On the occasion of turning twenty

Simon Dawes reflects on Cerebrum's journey

Interview with Annette Clarke, a member of Team Cerebrum


May 2022 celebrates Cerebrum's twentieth birthday. On this significant milestone, I sat down with Co-Founder and Managing Director, Simon Dawes who shared his insights on Cerebrum's journey over all these years.

What immediately comes to mind when you reflect back?

There has been amazing technological advancement, innovated, inspired, significant developments over the past twenty years. It has been remarkable how technology has influenced and shaped our lives and the multitude of digital tools, platforms, resources we rely on in our daily lives. Reflecting back, despite all this amazing advancement in technology and tools, and models of communication we use today, it still comes down to one very important thing, connecting with people. It still comes down to interacting with human beings, no different from where we began. 

"The core piece of magic for us remains the same - interacting and connecting with people."

Even from a digital perspective when we're talking with our clients, it is really important to remind them of that core. The core isn't about a website it's about how the website and the technology we put into it is going to impact and interact with people. And yes, there is some great technology that we can use to make that interaction more enjoyable, make it more available to people who are vision and hearing impaired, we can make that access but we still have to come back to that core. For me, the reflection is, when you're looking at the output, is this going to connect to the people that it's designed for.

As we have said before, business models, methodologies and processes are born out of the connection to human activity. It encompasses the whole of the business and takes on-board values, mindsets and human interaction - whether employee, colleague, client, shareholder, or the local community. It's about being In service of others.

How has the business of Cerebrum changed?

(laughing) It reminds me how naive we were when we first opened the business! The reality is we were a bunch of like-minded, aspirational individuals, technically adept but really had no idea how to run a business. Cerebrum was born as a vehicle for us to explore, experiment, challenge ourselves and our clients, pushing technology beyond its limits. In those early years we made plenty of mistakes along the way, but with sheer tenacity and willingness to pick-up from those mistakes, we learned, grew and moved the business forward...and are still here twenty years later. It is no different today. A business doesn't get to a point where it is no longer fallible, it continually rides those waves, but as you grow you gain more informed insight, better ways to minimise risk, self-care that helps you navigate the ups and downs.

The business went through many changes in the beginning. As we cycled through this we gained clarity around our own passions which ultimately helped to affirm where we wanted to focus and what our offer was. It also helped us refine what we wanted to do individually and as it unfolded organically, out of Cerebrum, multiple other businesses took flight. And although the founding five no longer all sit within the same office walls we continue to live out the original purpose and intent behind the creation of Cerebrum. We continue to check-in on one another, be inspired by one another, and work together when the opportunities arise.

Incredibly sad was to lose our long-time friend and partner Andrew Walters who I deeply admired and was, and continue to be, inspired by him. His wisdom remains present in mind and in my actions.

Ultimately who we are and our underlining purpose has not changed. As mentioned above, our core is about analysing problems, seeing the opportunities within that space, and understanding how best to service the human beings we are designing for. Our intent is to make a measurable difference for our clients that ensures solutions are being implemented in a way that supports all the humans within the wider eco-system.

"Our approach is to think of what is needed at a human level, not just a technical one."

It has always been about people and relationships, whether our clients, colleagues, partners, or the people we are designing for. Reflecting back we have many long-term clients that have grown with us. We were part of their journey and they were part of ours, and continue to be. Our own team has roots in Cerebrum's beginnings, with a couple of newer additions over the past few years that complement our mix of skills. There has also been hundreds of partners we have worked with over the years who are still part of our extended family. Part of the joy is forming these relationships and coming together and supporting each other when we need to. Creating and manifesting together and learning from one another.

How has the landscape of technology changed?

It's difficult to answer as it's very broad and expansive the technology that has come into existence since the early 2000's. There is a percentage that is the same, but different. It's just the way we look at it and apply it. The web has gone from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 (see figure below). There's a whole cohort of people that define web 1.0 as publishing one-way - we send you information, whereas web 2.0 let's you consume that information and modify how you consume it, and web 3.0 has become a distributed network of people sharing between each other without this centralised model. The whole idea of connectiveness has changed radically and that's supported by web and the apps that go around it (i.e. FaceBook, Linkedin). 


There's a lot of hype around things, take blockchain for example. It's been discussed for many years, but more intensley over the most recent couple of years. There seems to be a movement to blockchain everything. The reality is blockchain is not the key to this. The whole idea of blockchain is around trust. The reason it is important is it is a mechanism whereby you can trust this is a correct transaction or a correct piece of data, and it's validated by your cohort, in a very simplistic way. So that movement of being highly interconnected and data moving around has exposed an issue around fake information and fake trust which ultimately blockchain and its variations are trying to address at the end of the day. It leads to insight into the movement of the internet becoming all pervasive, of connectedness becoming all pervasive, and it's that exchange of data between people I see as a substantial movement in the past twenty years.

Having connectiveness and data all the time and the speed at which data moves is radically different.

Transactional things haven't really changed over the years, but things like the ability to have an app on your phone that allows you to go to any city in the world and navigate your way around is relatively new-ish. The ability to have a device in your pocket that let's you instantly translate stuff, a device that let's you contain an enormous amount of information in the palm of your hand has radically changed things. The fact that I no longer need a mobile phone number. Around the world people are turning to online networks and apps like Lime, Wabo, WhatsApp, suddenly this means for telecommunication companies they're no longer dealing in phone calls, only data. And that's why plans exist like $15 unlimited calls anywhere in Australia. Ten years ago no one was offering unlimited call plans, you would have been paying a 15 cent flagfall and 20 cents a minute to make a call to a mobile. This just doesn't happen anymore. So that movement again into having connectedness and data all the time and the things that are built upon it I find really interesting.

"Communication at a distance is dramatically different now."

There was a point in the past we would have just built a website, but we are now delivering information into those platforms and building websites that could be viewed in 5,000 different devices. Our thinking and way of delivering this has to be well-informed and considered and the tools and techniques we choose to use. Where we are consumed is highly varied, way more varied than it used to be. But at the same time the speed at which data moves is so much different. The fact I can open a double-digit megabyte file without even thinking about it, whereas twenty years ago it would have been unheard of.

The other thing that's interesting to me is the movement of technology platforms into the cloud. We gain benefit around that with virtualised infrastructure. Most of our hosting is cloud-based, and what that does for us is enable us to build quite complex and tailored solutions for our clients, but at a price point that's based on a user pays model that is a fairly new phenomenon. Paying for the amount of data you consume some people are approaching this hesitantly because it's a dynamic figure that makes them question where is the risk-reward for that. We have done this enough that we understand where the thresholds and parameters are. We choose to have a big investment in this because it allow us to be in a position to deliver exactly what our clients need. Cloud-based infrastructure is a very radical maneuver. I can recall, when we first started, the only option for us to have an internet server was to pay to have a physical box in a physical data centre somewhere in Melbourne, purchased through one of the few vendors selling private servers who would set it up for you. The idea "I would like to spin-up a server for the day" was just not considered back then, but we can do that now. This technology move means there's the ability to do things that you could never do before. The fact we can spin-up a Jitsi server and run our own conferencing system on cloud-based infrastructure to do what we want is pretty amazing if I stop and think about it. The fact that we have servers that turn themselves on at 7:30 in the morning and turn themselves off at 6:30 at night to save money when they're not in use, is only facilitated by the fact that we have pay-for-your use, pay-for-your actual consumption, models in cloud-infrastructure.

The other thing that is interesting is the advancement in collaboration in the programming area and access to work together remotely. There are tools now where parallel programming is quite achievable. The fact you can work on the same code at the same time and share progress simultaneously is quite remarkable.

What explorative projects did you get up to?

Rightly or wrongly we have always lent in. We have been open with clients, working together with them to mitigate/manage the risks, and always with some options up our sleeves. Even with our in-house expertise, we know when to partner with people to fill our skill gaps. This has allowed us to do some amazing projects over the years, some that spring to mind include:

  • Decompiling the serial interface of the Nokia 6310i so we could create a desktop SMS app for Optus.
  • ProjectRoom, a SAAS project management tool we developed when MS Project was still a desktop app, where we learn in the SAAS space sales and marketing are probably more important than the product!
  • Developing over 20hrs of scorm compliant e-learning material for BP Australia - we know way more than we need to about loading tankers, demerge limits, capacity planning and more.
  • Redeveloping the FUJIFILM Digital camera site, 13 languages, over 500,000 visitors/month, high availability/scaleable hosting.
  • Developing a custom Real Estate CRM and Call Centre system for Village House JP - multi-language, real-time integrated with telephony system, BI reporting and beyond.
  • Fertbook dealer portal for Wengfu - A frontend to their ERP system with easy to use external interface, providing dealers a 24/7 self-service interface to all activities and radically importing dealer engagement.
  • Migrating and stabilising the Brotherhood Bookstore site - a Magento 2 site with almost 100,000 products, custom extensions with stability issues which we took over and optimised configuration, adjusted hosting to provide a site that delivers for customers and admins alike. During 2020-2022 the site scaled by over 400% without issues.
  • The amazing cloud infrastructure Michael Schams manages, provides secure, resilient hosting to our clients, with proactive monitoring, scalability, smart utilisation and more.
  • Working with the team at Aura to develop the native and web app, developing micro-service and APIs, integrating disparate data sources/systems.

In reality, almost every week we are meeting and managing that edge with clients, some small steps, some huge leaps. What we do for our clients can still be wrapped up in simple, intelligent design. The measure of our success is our 'almost invisible' mantra. If we can get the balance right - achieving client objectives, pushing and driving what's technically possible, and all within the realm of delivering in the service of others we can continue to feel proud of our work.

Where to from here, what's next for Cerebrum?

In a sense, continue to do what we are doing. Always looping back to our core piece of magic - interacting and connecting with people. We are still moving gently as we see the pandemic out but you can expect to see growth and refinement to our offer. Our passion lies in building complex things that support humans. We enjoy providing that extra layer of impactful interconnectivity and we will continue to pursue, explore, and experiment to push the edge of what's possible, but most importantly do so within the best interest and service of others.

In 2002, Simon founded Cerebrum to provide innovative technical solutions in the digital space - taking a people-centric rather than functional approach to the implementation of technology. Always curious and with a future mindset, Simon and the team continue to experiment and explore the possibilities of digital technology.


Image Credit
Teaser photo: 'Happy Birthday' by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Celebrating twenty years!

We would like to thank our clients, partners, and extended Cerebrum family for joining and supporting us on this journey.