5 minutes with... Robert Webber, IT director, PLAN Australia

Q: What were your childhood ambitions?

To fly planes or ride motorbikes for a living.

Q: What was your first job?

My first part-time job was parcel pickup at Woolworths at $1.55 an hour. My first full-time job was a programmer in the Australian Public Service — the Department of Social Security — in Canberra back in 1982.

Q: How did you get into IT?

My father assembled a PC, a Processor Technology SOL 16 back in 1976 when I was a teenager. It was state of the art with 64KB RAM and external cassette player for offline storage. I soon got into programming it and even wrote a couple of games before realising I had a knack for such things. I continued on and did a computing degree at uni.

Q: What does your current position involve?

You name it. PLAN Australia is a mortgage broker aggregator, with more than 800 independent mortgage broker members. We are a relatively young company going through enormous growth so I am involved in myriad things; from planning to programming, sales and marketing, training and promoting.

Q: What projects and issues are you working on now?

Electronic lodgement of home loan applications as XML is the key technological challenge for us at the moment. Australia’s lenders are all addressing this now. We are currently the only mortgage broking firm successfully lodging loan applications electronically and we are determined to continue leading the way.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Delegating the technical challenges to the IT team. I still have the craving to get in there and get my hands dirty. Making sure that anything new we do is well documented, supported and maintained is also a challenge.

Q:How many IT professionals in your team?

We have six developers and one helpdesk person in the team at the moment and we are growing steadily.

Q:What is the most pressing issue you face as IT manager?

Keeping abreast of new technologies as they emerge and ensuring that we know of anything that can help us do what we do. Also, software training for our brokers is a major issue as they are so geographically dispersed and our software is becoming more sophisticated.

Q:Briefly describe your average week:

I start at 5 am every morning with an hour’s meditation, which is how I handle the stresses of the coming day. E-mails take an hour or two each day, doing the rounds with developers to keep in touch with progress, sometimes trips interstate or to New Zealand, and meetings with lenders would round out the week.

Q: What is your company Web strategy?

To us the Web is the ultimate delivery and communication mechanism which is vital as our 800 mortgage broker members are dispersed across the whole of Australia and New Zealand. Our software databases are updated daily via the Web.

Q: If you could walk in the shoes of any other IT professional, whose would it be and why?

Bill Gates, because he is stinking rich.

Q: What is your favourite IT gadget and why?

My laptop is my constant companion; it brings consistency to my work environment no matter where I am. Also, I cannot live without the fuel gauge in my car....

Q: If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I would love to be in there developing again. Maybe one day I will hire someone to do my job and I will get back into hacking code — a bit like a sabbatical.

Q: What is the most difficult IT decision you have had to make?

Whether to upgrade from Windows 98 to 2000 on my home PC, just when I had it running well too.

Q: List three likes and dislikes about your job:

I like the building of new software platforms, addressing the challenges of growth and the people interaction. I dislike the hours that I sometimes need to put in, the number of e-mails I get and the red tape.

Q: Do you plan to undertake any additional training courses?

Not personally. I read a lot of self-development material and industry mags, of course. I plan to put our developers through some external training courses this year.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I see the lending industry in Australia progressing its IT platforms in leaps and bounds over the next few years, fuelled by the recently formed standards body LIXI (Lending Industry XML Initiative). We will position ourselves as a communications agent for seamlessly communicating between the various emerging systems. I still hope to be steering the ship at that time.

Q: What is the worst IT disaster you worry about?

Data loss. Our databases are vital for paying commissions to our brokers. The worst possible thing that could happen is that we are late for a commission distribution.

Q: What would you do if you could rule the world for one week?

Sit back and relax. You can’t change the momentum of mankind in a week. If I had some superhuman powers as well, I would end cruelty to children and animals.

Q: Name five people, living or not, you would invite for a dinner party and why?

Ayrton Senna, Ian Thorpe and Bill Gates for their passions and achievements, Suzie Weeks because she looks good and Bill Clinton for some good gossip.

Q: What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you at work?

Next question please.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Spending time with my three girls, swimming, playing golf and socialising with friends — not all at the same time.

Q: What is your ideal holiday location?

Anywhere with lots of water, frozen or liquid. If I had six months up my sleeve I would love to explore the Eastern Coast of Australia in a large catamaran.

Q: What is your IT prediction for this year?

The emergence of some viable alternatives to Microsoft such as Sun’s Object Office suite combined with some really nice Linux themes will undermine the Microsoft monopoly. Maybe it will rethink its licensing strategy.

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