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Episode #71 with Sarah & Mark Wallis

19 April 2022 | 30 mins 10 secs

On this episode of the NTP Podcast we interview Sarah & Mark Co-Founders of Skript. We chat about the growth of the business, recommendations for young tech professionals and what they look for in tech hires within the company. Hope you enjoy the episode!

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Show Notes

Here you can source all the things we have talked about in the podcast whether that be books, events, meet-up groups and what’s new in the newcastle tech scene.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • (00:19)

    For those that don’t know you who are you and what do you do?

  • (01:15)

    Outside of work what do you do?

  • (02:00)

    What is Skript?

  • (03:23)

    Where did the idea come from?

  • (04:59)

    Why start your own company?

  • (06:26)

    Who do you typically hire?.

  • (09:23)

    Are there any current vacancies within your company?

  • (11:07)

    What’s your tech stack?

  • (12:27)

    Why did you stay in Newcastle?

  • (13:40)

    Growing a company in Newcastle, any challenges or benefits?

  • (17:14)

    Growing the tech community in Newcastle.

  • (18:13)

    What education pathway did you both take?

  • (24:07)

    What degrees would you recommend for tech professionals?

  • (28:40)

    How do people get in contact with you both?

Transcription:

Liam: Sarah, Mark thank you for coming on.
Sarah/Mark: no thanks for having us yeah thank you.
Liam: I guess first things first who are you what do you do just give us i guess the little five minute bio about yourselves?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah absolutely you can go further yes so currently I’m the Co-Founder and chief operating officer of Skript so my role there is to manage getting software out the door so we actually have something to sell i’ve been in it for about 20 years so in that time i’ve had just about every role so software development a and a bit of project management yeah okay see if you’ve well actually covered it all and i’m zips my name’s mark i’m the CTO at Skript at the moment so i’m one of the three co-founders so we have myself sarah and uh and eric as well um so i’m mainly engaged in delivering the tech platform um but like sarah i’ve been around newcastle i.t for for quite a long time now i tend to pop up a fair bit at the university as well just for a little while just for a little for a few months a year.
Liam: So outside of work what do you do?
Sarah/Mark: Kids pretty much we’re pretty settled out on in the in the western suburbs of Newcastle but between work and kids we’re a bit of a karate family we tend to spend four nights a week at the dojo had at cameron park a bit of a mixture between training and teaching so now my son and i teach classes together out there and that’s awesome it’s uh yeah something something a little bit different gives us a good uh stress relief after a long day at the office to be able to you know go punch something for a few hours.
Liam: Yeah that’s yeah i can understand how software development could elicit that sort of reaction fair enough i imagine this will be sort of the first instance people have heard of Skript or for a lot of people.
Sarah/Mark: Yeah it’s a fairly new company he’s kind of been in stealth mode for the last while what is Skript if so Skript is a new fintech currently australia is going through the implementation of open banking so now there’s a stack of new data that people have not been able to get in the past across banks so someone needs to actually make that useful and scrip’s purpose is to develop banking products that are bank agnostic but they rely on open banking data to allow you to operate across a bunch of different financial institutions so our solutions will be based businesses to give to their customers so we’re looking to provide the infrastructure to do that yeah i think think of like the infrastructure of being able to provide an internet banking platform but it’s not actually provided by your bank and you’re actually able to view your accounts do payments everything completely bank agnostic um but you’re right we’ve been pretty quiet so far we’re we’re fairly new i think i can’t even remember we there was we first started and got the idea and then we went through a bit of a journey with we’re vc funded at the moment so there’s been a massive learning curve there and we’re uh trying to not only just say yeah learn the tech side of things but learn the whole startup side of things has been an interesting challenge for us so but yeah we have been a bit quiet there’s big things to come though.
Liam: Awesome where did the idea come from why fintech?
Sarah/Mark: why open banking so our background we between the three founders we have over 60 years experience in payments technology just casually yeah so it’s certainly an area that we feel comfortable in and we bring a lot of experience to the table yeah that i think that’s what some of the founders actually that some of the vcs actually quite liked about us is the fact that we’re not you your typical startup we’ve kind of we’ve been doing effectively what open banking is for 20 years before it was even called open banking um for all three of us co-founders we worked together at westpac whether it was sarah and eisen um worked through cube island um my rather co-founder eric he worked at westpac on the product side of things um so we’ve all kind of been in this space for for quite a while so it was a bit of a natural progression.
Liam: And i imagine you kind of knew each other like through through westpac and you kind of got comfortable with each other.
Sarah/Mark: Yeah it’s kind of funny we didn’t cross um so sarah well you you left cuba on probably before eric joined westpac um and and eric and i only had a very glancing interaction i was almost he was coming in on as i was going out sort of thing but we um we managed to get uh connected through some mutual uh acquaintances and um shared shared our experience of working for the big w and it’s uh yeah and built a bit of a bit of an idea and a bit of a journey from there.
Liam: Cool cool as you’ve kind of alluded to you’ve spent a hell of a lot of time in pretty established companies why i guess why throw it all out and start your own thing that’s a big pretty big call to make.
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so we’ve also had our own consulting company hunter albert for over 10 years now so running a business is not something that we’re a stranger to but the best thing about running a business is you get to create your own culture so not only do you get to create the culture within the company you can also have great impact on the community so underrepresented groups in tech is something that i’m particularly passionate about and i feel being a new and small company there is so much you can do in that space because you can start from day one and hire the most diverse team you don’t have to put the blueberries in the muffin after you’ve baked it excellent see that’s going to make me sound really bad because i think i just went through an early mid-life crisis and decided that you know it was if i was ever going to go out and do my own thing now is the time to do it 19 and a half years at the one company i kind of went figured that you know i’d done as much as i felt i could do there and i wanted some new challenges i actually worked full time on hunter orbit for a good year um sort of in between uh working at q valence and and and coming on board with script so we still look after hunter orbit in the background we’ve uh got a few students that have come on board that we’ve employed that are sort of running the shop for us at the moment while we focus our energy into script.
Liam: Awesome, who is Skript who have you hired who do you typically hire what what does that team look like at the moment?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so we’ve been really lucky with the team that we’ve got so far there’s five of us in newcastle and we have an incredibly talented and experienced bunch now so some people that are well known within the industry so we have our nuclear physicist herboy who is an amazing tech genius and vitold who has come from a few local tech companies so he is someone that brings some amazing energy and new ideas to the company and frank henskins who’s such an amazing hard worker and just has the perfect attitude so the people we’re looking for are people that will give a hundred percent but they’re all about the team so we have a ball in our office we currently have a 3d printer running 24 hours a day we’re lucky enough that we’ve got a rooftop that we can go up and have meetings slash friday afternoon drinks on top of when it’s not pouring rain like it is today and so with the five of us that we have in newcastle we’ve also got another two um in our sydney office as well um so eric leads our sydney office as our ceo and then we have paige there who’s our head of product um and we have our new sales lead coming on board next month as well so our teams sort of grown very very quickly we went from you know just the three of us co-founders to a to a full team almost overnight so it’s um it’s been that’s been an interesting journey as well.
Liam: Awesome who do you want to hire who who do you want the team to be?
Sarah/Mark: Well this is something that i talk about a lot with my students as well for us we have very much an an an emphasis on attitude um attitude is everything to us skills and aptitude is something you can learn and we’re really big on making sure we give the opportunity for all of our staff to grow and learn um we’ve always said to well i have our new hires that you know our as much as it’s your job to work for us it’s our job to grow you as an employee and as a person um if in the future you grow to a point where you get a massive opportunity from somewhere and you and you go off from somewhere else we’ll be clapping you on the way out the door because that means that we’ve done the right thing and we’ve grown you as a person so we we we always find that that will work best with the people that have got the right attitude to work and then like i said we’re we’re pretty lucky that we’ve got a very uh flexible and pretty entertaining office at times um but that’s the sort of thing that we mainly look for it’s those people that are that are a keen have a keen interest in not only the technology side of things but the the engagement and the outreach side of things as well yeah and we’re looking for people in all stages of their career so the graduates the mid people and the seniors as well yeah so we were so far we’ve hired fairly seniority um but i think that will probably change over the next sort of 12 months as well um obviously we’ve got with our relationship with the university uh we’re going to be doing a lot of work integrated learning projects and we uh hunter orbit itself’s got a bit of a history of hiring directly out of that pool um i know quite a few people at cuevalent were hired directly out of university after parking through my courses there so we’re going to continue that same relationship and we’re looking forward to getting in some more junior staff um because they provide a lot of energy and we know that we can grow them so.
Liam: Cool cool any any current vacancies or are you very much just let’s talk to interesting people?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah we’re certainly keen to talk to anybody who’s interested now as far as hiring that’s probably something we’re going to be looking to do again in the middle of the year but we will have a big variety of roles on offer so we will be looking for developers devops people information security people qa people business analyst and project managers a wide range of roles for people yeah and and we’re very much tied to our sort of funding cycles as well it’s which is it which is interesting because yeah we pretty much hired our full stack that we’ve budgeted out of the uh out of our seed round of funding um but we’re very much sort of in the discussions with our vcs around uh series a’s and things like that so there’s there’s lots of exciting announcements there to come and that will just flow into more more recruitment as well we’re currently based out of the the watso office over in in newcastle west um which is kind of cool because that’s brand new um i think we were the second company in there maybe something pretty close um but that gives us the ability to grow too because we can just keep you know borging out from the corner that we’re in at the moment taking over more and more offices so that’s that’s the current plan awesome um while i’m thinking of it uh what’s your tech stack well we uh this is one of the good things about being in a greenfields environment with so many smart people is we’re we’re building everything from the ground up um so we’re very aws centric um we’ve got a long background with aws sarah and i but certified um certifiable and certified um but we’re we’re taking the opportunity to do a lot of practicing what we preach i like to instill uh microservices architectures to students and this is a good opportunity for us to uh to get away from the the monolithic software development of large texts at companies um and we’re going for microservices um but knowing that we’re going to be hiring knowing what the newcastle it space is like and knowing that we um a lot of what’s taught out of the university um we’ve we’ve picked a java stack and so we’ve gone through and and tailored it knowing so that we’ll be able to get the staff that we need and we won’t have to have a massive uplift but it’s it’s kind of cool it’s great to work there to work on a brand new stack from scratch um and to be able to use all the latest tech all right so we’ll change tack a little bit um you’ve both lived and worked in newcastle for a decent amount of time now uh the tech i guess the phenomenon we’re seeing at the moment is moving to sydney companies that sort of thing um why did you stay in newcastle yeah so we both moved to the big smoke of newcastle from port macquarie straight out of high school i guess the reason we’ve never left over the years is we’ve had such a strong sense of community and such a good friendship group in newcastle and the thought of a sydney commute is not very appealing yeah we we we commute fairly often to sydney or pre-covered we did anyway now it’s it’s not quite as often but we always uh it was when especially when talking to uni students it was always like there’s no need to move to sydney to get a tech job there’s so much tech available here in newcastle and now with all the work from home arrangements that’s never been truer there’s no need to be working in the big cities um so many friends of ours that have worked in tech in sydney at the mo for years are now going for you know beach changes and tree changes um because of all the work from home but also work from home doesn’t always suit everyone we tend to find we mix it up a little bit um we work in the office work from home pro 50 50 but having that flexibility is there’s no reason to be having to leave newcastle to be able to exceed in a tech career these days so it’s um it’s it’s easier than ever.
Liam: Awesome and i guess on that note uh building and growing a company in newcastle any challenges any benefits how have you found it?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so the market is obviously much smaller than Sydney so you don’t know it so you do get a lot fewer applicants per role which can be challenging the upside is it’s such a close knit community so it is quite easy to reach out to people and very easy to vet candidates because you’re bound to have at least one mutual with any other newcastle tech person it’s a very very small connected group in linkedin so you’re not wrong you’re not wrong but uh no it is it has been interesting uh there’s a lot even just comparisons to sydney we’re finding crazy things like um it’s costing us more to rent our office space here in sydney than it is costing us to rent it in oh sorry it’s costing us more in newcastle and it’s costing us throughout sydney because it’s just such a massive oversupply in sydney of office space where in newcastle here it’s still pretty limited so there’s been a few challenges like that which um through a spanner in the works took a while for us to find watso um but yeah it’s again it’s we’ve been lucky to be able to leverage the you know it’s who you know not what you know quite often as well yes.
Liam: Yeah the newcastle standard absolutely yeah and I guess you’ve both been in the game for a decent amount of time you’ve kind of worked in newcastle tech sector for two decades give or take what do you think the next 10 years looks like?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so i think the rise of sydney companies hiring remotely is going to be a huge change to the newcastle industry because you’re not just competing with the other newcastle companies for candidates anymore if you want to hire locally you’re still competing against the campus and the atlassian so i think that’s going to bring challenge for employers but fantastic for newcastle i.t people there’s so many more opportunities i think in the startup space camplify going public was a huge thing for the newcastle startup space and both the new newcastle university and newcastle city council are doing a lot to encourage startup activity in the area so i’m really optimistic that in the next 10 years we’re going to see some huge things come out of newcastle in regards to startups yeah and i think it’s going to be really really important because of those things to make sure that we we do stick together as a community where previously it’s been you know it’s the queue violin group over there and the nib group over there and the perm group over there um as we start to get more and more people living in newcastle working remotely for for sydney and organisations all over the world i think it’s going to be important for some of the the community stuff that we do so that we can all stick together so we’re not just a city of isolated workers um and that’s where we like to be involved in things like the uh the new e slack group and things like that because i think i think they’re going to those sort of systems are going to help us all stay connected um and sort of survive this transition to you know working from home and working for companies that are not physically located near you i think it’s going to be really important.
Liam: Yeah 100% i think the newcastle tech community obviously pre-covered was probably the most sort of together it had been and there were a bunch of interesting meetups we obviously had devops days kind of roll through late 2018 you know we all felt very i think uh together for lack of a better word Covid had kind of threw a wrecking ball through all that um but it seems like we’re now in a position to sort of start rebuilding and start like you said building those bonds and making it a bit more of a community.
Sarah/Mark: Yeah absolutely and look through the work we do with the university too where we’re keen to reach out and and get a lot of companies to come in and start engaging with the students the the the likes of alex mendes over and in the comsci faculty does a fantastic job going through and running a lot of the marketing and a lot of the outreach there um and we’re doing a lot of work to get more and more companies to come in and get in front of the students just to sort of expose them to some of the jobs that are out there and sort of and give them a better idea and what a life in an it role looks like so if there is anybody that’s interested in getting in front of some students and telling them the story of you know their local it company and what they do and how they do it especially if you want to talk tech stack um yeah definitely reach out to me because there’s lots of opportunities to make that happen.
Liam: So shifting gears again what sort of education did you both undertake to get where you are today you’ve had pretty pretty long and successful careers how’d that all start?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so we both initially started with a bachelor of computer science at university of newcastle and paths have diverged somewhat since then so just a little mark went all the way through to get his phd base leaders haven’t left so i’m i think i’m older than most of the furniture over nes these days so yeah and myself i have an nba also from the university of newcastle and aside from that a lot of industry certifications so as we mentioned aws solutions architect a few other tech ones under our back but we kind of did things a little bit differently too you did your mba online which was a bit of a it was an interesting from my perspective because i’d never sort of seen that on the online education side of things so that was a a bit of a a new look into how things are done outside of the engineering faculty it made the covert transition very easy online already but i went from yeah bachelor degree through honours um through phd took what way too much way too long to do my phd uh basically because i just did it part time um and use that as a good excuse to drag it out because i didn’t really want to leave um and then managed to pick up enough teaching there that i still haven’t managed to leave i had a little bit of break for a couple of years just to you know focus on the on the career um didn’t take much of a break because i ended up turning around and teaching through une through a little bit during that break um but which was interesting because they got me to teach things like ai that wasn’t really one of my core subjects but that was kind of cool um one of it’s always good to be thrown in the deep end in some things but yeah back there teaching again this semester so i still feel like i haven’t left.
Liam: Going to kind of put your uni loyalty to the test with this one I don’t think there’s been more debate around the validity of a university degree than we kind of have having at this point in time um does a software engineer need a university degree to become employable?
Sarah/Mark: I am a little biased obviously in answering this one being that i do have my latest contracts in my inbox to sign but um when comparing sort of people that come through especially our software engineering computer science degrees which are the two i’ve had the most exposure to um and comparing them to people that are maybe tafe or a bit self-taught and things like that what i tend to find is that from like a technology perspective and like skills in you know java and this and that that platform this platform um they’re relatively on pa they walk out of those um whatever education path they’re doing there and you know you ask them to write some java code they’ll write some java code when what i personally find a little bit different with the people that actually graduate through the universities they also then walk out with some additional skills and those skills are more around the being how to tackle a problem um we spend a lot of time in giving students problems and asking them to pull it apart and work out how to address it we also tend to find that they’re a little bit more uh platform technology agnostic um so a great example is i’ve got a a fourth year software engineer working for me at the moment um he’s doing java all the way through university and his first day in working for us at hunter royal but we’re through in php and he’s just eating it up uh he didn’t leave and he didn’t leave i know i was a little bit concerned um but i’m that’s the sort of skills that we see for people coming through the academic sort of arena there through the universities they tend to be that little bit more rounded and they tend to be able to be thrown at problems rather than just here just go write some code for me obviously i’m relatively biased in this but that being from high i’ve hired on both sides of the spectrum and going through people that have just come and been self-taught versus people that have like come through the university and that’s just been my experience so yeah i mean saying that i know personally i’ve worked with plenty of very talented people who haven’t gone through a computer science or software degree so pevoy one of the best software engineers we know actually has a physics degree but still over the years has become an amazing software engineer but in saying that too being the fact he’s it’s not even much he’s cut he’s gone through and he’s had an academic degree and i think even though it was in physics it still taught him a lot of the skills that you actually would learn out of the university so um the other big thing we find out and you get out of the university type arrangement is that you you do a lot of industry engagement as well um so and that’s something i think the university of newcastle’s improved a lot on over the sort of last five or six years um back when i was teaching uh you know around you know 2015 there was there was none there was very little engagement with industry at all but over the past few years with the work integrated learning process subjects coming through and even just um there’s a push at the moment to make sure that every single subject has at least one industry person come in and give a bit of a presentation and so the university is really starting to see the value and not only does it help sort of i see it as really great at allowing the students to take what we taught them and work out how to apply it to the real world so then go through it i can understand that we learned about that here um but from the flip side i think the students also then start to learn about the local industry as well and they can kind of go hey i like those guys and i want to inquire more about them and it sort of makes gives a bit of confidence to the students that you know when they walk out the door they’ll actually be able to find a job at the end of their degree as well.
Liam: Yeah 100% I guess on that note any pathways you think makes sense for prospective tech professionals that maybe are a bit off the beaten path any sort of degrees that maybe don’t come up in the in the first page of google searches.
Sarah/Mark: Oh look the universe it’s the university market at the moment is is a is a little bit contracting from the degree perspective there’s a lot of a lot of those more esoteric degrees are actually being cut out purely because changes in government funding um in saying that personally i’m getting a lot more exposure to students that are doing it degrees these days versus compsci and softhenge historically i would have said if i was going to hire someone to write code i wouldn’t have thought of anybody outside of a software engineering degree or maybe a comp sci degree but i’m actually seeing a lot more what the i.t students do and starting to get a much better appreciation for the types of skills that they can provide as well so we tend to talk to anybody out of all three of those degrees but we we have all sorts of problems to solve and not all of them are technology problems as well um so i i guess that’s one interesting thing i like personally of the companies i’ve worked for in the past um have been purely everyone was tech um and and so we need to be hiring people outside of that bubble which i think is going to be a bit of a learning curve for us as well so anyone and anyone we’re interested to talk to especially if they have a real passion for being able to take data and find new and interesting ways to use it and leverage it that’s kind of where we we tend to think of ourselves a bit more of a sometimes less as a fintech and more as a data processing shop um because that’s what we find that we spend a lot of time doing so.
Liam: Awesome um i guess just kind of it’s wrapping up more than anything um so you’ve both kept pretty busy um you’ve got a fingers in a lot of pies anything else that you’re up to that you think’s worth mentioning?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so this year’s Skript is looking to partner with hunter wise so that’s an initiative that’s been born out of the university of newcastle and it’s about getting women into it careers so they get in nice and early with the year eight kids reach out to the schools and talk to both the boys and girls about the prospect of a career in it and for new it professionals there’s also a lot of mentoring and networking events so that’s a fantastic initiative that gives back to the community and also diversifies the it industry by just giving women and other underrepresented candidates a bit more of encouragement and to make them think about and career in i.t where they may have seen it as a very boy’s own geeky kind of area that may be a bit intimidating if they’re the only girl in the room yeah i think the mentoring side of that’s going to be one of the the most important things because i i think the mentoring allows them to see that there is so many strong female and underserved represented i.t people in the newcastle area so they can see the evidence out there of how well they’re doing and that actually can picture themselves in those sort of careers so i think that’s going to be a really big thing for the newcastle areas that continues to grow.
Liam: There’s probably a good element in there of just showing students at that level that there isn’t just software development jobs there’s a whole wide world of jobs out there you don’t need to cut code for 40 hours a week to be a tech professional.
Sarah/Mark: Yeah absolutely and we’re super keen to be getting involved with um the work integrated learning students at newcastle uni this year we’ve are just about to put up six or seven different projects not just out of script not just out of hunter orbit we’ve got partnerships with some other sydney companies that we work with that actually with engaging we’ve got some projects out of ag tech space as well if you want to if you want to learn about uh you know running raspberry pi’s out on farms uh to weigh cattle as they get fed then i’m on the guard to talk to we can line up a project therefore you know worries we’ve got all sorts of things in the burner um we we kind of we always said that we wouldn’t do this but we’ve kind of ended up with you know two to maybe three full-time jobs um again which is something a few years back we said we’d never do but it’s it’s a little bit different uh when it’s uh your own company you you kind of it doesn’t feel like a job it’s it’s an adventure more than anything else for us drag well back in oh absolutely yep and what university starts what again in a couple of weeks so um i better start prepping for that otherwise my students will eat me alive so you’ll be fine just swing it.
Liam: Just getting I guess down to the tail end of it um how do people find out more about Skript?
Sarah/Mark: Yeah so there’s a few channels that we’re available on so there’s the script website happy to have a look at that drop a link in there if you want to talk to mark or myself directly we’re on the newwwie slack group so that’s newwwie with 3ws we’re contactable on linkedin and you can email us at either mark or sarah at script.com.edu with a k script with a k in case you don’t see it on the show in case you don’t see it on the shirts yes but this is our corporate uniform today we’re very dressed up for this is very much overdressed for us we’ll take whatever we get yeah absolutely even if it is a soaking wet black t-shirt after getting caught in that horrendous storm we survived we got through it.
Liam: All good anything else you guys want to plug?
Sarah/Mark: No i think that’s about we appreciate your time it’s good to have a chat and um look we’re always off to talk to uh anybody who wants to get more engaged in the newcastle i.t scene um we’re always looking for new recruits but we’re always looking for new projects and distractions as well so happy to happy to have a chat with anyone.
Liam: Awesome well thank you both so much for coming on.
Sarah/Mark: Thank you for having us yes thank you liam thank you NTP.
Liam: No dramas and for you listening out there wherever you may be.