He’s held senior roles at the City of San Francisco, the White House, and the World Bank.
Now Chris Vein is adding yet another prominent role to his impressive career: CEO of the association representing Australia’s technology professionals, ACS.
Vein (pron. VEE’-en) is moving from the US to Sydney for the new role, invigorated by the opportunity to refocus ACS and energise its offerings to members.
With a stint in Silicon Valley also under his belt, Vein defies the stereotype of a loud-talking, all-assuming American boss. Rather, he speaks gently but firmly, has a sense of humility, and takes time to give considered responses.
So why is an American the right person to run the Australian Computer Society?
“I don’t know if it has anything to do with being American per se,” Vein responds.
“ACS ran an international search and took time to consider many candidates, some inside Australia and some not.
“However, I do think it has to do with attitude – of being unafraid to aspire for greatness, to do the hard work of achieving it, and driving change. Is that being American? I don’t know.
“But by bringing somebody in from outside of Australia, ACS gets different perspectives, new approaches, and a wealth of relationships with worldwide experts.
“I believe the job of any leader, American or not, is to ask a lot of questions, to listen and learn, and not assume we know everything – or anything, quite frankly.”
Besides, Vein adds, he is an “Australophile”, having lived and worked here a handful of times since the 2000s, including gigs at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and consultancy PwC Australia.
He is also an ACS member and did some work with ACS in 2016, travelling around the country to discuss his work in the US.
“It was a fabulous experience and one that excited me about the potential of ACS,” Vein says.
“When it came to actually apply for the CEO position, it was a no-brainer because it was an opportunity to work with an amazing group of people, committed to a strong ACS.
“And in the 10 years since I started working in Australia, so much has grown, so much has changed, so much is happening here.
“Sometimes we lose track of the fact that Australia is doing amazing stuff!”
Vein describes himself as a “skilled generalist” having worked in almost every C-suite job there is, including finance, business development, marketing, sales, administration, innovation, technology and HR.
“Over time, that added up to a unique approach to helping organisations solve their problems,” he says.
“There was no design to my career. It just happened that opportunities came up, I grabbed them, and those opportunities created an interesting foundation to do some really interesting work.”
Before Vein took on the role of CIO at the City of San Francisco, he joined the organisation as the Chief Administrative Officer for the Department of Technology.
From there, he was promoted to CIO, not because of his technical skills, he says, but because of his managerial skills in handling people around technology.
“I was able to spend five years in that role basically transforming an organisation that was failing, into a strong federated city-wide technology ecosystem.
“That work then caught the eye of the Obama administration because they saw the innovation that I was introducing.
“And they said, ‘wait a minute, if you can do that, in a complicated place like San Francisco, we want you to do it on a national level, and work with our national organisations, as well as the states and local communities.
“So, my job for two years was introducing innovation at those three levels of government, starting with the basic but difficult task of sharing data.
“When I did that, it then caught the attention of the World Bank, and the World Bank said, ‘gee, we want you to do that on an international scale, we want to see if we can introduce that kind of innovation to how we deliver our products and services’, which then led me to Australia and working with then foreign minister [Julie] Bishop, injecting innovation to the aid program, and then a consulting gig at PwC, Australia.
“And, in total, that has all prepared me, given me the skill sets and the experiences, to actually take on this latest challenge at ACS.”
Vein says this is an incredible time for him to be joining ACS.
“Australia, like many countries, not only emerged from the pandemic, but thrived as a result of it,” Vein says.
“It was able to do that by turbocharging digital transformation, integrating technology into all areas of business, education, and government.
“And this fundamentally changed how organisations operate their business models, specifically how they engage with customers; how they design, build, and deliver their products and services; and how they empower their employees and partners to achieve their strategic goals.”
In addition to remaining profitable, Vein says ACS must focus more on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as the environment, or the “triple bottom line”.
And what is the “big, hairy, audacious goal”, as he puts it, for ACS under his leadership?
“To build on the past, understand how to empower in the present but focus on the future, translating our insight into practical ways to drive change. All powered by technology.
“Our members live in communities across Australia and are affected by our education system, the organisations where they work, and the government that provides policies.
“I believe ACS must provide our members with tools to help our friends in education, business, and government achieve their unique missions. ACS can then create an opportunity for our members to drive change and prosper from it as well.
“This means actively working with organisations across Australia and understanding their needs; provide the research, tools, and advice that the market needs; increase the diversity of our field by focusing on the full range or tech talent, from those with university degrees to those who were taught or taught themselves to be coders or gamers, to those who need reskilling; and examine the range of exciting new technologies including AI, quantum computing, biotechnology, and gaming.”
“If one looks at Web 3.0, you’ll see that it’s the gamers who are designing it,” Vein asserts. “Many didn’t go to accredited universities, they don’t necessarily have degrees in programming.
“And yet, they are potentially leading the future of technology in Australia and the world. So, diversity means first of all, that we need to include the full range of technologies in that.
“From an equity standpoint, there are very important professional degree programs.
“But in this world of extreme business growth, and a lack of enough technology talent, we need to be willing to include those that didn’t go through those programs, people who may need to be upskilled or reskilled.
“From an equality standpoint, we need to include the full range of the people out there that are vital to what we’re doing.”
At the core of any membership organisation are the members, a point Vein is quick to acknowledge.
“Let me be clear that I recognise and celebrate the people who have given so much of their lives to this organisation, this society. And I recognise and celebrate their strong belief in ACS,” Vein says.
“The wonderful thing about membership organisations is the passion that members bring to the association, they care deeply enough to exercise that passion and share it.
“ACS has such a rich history of some 50 years, of great people doing great things and a willingness to give back and I want to tap into that hidden asset, that energy.
“The challenge with any organisation, though, is that the market for products and services does change.
“ACS started in the world of ICT. But in today’s environment, you have a wealth of technologies that are well beyond the traditional information and communications technologies.
“And it is incumbent upon ACS to determine whether we want to keep up with those changes, and if we do, how we do that.
“ACS needs to return to a focus on our members, not just to grow, but to have impact,” he says.
To that end, ACS has been working to identify its different membership cohorts and what they each want out of their professional organisation.
“We know our members are unique and diverse,” Vein says.
“Some members are perhaps more traditionally aligned with the original intent of ACS, others such as international students and new entrepreneurs, may not be as traditionally focused.
“We need to look at that full range of membership, ask them what their needs are, and look at which products and services provide value. If we need to, we will create new products and services and drop those that don’t provide value.”
We don’t talk a lot about the f-word in Australia – failure. But in almost all cases, failure is an essential part of success.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed,” Vein readily admits, “sometimes spectacularly.”
“But I’ve had the privilege and honour of working for people who celebrated my failure, whether that be a president of the United States, or the mayor of San Francisco.
“Each leader understood that if one is going to make changes, if one is going to improve the status quo, you have to try things, you have to do things differently. And they may not always work.
“There are good approaches to try and minimise risk. But risk is always inherent in what you do.”
Vein says his bosses recognised that and supported him. And when he failed, they helped him pick himself up to keep going.
“Working in the world of technology teaches you so many new ways of thinking and one of the most important in career is the skill of failing forward, failing fast, and learning. If we don’t learn, we keep making the same mistakes.
He points to great Australian success stories such as Canva and Atlassian as examples of what he’s describing.
“Those companies may not talk about it, but failures along the way enable their massive market capitalisation.
“It’s a growing part of the Australian culture, but it isn’t talked about enough.
“We Americans may talk too much about it, but I believe learning from failure is one of the reasons Silicon Valley is so successful,” Vein adds.
“And so maybe one of the things that I can do in my time at ACS is help have this conversation. I think not hiding it, and being clear and open about it, is the first step to dealing with the problem.
Having travelled the world extensively, Vein says Australia has a unique persona.
“It’s why so many people love Australians, they love to go to Australia, you’re fun, you’re quirky, you’re interesting, you’re so many things.
“And I don’t know if that can be said in the same way about other countries. You have a natural draw that brings people in.”
It was a hard choice for Vein to decide where to be base himself in Australia. Ultimately, he chose Sydney.
But he looks forward to travelling to other places, exploring and soaking up the culture – and enjoying every last minute of it.
“I understand that life is a gift and it can be taken away at a moment’s notice,” he says.
“And I intend not to waste one minute of it.”