One of NZ’s longest serving private technology companies is soon to celebrate 30 years in business – a milestone in any industry let alone in such a competitive and rapidly developing industry.
We caught up with CodeHQ (previously Augen Software) cofounder Mitchell Pham and asked him about how his experiences as a child refugee from Vietnam, and the numerous business survival challenges he has encountered since, have shaped how he sees the world and influenced his life as an entrepreneur.
NZ Entrepreneur: Your journey from child refugee to entrepreneur is something that most of us could not begin to comprehend. Can you tell us briefly about those times and how you came to be in New Zealand?
Mitchell Pham: During the decade after the end of the Vietnam War, my family (my parents and two younger siblings) attempted to escape Vietnam to find a better life. Twice we failed, were arrested and sent to prison camps. After exhausting all our funds, we were desperate to try one last time, but could only afford to send one person. As the eldest, my family decided that I should make the journey. Even though I was only twelve years old at the time, I was fully aware of the dangers it entailed and that I was my family’s last hope. With a group of others, we evaded local authorities and boarded a fishing boat, travelled down the Mekong river and went out to sea. After facing many ordeals at sea, our boat drifted towards an oil rig near Indonesia, where we were eventually rescued.
Over the next two years I lived in four refugee camps in Indonesia, which were overcrowded and lacked basic human necessities. During this time, I was on the waiting list for resettlement in a safe country, with New Zealand being at the top of my list. I arrived in Auckland in August 1985, where I faced many challenges with adapting to a new culture, schooling system, and way of life. It took me ten years before I truly felt settled. Studying at the University of Auckland and meeting the other co-founders of Augen Software Group (now CodeHQ) played a huge part in starting my journey as an entrepreneur in the technology industry.
NZE: Do you think those experiences (tough times) have contributed to you becoming an entrepreneur and the way you look at the world? If so, in what ways?
MP: My past experiences and the adversities I faced have definitely shaped me into the person I am today. But alongside that, they’ve also shaped my perceptions and the view that life is both precious and brief. This perspective has inspired me to make the most of life and instilled the motivation to actively connect and engage with the world that I live in. But more importantly, my personal hardship has heightened my desire to make a positive difference. That’s why I strongly value education and believe that it plays a crucial role in society through its ability to empower people to make a difference.
My experiences have also shaped the way I view business and helped me to understand that enterprises hold the power to create change; that’s why business has always been central in my career path. The flow on effect of this led me to my role as an entrepreneur, which over the years, has provided me with the freedom and flexibility to create positive change for others. This lifestyle even paved the way for me to co-found CodeHQ, a business which has created opportunities in the shape of employment and development for our staff, and impact on our customers’ businesses for almost thirty years now.
NZE: Why your interest in software? What does that industry – ahead of all others you could have chosen – mean to you?
MP: My interest in software was kick-started back in the early 90’s, when I began studying information systems at Auckland University. This is also where I met Peter Vile, our CEO at CodeHQ, and the other three cofounders of the business. Learning about information systems helped me to recognise that software development is an exciting space to be in because it’s where new innovations happen. I found this realisation inspiring, as I realised that working in the tech space would mean that I got to be a part of creating the future of the business world. But not only that, the tech industry in itself means a lot to me because I love working in an environment where people value growth and development, and use their skills to help others. That’s why I have never regretted my decision to pursue a career in this industry.
NZE: Augen Software Group, the company you cofounded nearly 30 years ago has recently rebranded to CodeHQ – why the change and what does it signal in terms of your plans or way of doing business for the next 30 years?
MP: We founded Augen Software Group nearly thirty years ago with a mission to help New Zealand businesses grow through outsourcing software development. Since then, our business has constantly evolved to meet the changing demands of both our customers and the market. Although we loved the Augen brand, we faced challenges communicating our services and identity. That’s why we collaborated with our partners and customers to better understand their needs and the role we play in helping them. This paved the way for our exciting rebrand to CodeHQ, which was designed to articulate our brand identity and reflect the value we bring to both our clients and the market in today’s world.
The rebrand is an evolution of our identity, signalling a new way of doing business. Now more than ever, we want to use the brand to engage with the market. Not only that, we want to use CodeHQ to encourage customers to engage with us, allowing us to stay connected and relevant as a business.
NZE: Since starting back in 1993, you will have witnessed some spectacular developments in computing and IT – notably the internet and ubiquity of devices. What are the next game changing developments you believe we will see in the coming decade or two?
MP: The beauty of technology is that there’s always room for advancement and evolution. Since we founded our business in 1993, we’ve witnessed the rapid growth of computing and IT, and seen how it has shaped the world we live in today. Since everything moves so quickly in the tech space, I don’t think we can see too far ahead into the future of technology, but there are some obvious predictions on how the next five to ten years will pan out. Firstly, I believe that artificial intelligence and machine learning will be at the forefront of society, as they continue to grow and pervade our industries, businesses, Government and everyday lives. Alongside this, things like data science, digital identity, block chain technology and digital currency will evolve to become more significant. We’ll even begin to see more developments in computing power and mode, through new devices which have better storage capacity and processing speed, as we start to explore 5G and beyond.
But one of the most game changing developments we’ll see in the coming years, is the role that sustainability will play within the tech industry. Nowadays, consumers and society are making a conscious effort to be more sustainable and are expecting more from businesses. Over the next few years, I think we’ll all witness how sustainability will become a mainstream driver for businesses and devices. But even more so, the future of sustainability will be empowered and made possible by technology.
NZE: As a nation grappling with skills shortages – especially in IT – how do you think we are doing in terms of growing our own tech talent? What’s holding us back and what do you believe we could be doing better?
MP: New Zealand has always had a tight labour market, but with the Covid-induced border closures limiting our supply of migrant workers, the industry is now pushed to its brink. For many years now, we’ve been too reliant on immigration to supply the talent businesses need to help pursue their software development. As a result of this, New Zealand hasn’t invested enough into growing our own tech talent. Even more so, New Zealand hasn’t provided graduates with new opportunities or encouraged our own population to either choose careers in IT, or transfer over from their non-tech careers. What’s holding the country back is that our country has a natural DIY culture, which at times can be both an advantage and a curse. This means that local businesses often prefer to take a more traditional approach by employing IT workers internally (onshore). However, in a small country with a small population, this approach often takes too long to build the talent base needed for businesses to grow.
In order for Kiwi businesses to do better, they need to be more willing to partner and work with talent from other countries. At CodeHQ, we utilise offshore talent through our ‘one team across two markets’ approach, where our business operates across both New Zealand and Vietnam. We’ve adopted this model because we know that through outsourcing talent, we can provide businesses with high-quality software development, completed by experienced and skilled IT workers. So in order for businesses to do better, they need to keep an open mind and be willing to leverage the advantages of offshore talent.
NZE: The industry also has a reputation as somewhat of a boys club. Do you agree? If so what can be done to attract more women into the industry? And more culturally diverse and appealing to Maori and Pacific youth?
MP: Since we founded the business in 1993, I’ve noticed that a lack of diversity and inclusion within the tech industry has always been a prominent issue. More specifically, there is a significant gender imbalance which has led to the perception that the tech space is a ‘male-dominated’ industry. At CodeHQ, we have made a proactive effort to address this and want to inspire more women to pursue a career in technology. We do this through partaking in the ‘Summer of Tech’ programme, which is a yearly initiative run by NZTech, the technology association that I have chaired since 2016. Summer of Tech is an internship programme which provides young students with practical experience in tasks such as project management, IT and visual design, with the purpose of encouraging them to pursue a career in tech. This also includes a particular focus on pairing students with female professionals to inspire young women to join the industry.
Not only is there a gender imbalance, the industry lacks cultural diversity. With the local market having been so heavily reliant on immigration, the industry has always represented a variety of different ethnicities on a global scale. But in saying this, the New Zealand industry lacks cultural diversity through the under representation of Maori and Pasifika within the tech space. That’s why CodeHQ also participated in a programme which enables Maori youth to spend time in the company, to inspire them to join the industry. At CodeHQ, we believe that all businesses in the sector should partake in these types of programmes, because it’s our responsibility to improve diversity and inclusion across the industry.
NZE: What has been the toughest challenge for you as an entrepreneur, in building CodeHQ to where it is today?
MP: The toughest challenge I’ve experienced as an entrepreneur has been adapting the business to survive situations which are out of my control. This includes a series of global crises which have plagued the tech space over the last few decades. This includes disasters such as the Millennium Bug, where computer algorithms weren’t designed to cross-over to the year 2000, or even the Dotcom bubble burst, where excessive speculation of Internet-related companies in the late 1990s and a period of massive growth in the use and adoption of the Internet, crashed in the early 2000s.
We also faced unpredictable events that spanned across all sectors, like the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, which took the business nearly three years to stop losses before we could start to recover from it. Last year, we were also faced with a choice to sink or swim, as our business had to survive the brutal flow-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the stress associated with each of these events, the challenges they created have built CodeHQ into the resilient and adaptable business it is today. They and strengthened the way we operate and provided us with the drive to continue to evolve with the times.
NZE: Do you have any guiding principles you can share as an entrepreneur, or in life in general, that might help any entrepreneurs going through adversity?
MP: One of the guiding principles – that all entrepreneurs going through adversity should swear by – is perseverance. As an entrepreneur, at times you’ll be forced to overcome obstacles that stand in your way, that’s why it can often be a game of patience, whereby you just need to persevere longer than the obstacle in front of you. When times are tough, it’s always tempting to stick within your comfort-zone; but as an entrepreneur, you have to keep an open mind, because that’s often where all the best ideas come into play. Flexibility and adaptability are also crucial principles because they provide you with the ability to transform in order to overcome challenging situations. To do this, you sometimes also need to be able to hold your nerve when the world seems to be falling part. This is crucial, because as an entrepreneur, there will be risks in almost every decision you make.
Above all else, the most important thing is the people around you. In my whole 28 years of entrepreneurship, I’ve never succeeded on my own, and I never will. I know my skillsets, but I also know my limitations, and recognise that I can’t do everything myself. That’s why as an entrepreneur, the ability to work with others and harness their strengths is crucial – this includes the humility in acknowledging that you can’t succeed on your own.