25 Years of Fronde


Paul Armstrong

By Paul Armstrong

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The changes in the last 25 years of technology have been astonishing. If you had a job 25 years ago, and if your job involved a computer, then the screen was probably green. Don't be confused - the coloured graphical user interface was well and truly alive. Indeed, statistically speaking, most computers in the world were PCs (dating from 1970’s). Mac (1984) had less than 2% market share and were not being led by Steve Jobs. Jobs was with Pixar back then who were busy redefining animation, culminating in Toy Story (1995).

But 25 years ago business computing was still dominated by green or, occasionally, an odd amber colour (thanks, ICL) or DOS’s black-and-white C:\> prompt (thanks, Bill Gates).

This was the era that Synergy, now Fronde, started in. I was not the first, but one of the first 30. Sybase, PowerBuilder, VB, a bit of C++, lots of Windows plus consultancy and some radical stuff called development project management, business requirements, and, really radical (!), system testing.

Synergy International Limited | Management + Technology Consulting.
Incorporated 24 January 1992.

Back then a clone was a cheap IBM PC. Now you are more likely to think Dolly the Sheep (1996).

Typically, most IT businesses that were alive 25 years ago, and who are still alive and thriving now, would be proud of what they had achieved and be looking to double-down (an Americanism that starts to get popular in the IT context around 2005) on their business model.

I, we, Synergy, Fronde, the team, and the alumni - are, and should be, proud of what we have achieved to create what one journalist called “that iconic Wellington IT company” (2015). With offices in Wellington, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Manilla, and in between with success stories on every continent on the planet bar the Antarctic (so close, but yet so far no delivery).

But you would be crazy if you were doing the same thing now as you were then.

There is plenty of research that will tell you that you need to change just to sustain - let alone grow. Back then businesses had 5 or 10 year plans. Now, they should be no more than 18 months.

So what do you need to do to get from there to here in 25 years?

Twenty five years ago I would have started with a leadership team that together had the right mix of vision, inspiration, and an eye for detail. Thank you, David and Sue Irving, Chris Comber (rest in peace), and Celia Burton. I would start instilling the first principle, that it’s the project and the business which measure success, not the software. So that years later we felt this so strongly that we codified this and an organisation value - outcomes focused.

I would start small, but quickly go big. I’d rise to a challenge no other country had previously - to help create a wholesale electricity market in 1995. I might then repeat that again in 2007 and along the way do something similar for Singapore, 2005.

In 1999 I'd do some work in the double quick time that involves student loans, student allowances, Oracle, a large NZ government client, and still be running it 18 years later.

Not satisfied with delivering good software project outcomes I would then start branching into managed services. I’d manage an Asia-Pacific network for a large baked-bean company, 2001.

Caption: A company day out in Taupo. Captured here are just a few of the people that attended. Circa 2001.

Along the way, I’d be grateful for the excellent talent that Synergy attracted, the same talent who also coached and mentored our people as our business grew from 30 to 150 by the early 2000’s. Thanks, Fiona Bain, James Olsen, William Meredith, Frank Stubbe, Lesley Hayward/Brook, Jenny Atkinson, Kosta Piri, Tapio Sorsa, Danny Mollan, Rachel Burke, Gary Lewis, Val Holmes, Steve McCabe, and more I cannot recall.

In 2000 I might form an R&D JV with one of the world’s mobile trendsetters Ericson, creating Ericson Synergy. I would also give it some talented CEOs (thanks, Jim Tocher and Stephen Crombie) and use some of their IP to create a great SMS platform and join it with a nationwide network of parking meters for Text-a-Park. I might also create an off-shoot mobile company, Fronde Anywhere, who created a mobile banking platform that is still servicing millions of consumers in the Philippines. Thanks, Dean Johnson, Carolyn Dewe, Antony Williams and more. To mix things up, I might also help a company in South Africa to protect manhole covers to prevent theft, by using some innovative mobile solutions.

In parallel, I’d open an office in the UK and build a full bespoke ERP solution for a FTSE 100; using Java and DB2. Plus some web eCommerce and banking solutions, and more besides.

If I could, I’d be the first to bring agile software development seriously into large scale software projects in NZ. Delivering millions of dollars of value still running a network of anti-virus systems around the world, performing 3 billion requests a day, for over 8 million users (2005). I might then do another larger project with the same client five years later (2010). But if I was under NDA, I could not say that I did either of those things. Thanks, Ian Bevan and the Camel team.

I might also buy some other companies that brought us great talent and ideas. Thanks, Hyperactive, Innovis, and Spunk Media for bringing us Chris Hobley, Craig Edes, Andrew Bennett and many more.

With success overseas and a desire for a global brand, I’d run an internal competition to change my name. A name that was getting confused with petrol brand and hair stylists. And some crazy Romanian called Nick Parfene, who also speaks French, would rechristen us with a name that spoke about revolution and the NZ fern in one go; Fronde, 2007.

Not following the crowd, but setting the trend before the word “cloud” was appropriated, I’d partner with some of the world’s biggest digital brands. I’d have the foresight to see that Salesforce could do so much more than CRM. I’d quickly realise that Google was more than search, and could transform how clients thought about and used office computing. Breaking the monopoly that Microsoft enjoyed with office and inventing a new way of thinking about work - collaboratively. But I’d still know that Microsoft was a great gold partner, and I’d use Microsoft .NET for millions of lines of code for many different projects. I’d also see that Amazon could be spelt AWS. I would not care what others thought about moving data and processing offshore. Caring more about what mattered to my customers’ businesses rather than any fear, uncertainty, or doubt that the naysayers are now reversing on. The “post-truth era” did not start with Donald Trump 2016. OMG! (And “OMG”, BTW, was first used in 1917 in a letter to Winston Churchill).

Caption: From left; Chris Comber, Al McKee, David Irving, Garth Hamilton. A time when office decor and ties were expected to match. 

When I finally decided to move into Australia properly (2011) I’d look for a similar great company that had similar foresight, but this time in cloud NetSuite ERP, and they’d be called Online One. I’d also make sure I kept the talent that led that company in Don McLean and Craig Traub. And I’d be glad of the future they created in cloud ERP for A/NZ customers and now so much more with Fronde together.

I’d build innovative solutions in aircraft refuelling, pay as you go electricity, farm management, and numeracy and literacy. I’d help the country export NZ’s primary products by meeting the demands of many different border regulations around the world. I’d visit every single overseas office of a large dairy business so they could build an intranet tailored to the different cultures and business needs of their people. I’d design, build, integrate and manage more systems for more businesses than I can remember or name, using more technologies than most IT services companies would normally boast.

I’d have a CEO that instilled in us the value of customers first, not only in service but in our strategy in choosing the technologies and partners that we did. Thanks, Ian Clarke.

I’d hire an interesting array of sales managers and salespeople who thought they were normal in a sea of IT geeks; Al McKee, Stu Cordue, Clive Truman, Lindsay Renwick, Kate Giles, Damien Kelly, Richard Gibson, Richard Syres and many, many more.

Along the way, I’d find lots of other very good talent and try and keep them as interested as I could by finding them customers looking for innovative solutions.
And perhaps oddly, I’d form a rock band and have Chris Hobley on vocals, Russell Dear on base, Desiree Purvis on ukulele, and Rachel Collingridge on brass and woodwind (circa 2002).

I would also accept and understand when our people went to create other fantastic companies or seed other businesses. Allowing other people to feel the glow of Synergy and Fronde everywhere. Thanks, Garth Hamilton, Steve Cohn, Darren McTigue, Steve Graham, Nick Turner, Dominic Stow, Frik Botha, Rick Rainey, Darko Bohinc, Greg and Emma Robertson, Ben Pitchforth, Vikki Forster, Helen Mills, Mandy Simpson, Graeme Shallard, Tony Newport, Aidan Stigley, Steve Gellatly and many software developers, testers, project managers, business analysts, engineers, salespeople, managers, and other IT professionals (you know who you are). Lots of whom I might still see in Wellington at the Green Man every year thanks to Stickney Kunanayagam who also organised us into building not only software but a whole town in Sri Lanka with $USD 120,000 raised from Synergy/Fronde staff after the Boxing Day Tsunami (2004).

Five years ago, I might have started taking a serious look at the way that digital technology has properly started to accelerate and change the lives and business of our customers. I’d also see how this was disrupting and changing my own business, and I’d take some risks. And when I’d come out of that period, I would know I was stronger and better placed to help my customers.

Caption: From left; Weng NG, Mike Taylor, & Stickney Kunanayagam. In the early 2000s we literally took off.

I’d now be continuing to apply the first principles I’d learnt which is it’s the customer's outcome that defines success. I’d be grateful for a new CEO and his vision and his approach in taking 25 years of learning and bundling that into IP that can help our customers link their business to the technology. Technology that we can build and sustain them by bringing technologies that remain boastfully wide and deep for a complete end-to-end service. Bring this all together to take our customers on a journey, just like we have been on. Thanks, Ant Belsham.

Then, every so often I might stop and have an espresso coffee from a proper espresso machine which was unheard of in an organisation in 2000. Or I might pause with the entire company and have a team brief video conference which stretches three countries and five cities; thanks, Google Hangouts circa 2010. Or I might stop on a Friday night at 4.30 and have a coke, beer, or wine and listen to Spotify (2008) on my Amazon Echo (2016). And when I would stop I’d love to talk, listen, or just be with the people at Fronde, because, like the names of the past, they are loyal, fun, and good at what they do.

Thanks, everyone, That’s how you do it.

Paul Armstrong (1968), Synergy 1996 now Fronde 2017, 21 of the 25 years.