When Paul Bari saw the results of some talent mapping analysis into where software engineers were living in Australia, it confirmed his suspicions.
“It was really interesting,” says Bari, who joined Westpac in June as chief information officer in the bank’s biggest division, consumer and business banking.
“The number one area for developers and tech-savvy individuals outside of Melbourne and Sydney is south-east Queensland – and we're talking about engineering talent, not just general technologists.”
The data – which showed around 6000 engineers living in south-east Queensland, compared to the next biggest areas of Perth with around 3000 and Adelaide at 2000 – gave Bari validation to press go on an “experiment” to create a new “hub” of software engineers for the bank on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
“The idea is to build a new kind of model where we focus on a combination of lifestyle as well as work, a 360-value proposition if you like,” says Bari, confirming job ads have been placed for an initial 20 software engineers to join the hub.
“If it works, we’ll expand the number of roles and, over time, look to replicate it in the next biggest centres – places like Adelaide and Perth, and potentially across the Tasman.”
Bari says the idea – which he’s seen work successfully for large organisations in other parts of the world, including the UK – was given wings by two main trends accelerated by the COVID pandemic.
The most pressing, he says, is that there are “simply not enough people” with the skills to meet the hugely amplified COVID-inspired digital transformation needs across every industry in Australia, particularly while international borders remain shut. The need to “immediately secure talent” and “double down on investment to grow and retain” technologists are named by Bari as among his top priorities.
The second trend is the big drift of workers out of major cities in search of a regional lifestyle.
The most recent internal migration data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows capital cities had the largest ever quarterly loss of people in the three months to March, recording a net loss of 11,800. Queensland gained the most people from net interstate migration (7000), while Victoria and New South Wales lost the most.
“COVID's given us a unique opportunity to revisit a lot of paradigms that were, for whatever reason, assumed to be the norm – and one of those things, ever since I was in uni, was if you wanted a big job, you had to go to Sydney or Melbourne,” Bari says.
“Now, we are bleeding capability into the regions, so there’s this significant talent pool in our regions that are not being fully utilised because the jobs are not there.”
Coincidentally, Bari has found himself working from the Gold Coast since returning to Australia to take up his role at Westpac after 14 years in senior technology positions with global banks, including Barclays and Standard Chartered in Asia and Nordea in Europe. While he and his wife had decided to settle their family on the Gold Coast, where they’d both gone to high school and still have family and friends, his plans to commute to the bank’s headquarters in Sydney were stymied by the pandemic lockdowns since late June.
“I'm looking forward to meeting my team in real life – that will be nice,” Bari chuckles. “But for now, it's working.”
While he intends to spend more time in Sydney when restrictions lift, he says the success of working remotely has made him think twice about how much commuting he will end up doing. It’s also given him additional confidence that choosing the Gold Coast – rather than Brisbane – as the first location to test the success of the engineering hub, is the right move.
“Within 70 kilometres, there’s six universities, so it's very heavily serviced from a graduate perspective, most of whom tend to go to Sydney or Melbourne or international because jobs are limited locally,” he says.
“So, the hub will give graduates and seasoned engineers an opportunity to be exposed to the bigger end of town but still be allowed to maintain their lifestyle, which post-COVID is becoming a more important thing.
“Also, quite bluntly, if you're making a lifestyle choice, Gold Coast wins hands down.”
Bari says the new cohort of engineers – who he envisages will adopt a hybrid working model spending a few days a week in an office space and the others at home – will work on some of the “cooler parts” of the bank’s requirements, such as developing its mobile banking app functionality and work around “open banking”.
Essentially, he says they’ll complement the work needed to meet his other pressing challenge: to deliver more of the right technology solutions faster, with an immediate focus on extending capabilities in the digital mortgage space and customer insight delivery.
“Ultimately, we are a mass market bank and these days it's all about scale,” Bari says.
“To me, you do that particularly from a tech perspective through very targeted and capable automation – people want convenience, they want ease of use… and innovative customer experience.
“How we build that scale in our business, via automation, in a way that builds on our trusted brand, is a differentiator for us going forward… (and) at least one front in the battle to succeed in banking.”
On the automation front at Westpac he sees “a lot of green shoots everywhere” and the next step is to “get very focused, targeted and disciplined on the outcomes”.
“Westpac’s at a stage now where we're really open to change,” he says. “I'm looking forward to where this will all go.”