Belfast Telegraph

It's the generation game for IT guru Bil Harmer

Big Data Belfast on Thursday will mark a special homecoming for tech supremo Bil Harmer

Keynote speaker: Bil Harmer
Keynote speaker: Bil Harmer
Four generations of the Harmer family

Tech supremo Bil Harmer keeps a treasured photograph of an east Belfast terrace. It shows four generations of his family, each standing in front of the same wall of the house at Moorfield Street where his father was born.

This week he'll be paying his regular visit to his dad William's old home when he returns to Belfast as one of the keynote speakers at Big Data Belfast.

It will be a particularly poignant experience as his father passed away last year.

Bil explains: "I'm originally Canadian by birth, but Irish by the grace of God. I was born in Toronto, but both my parents are from Belfast - my father was from Holywood and mum was born on the Falls Road.

"My mother moved to Toronto in 1952 and father in 1954, then my dad got into the IT industry in the 1960s. He was working in the industry right up until the day he passed away last year."

Bil will be combining his appearance at Big Data Belfast with visits to relatives. He is a regular visitor to the city and even honeymooned here.

He says he's looking forward to giving his presentation on Thursday - "I'll be 51 on the day I do my presentation - it will be an interesting day," he says.

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And he's looking forward to visiting some old haunts.

"I'll definitely be going into The Crown. I haven't been in 20 years," he says.

"For me, this is a little bit of a closed circle. My dad was born in Belfast and he came to Canada. He would have done some public speaking and now I get to come back to Belfast to speak professionally - there is a lot of meaning to this one."

Now based in Austin, security pioneer Bil credits the launch of his IT career to his dad, saying it was his 'back-up career' as he originally wanted to go into special effects. At the time William was working in IT for Imperial Oil in Canada.

"When I wanted to go into special effects, he says 'I hope that works out - I can't help you directly with that, but I can give you a back-up career, something to pay the bills until it comes together'. That's how I got into the data centre at Imperial Oil back in 1988," Bil says.

He admits it did prove confusing to have two William Harmers on the payroll at Imperial Oil, and after he received his dad's paycheck by mistake one too many times, the easiest thing was to go down to HR and change his name - "I've been Bil ever since".

But the career move suited him down to the ground.

"I've always been a computer guy. I liked to take things apart and figure out how they worked out. For me, the computer industry was fantastic - all these new things were happening and I spent hours every night mounting cartridge tapes in the data centre," Bil says.

"In Sony, they were doing a SAP R3 roll out and they brought in these big Sun machines and I asked could I have an account on them. They said, yes, you can't break them and if you do, you just reinstall the operating system. So I had these big machines to try things out on, break things, rebuild it and make it more efficient, make it faster."

He was at Sony for seven years but found himself running up against a brick wall with one manager when it came to an emerging technology called the internet.

"I made a suggestion about writing some HTML and building internal documentation trees and his response to me was 'why mess about with that - the internet is just a fad'. I quit the next week," Bil says.

"That just said to me, your career dies here, along with you. So I went on to a company that did all sorts of things on the web - anything we could think of, we did it."

And it paid off - Bil launched his career in IT security in 1998, leading security for start-ups, governments and financial institutions and developing and implementing security and privacy compliance for Cloud.

Four years ago, he began working with cloud security expert Zscaler and now serves as the Americas CISO, engaging other CISOs to drive best practice and facilitate industry-wide collaboration on emerging security topics.

"One of the things that was not happening in the security industry was change," he says.

"Zscaler had taken a different approach of applying security to all the users all the time, and that's critical if you think about it. The old way was going into an office for seven and a half hours where there was great security and then you packed up your laptop and went home - that was the piece that was missing. They wanted me to explain this to other CISOs.

"There's a concept that data may be considered as currency but we need to think of it more as an asset. One thing about data that I think is lost by data analysts is the need to erase data once there is no business need for it - don't hang onto it because you think the customer might come back. The penalties for inappropriate data management are massive and they're becoming punitive."

  • Big Data Belfast is a one-day technology and business event at the ICC Belfast on Thursday October 24. Organised by Analytics Engines and showcasing the very best innovation and data use case studies, the speaker roster includes inspirational thought leaders from companies such as DELL, GitHub, SpotX, SmashFly, Reach plc and STATSports.

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