Late 2017 the Australian Parliament’s Senate established a Committee on the ‘Future of Work and Workers’ to inquire and report on the impact of technological and other change on the future of work and workers in Australia. On Tuesday 13 March 2018, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Atlassian, appeared in front of the Committee to share his views on the future of work and technology. The following is Mike’s opening address. 

My name is Mike Cannon-Brookes, I’m the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Atlassian – a technology company that manufactures software to help teams collaborate and communicate better in their workplaces. We have 110,000+ enterprise customers in more than 160 countries. We employ 2,500 staff in 10 offices around the world – 1,000 in our Sydney HQ and have won the “best places to work in Australia” two years running – the first company to have ever achieved that.

I’m also a patriotic Australian, an entrepreneur, and a heavy technology investor. I’m also a dad. I want to see our country continue to grow and prosper so my kids can stay in Australia and enjoy the high standards of living our country has become accustomed to. This is the first time I’ve done anything like this and I thank you for the opportunity. I think it’s important my generation is part of the conversations that help shape our country’s future. I’d encourage you to think of Atlassian and companies like us in the technology industry as a case study of the future in the here and now. Many of the people who have submitted to you, worthy as they are, are from representative bodies and the research community. They are dealing with the workplace at arm’s length and in theory. For us, it is our business. We live it every day.

The Technology Industry

I’d like to start by sharing some thoughts on technology as an industry. Technology is already the biggest industry in the world – now well past finance – and it’s pulling away.

We have a decision to make – as a country – if we want a seat on that rocket ship. Do we want to be a primary manufacturer of technology, or a consumer of it? Australia generates 1% of the world’s GDP. To continue our relative wealth and quality of living, we need to be primary producers of 1% of the world’s technology. We aren’t even close today. You should think of digital, technology businesses like ours as modern day factories – we are manufacturers of software, of technology products. And all technology products are made by people. Those people create new things – for the world and for Australia. That innovation creates nearly all the new job growth in Australia today. Yet our technology businesses are in a global war for talent and we’re losing the battle. Technology creation is borderless, jobs can be anywhere. For every new project at Atlassian… say 10 new jobs… we have a choice of where to hire and start that team – in Austin, in San Francisco, in New York, in Gdansk, in Kiev or… in Sydney.

To explain it systemically – that choice is based on the quality, availability, and experience of that talent. Quality is about knowledge. Availability is about quantity. Experience is about history. Let’s look at those individually:

  • Quality – Australia does well here. Our technology graduates are highly desired around the world. However the lack of a local industry is challenging because our best ship off overseas for better opportunities. As a country, we want to be a net exporter of products, not a net exporter of people.
  • Availability – We need more graduates with technology skills in almost every discipline – from computer science to medicine to law to teaching. That is a long term change. It requires investment in STEM education at all levels. It requires changing the gender mix in STEM subjects. It requires promoting career paths and opportunities in tech to our next generation. These changes are happening slowly, but they’re long term.
  • Experience – This is the hardest one for us as an industry. As an example of a critically important role – there aren’t nearly enough large scale engineering managers (10 years experience w/ teams over 100 people is our benchmark) in Australia. We can wait a decade and learn by making our own mistakes as our graduates grow… or we can import that experience… today. And learn from someone else’s mistakes.

So, let’s talk about skilled immigration

Lack of access to experienced, global talent is the single biggest factor constraining the growth of the technology industry in Australia. For my view, we’re thinking about skilled immigration completely backwards.

We focus on overseas workers taking jobs from Australians. In high-export industries, like technology, it’s just not the case.

Highly skilled, experienced migrants are “job multipliers” for Atlassian – for every one senior person we import, we hire many more around them. Their experience spreads to tens of other employees close to them in the organisation. It’s absolutely invaluable.

The previous changes to LAFHA and then recently the 457 visa changes damaged Australia’s reputation in the largest industry in the world. We said to the global tech industry: “We’re closed for business.” The government’s policy changes to 457 visa – and the uncertainty that came with the announcement – hurt us directly.

The restrictions are suffocating our ability to become a leading innovation nation – and threatening Atlassian’s ability to remain HQ’d here. Our future success depends on our ability to attract the world’s best tech talent… today. To unlock the huge job-creating potential of tech companies in Australia, we need to change the way we think about skilled migration. The government should be helping local companies attract world-class employees, not close the door in their faces.

Impact of technology on all industries

Let’s pivot from the challenges of the technology industry to the challenges of every industry in Australia.

Something that everyone needs to know, and I can’t possibly overstate this, is that every single company is becoming, or already is, a software company.

Which means more and more jobs are becoming technology jobs. Which means these problems are going to be every industry’s problems. It’s software that powers our computers, our phones, our televisions.

It’s also software that powers the way we bank, the way we buy things, the way we move around the world, the way we meet new friends and partners, the way we implement laws, and the way we fix human beings in a hospital.

Technology is the single greatest competitive advantage in business today.

Software is eating every industry in the world. Tech disruption is a very real thing. It’s happening all around us. It’s happening faster than you think. And that’s hard for governments.

And unlike existing industries, the future doesn’t have a lobbyist.

A few examples, let’s look at the mining industry: In the U.S, more people were employed in solar power last year than in generating electricity through coal, gas and oil energy combined. (Forbes)

And what about retail? This year, Amazon is set to overtake Macy’s to be the largest seller of clothing in the U.S. (Financial Times). Amazon is more valuable than all brick-and-mortar retailers in the US combined (Inc). And they’re not slowing down. Amazon is now in our own backyard. The “head in the sand” attitude of Australian businesses scares me. Let me be brutally honest here – Amazon is going to tear apart Australian retail, as they did in the US. With technology. That’s not an uncertain future, I’m just slightly chronologically challenged. It’s going to be great for consumers – fast, cheap, home delivered goods, but not so good for retail workers.

There are so many areas ahead of us that technology and automation will disrupt.

If there’s one example that highlights the benefits and challenges of the future best… let’s look at an area I’m intimately familiar with: I’m a large investor in and a passionate advocate for autonomous mobility. Also known as self-driving cars.

More than 650,000 Americans have died on U.S roads since 2000 – that’s more American lives lost than in all wars of the 20th century. When we remove human driver error – which accounts for 90% of accidents – imagine how many lives we can save. Not to mention the cost savings of not owning a car, and the productive time each day you get back from not sitting in traffic (The Economist + The Conversation).

However, there is no doubt that this technology – like others – is disrupting our economy, and that many, many people will lose their current jobs. Almost 30% of all Australian jobs involve driving (ABC). By 2030, it’s estimated that 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation generally. One 2015 study put it at 40% of all Australian jobs by 2025, faster than in any previous decade (ABC).

But technology is not a purely destructive force. Many, many new jobs will be created; many existing roles will be redefined; and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. (The Verge, per McKinsey study).

Technological change has been a constant throughout the history of industrial civilisation … and hindsight is a beautiful thing, let’s use it in our favour. This time, we know what’s coming. We can ignore it; we can fight it; we can try to slow it down; we can stand by and “hope” it goes well.

Instead, what we must do is act… now. This future is here. Waymo / Google is going live this year on Phoenix streets with their self driving cars. It’s in early access to sign up for today. This is not science fiction.

We must approach this future with empathy and planning – not denial and hope. As I love to say at work – “Hope is not a tactic.”

In my opinion, we have three major challenges:

  1. Upskilling and retraining. We need to shift our views on education as something we do when we’re young, to something we do throughout our entire life. How do we enable lifelong learning so people continually learn new skills and embrace new opportunities?
  2. Providing income support and other forms of transition assistance to help displaced workers find alternative employment will be essential. How do we help people successfully transition out of redundant jobs into high-value-add work opportunities?
  3. Ensuring we have enough post-disruption job creation done locally. Back to my first point – the technology disrupting the jobs can be created anywhere in the world. If we’re not creating some of the technology here, the created jobs won’t be in Australia.

Fortunately, Australia in the 21st Century should have the tools and experience to make this period of disruption less painful than the transitions prior. We have bipartisan support for a social safety net that other countries do not enjoy. We have democratic forums, such as this committee, where we can discuss policies and start plans to overcome the negative impacts of technological disruption.

Conclusion

In closing, we know change is hard. It’s messy. It’s scary. We need to learn from the past and focus on the upside of value creation and improved standards of living that technology will create, instead of perpetuating fear rhetoric around “robots taking our jobs.”

We have a choice: We can ignore the change that is happening, and watch it erode our global competitiveness, or we can embrace it, and, lead the world.

With your help, we can build a world class technology industry in Australia. And the technology skills needed by every industry. And manage the upcoming disruptions. But we need to act, not stand by and watch.

Thank you.

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