Digital Digest with Brett Roberts – Digital Change

By: Jessica and Gemma 25 Jan, 2018

Razzbri’s starting the new year off with a bang! January’s Digital Digest is with the incredible Brett Roberts. He is the Associate Director of Customer Experience at Datacom which specializes in delivering business transformation and enablement. Throughout his career he’s held many notable roles in the digital industry – Chief Executive of digital agency Cucumber and Director of Innovation and National Technology Officer at Microsoft NZ just to name a few. He is killing it and we were dying to pick his brain here at Razzbri. This blog explores how he started off his career as a Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, acquired such a broad range of skills and he also gives us insight on the loud shirts he’s so well known for. Happy reading! 🙂

You started your career as an Aircraft Maintenance Engineer then moved into the IT/ Tech space – talk us through how you took this path?

One word: ‘serendipity’. As part of my Avionics engineering apprenticeship I spent some time working with the team which tested and repaired flight data and cockpit voice recorders (the infamous ‘black boxes’ that are actually bright orange). At that time we were looking at buying a new test system for flight data recorders however the prohibitive cost pushed us down the path of developing our own and, as a result, I rapidly learned a lot about building interface hardware and using one of the (at the time) brand-new IBM PC’s to crunch and display the data via a combination of x86 machine code and BASIC. That was what sparked my interest in IT in general and it was all downhill from there I guess.

You have a very impressive career history and such a broad spectrum of skills – from digital transformation, innovation, commercialization, strategy to marketing, PR and communications. How have you acquired such a range of expertise in such niche roles?

I’d love to say it was the result of great career planning on my part but the reality is it was more a combination of good timing, dumb luck and youthful enthusiasm. Spending 12 years at Microsoft provided me with a huge amount of on-the-job training with regards to running a P&L, selling, marketing and public speaking and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to put my hand up for a spokesperson role which led to me learning enough to be dangerous when it comes to PR and communications. A little later, my time as CEO at Cucumber provided fantastic experience in areas such as strategy, planning and forecasting, working with a board and understanding the digital world. I can’t leave this question though without acknowledging the fact that throughout my career I have been privileged to work with wonderful people who have been willing to teach, tolerate and take a chance on me. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here typing this.

What steps would you recommend for one to take in their career to acquire a different set of skills from their current role to further specialize?

My first recommendation would be to feel the fear and do it anyway (only one thing is ever going to kill you and it’s unlikely to be a career change). There is also a lot to be said for working for an organisation that’s willing and able to invest in your personal development. Figure out what you don’t want to do because then it’s a lot easier to identify what you *do* want to do. Oh, and make sure you’re building your ‘soft’ skills along with the others. Throw yourself in the deep end and absorb as much as you can.

Over your career to date, I’m sure you’ve seen huge strides in the technology space and  the evolving transition to digital – talk us through this change and it’s impact on society as a whole.

The first ‘technology’ I got my hands on was the PC mentioned above (I think it was the second PC Air NZ ever purchased and in 2018 dollars it cost around $70K) and the latest stuff has included things like machine vision, Oculus Rift and HoloLens. After all these years I am still in awe of the pace of innovation and change and I can’t see it slowing down anytime soon. Technologies such as AI will have a profound effect on our futures and those of future generations and while I am incredibly optimistic for the benefits that technology can bring to the world I do have serious concerns that too many of the world’s population don’t get to benefit fully from the advances being made. I saw a comment from somebody a while back that said something like ‘in the next 5 years we will see the same amount of technological progress as we saw in the entire 20th century’. I suspect they’re right but hope that we’ll also see the same amount of societal change and improvement too.

Where do you see the future of digital heading?

This is a tricky question given that the word ‘digital’ means many different things to many different people but it’s a safe bet we’ll continue to see a lot of innovation and change when it comes to SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) and the use of technology to transform organisations. In the business world we’re in an interesting situation in that many senior executives and board members have absolutely no understanding of the rapidly changing digital world we now inhabit and so I suspect we will see more than a few of those companies fall by the wayside as more digitally savvy competitors emerge. Think of it as Digital Darwinism: the companies that survive will be those who are able to adapt the fastest.

With a wealth of technology/ digital experience under your belt, what is your biggest experience to date?

I’m not sure I could choose one experience but sitting in a room with Steve Ballmer, Sir Richard Taylor and a couple of other Weta people discussing whether the Xbox Live network and the millions of Xboxes connected to it could be used to render one of Peter Jackson’s movies (I think it might have been King Kong) would rate up there.

Who or what is your muse? And how does this affect your way of working?

I can’t think of anybody I would identify as a muse although I do look to JP Sears for spiritual guidance and general life coaching. This affects my work by making me watch YouTube videos in company time. Another, slightly less flippant, answer would be that I think Dan Pink’s research on what motivates people should be compulsory reading for anybody who ever aspires to leading people. Or you could watch his TED Talk on company time.

Absolute favorite food?

I don’t really have one but I would nominate celery as one of my least favourites. It’s just crunchy water with a weird taste. It is useful as a peanut butter delivery mechanism though and is great for stirring a Bloody Mary.

We here at Razzbri are huge fans of the loud shirts – talk us through your wardrobe choices.

“Choice” makes it sound like there’s some sort of rational thought process involved when it’s probably more like buying a painting (‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’). It’s always interesting to see the responses a loud shirt will elicit and I think I hit peak loudness a few months back with an amazing jacket I purchased in Mount Maunganui. In the space of just a few hours I had one person believe me when I told them it was made from an old patterned rug an aunt had left me in her will and another (the CEO of a high profile NZ tech company) ask me if I was actually going to wear it on stage for a panel discussion I was part of (the answer was ‘yes’ by the way). I’m not sure what lies ahead from here but I’ll figure something out.

Check out our previous Digital Digest with Geri Ellis here.