There are so many processes and practices that have gone from little known concepts to far-reaching since early in 2020 – apps like Zoom being perhaps the most obvious. And workplace video conferencing is closely followed by telehealth. By no means a new idea, it has now become a vital resource for tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. When it became unsafe or, at best, challenging for patients to consult with health professionals face to face, telehealth software provider Coviu suddenly found its software in demand like never before.
But with a team led by co-founder and chief technology officer (CTO), Nathan Oehlman, and a timely partnership with AC3, Coviu was able to go from serving 5000 to 6000 calls a month across its various platforms to a staggering 30,000 a day in a very short space of time.
“It’s hard to overstate how intense the height of the pandemic was,” says Oehlman.
“Personally it was 120- hour weeks, waking up in the morning, smashing it through the day and not stopping until one or two o’clock at night for three months straight.”
But if anybody was the right person to face this challenge head on, Oehlman was clearly that man.
The very definition of early starter, Oehlman began programming at the age of 12, encouraged by his older brother, Damon, who was already well- established in the industry. He “just loved it,” he recalls, and a pathway to software engineering at Queensland University of Technology was a natural progression. With a career that has seen him take on the gamut of roles in the industry, from programmer to development lead, to CTO, he found his first job in the industry before he’d even finished training – cutting his teeth on the big mainframe for the RACQ’s membership system and cementing his early starter status. “It was a very unusual experience for someone at that stage of my career to be working with those kinds of systems.”
A move to a technical analyst role in government followed in 2006, working on greenfield and large integration projects, with exposure to systems across the entire range of state government initiatives and departments.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, at one point he formed a consulting company with Damon, which prospered before it was acqui-hired by another Brisbane-based start-up that was focused on live video.
This gave him his first taste of software engineering in the live video space, which would prove to be an excellent grounding for his work at Coviu. It also gave him his first experience of working in a start-up. “I kept that up for a number of years until, as happens with start-ups, we ran out of money,” he says. With children on the way, he needed a stable job and again followed Damon to NICTA (National ICT Australia), where he took a senior software engineer role, working on solutions to distributed conferencing and the commercialisation of WebRTC.
Coming to Coviu
This led to working in the same area at CSIRO, before he co-founded Coviu in 2014 with CEO Silvia Pfeiffer. Over the last seven years, his role has covered everything from functional programming to infrastructure to cutting edge, client-side browser programming and significant service side programming.
“I very much think of myself as a Jack of all trades when it comes to software engineering,” he says.
Above all, though, his job is to find solutions.
"Technology exists to solve problems,” he says. “As an engineer I love making great technical solutions, but in my career I’ve made some that have solved nobody’s problems.”
This sense of self-awareness explains why prior to co-founding Coviu, he was reluctant to take another chief technical officer role.
“It’s the same reason I don’t really like doing PR, because it can’t be about ego. I’m not in it for the title. I’d much prefer to call myself head of engineering or a full- stack software engineer. For me, being a CTO is about servant leadership. The achievements of the team supersede yours. It doesn’t matter how technically good something is, if it doesn’t achieve a business outcome or a real impact in the world, then you haven’t achieved much at all.”
Coviu is a natural platform to exemplify this philosophy.
“What we try to do with Coviu is to be aware of the end-user and to be focused on solving real problems for real people. And to do it in a way that respects them.”
"In the realm of telehealth, this understandably means being hyper vigilant about users’ privacy. “From our inception, privacy and security has been a really core focus of what we do. We understand that the people using our platform deserve our best when it comes to maintaining their privacy and confidentiality around their information and how they’re using the platform,” says Oehlman.
He adds that this has not always helped the company in a business sense, due to a perhaps “less nuanced approach to data storage” from some of its competitors.
The team at Coviu is not prepared to compromise though.
“Technology is a critical component of what we do. Nothing that we do would be possible without technology,” says Oehlman.
“It’s interesting that we’ve become so accustomed to video conferencing that we forget how much of a minor miracle it actually is – that we can speak to people with very low latency in all parts of the world with, from a consumer perspective, very minimal effort.”
Scaling swiftly with expert assistance
That minimal effort may be what the end user experiences, but like the swan gliding across the lake, it requires furious paddling beneath the surface. Coviu is a platform designed to connect patients around Australia and the world to their physicians and other healthcare providers. And when demand soared during the early months of 2020, it put a huge strain on the company’s ability to deal with the pressure both from customers and on its infrastructure, along with its ability to scale its team and business quickly enough to meet that demand.
Needing expertise quickly from people who understood how infrastructure works and can scale, Coviu partnered with AC3.
“They helped us get to a point where we could achieve the scale, stability and confidence in our business and platform at a time when we really needed it,” says Oehlman.
“They came and got an understanding of what the system does and immediately proposed to massively increase the monitoring across all the infrastructure. AC3 was also always on hand to deal with any outages or other problems. They were basically our crisis management team,” he says.
“They did stand-ups and were part of the process. There wasn’t any ‘us and them’. It was ‘we’re in this together and we want to get the optimal outcome for everyone’.”
This approach was vital – with Coviu hiring people as quickly as it could to fill the gaps and keep up with demand, any outages would have had serious business repercussions.
“AC3 really helped us save some of the relationships that were under strain at that point,” says Oehlman.
“We could be in a very different position now if it wasn’t for AC3’s involvement with the company at that time.”
When it's all worth it
But back to those 120-hour weeks... how did Oehlman personally manage to keep going?
“There was something my wife said on one of the rare occasions I was able to see her during that period. My older son, who was only five at the time, had said, ‘My daddy’s a hero because he’s helping people get the healthcare they need.’ And that was something that really struck me at the time,” he says.
“You’re in the midst of this and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then you look at the stats and you realise over the last 18 months we’ve delivered about five million healthcare consultations.
“And it makes me really proud. It makes all that effort worthwhile...”