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25 years of Catalyst


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By Charlotte Weston

In the late 1990s four friends were working for QED Software in Wellington when a management buyout triggered some changes. You could say it was a catalyst. The new management was Auckland based, and the manager of the Wellington branch, Mike O’Connor, was made redundant. As the Wellington branch disintegrated, Mike, along with colleagues Don Christie, Godfrey Fernandez, and Gavin Thompson, wondered what to do next.

None of them had run a business before, but “we did think we could give it a go,” says Mike, and that’s what they did, founding Catalyst IT in 1997, along with another friend, Andrew McMillan.

Before founding Catalyst, Don and Gavin were trying to encourage their employer to use the internet, but in those days many were skeptical. In 1995 Bill Gates said the internet was a flash in the pan and wouldn’t amount to anything, and that’s what their bosses felt as well.

However, as Catalyst was starting, a man at Wellington City Council named Richard Naylor had just put up the world’s first CBD fibre optic loop, and the Catalyst directors paid around $10,000 to hook into that. “The ability to connect to information anywhere in the world was amazing. It was so open,” Don says. “Nobody controlled it. You could basically have a telephone line and a server, and set yourself up as an ISP, which really broke down a lot of barriers to entry. It really did explode, and the open source movement exploded too.”

Andrew was key in promoting open source, encouraging the other directors to go down that path. Their values led them to open source software, and in turn, open source shaped the values of Catalyst. “We looked at the situation our customers were in, and saw them being taken advantage of with contracts for proprietary software, finding themselves trapped into contracts,” says Gavin. Open source software started to flourish in the early days of the internet and Catalyst was aligned with the ethos of freedom and innovation from the beginning. “We always had a philosophy of having fun and making sure that clients' needs came first. We thought, ‘let’s explore new technologies, and be the best we can possibly be',” says Godfrey.

Seven Catalyst directors standing in a mock cage at the zoo

L to R: Paul Waite, Srdjan Jankovic, Godfrey Fernandez, Gavin Thompson, Don Christie, Mike O'Connor, Andrew McMillan

The founding directors started Catalyst during the phase of their lives when they were also starting families, and they went from comfortable salaries to something unknown, with mortgages and children. “It was an adventure, and it was scary at times,” says Godfrey. Sometimes they didn’t have enough to pay themselves: they made sure their staff were paid, and relied on their partners through the early days. “One of the things that kept us humble was scratching around for a couple of years, not sure if it would work,” says Mike.

Y2K gave Catalyst the boost it needed to carry on into the new century. With all the concern about how tech systems might not smoothly roll over into the new century, companies were desperate for help to ensure their systems didn’t fail. New contracts with Nelson Bay Meats and Plumbing World not only enabled Catalyst to continue, it meant they were able to employ their first staff member, Alan McNatty. Alan was also heavily involved with Telecom in the early days, back when you couldn’t even text between networks. Catalyst developed systems for Telecom mobile, and did a big launch at the rugby Sevens where you could send a text and it would appear on the big screen. A ringtone system was another thing Catalyst developed for Telecom. It seems strange now that we used to buy ringtones, but back then Telecom was earning a million dollars a month through ringtone sales.

Another significant early client was the Electoral Commission. The founders’ personal involvement with the General Elections began before Catalyst and date back to the late 1980s. Catalyst's first election was in 1999 when Paul Waite rewrote the Election Results System into a GUI application after it was a strictly character based application. “We’ve never had an election where our systems have let us down,” says Godfrey. “It’s really important to me, because it’s an important democratic system, and if anything failed it would have been a major setback for us.” The Electoral Commission is one of the few projects where each of the directors have had some involvement over the years, and one of many that has remained with Catalyst for a long time. “We don’t lose many customers, which is good,” says Gavin. “Our customers tend to be pretty loyal.”

“A lot of the most successful projects in the world are open source ones,” says Gavin. Some international open source projects, like Moodle, Mahara, Koha, and Tōtara, were created by current or former Catalyst staff members, and Catalyst continues to play a significant role in their development, as well as supporting clients in using them for their eLearning and library management needs.

One of the ways Catalyst advocates for the use of open source is with the Open Source Academy. The Academy is a two week programme during the summer holidays, where secondary school students learn about open source technologies, and work on real projects. The Academy was founded by Catalyst and has been running for over ten years now, and a number of students have since been given full time permanent jobs at Catalyst, with others participating in paid part time or holiday work. “Our Open Source Academy has seen over 150 people come through since 2011,” says Ian Beardslee, Training Manager. “At Catalyst, we have been lucky enough to see some of those people end up as staff, and making a difference in other parts of the tech sector.” Catalyst also runs a variety of professional development training courses throughout the year, on topics such as JavaScript, web accessibility, Python, and Agile fundamentals.

Don Christie is talking with students who are working on their laptops in a large office room

Director Don Christie talks with students at the 2019 Open Source Academy

Another significant way Catalyst promotes the use of open source technologies is with the New Zealand Open Source Awards. The Open Source Awards is a biennial event, first held in 2007, that recognises and celebrates the outstanding work done with free open source software, across artistic, scientific, and social sectors. The aim of the awards is to raise awareness about the benefits and competitive edge that open source software allows for.

A crowd of people sitting at tables during an awards presentation at the Te Papa marae

The NZOSA gala dinner in 2018, at Te Marae, Te Papa

The founders had debates about whether they should have a maximum of 12 or 30 people, but Catalyst has grown from the five founders in Wellington in 1997, to what is now an international company with close to 400 staff. Some staff members have been with Catalyst for decades. “Without any real strategy of growth we’ve managed to align ourselves with good people,” says Mike. “Good staff, who are interested and committed to the open source ethos and the freedoms and opportunities it gives.”

A large group of people standing outside

Most of the Wellington Catalystas, 2017

“We don’t consider ourselves anything special, and what made the difference was open source,” says Don. “People coming to work for us were able to be part of and contribute to a global community; that’s an important part of bringing good people into the team.” These days, the Catalyst headquarters are at Catalyst House on Willis Street in the Wellington CBD, with other offices in Auckland, Christchurch, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada. “One of the cool things for me is that we’re still good friends 25 years on,” says Mike. “It’s been laid-back, mostly stress-free. We managed to get through the early times when we were skint, with the family pressures. I’m still enjoying it, still a little bit amazed.”

“We’ve been pretty successful in being advocates for open source software, one of our founding ideals,” says Gavin. “One of the things we wanted to do was prove you could run a business with open source software. Everyone told us we were crazy, but the landscape has changed massively, and we’ve been proven right which is satisfying.”