and by rights I should’ve been seeking jobs in embedded systems or at the very least a software engineer role. It wasn’t for lack of trying however, after languishing on a help desk for a year and a half I finally struck out at my first programming job, applying for a junior developer position at the Australian Treasury Department. Funnily enough I actually got that role although instead of taking it I foolishly used it as leverage to get a similar job at my current work place. That of course was an unmitigated disaster as I was put into a team that didn’t want nor need me and less than 6 months later I jumped ship into my first system administrator role.
After making that jump the prospect of taking a massive pay cut to be an actual engineer didn’t look so appealing.
In fact the next few years saw me go on a roller coaster ride of several jobs in the IT industry. It wasn’t because I couldn’t hold a job down or I got fired for incompetence, more it was that I found people were more willing to pay market rates for new hires than they were to promote someone internally. The reason for this was simple, there’s has always been a shortage of skilled IT people in the Canberra area. The reasons behind that are twofold: all government departments have their head offices (and therefore the majority of their IT infrastructure) in Canberra and the population here is just over 350,000. This means it’s a seller’s market here when you’ve got skills in IT and it has been for the past 5 years.
Realistically it’s just another example simple economic principles in action. There’s a relatively fixed supply of skilled IT workers in Canberra and in order to increase that supply they have to make it attractive for people to consider making the move. The first, and usually primary, motivator for most people is base salary and when you’re competing against private industry in other states the wages have to be comparable for people to consider making the move. Over the years this quickly put the average IT wage well out of the reach of normal APS brackets and thus we saw the birth of the contractor industry in Canberra in order to keep the level of skills required in the region. There was of course the dark times when the Gershon Report was in full swing which kept the IT market down in Canberra for a short period of time but it rebounded with renewed gusto the second people realised work wasn’t getting done.
However I strongly believe that this is a local maxima, focused tightly around the Canberra region. Put simply the factors involved in driving IT salaries up just don’t exist in the same concentration outside Canberra as every other major city has a higher population and much smaller government presence. This doesn’t mean IT isn’t worth anywhere in Australia outside of Canberra, far from it. IT skills are amongst some of the most portable talents to have as nearly every industry in the world relies on IT for critical business functions. If you’re really trying to make the most of the IT industry in Australia (and you’re not an entrepreneur) then you really can’t go past Canberra, especially as a starting point.