David Shirley: The closet ‘geek’ with a drive to do development differently

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David (with beard) at a community-based tourism project in Ternate, North Maluku

With 14 years in-country experience, the newly appointed Director of our Indonesia operations brings a rich background in development aid to the NIRAS team

David Shirley is relatively new to NIRAS but, originally a New Zealander – which he calls the “Nordics of the south” – he feels very at home in an organisation that shares his values. “The matrix approach and high ethical standards suit my character. That was one of the main reasons I applied, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it so far.”

That’s probably a good thing considering the first six months on the job have proven to be quite challenging. Within three months of joining the group, David set up the new NIRAS entity in Indonesia and implemented a change management strategy, put a new team in place, and established the new company all the while securing a sizeable project from the Asian Development Bank supporting sustainable and efficient energy policies and investments. He is now heavily focused on building the capacity of his new team to grow the NIRAS portfolio in Indonesia and the Pacific.

From tourism to reconstruction and development

An adventurous youth, David left home at 15 to finish schooling in Australia. With a big passion for travelling and different cultures, he earned an undergraduate degree in Tourism Management and Business and a second degree in Business Psychology and Social Anthropology. This led to a five-year stint in tourism, foreign investment, and hotel management in the UK, Australia, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia where, at the young age of 23, he was involved in the construction of a hotel after the 2004 Aceh tsunami devastated the region.

“Once the hotel was built, I became the General Manager of what was then the largest hotel managing 200 staff. It was there where I first got interested in development aid as the reconstruction in Aceh was the largest in modern history at around $6 billion. Every donor event was held in our hotel, so I got a crash course in development cooperation and reconstruction aid,” David recalls.

Realising his interests lay beyond tourism, David enrolled in a distance learning Masters in Development that he completed while getting his foot in the UNDP door assessing economic and tourism development in Aceh.

“This led to assignments with the ILO for many years in labour rights and workforce development. I worked with Cardno and Palladium and also in advisory roles with the Indonesian and Australian governments, Auckland University, Murdoch University, Griffith University, and the University of the Sunshine Coast in southeast Asia and the Pacific.”

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At a government stakeholder meeting and budget planning in Lanny Jaya, Papua

On the side of these positions, David enrolled part-time in a PhD programme, looking at innovation and private-sector engagement in development, which spurred him to launch his own consultancy operating in Indonesia and Singapore and managing projects for the likes of Adidas, Nike, USAID, DFAT, and the ILO.

“I was (and am) particularly interested in ‘doing development differently’ so the emphasis has been on building a vibrant private sector to drive economic growth and sustainable development. I later set up a PAYG Solar PV company and today support an Indonesian-based NGO together with my wife that looks at climate change and entrepreneurship. Our family is also heavily involved in TVET and tertiary education in Indonesia through our private university, Mulia University, in Indonesia’s new capital Balikpapan.

I like to be challenged in all aspects of work and life. I thrive on pressure and enjoy business development, my entrepreneurial spirit and creating a portfolio for NIRAS.  I’m creative and I enjoy working with my regional APAC and global colleagues and feeling part of a highly ethical company working with like-minded professionals.

Making his way to NIRAS

David was first connected to NIRAS when working with Papuan entrepreneurs and SMEs as part of the LTS International’s Green Economic Growth Papua Programme. One year later, he heard about the merger and the timing was good for the Indonesian speaker.

“I had just stepped aside and sold the majority of my consultancy company three months prior and the stars aligned as I was interested in a long-term commitment with NIRAS. Always looking for a new challenge, I applied for the Managing Director Indonesia role and set up the new limited liability company for the organisation,” he explains.

On the more personal side, David is a capable artist, adept with technical design, painting, and woodwork, his form of yoga and meditation because he realised he was not flexible enough to touch his toes, yet alone strike a pose. A self-confessed closet geek with a cheerful sense of humour, David is a visual learner proficient at computer science and algorithms. Back in New Zealand, he topped mathematics country-wide and later won an Australia-wide general knowledge school quiz. Today, he still has a knack for looking at city maps and memorising routes so he can navigate anywhere he goes. His best party trick is drawing detailed world or country maps on serviettes.

We’ll have to test that out at the next NIRAS global meeting where David, who represented Vietnam in international rugby tournaments when he was 19 and still enjoys following rugby or cricket as a proud ‘Kiwi’, also hopes to inspire his colleagues to join him in a match.

No bets on the winning team!

David Daughter
David’s biggest personal achievement is raising his 10-year-old daughter, Zahara. “I’m watching her grow into a strong, smart and independent future leader with high ambitions. She tops all my achievements and is my pride and joy.”

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