Willyama's role in helping Indigenous Australians secure a career in cybersecurity

The company also has its sight set on becoming the first 100% Aboriginal-owned IT company to list on the ASX.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Willyama Services might be in the IT and cybersecurity business, but founder Kieran Hynes, a Woromi man from the Willyama region at Broken Hill, believes because it's a 100% Aboriginal-owned business, the company has a greater role to play than just servicing customers. That is, to get more Indigenous people into the field.  

"We're a commercial business with a social conscience," he told ZDNet.

He explained how the Indigenous community is significantly underrepresented within the IT sector and that lack of IT access in Indigenous communities is a "by-product of not only isolation but economic ability".

"IT for whatever reason is not attractive to the Indigenous community. I don't know if it's a lack of access to IT or lack of awareness of what IT is beyond a mobile device or Xbox. Either way, IT is not resonating with the Indigenous sector broadly," he said.

However, Hynes is determined to help shrink that gap, starting with a "training continuum" that was established by Willyama earlier this year. The program is targeted at Indigenous school children to "get them interested in IT" and "get the students at the right time so they're not dropping out of STEM courses". Under this program, students are paired up with Indigenous mentors to help keep them in school and focused on the training.

"The plan we're hoping to execute over the next couple of years is to get these students either straight into university in a mentored way, or if they're not ready for university straight away, through the Canberra Institute of Technology and develop IT competency and awareness for these students," Hynes said.

"But instead of potentially working a job that is not aligned to pay their way through studies, we provide them with legitimate vocational employment opportunities. The whole time we're embedded in this program as the vocational provider. We want to make sure what they learn while they're working is consistent with the training programs they are doing."

The Canberra-based company has four trainees but has had about a dozen already come through the door. Although not all of them have been able to commit to the program for various reasons. For those who have, they have gone on to secure some significant work, according to Hynes, highlighting how two recent trainees "have just been engaged on a significant multinational piece of Defence work".

"It's the first time -- as far as I'm aware -- that Defence has identified Indigenous IT trainees from an external provider as opposed to internal cadets," he said.

Over the next few years, Hynes wants to see at least another 20 Indigenous trainees join Willyama and hopes they will go on to land a career in cyber.

"We hope to change the narrative around closing the gap," he said.

But it's not just about building skills. It's also making sure Indigenous students have access to proper IT equipment and bandwidth in the first place, particularly those living in remote and rural parts of Australia.

"We recently supported DXC to roll out PCs to disadvantage communities, including quite remote areas like Coober Pedy. We're trying to do many things at once, and one of them is if you don't have access to IT, you don't know whether you like it or not. So, we need to build the foundation of access to IT," Hynes said.

Beyond helping students, Willyama recently stepped up to open an Indigenous Business Precinct in Canberra. It forms part of a wider network of Indigenous precincts that have also opened in Melbourne and Brisbane, which are supported by other established Indigenous organisations.  

Hynes described the precinct as a place to "provide culturally appropriate and professional office space" for other Indigenous-owned businesses to "grow in a supportive environment and have full access to professional services, meeting rooms, teleconference facilities, and NBN that they may not have access to when trying to start a business or take the next step".

The company has also been working for the last two years with Samsung and SupplyAus, another Indigenous-owned company, to integrate a Samsung developed heart monitoring system into the 190 Indigenous health centres across Australia.

The motivation for Hynes to start these initiatives come down to his personal experience.

"I've had siblings who have been in out of jail, other siblings that were adopted as kids who have been in jail, a whole lot of problematic issues, so there was an opportunity to see if we could make a difference and provide more career opportunities for Aboriginal people and also [army] veterans where we could," he said.

Fortunately for Hynes though, he managed to steer clear of any trouble. Instead, he was introduced to technology early on his life, recalling being one of few kids at school to own a Commodore 64.

"That sparked -- for better or for worse -- a life-long interest in IT. I joined to become a trainee army officer, went through the Defence Force Academy, and graduated into signal corps. At the time in the army, signal corps had to just been given the role to be the whole-of-army IT provider," he said.

The first role Hynes took on when he joined signal corps was information officer for the Australian Army 6th Brigade.

"I was fresh out of training and responsible for networking, deploying computers, making sure we had the appropriate security controls in place for a brigade of 5,000 people. That was my first job," Hynes said.

"It was back when optic fibre could be bent more than 30 degrees, and we were doing 'innovative' things like taking Novel Network devices, taking them out into the field in a rack, and we'd just bolt to the back of the vehicle … so we learned a lot in those early years … it was a fascinating period of my life," Hynes said.

It's these learnings and his background as an army officer that built the foundation for Hynes to establish Willyama nearly five years ago. These days the company has contracts with customers such as the Australian Department of Defence and DXC Technology.

"50% of our revenue comes directly from Department of Defence and we're on track to doing nearly AU$6 million this year with DXC," he said.

Some of the specific work that has been undertaken has included helping Defence carry out a PC refresh just over four years ago.

"We had a combined team of veteran and Indigenous staff delivering 125,000 PCs to 400 Defence sites nationally, and covering replacement computers and managing a million stock items, like cables, card readers, DVD drives," Hynes said.

Willyama has also been providing cybersecurity and general security advice to Infosys as part of its contract to overhaul the entitlement calculation engine used by Service Australia to calculate welfare entitlements for Australians.  

Other contract wins have seen Willyama been charged with assisting the Defence Industry Security Office with auditing the cybersecurity maturity of businesses that supply services to Defence under the Defence Industry Security Program, as well as Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium with auditing the cybersecurity systems of its Industry Capability Development Program.

Being a 100% Aboriginal-owned business, however, has not come without its challenges.

"Identifying as an Aboriginal person working in cybersecurity is quite confronting for many people to consider … once we get through that, there's still potential corporate bias that makes it a challenge for us to be engaged to deliver services, especially because we do call out we are 100% Aboriginal-owned," Hynes explained.

"The common question is, 'Who delivers your services?' I say we do, and they ask how. I tell them we have staff and all of a sudden we get into what do you mean you've got staff. Once we get through that point, we finally get where there's potentially commercial opportunities to be discussed.

"It's quite a journey."

Hynes is nonetheless determined to open an office in every state and more than double the company's 40-person headcount to 100 by the end of next year, while also maintain the target of having Indigenous Australians and army veterans make up 20%, respectively, of all company staff.

The other major goal Hynes has its sight set on is becoming the first 100% Aboriginal-owned IT company to list on the Australian Stock Exchange in three years. 

"The expectation is to have 100% Aboriginal board membership when we do list," he said.


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