5 minutes with... Michael Strauss, Information systems manager, Mazda Australia

Q: What were your childhood ambitions?

The usual childhood dreams of petrol station attendant, fireman and policeman. By the time I had finished secondary school, I had no idea what I wanted to do.

Q: What was your first job?

During high school I held a number of part-time jobs to earn some pocket money. The first was in a milk bar, stacking shelves and serving customers. My biggest missed opportunity was in arguing with a customer over my lunch — which was warming in the bain marie — rather than selling it, as she had wanted.

Q: How did you get into IT?

I was inspired to study accounting due to good results in Year 12. I was also interested in computers and decided on a double degree just in case I didn’t like computing. By the end of the course I knew accounting wasn’t for me.

Q: What does your current position involve?

My role at Mazda is varied. At times I wear my CIO hat — looking strategically how information systems can benefit the organisation by helping support the various business needs. This means I have to have a good understanding of what is trying to be achieved so I can have effective solutions in place on time. From a development perspective, I am involved in application design and definition at varying levels and take a keen interest in overall application architecture. On a day-to-day basis, there are ongoing operational and support issues I become involved in depending on their complexity and impact.

Q: What projects and issues are you working on?

The most exciting project would have to be our CRM implementation. Developed in-house, its success rests on the incremental benefits it is bringing to the organisation. This project is working because it is not viewed purely as an IT solution. Rather, it is a process change solution that happens to be supported by an IT system. Personally, it is a very rewarding project because it is able to successfully leverage on system design principles implemented five years ago — well before this project had started or had been conceived.

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

Understanding the changes in technology and sorting out which part of vendor claims are true and what is just hype.

Q: How many IT professionals in your team?

The information systems department is made up of two arms — development and operations and support. There are seven developers, which includes our development manager and applications architect. On the support and operational side there are 10 people, including our systems manager, operations, helpdesk and systems and network admin. In some respects it is a small team with lots of crossover responsibilities to ensure continuity during periods of absence.

Q: Who do you report to, and who reports to you?

My direct report is to my managing director. I also work closely with the finance director and the rest of the management team. In theory, I have two direct reports — development and systems managers. In practice, we have multiple projects on the go at once and I am involved with most of the department at one time or another.

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

The most pressing issue is being able to satisfy my entire user base. IT is terrific as it is one of the few areas within any organisation that cuts across every department. Each area of the business has its own issues and priorities and wants its needs fulfilled first. I have to try to understand where it is best to place resources and in what priority to achieve the best result for the company as a whole.

Q: What is your annual IT budget (rough estimate)?

Is it ever enough?

Q: Where is your organisation’s Australian head office, and how many end users are there?

Our head office is at Mount Waverley in Melbourne. We have about 90 staff in the building and a further 35 nationally. We also provide systems and support to about 600 dealers at 132 dealerships all over Australia.

Q: Briefly describe your average week.

Nothing is ever typical. I always seem to migrate from one meeting to another. The ad hoc ones are usually the most productive as they generally involve a small group of people coming up with solutions to problems or planning on ways to move forward. My inbox seems to grow by the day and a clear morning or afternoon starts to seem like a holiday.

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

I would have loved to have been involved in the research work being carried out between the 1960s and 80s in the US. Much of that work, or at least its concepts, is at the core of our modern systems.

Q: What is your favourite IT gadget and why?

My portable electronic diary. I was a sceptic before I used it and a convert ever since. Its ability to synchronise with my desktop calendar without fear of losing data is its best feature. Reading newspaper articles offline is a bonus.

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

Canning a project for non-technical reasons.

Q: List three likes and dislikes about your job.

Likes: Variety, creativity and autonomy are the likes. Dislikes are interruptions, market researchers and sales people who profess to understand your business but do not.

Q: What is your company’s Web strategy?

We view the Web as an aid to our sales channel — that is, our dealer network. Many people conduct their research online and we aim to provide them with sufficient information to be confident in our product and want to test drive a car.

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

George Burns for his humour, Freddie Mercury and the band for terrific music, Nigella Lawson for her cooking tips, Michael Caine to listen to some of his stories and JFK to find out what really happened.

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

One where the solution to the problem is out of my control and not being able to convey the sense of urgency to the people fixing the problem.

Q: What is your IT prediction for the year?

Continuation of the trend towards insourcing and more wireless offerings.

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