A fork in the career path: How Andrew McGee made his choice

Hitachi Data Systems' Andrew McGee may only be halfway through his first year as chief technology officer, but he has brought a wealth of experience with him to the role.

When Andrew McGee was appointed chief technology officer of Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) Australia and New Zealand in June 2014, he exuded a level of confidence, telling ZDNet at the time that HDS was well positioned to become a cloud technology provider.

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Andrew McGee, Hitachi Data Systems ANZ CTO (Image: Supplied)
Just a little over six months into the job, McGee remains firm about his initial position. He said the company's ability to move from being known traditionally as a storage hardware provider into the ultra-competitive cloud market was not an entirely new challenge for the company. In fact, HDS went through a similar transformation during the early 2000s.

"We transferred from being a mainframe hardware provider to being a storage hardware provider. So I'm pretty optimistic that we can manage this shift in the business because we have done it before, and as part of our track record, it's a very successful example," he said.

McGee said he has found that customers have been the major influence behind why HDS is changing.

"Customers are changing the way they want to procure their IT -- not everyone, but we are starting to see that shift. I suppose the challenge for us as a vendor is to be able to address that shift where customers want to buy on a per-consumption basis, but also support our existing customers that still want to purchase the old way," he said.

"As a company and as a provider, we need to straddle on the fence a little bit to provide both of those things."

For McGee, it's an exciting time to have scored the CTO role, as he says there has "never been a dull moment" so far, labelling it as his biggest career accomplishment to date.

But before cloud became something that McGee had to think about, he was consumed in the world of hardware, specifically mainframes and storage. His interest in IT was first sparked back in his teenage school days, and by the time he reached the age of 18, McGee had already scored his first job in the industry.

Before long, he was appointed as a senior mainframe operator at Philip Morris Information Services. He subsequently moved into the same role at EDS (currently known as HP Enterprise Services), and then DCIS.

Alongside this, McGee decided that he was going to upskill academically, taking up technical courses from Monash University around database management and code assembling before completing a professional certificate in information technology.

While being hands on was something McGee thoroughly enjoyed, it was only a stepping stone towards where he wanted to take his career. McGee said that entering into the world of management took his career away from being hands on to becoming more conceptual. He had his first taste of it when he joined Unisys West as an enterprise storage team leader.

"I had a rough skeleton of where I wanted to go, and that was in mainframe technologies systems by working my way into systems programming, and that's how I first got into storage and then mainframes," he said.

McGee admitted that the switch to join the management side of business was a conscious decision, much similar to choices he had previously made around whether he wanted to specialise in mainframe technology or storage.

"I had a rough skeleton of where I wanted to go..."

"I remember at the time I had to think about that decision for a while, because I knew as soon as I made a decision on one path or the other, the other part was going fall back and my skills would slowly get less relevant," he said.

"Making that conscious decision in your career can be, at times, difficult and a bit scary. But I guess you do your research, you decide what you feel is the right thing for you, and what resonates with you as an individual, and for me I don't look back or regret anything."

While he saw a significant difference when making the jump into management, McGee said that having a technical background has been extremely helpful.

"Leaders who have a technical track are always looking to other technical people. OK, your skills may not be up to the minute, but you can relate very well to what people's issue are and their problems, and also explain things to technical people and they'll understand you," he said.

"It also gives you insight into what motivates technical people, too."

But spoken like a true geek at heart, McGee has not neglected his initial interests in IT, admitting that he spends his weekend dabbling and tinkering at home with his two boys, aged 10 and 13, running their own Minecraft server in order to play with Linux.

"I guess I keep that technical bit still simmering at the back while I do more of the management and team leadership activities at work."

McGee added that his trait to be flexible has played the greatest part in his success so far.

"I think one of the things that really boosted me in my career was being flexible. I was flexible about where I was able to live and work. I was flexible about the type of jobs I took on, and having that flexibility and be generally accessible to other people is very beneficial," he said.

At the same time, he noted that mentors such as Adrian De Luca, HDS Asia-Pacific chief technology officer and McGee's former boss, and George Yacoub, HDS federal director, have been role models for him.

"No matter where I get to in my career, I am always constantly learning from people around me, and not just from people above me or beside me," he said.

While McGee's ability to be flexible led him to new career opportunities, it has also given him the opportunity to take what he refers to as a "slow-motion national tour" of Australia.

He kicked off his tour by growing up in the outskirts of Melbourne, before moving to Adelaide where he met his wife and landed his job with EDS. He also lived in Darwin for four and a half years while working for the Northern Territory government, which McGee described as being "as much of a lifestyle move as it was a career move, because life was really good in Darwin".

"Then I moved to Perth, and worked with Unisys for two and a half years. After that was Canberra, and then Melbourne for the last eight years. I've kind of slowed down a bit, because a couple of kids came along," he said, citing Perth to have been his favourite city for its kind of coastal lifestyle.

"No matter where I get to in my career, I am always constantly learning from people around me, and not just from people above me or beside me."

At one point, when McGee spent time working in Canberra with HDS, he also worked with the Australian government as a client, which he described as a "fantastic time" in his career.

"Working with the federal government was very rewarding and challenging at the same time. It can be very dynamic, from responding to tenders to building a lot of relationships. Obviously, there's also that probity of making sure we conduct ourselves in a proper fashion. It was a very rewarding experience for that length of time," he said.

Since being appointed to CTO, however, McGee has returned to the street art suburb of East Brunswick in Melbourne.

"I think we're over-compensating by moving from the leafy suburbs of Canberra to the complete urban area of Melbourne," he said.

As for where he goes from here? McGee said he'll never say never to moving again, but the focus for now will be to get through the first year of his new role.

"I really think the first year is about getting your head around your new role, and I honestly believe it can take up a year to know all of the nuances of the job. Sometimes, roles evolve too, and it may not be exactly what it was when you first started," he said.

"I also really love working with customers, so I'd always like to maintain a role where I go out to talk to customers, finding out what their problems are, and hearing about how they're going and what they're seeing in their neck of the woods.

"I like working with teams, too. I am a bit of a tech evangelist, so I love getting geeky and talking about technology with the team, whether it is new technology or old technology, and what's happening in the industry."

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