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Australia’s 12 most influential people in tech

Monday, 6 October 2014 | By Brad Howarth

They are business owners, venture capitalists, and government ministers. They are serial entrepreneurs and they regularly grace the front pages of national newspapers. But most importantly, when they have something to say, Australia listens.


They are the 12 people who have wielded the biggest influence in the Australian tech sector in 2014, and they’re on SmartCompany’s most influential people in tech list.


Twelve months on from the election of the Abbott government, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull still finds himself on the list of powerbrokers, although his ranking has slipped a few places since last year. The National Broadband Network continues to play a dominant role in the future of the country’s technological infrastructure but those it presented the greatest threat to – namely Telstra – are re-inventing themselves and forging new paths. Telstra’s chair Catherine Livingstone and chief executive David Thodey both appear on this year’s list.


But that’s not to say the power of entrepreneurs and business owners is diminishing – if anything, it has grown over the past 12 months, as can be seen in the success of home-grown tech start-ups Freelancer and Atlassian.


So who are the most powerful tech players in Australia and where did they come from?



1. Matt Barrie – Freelancer.com


Matt Barrie helped reawaken the appetite of Australian retail investors for technology stocks with the float of his online outsourcing company Freelancer.com in November last year. The stock debuted at more than four times its listing price of 50 cents, and while it has come back somewhat from those dizzying heights, it is still trading at a 50% premium.


Barrie has since acquired several competitors, opened offices in four countries, and expanded into the payments industry, as part of his goal for Freelancer being to help a billion people get a (small) job. Barrie is highly active in the start-up community, mentoring young entrepreneurs and speaking at multiple forums.


He has been vocal in his support for bringing entrepreneurship and technology into the Australian school curriculum, and teaches an innovation class as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney.



2. Paul Bassat – SEEK & Square Peg Capital


Paul Bassat has achieved incredible success since he, his brother Andrew and business partner Matt Rockman founded the online recruitment and education company SEEK in 1997. Now he is taking the business skills that helped grow SEEK into a $5.5 billion company and using them to help other would-be disruptors as co-founder of venture capital investor Square Peg Capital.


Bassat says he is looking for outstanding entrepreneurs solving big problems and helps them to take the next step, and to date Square Peg has placed money in local start-ups including Canva, goCatch, ROKT and Vend. Bassat is also hoping to bring some of his passion for technology and innovation into his broader responsibilities as a non-executive director at Wesfarmers and commissioner at the Australian Football League.



3. Doron Ben-Meir – Entrepreneur’s Infrastructure Programme

It can be a difficult task to span the worlds of government and commerce. Doron Ben-Meir brought commercial ability to his appointment as the inaugural director of the former government’s Commercialisation Australia industry assistance program in April 2010. There are many people in the technology sector who are hoping he can do so again in his new role as director of the federal government’s $484.2 million Entrepreneur’s Infrastructure Programme, where he is overseeing the development and rollout of the government’s largest program to assist technology innovators. Ben-Meir brings significant real-world experience to the role, having founded five companies and been an active venture capital investor through three different funds.


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4 and 5. Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar – Atlassian


It seems fitting that a company called Atlassian would have global ambitions. The company that Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar founded in a garage 12 years ago is now valued at $3.3 billion and has staff numbering around 1000.


In January of this year it relocated its head office to London ahead of a much-anticipated listing on a US stock exchange. The company is growing strongly, with sales up 44% for the 2013-14 financial year to reach $242 million, following on from a 35% jump the previous year.


Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar have become heroes of the local tech start-up sector and are regular speakers at everything from major industry conferences. They can also be found speaking at high schools and universities about the opportunities that the tech industry holds.



6. Hugh Durrant-Whyte – NICTA


At a time when federal government support for the sciences is at a 30-year low, Hugh Durrant-Whyte finds himself running an ICT research centre of excellence with an uncertain future. Federal government support for NICTA will cease in 2016, leaving Durrant-Whyte and his colleagues to find alternate funding sources or face a major scaling back of NICTA’s activities.


Durrant-Whyte has been passionate about NICTA’s role in getting the technology it develops into the hands of people who can use it. Under his leadership NICTA has begun spinning off a new company every three months, covering fields as diverse as cloud computing management, advanced electronic pain relief and gigabit-speed wireless networking.


Durrant-Whyte recently launched a new NICTA lab at Victoria’s Swinburne University. But NICTA’s long-term future – and the future of research-driven technology innovation in Australia – will depend greatly on Durrant-Whyte and his team’s ability to forge a new funding strategy.


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7. Catherine Livingstone – Telstra


It says much of Catherine Livingstone’s accomplishments in both technology and mainstream business that she simultaneously holds the positions of chair of Australia’s largest technology company – Telstra – and president of the peak business advocacy body, the Business Council of Australia. She took the latter role in March this year and has already used it as a platform to call for Australia to put aside its complacency and confront the forces of digital technology, demographic change and globalisation.

Certainly Livingstone’s background puts her in a strong position to know what she is talking about, having driven Telstra’s own transformation program. Few can match her credentials in either technology or business, having been chief executive of successful biotech company Cochlear from 1994 until 2000, chair of the CSIRO from 2001 to 2006, and a director of Macquarie Bank from 2007 to 2013.



8. Ted Pretty – Hills Ltd


Something of a blast from the past, Ted Pretty is well known for driving the digital strategy at Telstra through the dotcom boom. Pretty has successfully taken what he learned about technology and innovation in the fires of the tech wreck and is using that knowledge to reshape Hills, the iconic maker of the Hills Hoist, as a technology company focused on delivering solutions in healthcare, security, communications and mobility, audio-visual and smart home automation.


Pretty has presided over the acquisition of six new businesses into Hills and opened a research and development hub within the company. Pretty also holds a post as non-executive director at data centre company NEXTDC Limited and is the Australian and New Zealand advisory chairman for the massive Indian technology services companies Tech Mahindra and Mahindra Satyam.



9. Tim Reed – MYOB


As the man leading one of Australia’s largest home-grown software makers, Tim Reed’s decisions help shape the working lives of more than 1.2 million Australian small business owners. Reed has helped steer MYOB’s transition to cloud-based software against fierce competition from the fast-growing New Zealand rival Xero, driving an internal cultural change and focusing the business on ‘making life easier’ for its customers. His passion for small business has also seen him forge multiple relationships with professional bodies and business associations, including providing advice for federal Minister for Small Business Bruce Billson.


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10. David Thodey


It’s a measure of not just the size of Telstra but its sheer market dominance that it has two representatives on this year’s list. In his five years as chief executive, David Thodey has done a remarkable job in turning around Telstra’s internal culture to make it more agile and innovative, including launching a major offensive to improve customer service. He has also succeeded in taking Telstra’s greatest ever potential threat – the National Broadband Network – and using it to secure an $11 billion windfall in exchange for its aging network. And he has also driven an aggressive investment strategy that recently saw Telstra acquire the US-based video technology company Ooyala. Thodey is also co-chair of the Infrastructure and Investment Taskforce of the B20 leadership group, which is an advisory group to the G20.



11. Malcolm Turnbull


No one embodies the hopes and fears of Australia’s technology sector as much as Malcolm Turnbull. As federal Minister for Communications, Turnbull has presided over the restructuring of the National Broadband Network, garnering both praise and criticism as he has sought a faster and cheaper compromise. He has also won praise for his willingness to engage with the local technology industry, championing the use of cloud computing within the federal government and speaking passionately of the need for greater emphasis and support for the local start-up community.


12. Russell Yardley


A key figure behind the scenes in the Australian IT industry, Yardley got his start in 1978 with IBM, staying until 1985 when he left to found one of Australia’s first multimedia companies, Decision Engineers, which became Acumentum and was sold to JadeLynx in December 2007. Yardley has numerous connections to the Victorian government, including membership of the Victorian Government Purchasing Board. He is a director of NICTA, non-executive chairman at the key Microsoft partner Readify and health informatics company Alcidion, and is on the board of the peak IT industry body, the AIIA. Yardley is a mentor to many in the industry, and an active investor in numerous start-ups through Algonquin Investments.


This story originally appeared on SmartCompany.