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With its pristine beaches, café lifestyle and amazing work life balance Newcastle is clearly a pretty sweet spot to live and work. But what might surprise you is that our city is also an incubator for world leading innovation.

The truth is that the region is increasingly punching above its weight in both cutting edge initiatives and the amazing employment opportunities that go along with them.

The University of Newcastle (UON) is one local organisation who really understands the importance of innovation and is challenging the status quo. They are currently leveraging virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence technologies to transform learning environments and outcomes for students.

I recently sat down for a Q&A with a GWG contractor and UON multi-award winner Chris Hildebrandt who is a technologist, entrepreneur, Scrum Master, PM and busy father. Chris works as a Project Manager within the IT Services’ Innovation Team at the University of Newcastle.

So, what does your role as Project Manager at UON involve?

I’m a PM within the IT Services’ Innovation team, a small group of techies and game designer/developers brought together to enhance teaching and learning outcomes through technology innovation.

We are radically different from every other team at the university in that we operate like a start-up. Our team is made up of our innovation manager, PM, developers and a designer. So, as you can imagine, everyone has more than one role. I’m a PM, scrum master, product owner and lots of other bits and bobs. But basically, it’s my job to keep the projects running smoothly.

What sort of work does the team do for UON?

We work with lean canvas and agile principles and methodologies to build rapid prototypes on a 12-week cycle. To date, we have predominantly built virtual reality applications designed for the medical space, giving students the chance to learn critical skills, like resuscitation of a newborn, without the real-world risks.

Your team recently won an award for a project you delivered. Tell me about the project and the positive outcomes it has created for students?

Yes, we recently won the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence, for the second year running.  This year the team won for a virtual reality application that teaches students to resuscitate babies at birth.

The VR app can be accessed from a mobile device or lab and simulates a real-world delivery room, providing midwifery students with virtual emergency procedures and practices to save a baby’s life.

Roughly 25% of births will result in some sort of resuscitation being involved. So, midwives are eventually going to deal with this situation after they graduate. The key benefit of using the app is allowing the student to stop if they don’t get it right and repeat the process – learning in a safe environment.

We have seen some incredible outcomes for our students. One of the main take outs is that 89% of the simulations were done after hours. The mobility of the VR app allows students to use it at home, in their own time rather than waiting for an academic to be in the lab to practice.

What experience did you bring to the role at UON?

Before working at UON, I worked in the government sector. I was running a large development team in Sydney responsible for biometric security for all the prisons in the country – and a bunch of places that don’t exist!

We were using new tech, like iris and vein scanners, facial recognition and machine learning to identify individuals and increase the security of our prisons.

You mentioned you build prototypes on a 12-week cycle. That’s a very short timeframe. How do you manage it?

We use an agile framework. Our aim is to get proof of concepts out there, get validation from students then move forward.

We need to rapidly understand the problem, so we work closely with our academic colleagues to scope the project, then break it down into smaller pieces.  After that we go with the flow!

What’s are the main advantages of using agile?

One of the best things about an agile approach is the open transparency it creates for the team. Each day we reflect on what we did yesterday and communicate what we will achieve today. It sounds simple, but this constant reflection and daily focus greatly enhances efficiency and allows us to move through projects and identify and solve problems quickly.

To be successful with agile, people often need to forget what they have learnt about project management and lose some rigidity. It doesn’t really matter how the work is done, so long as it gets done. It may look chaotic at first but once you see how much you can increase the efficiency of your team, you’ll be sold.

Do you have any advice for people looking to upskill in agile practices?

Hmmm….there are heaps of courses where you can become a Certified Scrum master or product owner.

But agile is more a mindset than a practice, if you can’t think agile you’re not going to succeed. If you are open minded, curious and excited by what’s happening in the tech space you’ll be in a good place to pick up the concepts.

If you’re interested in the area try to get experience within an agile team – really the best way to learn is through practical experience.

What other projects are you working on at UON?

Lots! Right now we’re working on a 3D concept that allows dental students to visualise the internal structure and anatomy of the mouth in the process of anesthetising teeth. The simulation shows the layers of anatomy and allows students to identify where to inject a needle in relation to nerves and bone structures. This gives students a chance to gain experience and better understand the composition of the gum before attempting the procedure in real life.

We’ve also recently developed a brain scan augmented reality visualiser, which allows students to scan a brain and see the internal structures. Accessed from an iPad, the visualiser produces a 3D model of the brain which can be viewed from multiple perspectives. It allows students to quickly understand and identify the different substructures of the brain and how they interconnect.

I think it’s fair to say Chris is a busy guy with a lot of passion and drive. It’s fantastic to see talent like Chris and his colleagues doing such amazing work in our region. And equally impressive to witness the level of innovation fostered by the University of Newcastle.

If you’re interested in contracting or working in the tech space, I’d love to chat with you. You can contact me on julie.gearie@gwgpartners.com.au or phone 0448 811 091.

By Julie Gearie | Executive Director – IT and Executive recruitment

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