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Legends of Tech

Presented by Raymond Maisano, Wayne Dalla
Originally aired on 

A weekly podcast where Raymond Maisano interviews people across the tech industry. From veterans, to hall of famers, day to day tech industry people as well up and comers. Get to know them as individuals, find out what drives them, how they got into tech, and what they see now.

This week's guest: Wayne Dalla


Transcript (Beta)

Good morning everyone, good evening in the US. It's my pleasure this morning to host Legends of Tech.

I'm filling in for our normal host Chris George-Ellis, who's on paternity leave, so I'm Raymond Maisano.

This morning we've got an awesome guest with us.

There's a man who's got a great career in technology, a great career, and we'll hear a lot about it today.

Wayne Dalla, welcome Wayne.

Thanks Raymond, pleasure to be with you. Yeah, thank you for joining today.

So, you know, the way I normally start this is, well, now that I've hosted a whole two episodes, I try to soften the interview by going through some fast questions.

So, now that we've started, let me just throw some quick questions at you and see if we can get going.

So, first one, Coke or Pepsi? Okay. Wine or Coke?

I know the answer to this one. Wine. Mustang or Tesla? Be careful. Mustang.

John Lennon or Paul McCartney?

Paul McCartney. Trekkies or jeans? Jeans. Boxes or briefs?

Briefs. iPhone or Android? iPhone. All right, now the most religious part of the questions.

Star Trek or Star Wars? Star Trek. Oh, nice get. Thank you. Yes, that's good.

All right. So, it's a nice little introduction. So, let's get into first where you've just finished and then come back to how you got started.

Just finished in a great career.

I mean, you've already had a great career in your role, but finished up as the VP of, if I get this right, Vice President of IT and OT operations for BHP.

Is that correct? That's correct, yeah. So, give everyone an idea of your tenure at BHP just before we get into that.

Yes, well, I was there for a total of 34 years, Roman.

So, I guess we'll get into some of that career that I started as a humble programmer and ended in that role that you just spoke about.

But, yep, spanned lots of different locations and lots of different parts of the business.

I look forward to getting into this one. So, given that we know now where you've just finished up and enjoying some sun in the Sunshine Coast, which is very nice, let's wind back.

Growing up in Wollongong, what was the first thing that got you into tech?

When was the first sort of exposure where you thought, you know, this is somewhere where I want to be?

Yeah, it's an interesting question. I think, like a lot of 17-year-olds, when I left school, I didn't have a really good plan of what I wanted to do.

I'd put my name down for a number of unions. But what I was pretty clear on was that I wanted to get out of home and start earning an income as quickly as I could.

And my father actually picked up an ad in a paper and said, gee, would you be interested in this?

You know, you're good at maths and I think computers are something that's going to be a big part of the future.

And it was a six-month programming course in Sydney.

And I thought about it and thought, well, if I can get a job after six months of this programming course, that ticks that box.

It's, you know, a profession that's probably going to have a pretty solid future.

And the kicker was my father said he'd pay for the course. So I said, yep, I'm in.

So off I went and did a six-month programming course in languages like COBOL and RPG and Fortran and Assembler, languages that don't exist much today, but are still out there.

So no Python, C++ or Java. But after completing that course, I applied for a programmer's job at BHP in their Steelworks in Wollongong.

And I was successful in getting that.

So I started as a programmer in training, or as a PIT, as the real programmers used to refer to me as.

And then a year later, I started my computer science degree at Wollongong University as well.

So that's how it all kicked off.

Already a fascinating sliding door moments where, you know, Dad sort of reading something in the paper and that sort of kickstart.

Before that, I'm not saying you're old, but you're older than me.

And I know I'm old. But, you know, what was technology like around, around you?

I mean, growing up in Wollongong, you know, Dad had the sports store, if I remember correctly.

You know, what was the exposure?

Was there anything that started that, even before that conversation? Not really, I think I was struggling.

I loved maths in those days, and I loved logic. And programming wasn't something that we were taught at school.

So, you know, in those days, the first PCs, the Commodores were just sort of hitting the street and, you know, some of the very early Apple devices, but there wasn't, you know, most of the computing was mainframes and, and, you know, big mid-range machines in those days and, you know, dumb terminals.

So there wasn't a lot there that enticed from a, from a, you know, public sort of perspective.

But, yeah, so, but when I, when I started to explore programming, I thought that was something that was well suited to sort of my mindset and skills at that time.

So, so we go into the Steelworks down in Port Kembla.

You know, coming into what would have been growing up in our area was the, was the place to be.

This was where careers were born. How, just sort of go through what, what that programming, what the pit role was like, you know, was it as glamorous as you thought it might have been?

Yeah, well, it was, it was kind of an interesting role.

The, the, the way that you did programming in those days and compiled a program was to, to code it up on a pad and, and then you would code up your program, take it down to the punch girls and they were all girls and they would punch up your, your program on cards.

You put your cards in a box, you'd take it down to the operators, they'd compile it and run it through the mainframe.

You'd get it back with all its errors and then you go and correct your errors and go through the process again until you finally had a compiled and successful program and then you'd test and whatnot.

So, so it was a, it was a process that, that was interesting, but over, over a period of time, I found that that wasn't for me.

It was, I did programming for a period of time, maybe three or four years and decided that that wasn't probably the future for me.

Having said that, I worked in our maintenance and assurance team and had some pretty big responsibilities early on.

So I looked after some production systems and, and was on call 24 by seven. So, so that was pretty interesting to be getting called on weekends and middle of the night and, and coming in trying to debug bugs that were occurring or, you know, apply fixes.

There were a lot of known fixes that we had for different bugs.

So yeah, it was, it was an exciting time, but I found that programming in that sort of environment became tedious after a period of time.

So let's step through. How, how many years were you in, for BHP in Wollongong?

And then what was the thing that got, that got moved the change from Wollongong to your next stage?

Yeah. So after that three or four years, I actually resigned and went and bought a sports store.

So I had a sports store for three years. Sorry, that's where, that's where the sports store piece came in.

That's right. And, you know, I learned a lot through, through that sort of three years, a lot about running a business, a lot about customer service, and a lot about the value of money.

And, and I, at the end of that, the business didn't end up being successful.

So I pretty much lost everything.

I went back to BHP and said, you know, I'd like to like to come back, but I don't want to be a COBOL programmer anymore.

What else have you got that might be of interest?

And they said, we're just starting this new team called the Personal Computing Team.

And, and you might like to join that. So, so I sort of had a talk to them about that.

And, and in those days, they were just starting to introduce the first IBM XC PCs into BHP.

And these things cost about $8,000 in those days. So $8,000 a bit of calc is about $20,000 in today's dollars.

And there wouldn't be as much power in, in that as there is in my Garmin watch compute power.

So yeah, by the time you, you added a dot matrix printer, you know, it was, was well over $20,000 for worth of today's, in today's dollars.

But it was an exciting time, people, people love these personal computers, and we started networking them around the steelworks and, and, you know, buying different software packages and, and getting them installed.

And that that ended up being, you know, a great decision for me, it was was an area that I really enjoyed working in.

And, and enjoyed, you know, far more dynamic environment than it had been as a programmer.

Yeah, so from there, no, I kicked along until probably, probably 30.

And 30 was a bit of a sliding door moment for me, I sort of woke up and hit my 30th birthday, and it's time to take my career a bit more seriously.

And, and with my newfound responsibility, I went out and bought myself a unit and, and settled down a bit in life.

And really, at that time, started to seek opportunities. And I spent, it was often an opportunity to go down, excuse me, to Canberra for a couple of years, working on government tenders.

BHP was, was participating in the open marketplace for a few years.

And that was a great experience. I learned a lot. I learned that I didn't want to live in Canberra, and I didn't want to work in federal government, but it was a great experience in terms of the tender process and, and being successful and implementing some, some networks and systems through through that process, which I got to lead a team around.

And then I came back to to Wollongong, and they asked me to act in a role that was managing about 50 people.

And, and yeah, I guess my career started to, to open up from that point on.

But it was, it was really about seeking out opportunities and having a different mindset around what I wanted to do.

So, so now starting to manage people, is that your first experience of managing a team?

So how, what, what sort of things were, I mean, this is a little outside of the tech piece, but, but how do you go from, you know, being, you know, a little bit of a knowledge expert in the subject that you're in control of, and now starting to look after people?

How was that transition for you?

Yeah, it was, it was a fantastic learning experience. And, and it was an interesting environment.

So we had a little portable building in the middle of the steelworks.

And there were 50 of us crammed into this building. And I reflect on, on, you know, the term diversity, which is, which is being strongly driven across all organisations today.

That group had every part of diversity you could think of, the gender diversity was, was pretty balanced.

We had age diversity, lots of people starting as trainees and others, you know, at the other end retiring.

And we had a melting pot of cultures, we had Indian, Italian, Greek, Australian.

Yeah, just just a melting pot of the different, different cultures and backgrounds and experiences as well.

A lot of people hadn't come from traditional tech backgrounds.

So yeah, learning how to manage that team was was a great experience for me.

And up until that point, I'd only been a team leader of, you know, six or eight people.

So it was a big step up. And I made some mistakes early on, I think I had, had looked at people that I really respected as a leader and, and tried to mirror how they operated.

But clearly, clearly, that wasn't authentic to me.

And people saw through that, and it wasn't working for me. So I had to find a way of managing in a way that was authentic to me, but also picked up on some of the, you know, the things that people did really well as a leader or a manager and apply those in a way that suited my personality and style.

Yeah, it's actually a really, really good insight into being authentic.

I think that's something that everyone can take away from, from just understanding that the more you are true to yourself and follow the things that are your core beliefs, the more that authenticity helps develop in your own career.

So how do you move from wool and gong?

What's the next stage? So after a couple of years in that role, and incidentally, you know, it's something that I, diversity is something I feel very passionately about.

And it's something that I always reflect back to that team was one of the highest performing teams I ever worked with.

And it wasn't, it wasn't a great environment that we're in the air conditioners, you know, and he worked half the time and we were crammed in on top of each other.

But, but there was a tremendous culture and respect within the team.

And it's something that's always that moment has always been important in my career from from that time on in terms of trying to trying to get a diverse team.

Yeah, so from there, I was, I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to apply for a role in Melbourne, which was a corporate planning role in still in technology.

So I applied for that role and was successful.

So I packed up and moved down to Melbourne and did that role for, for three or four years.

And then we moved into our petroleum business, which, which was an exciting time as well.

And three or four years in petroleum, initially in an Australian role, and then in a global infrastructure role, looking, looking after and planning all the infrastructure for the petroleum operations around the world.

And went back to a corporate role as a, as an enterprise architect, just a different time in the water to see what that was like.

I did that for a couple of years. I helped for about 18 months, set up a shared service centre in Adelaide, going back and forth between there and Melbourne.

And then, and then from there ended up moving to Brisbane to an IT manager's role.

So just to give people an insight, you know, BHP, you know, one of the largest mining companies, global mining companies in the world.

Most people wouldn't have, you know, you talked about petroleum, most people wouldn't know that BHP, I think at the time were about the sixth largest petroleum producer in the world.

Is that right? Something like that? Yeah, they, they were, I think one of the biggest iron ore producers now, one of the, or the largest exporters of metallurgical coal, which is used in the steelmaking process.

The producer of copper in, from South Australia and Chile.

And at that time, up until 2000, had a steel business with steelworks in Port Canberra and Wyala.

Also had a number of early on in the 2000s, had a number of aluminium smelters in South Africa that came through the merger with Billiton.

So it was, was the world's biggest resource company at the time, and certainly the most diverse resource company.

It's, it's carved off some of those, those assets over time to be now just a core business of copper, iron ore, coal and petroleum.

So that's a streamlined business somewhat, but it's still very global in nature with about 40 operations around the world, employs about 60,000 people.

So it's a, it's a, it's a big company. And I think just to give people an insight, when, when we started this talking around, you know, how long you'd spent at BHP, getting a perspective of, you know, I mean, essentially, you've worked at complete different companies having very different IT challenges.

How was, how was that? Because if we wind back to the very start where, you know, six month programming course to get into an organisation like BHP, that's not really what grounds you up or helps develop the, the complete differences of what you've been able to, to be responsible for.

What are the things that, you know, created influence or, or help drive the changes to, to manage and support that for you?

Yeah, I think I was always prepared to learn about new stuff. I think that's the, that's the key technology as we know, moves very quickly.

And, and if, if you're not prepared to keep learning, then, then your career ends pretty quickly.

So I ended up in, in sort of leadership roles pretty much from, from 2015 onwards, where I was leading people mainly.

But, but right throughout, you've, you've got to be learning about the technology that's, that's in place and emerging and making sure that, you know, you're helping the business make good decisions around their investments in, in the technologies that are available.

And, and, you know, I was, I was fortunate to, to work with some fantastic people who, who had the deep technical skills and understanding and some, you know, some wonderful, you know, my, my boss, when I moved to, to Melbourne was, was probably one of the best technical decision makers I'd ever come across.

And he's a guy by the name of Gus Ferguson, who probably truly is a legend in tech.

Yes, I agree. I should put him on the list of tech people to interview.

But he, he made some really big decisions around, you know, SAP and Oracle and Microsoft and, and, you know, together with, with him, I had a great working relationship and, and he was a great mentor and coach.

Someone who really helped me, you know, understand how to go about making some of those big decisions.

And, and yeah, that was, that was something that, that set me up for the rest of my career, I'd say.

Yeah. Yeah. Gus is well, certainly a legend to anyone who worked at BHP and I think greater.

So moving from Melbourne into, into Brisbane, taking on a new role there, I think you want to just talk through, so that's the minerals division.

Yeah. So this, this was pretty interesting.

I was, I was on my Christmas break and I got a call from the CIO at the time saying, Wayne, we've got a bit of a problem.

The IT manager in Brisbane has been sacked today and things up there are an absolute mess.

I know that you've been keen in terms of your development to, to look at an IT manager's role.

Would you be prepared to go up there for six months and help sort things out? And, you know, obviously if you do a good job of that, you'd be a candidate for the role.

He said, no, no pressure, but I need to know by tomorrow. And if you say yes, then, then you're up there on the, the 2nd of January.

And this was I think the 29th of December or something.

So, so talk about sliding door moments. That's another one where, where I, I just said, this, this sounds like a great opportunity, even if it's just the experience of trying to sort things out up there for six months, I'll do that.

And then back the next day I'm in and yeah, I spent six months sorting out what, which is something that was a real mess in terms of technology and commitments to the business.

And it was absolutely devastating from, from the morale and cultural perspective.

So six months of, of trying to get that sorted out, you know, I made pretty good progress on that.

And after the six months went through the interview process and was successful in getting that job, which, which again was another great opportunity.

It was the first time where I'd been fully accountable end-to-end from strategy through to, you know, execution of projects, operations, budgets, you know, big team, managing outsource vendors.

So it was, it was a great growth opportunity.

And I did that within that, what was called the BMA coal business, which was a joint venture between Mitsubishi and BHP.

I did that for a few years and then they expanded my role to be a CIO role across all the coal businesses, which I did for, for a number of years.

And after that, we, we had a new chief technology office, technology officer come in by the name of Diane Juergens.

And she, she really elevated the role of technology in BHP. She, she reported to the CEO and, and elevated the role, the roles of technology out of finance where they had previously been.

She came to our coal business and we went around introducing her to the coal business and a number of mine GMs.

At the time, I didn't realise that it was a three -day interview for me, basically.

So she, she was gauging my relationship with mine managers, my understanding of the technology that ran the business, how I operated, how I communicated.

And then at the end of, end of that stint, she said, I'd like you to take on the Vice President of Minerals Australia role, which, which picked up all of the iron ore, copper and coal businesses in Australia, which, yeah, which was a big elevation for me and, and, you know, a very exciting role for me to, to take on.

And it just, just made me realise that you never quite know.

I had no idea that she was planning that role to start with, and certainly no idea that I was on a three-day interview for the job.

So, so yeah, it was another learning in my life that you, you've got to make sure you're putting your best foot forward when you're, when you're out there with leaders and colleagues.

So BHP Notorious for multiple divisions, going through restructures, globalising, centralising, decentralising.

So from the VP of Minerals, the, the transition into the global function.

Yeah. So as, as part of Diane coming in, she, she wanted to globalise the function, which, which really meant that the, all the 20 asset teams that were across the company all became one global function.

And after, after a couple of years of looking after Minerals Australia, Diane asked if I'd take on the operations role for, for the globe, which, which was a pretty fascinating role.

It was a, was a big responsibility because it picked up not, not just all of the IT, and I think we had close to 30,000 PCs, probably 8,000 virtual and standalone servers, 130 computer rooms.

It was a, it was a massive, an SAP environment, all the workplace technologies, video conferencing, et cetera.

So that was massive.

But on top of that, it was all the operational technology, which included automated, 50 automated trucks at a site, 20 automated drills, automated shiploaders, process control environments, CCTV, truck dispatch system.

So it was a massive, massive environment and, and it was a great experience to, to run a team with about 800 people.

The budget was about 500 million a year. So yeah, it was, it was a big, big step up.

Highly, highly stressful for, for two years, and obviously any outage that was impacting production or safety had to be treated with the highest urgency to, to restore the services.

So yeah, I had obviously had experience in, in operations before, but not at that scale and breadth.

And it was a, it was a great experience to do for a couple of years.

Now, we've only got a couple of minutes left, so I really appreciate you giving us a great insight.

I just wanted to see if there were a couple of little takeaways that, that you want to share with, with people watching, you know, what are the things that, that you sort of mark as, you know, I've loved some of those sliding door moments have been, you know, quite fascinating.

But from my perspective, you're one of the most honest, authentic people.

And, you know, certainly it's been a great honour of mine to have worked with you and, and have, you know, consider you as one of my closest friends.

But what are the things that you think are the, the elements that you could share with people to say, you know, these are the things that I think really core of what I believe?

I think, you know, I've touched on a couple of them around authenticity.

I think in terms of your career, you don't necessarily have to map out every role in your career, but you do need to have a good development plan.

It's important to have really great self -awareness, be aware of your strengths and your weaknesses, gaps and blind spots.

But don't try and fill things that, that, that aren't necessarily strengths, build on your strengths.

Wayne, thank you so much for spending the time with us today.

I really appreciate it. A great insight to, and a great person.

So really appreciate it. Thank you so much. Thank you, Raymond. And thank you, everyone.

It's been a great opportunity to spend today with you.