technology chiefs

Interview with Marko Balabanovic

CTO Digital Catapult

What are the top 3 priorities in your role?

1. Recruiting Talent – Always has been and I suspect always will be. Assembling a top team is the most important thing any technology leader can do.

2. Keeping people focused on our Direction and Strategy – there are so many opportunities, in markets and technologies moving very fast, it is really important to maintain a focus and not spread ourselves too thin.

3. Measuring Delivery – Previously I have worked in organisations where you are building products or services to sell to customers and it is simple to measure performance. It’s not so obvious with Catapults, where we are aiming to have impact at a national level on the economy. The measure of whether you’re going in the right direction is less direct!  To get this understanding, we brought in an economist, who helped us create a model. Ultimately, if we want more productivity and more jobs in the UK, then we need to work on projects that will lead to that, and find indicators that we can measure now that help us predict the downstream impact.

Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?

A summer internship at a place called Xerox EuroPARC, the European research center for PARC. This role completely opened my mind in terms of the way I wanted to work and the kinds of projects that were possible.

There was the usual mix of computer science and engineering type people, but also sociology, anthropology and ethnography experts all working together to look at challenges. We had early mobile devices that knew where they were, used wireless communication and had little touch screens. This was all well before any of that was commercially available. It made me open my eyes to the huge possibilities of technology.

The other side of this role was the human side. It was really interesting to see how the different types of people from really different backgrounds could come together and work on technology projects. I still keep in contact with some of the people I met there today.

How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?

There are many possibilities, but I think a crucial one is where we are now seeing decision-making technology (i.e. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning) being used in core parts of people’s businesses.   I feel the technology is running ahead of our understanding on how to deal with it from a regulatory, ethical or even a security perspective, let alone understanding how to work with systems that learn from a software engineering and operations viewpoint.  So I think that a leader in the next two years is going to have to have a much stronger understanding of the implications of working with machine learning and AI, especially when working with personal data, looking at sources of bias, accountability, how to test, validate or assure, and how to train teams accordingly.

What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?

1. Complexity – in that we are now building more and more complex systems, or what are sometimes referred to as systems of systems or even systems of systems of systems.  Something like an autonomous car inside a transport network or a big industrial digital manufacturing facility. They are made up of many things that have been plugged together from different vendors; connections across supply chains; real-time monitoring; unreliable devices. Really understanding that complexity is an issue.  I am concerned that these systems tend to have a very large surface area and the implications for how to deal with cyber security are poorly understood (although we can see that the scales are tipped in favour of attackers).

2. People – we have never had enough people to do all the technology jobs, but we certainly don’t have enough people to deal with the consequences of these complex systems. I don’t think we even know what to call them. It’s like a job that doesn’t exist yet!

3. Consumer Product Development is getting even more complex. If you are building something nowadays you are going to have to understand how it fits into the larger digital landscape/ecosystem of the big internet platforms: Facebook, Amazon or Google etc.  You no longer have the luxury of having a largely standalone service.  You have to think about how people are going to arrive at your product, or what they will have seen en route, or even where they are likely to go next. Your product or service is likely to be a little piece in a bigger puzzle that is constantly changing.

What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?

1. Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR) – We are starting to do a lot of work here at Digital Catapult with AR and VR. Beyond the geeky fascination, it’s genuinely moving very quickly with lots of opportunity.  I’m not sure the killer use case has quite been seen yet; it’s not film, it’s not games, it’s not TV shows, it’s a whole new type of entertainment. Or perhaps it’s a new style of industrial application and I can also see lots of really interesting things coming to the health space. We are working with academics, for example on mental health.

2. Speech Interfaces –  It has been something that people have wanted to do since the dawn of computing.  We wanted to interact with computers through speech, but until now it’s mostly been the domain of science fiction.  And now it’s here and it works!  Watching how my family interacted with our Amazon Echo over Christmas was fascinating. There are so many instances where voice works better, inside a car or being able to talk to all your IOT devices.

3. Advances in Machine Learning – these are very visible but important. Yes, the algorithms and compute power are huge, but the crucial element is that all the tools are open source and available.  People can watch a YouTube video of a guy who is building AI that can generate music in 80 lines of python.  This is huge…  imagine how inspirational that is and what the next generation could come up with. I think we’re underestimating how quickly this will change everything.

What product or company is having the biggest impact?

Slack – it just works really well!  At the Catapult it has bubbled up from one team, with more and more people being added all the time. I think what was interesting here was that we didn’t say that everybody had to use this tool.  It simply became the de facto communication tool.

What mobile app do you use every day?

Evernote  – Great app and I like their strategy of doing one thing really well.

Feedly – A great way of keeping up with the latest news.

What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?

1. Be aware of your characteristics.  I think we are all aware that technologists tend to be more introverts than extroverts.  The skill you need to develop is to understand what your bias is and develop the other side. Be able to listen to people properly, empathise and think about the impact of what you say and do.  Basically, don’t ignore your strengths but be aware of their impacts.

2. Learning how to focus on a small number of things that you can make progress on.  I find this particularly difficult in my current role where the things we are looking at can be very diverse. Being able to cut out noise and only focus on key things is important.  Don’t get excited by all the shiny things you could be looking at, work towards your goals.

3. Don’t overengineer. Absorb patterns like YAGNI (you aren’t gonna need it), and think about how long until the system you’re creating will be or should be replaced. It may be better to rewrite something every 2 years using the latest tools than to spend 2 years creating it in the first place.

Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?

There are certain people I always try and read if they have written anything.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame – he doesn’t write stuff very often but when he does, you should probably read it!  Great for understanding new business models and start-ups trends.

Benedict Evans – comes from a VC background but is great for understanding the AI machine-learning space. Puts out a weekly email with his thoughts and insights.

Michael Lopp and his site Rands in Repose – He writes regularly and has also written some very good books including Managing Humans. He has a particular style that often takes a more humorous take on the actual reality of running development teams.

Bruce Schneier –  is a security expert.  The cybersecurity space has lots of noise but by just reading him, you will keep abreast of the important stuff!

What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?

I haven’t yet read Network Science by Albert-László Barabási, although I have read some of his previous work. Understanding the networks behind complex systems, from social networks to trade networks to neural and cellular networks, will be an investment that will definitely pay off.

The tools we build as technologists can alienate segments of society as much as they empower others. To vividly understand this world where the privileged and the disadvantaged occupy the same spaces without seeing one another, read The City & The City by China Miéville, one of the best science fiction novels of recent years in my opinion, it will stick with you.

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