Notes from the IET / BCS
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2013 Turing Lecture:
"What they didn't teach me: building a technology company and taking it to market."
London, 18 February 2013
From The Strand to Savoy Place
Last night I made my annual pilgrimage to Savoy Place to attend the Turing Lecture. The Turing lecture has become a regular in my calendar for a number of reasons.
I think I share Alan Turing with many people as a personal and professional hero. His critical thinking and his intuitive reasoning amaze us even with the hindsight of everything that has happened in computing and engineering since his breakthroughs. His persistence and dedication to enlightenment inspire us. His mistreatment by the authorities warns us that even towering genius, service to humanity and discoveries that enrich the lives and pockets of others immeasurably is sometimes not enough to counterbalance the lust of those in power for control.
Despite all the lofty thoughts above I was in a Bertie Wooster frame of mind as I approached from The Strand down Savoy Road. I wondered what it would have been like to live in the age of the monacle and cane. “For the few it was probably great fun but for the rest it was all deference and hard work for barely minimum pay.” said the critical thinker and realist I had installed at my last upgrade. “Thank goodness things have changed” I thought.
This year’s lecture was delivered by Suranga Chandratillake founder and chief strategy officer of Blinkx. It was entitled “What they didn’t teach me: building a technology company and taking it to market”.
It was an excellent talk engagingly and skillfully presented. While I agreed wholeheartedly with most of what was said, I have to voice my concern and sound some alarms over some of the implications. I really was in two minds about it all, and I will explain as we proceed.
The journey of the Inventor versus the journey of the Entrepeneur
Suranga began by describing and comparing the Inventor and the Entrepeneur. We are, he assured us, familiar and sympathetic with the Inventor, struggling away trying to break
through and make technical innovations against the odds. We are less sympathetic with the Entrepeneur whose struggle is no less onerous and risky.
It is the Entrepeneur who takes the seeds of the Inventor's work, plants them in the market and waters them with money enabling them to flourish. Were it not for the Entrepeneur the discoveries of the inventor would never reach their full potential. Without the Entrepeneur they would not be properly commercialised and exploited. Whatever your political feelings about Capitalism, warned Suranga, it is reality. You may sit in your academic ivory tower, he admonished, but the market makes the decisions that count.
He is perfectly correct. We live in a world where innovation, hard work and genius are not enough. What is backed by money, and a knowledge of how to market and sell, is what will succeed. Many excellent ideas in the history of the world have been lost for lack of funding. Many second rate ideas have dominated first class alternatives because of how they have been funded, managed and marketed. As Suranga pointed out, it is a shame if the idea is exploited and monetised by someone unconnected to the inventor.
Suranga Chandratillake’s own journey is the journey of both the Inventor and the Entrepeneur. He read Computer Science at Cambridge and eventually
ended up working for Autonomy Plc as their chief technology officer. In the lecture he described the evolution of Blinkx both as a technology and as
a spin off from Autonomy. He pointed out that the web is two things:
Initially, he said, we saw only the content but, as that grew, companies from Yahoo to Google realised that describing content, first manually
and then using computers, was not helping people find what they wanted. Using the number of links to qualify the relevance of content made the Internet
useable. From this he inferred two things:
He took us through the evolution of video content from terrestrial Television, through satellite and cable to Blinkx.
The advantage of Blinkx is that it categorises video content on the internet, not by relying on second-hand content description but by directly analysing the
video content itself. Blinkx automatically analyses video content, speech content, text content and structural content.
- Search is a good way to navigate
- To search content effectively you need to know everything about it
Watching Suranga talk with passion about Blinkx it is easy to see why he is successful. His personality, appearance and
impact are charasmatic and magnetic. I found myself wondering what it would be like to work with him. Exhausting probably!
The Once and Future CEO
To cut a long story short Blinkx needed a CEO when they spun out from Autonomy and they couldn’t find anyone up to the job.
His colleagues pointed out to Suranga that he was a good fit for the position. He considered himself “technical” and not qualified to be a CEO.
He kept saying no until he finally agreed to take on the position with the provisos that Autonomy Plc would support him in the areas of:
What they did not teach him they had actually taught him
The lecture covered in detail the IPO (Initial Public Offering) process, the calculation of the discounted cash flow (DPV), the valuation of the company at $250,000,000 at IPO and the arrival at $50,000,000 as the investment required to take it to profitability.
To Suranga’s surprise (and I am sure to the surprise of many in the audience) this all boils down to fairly simple mathematics. The maths on his computer science degree had gone way beyond the level required to understand the finances of a multi million dollar company.
Finance = Maths
In similarly entertaining mode he proved that:
Marketing = Systems Modelling + Probability + Decision Tree Analysis
HR = Systems Architecture
Sales = Queueing Theory
The Boffin Fallacy
There is a Boffin Fallacy at work here acording to Suranga. Although his computer course at Cambridge turned out to have contained everything he needed to
know to be an
entrepeneur, he was indoctrinated to believe that technologists do not understand business, that they can't do it, and that it is somehow beneath them.
Suranga echoed and quoted from C.P.Snows lecture "The two Cultures" to assert that there
is a gap between the cultures of Literature and Science. Likewise there is a gap between the cultures of Business and Technology. He pointed out that there is an unfortunately British derogation or disparagement of engineers.
They are treated as a class of boffins detached from everybody else's reality and certainly detached from the rigours of business.
This was best illustrated by Alan Sugar’s proclamation that he had never met an engineer who could turn his hand to business.
Suranga countered with quotes from James Dyson and from Eric Schmidt of Google. He also referred to Gates, Jobs, Zuckerburg and a long list of others who have,
in the words of Schmidt, not done too badly.
It is a matter of context, motivation and intent
I cannot read Suranga Chandratillake’s mind so it remains a Schrodinger’s cat of a lecture for me. I applaud and I boo. I offer my full support and whole hearted opposition. Read on.
Basically engineers and technologists are analytical problem solvers with the skills to engage with Business and to be entrepeneurs.
Suranga Chandratillake’s view is that they have a duty to do so. I make similar points in my Trousers of Reality series and show that
the skills required to design and implement systems are essential skills for effective management. The successful transfer of skills from
one context to another is a topic close to my heart and referenced throughout my writing. I do actually agree pretty much with everything
in the lecture and I was quite overjoyed to hear him name and shame the boffin fallacy.
I have spent my career encouraging programmers to cross the project floor and engage with the business aspects of their projects.
I entreat managers to understand the complexity of the problems facing programmers. I write books to demistify management and technology.
When I started to teach and coach Agile I intended it as a way to achieve what Suranga has been talking about here.
I identified this unfair and inaccurate dismissal of engineers and technologists as anti-social geeks and nerds and the general chaos
being perpetrated by managers who do not understand Technology and technologists who do not understand Business. Tribalism is a large part of the problem. This is a matter of context and point of view.
Has Suranga narrowed the definition by choosing sides or is he helping to join the necessary sides to one wider context?
I have discovered that the boffin fallacy has other dimensions. One of the most important, and one that was missing in Suranga’s talk, is one of motivation.
In my research I was much taken with the work of David McClelland, an American psychologist, who studied motivation. His “need theory” states that people are
motivated by one of three needs: a need for achievement, a need for affiliation or a need for power.
I have noticed that technologists tend to be motivated by achievement. It is what drives them to solve problems. Finding the solution is the catnip that draws them on.
It could be argued that those successful in our economic and political system are motivated by achievement, but on the evidence of the catastrophic mess
they are making of the world it is more likely that they are, and always have been, motivated by power. Power is about control at any cost.
By definition those who are motivated by a need for power are in charge. In my upcoming book “The Other Game” I explore this phenomenon and I suggest my own remedies including some that chime rather nicely with many of the points in Suranga Chandratillake’s lecture.
Alan Turing's great nephew, James Turing, gave a brief and heartfelt talk before Suranga. He has set up a charity in Ghana called The Turing Trust
to recycle computers and bring help and education to people in great need.
What do you think motivated Alan Turing - a need for power or something else?
The enigma machine was key in halting the march of facism - when the power and money conspire to create totalitarianism. Do you think his intent, when he turned
his genius to inventing the Turing Machine, was to create obscene wealth for the few or was his intent to benefit humanity?
The president of the BCS called on us last night to support James Turing. He told us that when he could barely support himself Alan Turing supported a man called Robert Nederfeld (Sorry I couldn't find a link).
Suranga asks the engineers and technologists to take up the challenge of entrepeneurship and I agree; but the intent is of vital importance. In this lecture there are two possible interpretations of what was being said.
Suranga said that innovation is growth.
He implied with his story that something is only worth doing if it makes money and is large enough to control the market and see off all challengers.
He seemed to suggest that to be an entrepeneur you need a desire to be rich and powerful. There is nothing wrong with being rich per se, but is he encouraging everyone to cross the floor to become motivated by money, power and greed?
Those who want money and power tend to care only about how much they amass, not how it is achieved.
They do not seem to care about catastrophic consequences.
Look around the world and witness the free market burning down the trees without a thought about where the air will come from,
turning natural resources that could have lasted a thousand years into hoarded wealth, denying climate change and starting wars to protect their interests.
If innovators, inventors and technologists are being asked to commit everything to that game - Boo!
Innovation and invention is all about challenging established models and recognising that authority is not proof.
In the long
history of genuine innovation and invention much of the breakthrough comes from those outside the establishement who challenge it.
The motivation to solve problems for their own sake is part of the make up of people who do so.
Innovation thrives in people who think differently.
We need the best ideas to flourish and we need enourmous amounts of systems thinking to ensure that we understand what we are doing and that profit/power is not the only motivation.
If Suranga is encouraging the inventors and innovators to cross the floor and bring their motivation of problem solving with them;
if they are being encouraged to connect power and authority back to the achievement of common humanity;
if we are asking them to use their innovation to curb the excesses of the power mad elite who are are raping the world in a giant game of monopoly;
if they are being invited to use those skills of quantitive, rigorous and analytical thinking to connect to the consequences of our current
profit driven insanity and find some sustainable solutions – Hurray!
The talk is webcast by the IET at their web tv site
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