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Programming outside the square

01 Feb 09

Even with the sheer volume of accolades crowding Sir Gilbert Simpson’s trophy cabinet, he’s more than happy to recognise the special significance of his recently received NZX Flying Kiwi award. Before presenting Sir Gil with the award (alongside the esteemed Dennis Chapman and Ian Taylor), Wayne Norrie, Chairman of the New Zealand Hi-Tech Association, said that, “As a Flying Kiwi, they’re showing the leadership, the courage and the determination that it takes to get a slightly overweight, flightless bird airborne and take on the rest of the world.”
The humble Sir Gil, though, is quick to contend that this particular Kiwi couldn’t have taken off without a boost from others, and that his award is just as much a recognition of the many who helped him along the way. “I think that I’ve been able to work with a lot of very talented people as colleagues and work associates over the years, and it’s really a culmination of all their contributions as much as my own, or probably more than my own. I just think it’s neat, not only for myself, but for all those who’ve been associated with the things I’ve done. They all own part of it.”
The achievements that qualified Sir Gil for the Flying Kiwi are many and impressive, not only for their impact locally, but also for the innovation that took his work to the world stage.  As a young up-and-coming programmer, Sir Gil went on to develop the highly touted LINC programming language (New Zealand’s most successful software export to date).
The commercial success of LINC allowed him to found the Aoraki Corporation, Jade Software Corporation, and to develop the famous JADE programming language. These achievements, among many others, have afforded him the privilege of a knighthood for his services to the computer industry and broader community, an honorary doctorate from the University of Canterbury, and he even has a street named after him in Christchurch – Sir Gil Simpson Drive.
Perhaps his longest-standing achievement, though, was when, at the age of 20, he conceptualised and developed the direct-credit and direct-debit applications that have been popularised and enjoy frequent use among banks to this day.
Sir Gil’s programming career began in something of a whirlwind when he performed particularly well in an aptitude test at the National Bank as an 18-year-old in 1967. “I was just a junior and they wanted to computerise and they aptitude-tested their youngest staff. I got a good pass. I sat the aptitude test on a Monday morning; the following Monday I was in Christchurch, and the following Monday I was sitting in Wellington starting my programming training. It just happened like that.”
Things began to snowball from that point, with the cogs that eventually led to a different approach to computer programming already starting to turn. “In 1973 I decided that computer packages were the wrong way to go, and the problem was that programming was too difficult. That’s when I began the process of developing an alternative and easy-to-use computer language for programming information systems. So that’s what LINC was.”
Sir Gil’s approach to conducting business varies from the orthodox in a variety of ways. For instance, from the day he started his own company, his workplace ethics and gestures have been noted by many, and include a policy of providing alcohol for his employees and allowing them to drink said alcohol at work. He said this was done in the hope of establishing a sense of equality across the board with his employees, in turn leading to a healthier and more productive working environment.
“It’s about privilege. I find it a bit of a mockery that we have these companies that are so-called booze-free and all the rubbish that goes on. I come from a generation where the general manager would have a cocktail bar in his office that he opened occasionally for the lucky few that might get there. If you’ve got a sales person in an organisation, that person goes out for lunch, that person shouts a customer a bottle of wine and they enjoy a wine over lunch. Why is a sales person any more entitled to have a glass of wine on the company than a computer programmer or a journalist? In my entire work history managing this, which is since 1978 (30 years into the burn) I have only had two incidents, possibly three, where I saw what I would call abuse. I had over 500 staff at one stage in my business.”
Another manner in which Sir Gil’s approach differs from most software developers is his firmly held belief that programming should be viewed as an art form much like any other literary or musical composition, and that the art form has deviated into the realm of commercialism with an almost production-line approach.  “Programmers are not geeks; they are artists. And a computer program is a written document. It could be described like a novel, or it could be equated to a musical composition. I describe the software industry as dysfunctional. It has been that way since the early ’70s. It just went in the wrong direction; it went down the pathway that a program is a commodity, and that doesn’t fit with artwork.”
It was from a frustration with this state of affairs that Sir Gil conceptualised his latest venture, Jolly Good Software – a way of moulding and tailoring software to suit a client; putting the art back into the process, as opposed to forcing customers to work around and adapt to software that may not directly suit their needs. The company is based in Christchurch, at what Sir Gil described as “the gallery”.
“The gallery is about taking the work of artists to the market. I’m just focused on tuning that delivery process. We’ve got a lot of success with our customers, and we can do better with them. We’re kind of learning how to take that art model through to its conclusion with the client, because as we do it, we’re learning a great deal. It’s not something that I’m aware has been done before. That’s very exciting at the moment – getting the delivery model right – because it’s a model that we can replicate very successfully in something else. But it’s the model that I want to expand.”
Although unorthodox, it could be said that his approach to the challenges he’s encountered in life could indeed account for his successes, including that full trophy cabinet. “I think they’re all statements about looking at something and saying: ‘We don’t have to do it the way we do it currently. We can do it better than this. We can do it a different way.’ So it’s probably driven by laziness. Everything we do at the moment, to me, seems like hard work, so I want to make it easy,” he chuckled.

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