Ian Johnston - the erudite traveler

Ian Johnston, director (technology and communications), Solutions Group, Agilent Technologies, Asia Pacific, likens the Internet to a huge junkyard - full of wrecks and hidden gems - and tells us some peculiar, eyebrow-raising Net acronyms.

Ian JohnstonIan Johnston of the Solutions Group, Agilent Technologies in Asia Pacific, likens the Internet to a huge junkyard - full of wrecks and hidden gems. The 57-year-old director (Technology and Communications) tells us some peculiar, eyebrow-raising Net acronyms that aren't quite household terms - yet.

Can you share with us the contributions you've made to the IT industry?
Over my career, I have had a chance to work with many companies and IT projects. One of the most unusual was to be project manager for the installation, commissioning and operation of an on-track totalisator betting system. This system only operated on weekends but generated very large [sums of money] in the space of one day (eg. 10 races on a Saturday).

What's your proudest achievement to date?
Building a focused marketing organization for Agilent in Asia Pacific. This has been a terrific challenge for a person of my background [in engineering]. Our marketing organization covers both Inbound (getting market intelligence and trends + technologies) as well as Outbound (getting our messages out to our existing and prospective customer base).

Which aspect(s) of the Asian culture do you think makes for a good or bad business edge in the global IT market?
I find the Asian IT market is really a curtis egg: good in places, bad in others. Good in the sense that we have lots of young bright people in the industry that is keen and motivated. They can produce a lot of good work [in] a short period. eg. China today is producing communications software at a price/rate that goes unmatched in the West. That said, I find the Asian IT creative aspect is lacking. What I mean by this is that often you have to look at a problem in a completely different way to come up with a novel solution. I find the Asian background and culture stifles this way of thinking. (I believe this is why Silicon Valley is so successful, as it has such a pool of new and radical thinkers.)

What helps you to sustain your passion for your job?
The challenges to move forward in marketing and see the changes that are being made in Agilent. As you know, Agilent spun off from HP in 2000 with the charter to become much more focused in our areas of communications test & measurement. Moving out of the large corporate environment with its large internal structure has been exciting, but the key challenge is to keep the momentum and not simply continue with the old ways...

What wouldn't you compromise on when it comes to doing business?
Our business integrity. Building a reliable and trusted name has always been one of the key drivers for HP. Agilent has continued in that vein. It can be too easy to take the money and run sometimes. You always need to keep your guiding principles at the front of your mind when searching for business.

How do you define success? Do you consider yourself to be successful?
Success to me is in my personal development and travel. I have been fortunate to have traveled the world and worked in UK, South Africa, Australia and now Hong Kong. I still travel when and where I can. I have not been completely successful as there are still countries and places I wish to see and experience both in Asia and Europe. Success in business is fine, but to me it just supplies a means to be able to travel and experience more of life...

Is there a role model whom you look up to?
I really would like to be [a] smart physicist. Being able to think and deal with such ideas and matters as to what makes all things work, is fascinating. I am still amazed that a person like our dear Albert Einstein who could come up with such theories from a totally zero base. Being that smart is what I call really cool. There are still people today coming up with proofs of his theories that were put forward in the 1930's! That is really smart, thinking 70 years ahead...

Is there anything you would have done differently if given the choice?
Learned more languages earlier, so that I can travel even more. Being able to communicate in your environment is so important to really get to know people. (I did French and German at school, but must admit that I never got much beyond things like "Which way is the station?" and "Can you please speak slowly?" and useful stuff like that.) I really admire Asian people here: they often speak at least three or more languages...

Has the birth of the Internet helped or hampered your way of life?
Helped me a whole lot. From my post grad studies to searching for new places to travel. (Did I mention that travel thing before perhaps???). It is still frustrating though, as it can be so variable in its performance and its content. It is a bit like a big junkyard, full of wrecks but with hidden gems here and there...

What kind of mindset do you think is needed to survive in this digital age?
You need to be technically aware. I am always amazed at the number of people who are in the industry, but only have the most superficial understanding of what it's all about. You must be willing to look and evaluate. However, if you don't have enough knowledge, you can't really evaluate...

Do you think a backlash on technology will come soon?
It may well come from countries and people who are increasingly being left behind. I see the global forum type street demos as a sign of this where (admittedly sometimes affluent Westerners are demonstrating) the frustration is being made public. We need to align things much better within the next 10 years.

Do you think technology isolates people or brings people closer together?
Technology is pushing people apart, both locally and across the world. It can be seen more and more as the 'haves' use such tools as the web and the 'have nots' are still struggling to keep the lights on where they are. (Mind you, I look with some smug satisfaction at the messed up state of power distribution in sunny California... They would love to keep their light on at least of a couple of days straight...)

Which gadget is on your most wanted list?
I want to get a really good PC projector, as I would then sit at home with my PC loaded with a good VCD, the sound wired to my hi-fi and throw the whole thing onto my apartment wall. Some microwave popcorn and beers would complete the scene... (You have to admit it: the best you can say about HK TV is that it has moving pictures in color that get played at times that sometimes coincide with a printed schedule.)

What is your most prized possession?
The stent that resides in the left front artery of my heart.

Which Web sites do you visit most often?
Charles Schwab, The Street, Google.

With so many Internet acronyms like B2B, B2C, CRM, ERP, HTTP, IP etc, what's your favorite one?
I like them all. Back-to-Banking, Back-to-Consulting, Customers-Really-Messed about, Engineers-Really confusing Protocol, Hellishly-Technical-Transport-Protocol, Internet-Propaganda. But the best one is: ISDN, Innovations-Subscribers-Don't-Need...

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