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Chris Vein, the former White House tech guru in charge of ACS, on his vision for Australia’s largest IT association

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Now Chris Vein adds another prominent role to his distinguished career: CEO of the association representing Australian technology professionals, ACS.

Vein (pron. VEE’-en) moves from the US to Sydney for the new role, boosted by the opportunity to refocus ACS and boost its membership offerings.

With a Silicon Valley residency also under his belt, Vein defies the stereotype of a loud-mouthed, all-consuming American boss. He speaks rather softly but strongly, has a sense of humility and takes the time to give thoughtful answers.

So why is an American the right person to lead the Australian Computer Society?

“I don’t know if it has anything to do with being American per se,” Vein responds.

“ACS conducted an international search and took the time to consider many candidates, some within Australia and some not.

“However, I think it has to do with attitude – not being afraid to strive for greatness, put in the hard work to achieve it and drive change. Is that American? I don’t know.

“But bringing in someone from outside Australia gives ACS different perspectives, new approaches and a wealth of relationships with global experts.

“I believe the job of every leader, American or not, is to ask a lot of questions, listen and learn, and not assume we know everything — or anything, frankly.”

In addition, Vein adds, he is a “Australophile”, have lived and worked here a few times since the 2000s, including appearances with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and consultancy PwC Australia.

He is also a member of ACS and worked with ACS in 2016, traveling around the country to discuss his work in the US.

“It was a fantastic experience and one that got me excited about the potential of ACS,” says Vein.

“When it came to actually applying for the CEO position, it was a no-brainer as it was an opportunity to work with a great group of people, committed to a strong ACS.

“And in the 10 years since I started working in Australia, so much has grown, so much has changed, so much is happening here.

“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that Australia is doing great things!”

The experience

Vein describes himself as a “skilled generalist” who has worked in nearly every C-suite job, including finance, business development, marketing, sales, administration, innovation, technology, and HR.

“Over time, that led to a unique approach to helping organizations solve their problems,” he says.

“My career had no design. It just happened that opportunities came, I grabbed them, and those opportunities created an interesting foundation to do really interesting work.”

Before taking on the role of CIO at the City of San Francisco, Vein joined the organization as Chief Administrative Officer for the Department of Technology.

From there, he was promoted to CIO, not because of his technical skills, he says, but because of his managerial skills in dealing with people around technology.

“I was able to spend five years in that role transforming a failing organization into a highly federated citywide technology ecosystem.

“That work then caught the attention of the Obama administration because they saw the innovation I was introducing.

“And they said, ‘Wait a minute, if you can do that, in a complicated place like San Francisco, we want you to do it on a national level and work with our national organizations as well as the states and local communities.

“So my job for two years was to introduce innovation at those three levels of government, starting with the simple but difficult task of sharing data.

“When I did that, it caught the attention of the World Bank, and the World Bank said, ‘Gosh, we want you to do that on an international scale, we want to see if we can introduce that kind of innovation in how we deliver our products and services. ‘, which then led me to Australia and worked with the then Foreign Secretary [Julie] Bishop, injecting innovation into the utility, then a consultancy at PwC, Australia.

“And all of that has prepared me, given me the skills and the experience, to actually take on this latest challenge at ACS.”

The vision

Vein says this is an incredible time for him to join ACS.

“Australia, like many other countries, not only emerged from the pandemic, but prospered as a result of it,” Vein says.

“It was able to do that by boosting digital transformation and integrating technology into all areas of business, education and government.

“And this fundamentally changed how organizations use their business models, especially how they interact with customers; how they design, build and deliver their products and services; and how they enable their employees and partners to achieve their strategic goals.”

In addition to staying profitable, Vein says ACS should focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the environment, or the “triple bottom line.”

And what is the “big, furry, daring target,” as he puts it, for ACS under his leadership?

“To build on the past, you need to understand how to empower in the present, but focus on the future, and translate our insight into practical ways to drive change. All powered by technology.

“Our members live in communities across Australia and are influenced by our education system, the organizations where they work and the government that makes policy.

“I believe ACS should provide our members with tools to help our friends in education, business and government achieve their unique missions. ACS can then create an opportunity for our members to drive change and benefit from it.

“This means actively working with organizations across Australia and understanding their needs; provide the research, tools and advice that the market needs; increasing the diversity of our field by focusing on the full range or tech talent, from those with university degrees, to those who have learned or taught themselves to be a programmer or gamer, to those who need further training; and explore the range of exciting new technologies, including AI, quantum computing, biotechnology and gaming.”

Gaming?

“When you look at Web 3.0, you see that it’s the gamers who design it,” Vein said. “Many didn’t go to accredited universities, they don’t necessarily have a degree in programming.

“And yet they are potentially leading the future of technology in Australia and the world. So diversity means first of all we need to include the full range of technologies in it.

“From an equity point of view, there are very important professional training courses.

“But in this world of extreme business growth and a lack of sufficient technology talent, we must be prepared to include those who have not gone through those programs, people who may need to be retrained or retrained.

“From an equality perspective, we need to involve all the people who are essential to what we do.”

The members

The core of any membership organization is its members, a point Vein is quick to acknowledge.

“Let me be clear that I recognize and celebrate the people who have given so much of their lives to this organization, this society. And I recognize and celebrate their strong belief in ACS,” says Vein.

“The great thing about membership organizations is the passion that members bring to the association, they care deeply enough to exercise and share that passion.

“ACS has such a rich history of about 50 years of great people doing great things and a willingness to give back and I want to tap into that hidden asset, that energy.

“The challenge for any organization, however, is that the market for products and services does change.

“ACS started in the world of ICT. But in today’s environment, you have a wealth of technologies that go far beyond traditional information and communication technologies.

“And it’s up to ACS to decide whether we want to keep up with those changes, and if so, how we do it.

“ACS needs to refocus on our members, not only to grow, but also to make an impact,” he says.

To that end, ACS has worked to identify the different membership cohorts and what they each want from their professional organization.

“We know our members are unique and diverse,” Vein says.

“Some members may be more traditionally aligned with ACS’s original intent, others, such as international students and new entrepreneurs, may not be as traditionally focused.

“We need to look at that whole range of members, ask them what their needs are and see what products and services offer value. If necessary, we will create new products and services and drop those that offer no value.”

The lessons

We don’t talk much about the f-word in Australia – failure. But in almost all cases, failure is an essential part of success.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed,” Vein readily admits, “sometimes spectacular.”

“But I’ve had the privilege and honor of working for people who celebrated my failure, whether that’s a president of the United States or the mayor of San Francisco.

“Every leader understood that if you want to make changes, if you want to improve the status quo, you have to try things, you have to do things differently. And they may not always work.

“There are good approaches to trying to minimize the risk. But risk is always inherent in what you do.”

Vein says his bosses recognized that and supported him. And when he failed, they helped him to his feet to continue.

“Working in the world of technology teaches you so many new ways of thinking and one of the most important in a career is the ability to fail forward, fail fast and learn. If we don’t learn, we keep making the same mistakes.

He cites great Australian success stories such as Canva and Atlassian as examples of what he describes.

“Those companies may not talk about it, but failures enable their massive market capitalization.

“It’s a growing part of Australian culture, but it’s not talked about enough.

“We Americans may talk too much about it, but I believe that learning from failure is one of the reasons Silicon Valley is so successful,” Vein added.

“And maybe one of the things I can do in my time at ACS is to help have this conversation. I think not hiding it, and being clear and open about it, is the first step to addressing the problem.

Life

Having traveled extensively around the world, Vein says Australia has a unique personality.

“That’s why so many people love Australians, they love going to Australia, you’re fun, you’re quirky, you’re interesting, you’re so many things.

“And I don’t know if that can be said the same way about other countries. You have a natural attraction that draws people in.”

It was a difficult choice for Vein to decide where to settle in Australia. In the end he chose Sydney.

But he looks forward to traveling to other places, exploring and soaking up the culture – and enjoying every last minute of it.

“I understand that life is a gift and it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye,” he says.

“And I don’t intend to waste a minute of it.”

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