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CIO100 2017 #31-100: Phil Tanner, Student Job Search Aotearoa

  • Name Phil Tanner
  • Title Chief technology officer
  • Company Student Job Search Aotearoa
  • Commenced Role February 2014
  • Reporting Line CEO Tim Allen
  • Technology Function Three IT staff
  • Related

    Student Job Search (SJS) is a not for profit owned by Students’ Associations across the country.

    The organisation is unique to New Zealand and represents the country’s largest pool of emerging talent.

    In the past year, SJS has filled over 25,000 jobs with students who have collectively earned over $70 million. The website hosts over 3000 jobs at any given time and range in nature from low skilled manual labour to highly skilled technical roles.

    Phil Tanner, chief technology officer at SJS, says the organisation has a simple purpose within the community, reflected in its vision “to enable every student that wants employment to secure employment that meets their immediate and potential long term vocational goals”.

    From this, SJS can be defined as a combination of a website job portal and contact centre, providing a matchmaking service for employers looking to fill roles and tertiary education and post-school vocational students looking to gain experience and earn income.

    The organisation undertakes employer visits in order to build the awareness and availability of their student groups. They also conduct several on-campus activities to not only showcase their services, but to build a repository of excellence candidates excellent candidates for employers to select from.

    Last year, SJS redeveloped its core business platform from the ground up, to enable better data analysis, and to lay groundwork for further developments in the future.

    The opportunity to move the platform away from legacy systems was also undertaken to ensure continued operational stability during the peak summer season, and to ensure that SJS was able to position itself as a market leader in the coming years, says Tanner.

    The objectives were simple, he says, the redevelopment of the core business platform needed to replicate all the features and functionality of the current system, but with a focused development, instead of an ad-hoc patched development process, to remove unnecessary features and to increase stability/security.

    Success was measured by ensuring that the system was able to perform the same functionality, at a minimum of the same speed of the existing platform.

    The upgraded CBP now provides faster, cleaner, and more trustworthy access to the customer information, says Tanner.

    This allows the organisation to better analyse the usage and needs of the users, and to provide the bedrock for the next phase of the strategic plan, starting to use machine learning and artificial intelligence systems to streamline processes.

    Now that the upgraded system is in place, we are already helping students find work faster, and finding candidates for employers, as well as helping student associations provide added value to their universities and members, says Tanner.

    “Our ability to help any tertiary student find the means to fund their way through higher education – or any person in New Zealand who wants to employ some help with everything from baby-sitting to graduate rocket scientists – has increased across the country.”

    He notes how improved access to the underlying raw data has allowed new insights into the factors which influence their ability to deliver the value into the tertiary educational sector, and allows for a review of the strategic priorities and directions for the organisation.

    The next stage of our strategic direction is to take the data enabled by the CBP upgrade and to start using artificial intelligence, powered by machine learning, to improve the quality of our service offering, and suggest new alternatives for customers who may have otherwise have missed them, he says.

    While the ICT department have been focused on consolidating the BAU systems over the past 24 months, the groundwork has now been laid to concentrate on innovative technologies over this year.

    Trial and innovate

    The transfer of both customer facing, and back-office, systems into the cloud has enabled SJS to reduce costs while enabling an atmosphere of "fail fast, fail cheap" - fostering a trial and innovate atmosphere.

    Currently, approximately one four-hours per person per week is devoted to investigating blue sky projects.

    During the last 12 months, this has been deliberately focused on technologies and systems that may help drive SJS forwards, however the plans for 2017 are to open this out towards general R&D, regardless of immediate applications.

    One of these projects was a new data warehouse dashboard, which started to pull in real-time KPI information, as well as to start harvesting call logs from the telephone system.

    Tanner says the data was analysed in real-time, and listed things such as the staff member who had dealt with the most calls that day, and the staff member who had the highest conversion rate in the past hour. This fostered a sense of friendly competition within the contact Centre, with staff members competing to get their name in top place.

    Tanner cites another project that SJS started after he attended a conference which discussed how organisations are using their server logs to proactively detect threats in real-time.

    “I was inspired to take some of the ideas and develop them for customised use within SJS,” he says.

    “Immediately following the conference, I built the core of a dashboard that has become integral within the ICT department, tracking authenticated logins outside of the office, or outside usual business hours.”

    Over time, the number of measures on the board have grown - doing things such as tracking security log file sizes, to indicate an exploratory attack vector before it is successful, highlighting abnormal network bandwidth usage, users resetting passwords and sizes of emails grouped by senders and recipients.

    The latter allows for simple detection of spam floods of phishing emails, as well as unusual behaviour by staff. In one case, the system highlighted and stopped one user who tried to transfer confidential information outside of the company.

    Strategic focus and engagement

    Tanner says the senior management team at SJS hold weekly update meetings, to ensure everyone is across all aspects of the strategic company direction. A more detailed reflection and planning meeting is held every six weeks to make sure the focus is maintained and all resources are pulling in the same direction.

    Board meetings - and the ICT sub-committee meetings - are held every other month, where papers are submitted detailing project retrospectives, current project updates and future plans.

    The ICT sub-committee meeting also receives "blue sky" papers each quarter, looking ahead to future technologies, or existing technological advances that SJS are not currently using, but could benefit the organisation if exploited.

    These papers are then discussed in terms of overall fit within the organisation, or with the strategic direction laid out to the board.

    The organisational structure within SJS is very flat, and with a single open-plan office, interdepartmental communications flow freely continually throughout the day, says Tanner.

    At a wider-level, a full staff forum is held each quarter, to make sure that everyone has an understanding of why some projects are being undertaken, with a view to the longer term aims of the processes.

    ICT staff are encouraged to read, share and discuss interesting articles or things that they have found online, to see not only how the "outside world" are innovating, but also to see if there are any ways in which SJS can improve internal processes. This recently led to the trial introduction of Pi-Hole (https://pi-hole.net/), reducing our attack surface by removing a large number of XSS vulnerabilities, says Tanner.

    Each meeting, one department steps up and provides a detailed presentation about their area of focus, the long term plans, and a brief recap of what's changed in the last 12 months.

    We also have an internal ticketing system, where all staff can suggest improvements, and receive feedback around the problems they've encountered, or the progress of any projects that they're interested in.

    SJS is in the enviable position of being able to recruit the majority of its staff members straight out of university, and therefore has a strong millennial focus, and the ability to keep in touch with a core stakeholder group, he says.

    “I believe diversity is integral to a well-functioning, and above all, competent team,” he adds.

    “Wherever possible, I attempt to introduce diversity, across gender, race, sexuality and age. When making decisions, or assessing possibilities, it is critical to ensure that numerous divergent views are taken into account and accommodated to provide the best possible outcome.”

    SJS also carries out Human Rights Commission training each year, and has started an organisation-wide training on the Treaty of Waitangi and its impact upon New Zealand today.

    As part of the executive team, Tanner has been tasked to take on the top role when CEO Tim Allen is away.

    “The managerial ethos within the company is to be constantly training your replacement to carry out your role,” he explains. “This is not only for a business continuity purpose, but also as continual staff development.”

    Divina Paredes

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