Christchurch IT - then, now and in the future
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This morning Minister for Economic Development Steven Joyce announced the government will invest $1.8 million to develop a high-tech business hub in central Christchurch.
The Ministry of Science and Innovation, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise are working in partnership with the Christchurch City Council and the private sector to establish the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus (EPIC) on the corner of Tuam and Manchester Streets (see photo of the site below).
In February last year Computerworld featured a number of articles about Christchurch IT companies in the wake of the earthquake in September 2010. Then, on February 22, 2011 another, more devastating earthquake struck, and the entrepreneurial IT companies that had been based in the city centre were forced to relocate to the suburbs and conduct their business around dining room tables, at mall cafes and in cheap restaurants.
Sarah Putt revisited Christchurch last month to find out how some of those IT companies have fared in the year since the second quake.
“You don’t realise that when the soldiers arrive and the fences go up, you don’t get back in”
That’s how Terry Paddy, CEO of Cortexo, a company specialising in energy efficiency software development, describes the reality of having an office located just inside the ‘Red Zone.’ That’s the area in central Christchurch which has been fenced off, with entry restricted to emergency personnel only.
The fences went up following the February 22 earthquake, and for the small IT companies who had been inside the Red Zone, one of the first challenges they faced post-quake was getting hold of their data.
Paddy says that when the earthquake struck his business partner told staff to get out of the building and go straight home to their families – but to take their laptops with them.
Cortexo’s clients’ data was stored in an offsite datacentre, but the company’s own project management “non critical” data was stored on a server located in the office.
It was a similar story for Dave Lane, founder of open source development shop Egressive. Lane was out at lunch when the quake struck, and his team sensibly grabbed as much equipment as they could before fleeing. But there was one internal server that remained – and Egressive had to wait for the engineers who were inspecting the buildings to eventually retrieve it.
As was the case with dozens of IT firms, staff at Cortexo and Egressive went home, fired up their laptops – and after checking their family and friends were OK – went back to work. Cortexo was able to move back into its original premises in August, while Egressive, which moved first to a residential house, has since taken a lease in a building close to the Red Zone.
The six months following the earthquake were for many a compulsory exercise in teleworking. Clarus general manager Damian Brown says that while staff were forced to work from home, it was important to keep regular face to face contact.
“I started off doing a Monday morning meeting with all of the staff over in Riccarton Mall and it was funny all these companies were doing the same thing – you’d see these collectives in the mall, everyone having their staff meeting.”
Clarus, a consulting firm specialising in testing and business analytics, found that post-quake, when local business went quiet, opportunities in Auckland suddenly opened up.
“Ed (Clarus founder Edwin Dando) put a blog out which got 5000 hits and we were inundated with organisations we had never dealt with... all these companies from Auckland who said ‘how can we help,” Brown says.
“We said we don’t want your money, we just want to find work for our staff, so within a week we managed to place work for everybody.”
For many it involved a move north. “We told staff there were two choices – lay everybody off [because] even though we’ve got contracts in place everybody is in the same boat as us, or we get you guys to Auckland.”
Thanks to the Ministry of Social Development and its Earthquake Employment Support temporary wage scheme, companies such as Clarus, Egressive and Cortexo were able to pay staff in the short term.
Paddy says the government wage subsidy was hugely beneficial. He also received a grant from the Ministry of Science and Innovation to fund a project for Fisher & Paykel which will enable users of the companies ‘smart appliances’ to check their energy use online.
Lane says Egressive has received assistance from Recover Canterbury – a joint venture between the Christchurch Chamber of Commerce and the Canterbury Development Corporation (CDC). Egressive now has a connection to Enable’s fibre network and the monthly cost of the connection (excluding bandwidth costs) of $600 - $700 a month will be met by Recovery Canterbury for a year.
The company has also found work creating and maintaining websites for organisations such as the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), which have been set up to deal with the aftermath of the quakes.
The CDC has also been forced to relocate. It has set up offices in Addington in the same precinct as Telecom, beside the Eaton factory. There has also been a change of staff. Former CEO Bill Luff has moved to Solid Energy and has been replaced by Tom Hooper, who prior to the earthquakes consulted to government entities based in Christchurch such as the Crown Research Institute.