Wayne Houlden
Thu, October 18, 2012 at 9:59
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Interesting, Jan Strom, Person, Tonya Fitzcosta, Wayne Houlden

Jan Strom first nominated Wayne Houlden as the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast back in November 2011.  She had just been to an NBN launch event and had heard Wayne speak about the high tech online learning business he has developed right here in Coffs Harbour.  But timing was wrong.  Wayne had just been diagnosed with cancer and was facing 6 months of painful treatment.  I was relieved to learn a few weeks ago that he has recovered and was up for an interview.

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A High-Tech Entrepreneur in Country NSW

I spot Wayne and Jacquie Houlden sitting at the far table on the deck at Latitude 30.  Jacquie wears dark glasses to cut the glare from the sun, which is creating a halo behind Wayne’s head.  The plates in front of them bear the carved out remains of large shellfish and even from this distance I can tell they are talking about business.

Wayne’s life story is defined by business.  Once I’ve settled myself at the table, and the plates have been cleared away, he cautions that he is a private person.  “I’m not someone who spurts stuff out,” he says.  “And he’s modest,” Jacquie is quick to add.  But the one thing he is happy to talk about is the business that he and Jacquie created together.  Janison is the e-learning enterprise that now employs 45 people at its Coffs Harbour Jetty office, and recently won (among other accolades) the NSW Telstra Business of the Year award.

It’s unusual to discover a dynamic, multi-national, high tech organisation nestling in a small seaside city somewhere between Brisbane and Sydney.  And Wayne says that “place” is an important part of his story.  “So much of what we do or don’t do is about our place; what we are able to connect with,” he says.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Alstonville, west of Ballina, Wayne connected with hard work and discipline.  “Those cows have got to be milked at 6am and 4pm,” he says.  “You get this understanding that there are some things that just have to be done.”  Jacquie interrupts.  “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Wayne.  If something had to be ready for 7am, he’d get himself up at 3am and do it.”

His love of technology also begins from childhood.  Like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, he had the good fortune to be able to access advanced technology in high school, managing to get a work experience placement with Lismore College (now SCU).  “I was able to work on a mainframe and someone showed me how to write programs,” he remembers.  “I started writing the programs that simulated moon landing calculations and things like that.”

At this stage Wayne’s life diverges from that of Jobs and Gates, and this too is about “place”.  “I wasn’t in Southern California, I was in Alstonville.  I didn’t have the same opportunities,” says Wayne   He goes on to tell me that it doesn’t matter.  “In the end you get where you were meant to be.  It’s just that you may not get to the same order of magnitude,” he explains.  Part of me believes him, but part of me thinks that maybe it does matter.

Before I can contemplate this further, Wayne rushes ahead to give me the story of his career thus far.  Not surprisingly he studied mathematics and computer science at the University of NSW in Sydney, and while studying he took on a trainee programmer position with the state government, before launching into a corporate IT career, spending 3 years with Lumley Insurance and 4 years with Citibank.

Oddly, the “corporate” job at Lumley’s was the start of Wayne’s entrepreneurial career.  He and his boss would toss ideas around at night.  Wayne would head off from these meetings and build things.  He created an internal electronic mail system in 1984, long before email became an integral part of business.  He created what is now known as a protocol analyser to speed up computer response time for satellite offices.  This invention was such a hit that Lumley’s started selling the device and software to other companies.  Wayne had created his first saleable product.

But after 7 years of office politics Wayne had had enough of big corporations and big cities. So when TAFE Tamworth needed someone to establish its computing department, Wayne put up his hand.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Those who can, do.  Those who cannot, teach.”  So you might think that teaching was the wrong place for a “doer” like Wayne.   But it turned out to be just the right opportunity.  The clean slate he was offered appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit, and there were plenty of challenges.

The first of his challenges came early.  He arrived at the TAFE to discover he had no office, no desk and worst of all no computer.  The office and desk were resolved quickly but he was advised that there was no budget left to buy a computer this year.  Wayne found the solution when travelling to Sydney for teachers training.  “I’d go into computer shops and say, ‘I’m the guy who’s in charge of Computing Studies at Tamworth TAFE.  I’m going to need lots of computers eventually, but I need you to give me one for free now.”  It worked.  Problem solved.

Wayne discovered tremendous pent up demand for computer training once he got to work in establishing the TAFE computing programs.  “There were lots of people who were using computers in their business and they wanted a qualification,” Wayne recalls.  He quickly introduced a 6-month certificate course, but local government and business staff were pushing for a proper diploma program.   However the minimum requirement for a diploma program was a “computer lab”, with at least 40 computers and a server.  The principal was clear:  not enough money and not enough space for a computer lab.  Wayne’s next challenge was on.

Wayne found space in a forgotten underground storage area and then brought the principal an offer he couldn’t refuse.  Leveraging his relationships with business and government agencies in and around Tamworth, Wayne persuaded Australian computer manufacturer Osborne that a well-equipped computer lab at Tamworth TAFE would translate into sales.  Osborne was prepared not only to provide all the equipment needed to set up the lab, but would update the equipment every 6-months.  Wayne got his computer lab, and the people of Tamworth got their diplomas.

Then we started to realize that there were lots of people in other towns who wanted diplomas but they couldn’t get to Tamworth,” says Wayne.  The e-learning seed had been planted. 

Wayne and the team of teachers at Tamworth TAFE began to work on ideas of how they could support remote students effectively.

At that time, an important relationship was with Stephen Howard, then heading up the education business for Microsoft in Australia.  Stephen let Wayne “play” with prototypes of new software in advance to its release to keep his hand in programming.  One of those advance playthings was Microsoft’s first web server.  “I started tinkering with that and I turned some of what I had into browser based material so people could do it online,” Wayne remembers.

Wayne managed to get one of the first internet connections into his lab, set up the server and enabled people around the world to access TAFE learning materials.  Exciting, but a step too far for the TAFE bureaucracy.  “There was no doubt someone would pull it down,” says Wayne.  “Mavericks in organisations don’t always do well.”  Perhaps it was time to move on?

And move on Wayne did, in more ways than one.  Jacquie, a communications specialist, had been part of his team at TAFE.  It became apparent that whichever way Wayne was going to move; he wasn’t going to do it alone.  “Jacquie and I began going out in December ’97 and we started Janison in March ’98,” says Wayne.  “We didn’t waste a lot of time.”

Their first big job, for Education Network Australia (EdNA) had been delivered the year before.  TAFE asked them to develop software to help teachers build courses.  TAFE Orange bought the software and others followed.  Wayne and Jacquie had a business.

“So we moved to Coffs Harbour and started employing people,” says Wayne.  There has been no looking back.  Over the next few years, Janison became Australia’s leading provider of Learning Portals and Learning Management Systems that assist schools, colleges, universities and other organisations to establish and manage e-learning programs.  And they continue to grow: in sales and reputation.

But both Wayne and Jacquie acknowledge that they have not been playing in the same league as the big US online learning companies.  “It’s this ‘place in the world’ thing that always comes back to haunt me,” says Wayne.  “We weren’t able to capitalise.”

Again Wayne reassures me that this doesn’t matter.  “I don’t have to have a certain size car or a certain size bank account.  I’m not really driven by that,” he says. 

But I think maybe it does matter. I sense he’d like to be recognised on a larger stage, stealing a bit of the limelight from the likes of Jobs and Gates: not because he is greedy but because he can’t stop reaching for still greater challenges.

Although only recently recovered from cancer treatment, Wayne is excited about Janison’s latest product development that harnesses the power of cloud computing to allow for online examinations on a large scale, something previously limited by Education Department server sizes.  The initial project for year 8 students in NSW was a world first. 

 “It could be that we will play our role in the world,” exclaims Wayne.  “Maybe it’s not just place, it’s time.  It’s taken us 15 years, but we can still do it.”  I have no doubt.  Look out Southern California: Wayne Houlden is putting regional NSW on the technological world map.

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Wayne nominates Tonia Fitzcosta as the most interesting person he knows, and I can tell that Jacquie agrees.  Tonia works for Mission Australia, running a house for Aboriginal Australians, enabling them to avoid the penal system.  Although her work is serious, Wayne is quick to add that she is really good fun and I look forward to meeting her.

 

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Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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