Having started his career as a fruit picker before a joining the New Zealand Navy as a weapons engineer, Groupon head of IT for Northern Europe Iain Phillips has taken an interesting road into the computer business. He swapped machine guns for cloud apps when he took on a job as technology systems manager for a luxury hotel chain in the Canadian Rockies, before starting at Groupon in July 2013.
Since then he's hit the ground running, becoming an integral part to the deal service's daily operations, altering it to run using a variety of cloud applications and systems from big name vendors such as Salesforce and NetSuite.
Eager to get an inside look at what makes Phillips tick, we put him in the V3 Hot Seat. Phillips' Hot Seat follows on from several other high-profile executives including the CIO of Network Rail Susan Cooklin and the IT manager for Waitrose Mark Purnell.
V3: What's your favourite part of your current job?
Phillips: Working with such a highly motivated and dynamic group of people. We have a great company culture with lots of young ambitious people from all corners of the world, many of whom have been here since Groupon's early days as a startup company. It's their efforts which have produced the phenomenal growth of the company and I'm privileged to be a part of that now.
What would be your dream job?
I've always thought that being an astronaut would be pretty cool. Space tourism is starting to become a reality now so maybe I can go as a paying tourist instead? I'm sure Groupon will be running a deal as soon as it possibly can.
Which mobile phone and tablet do you currently use?
I use an HTC Sensation and a Lenovo Yoga. Both are old and probably overdue an upgrade, but unless a new killer feature emerges I'll probably just run them until they die.
Which person do you most admire in the IT industry?
For me it's Larry Page. Not just because I love Google products, but because he has an amazing vision of how we can use technology to transform the world for the better.
Which technology has had the biggest impact on your working life?
For me it's smartphones. Mobile technology is everywhere now and has changed the whole IT paradigm, as our staff expects to be able to work anywhere. It's changed our company strategy too – nearly 50 percent of North American transactions as of Q3 this year are now made via our mobile platform.
What's been the highlight of your career so far?
When I was in the navy I ran a project to install remotely operated machine guns onto ships that were heading to the Indian Ocean to assist with counter-piracy operations. Pushing the trigger and watching on camera as the target disintegrated was pretty cool.
What was your first job?
Appropriately for a New Zealander, picking kiwi fruit during school holidays.
What's your favourite thing about working in the IT industry?
It must be the most rapidly changing and innovative of all industries. It's certainly never dull. As leaders in the industry we have an opportunity to shape the future technology landscape and make a real difference. It may seem grandiose, but technology has already changed the world and there is plenty more to fix yet.
What will be the next big innovation of the coming years?
I think it will be driverless taxis – goodbye congestion, petrol fumes, and Jeremy Clarkson.
What do you enjoy doing when you finish work?
Anything sports related: rock climbing, running, playing squash. Also catching West End shows and enjoying good food and travel.
What was the last book you read and was it any good?
The last book I read was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I'm new to London and love reading the old stories set here – so much of London is unchanged from when they were written.
Who is your favourite band or musician?
It changes every week but I've found myself listening to Rudimental a lot lately.
Where's your favourite holiday destination?
Anywhere with snow and a decent-sized mountain. I've booked a trip to Sauze d'Oulx in Italy for Christmas and I can't wait.
E-readers or real books?
I prefer real books. My wife has a Kindle and it's great, but I enjoy picking up something non-electronic once in a while.
Twitter, Facebook or Google+?
I use Facebook. Sorry Larry Page.
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
The Beatles. My mum made sure of that.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – and not just because I'm a patriotic Kiwi.
Windows or Mac OS?
Windows, although we use a lot of Apple technology at Groupon too. I'm running Windows 8.1 and loving it. This time around I think it's enterprise ready.
On-premise or cloud?
For me it's cloud every time. Groupon couldn't possibly have grown as fast as it did using on-premise technology. The cloud brings scalability and mobility that is core to what we do. Vendors know their product the best so why not let them host it – it's one less thing for me to worry about.
What's holding back women from entering the IT profession?
My boss (Groupon's global head of IT) is a woman, maybe you should ask her! I think women in general are more empathetic than men and enjoy working with people rather than machines. It's actually a big misconception about the industry because unless you are a systems engineer, IT is all about people; whether it's supporting users or redesigning business processes or developing new ways of interacting. There have been some high-profile female appointments recently, for example Marissa Mayer, so maybe that will help turn the tide.
How can we get more school children interested in IT careers?
The Raspberry Pi Foundation is on the right track. When I was a teenager I loved building little projects from basic components and that's what got me interested in engineering as a career. Children should be encouraged to build gadgets and websites and just tinker with technical stuff.
I think the real problem is that parents and school teachers don't understand today's technology well enough to point the kids in the right direction and help them do constructive things with the tools that are available. That is a harder problem to solve.
Did you always grow up wanting to work in IT?
No I didn't. IT in the nineties was boring – remember non-networked PCs and DOS? When I left school I joined the navy to see the world and have an adventure. Somehow weapons engineering led to communications engineering, which led to IT, and here I am.
What websites do you have bookmarked at work?
Salesforce, Zendesk, Gmail and NetSuite are my top four cloud-based apps, which are pretty much always open in a tab. Other than that, about a dozen other cloud-based apps for everything from payroll to print monitoring, support forums. Past this I have TechNet, V3, BBC, ZDNet and, of course, Groupon.co.uk!
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