Crafting the System

After more than 10 years building a successful network integration business, Systemcraft's Claudio Antonioli finds himself torn between providing the hands-on service that his clients have come to expect and the more executive role inherent in his position as managing director of the company.

"I still haven't found the balance," he admits ruefully. "I oscillate between the two; sometimes I want to be really hands on, and I will set up a server beneath the desk between phone calls, and other times I find I am just too busy."

But his predisposition for tinkering was probably the catalyst for the company's inception; the company's headquarters in Leichhardt's fashionable Italian Forum and relaxed working environment, complete with employee espresso machine, is a long way in both distance and mindset from the public sector of Canberra where he began his career.

Like many people who entered the industry in the 1980s, Antonioli did not formally train in IT. However, the graduate and postgraduate degrees he holds in economics and statistics indirectly opened the door to computing.

"I learned programming when I worked in the public sector," he explains. "I used to work in the Bureau of Statistics and a lot of people were studying - the public service really encouraged people to study, particular those in the bureau - it is a really technical place. So I went off to university and did Economics and Statistics. But I always worked with computers - that was the funny thing. It just continued from there."

When he looks back though, Antonioli sees this trend was far from unusual. "So many of my peers really don't have a computing background in the sense of a formal education. They might have done industry courses but they don't really have a tertiary background in computing. But they have got degrees in everything else. My brother, who also works for the company, is a structural engineer, for example.

"The ones who started 15 years ago, or even longer, have a lot of experience on mainframes and applied areas and they realised they could make a living out of it. That, combined with the fact that they didn't want to work for someone else, was really a big incentive."

Antonioli sees his move into the IT sector as a great escape act - both from the inanities of the public sector and from Canberra itself. After more than a decade working in Government departments, the chance to move to Sydney to pursue programming in the fledgling PC market was a golden opportunity. In 1988, sick of the mindset of the bureau and disillusioned with the nation's capital, he and his wife sold the house and moved north.

"I hated the public service - there are so many idiots you have to work for. Here, we are really laid back - I am in jeans nearly every day and I like the casual approach. In the public service it is all appearance; the substance really isn't important. It is so superficial and I got frustrated, even though I moved through [the ranks] quite quickly.

"I wanted to get out of Canberra - my wife and I just hated the place. There was nothing about Canberra that we liked. I took leave without pay, thinking if it doesn't work we can always come back, but that was it."

The Sydney market was beginning to boom and while Antonioli began programming PCs, he found himself increasingly asked to adapt computers for multiple users. The business soon evolved into network integration to the point where the programming side was gradually phased out. Finding it increasingly difficult to support his clients on his own, he began to employ staff, initially as sub contractors but eventually as full-time employees. By the time the 1990 recession hit, the company was not only well and truly established, but business was booming.

"I couldn't believe what was happening. I couldn't work it out until one customer told me the reason they needed me more was because he was reducing staff and actually putting on more computers. I think that was when people started using IT a lot more smartly because they had to be more competitive. That particular client had 10 computers and three staff. You look around now at small businesses and how much they really use computers, and they are sophisticated. Nowadays, take the computer away and the client has nothing to do. The recession was an eye opener."

Currently, the company employs almost a dozen staff and has moved into offering add-on services for clients such as network administration training and Web development. While network administration is the primary focus for many companies, Systemcraft also offers application-based training in programs such as Word and Excel. Antonioli explained the company had grown to a stage where it could branch out into other services that are not part of its core operations.

"Now that we have a few more technical staff we have more flexibility," Antonioli said. "It is nice to get to this size. The downside is you have to do a bit of everything and you have to decide how hands on you want to become or whether you want to concentrate on management.

"I enjoy listening to our customers and what works for them, but at the end of the day it is what works for you - how you operate with your people.

"The thing I have learned over the last year is how important it is to have really good people around you."

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