The Technology That Shaped Me – Finding A Passion

I haven’t always worked in in the tech industry. I’ve travelled a less well trodden path.

An economics degree, voluntary work with disabled teenagers and then teaching eventually led to a technology opportunity and I’ve been firmly entrenched in the sector ever since. But I’m grateful for that unique path because although those experiences were a long time ago I use them to bring a different perspective and skill set to my everyday job.

While it might have taken time for me to find myself a career in the industry, I have always had a passion for technology. There were signs; some early obsessions, connections and influences that hinted of a future to come. So strong were some of these connections that much of the tech I still own. At home this is called my museum (I am Lord President Business and the kids are not allowed to touch it), I don’t have it all but when I go through it, unbox it and examine it, I still feel a thrill, that joyful feeling of discovery from years ago.   

Atari 2600

Christmas 1980 (for the record I was seven years old). I can still remember my Dad handing my Mum a large boxed present in the afternoon, long after the standard Wade household present opening period. He had even waited until after the Queen’s speech! My mind flipped when it was unwrapped; this thing plugged into the TV and ran the same games we played at the arcade while on our annual family holiday. The arcades on Cromer Pier were now in my living room and my brothers and I didn’t need 10p to play. Looking back I realise how lucky we were to be given this Christmas gift but at seven I knew little different. I got so good at Defender the score went off the charts. All I wanted to do was know how it all worked, I had to find out. 

ZX Spectrum

Christmas 1982 (I’m now nine years old for those counting) and I was beginning to think that someone might share my passion, or at least be fuelling it, as a ZX Spectrum arrived for the family. A whole new world of games (Manic Miner anyone?) but this time a keyboard, a console I could command; I could make it do things, I could make things happen. I remember spending all day working out how to print the Union Jack on screen. It took ages but it was incredibly satisfying.

Amstrad PC 1512

Christmas’ came and went but who cares about Christmas when your Dad has an office with a computer? (I’m now eleven years old). He had an Amstrad PC 1512, which was total science fiction as far as I was concerned, and I was in heaven. Interestingly enough my passion for this machine was the disks and applications that came with it and moving data about, not the MS-DOS operating system. MS-DOS certainly had a part to play but that was to come, it was software and hardware that became interesting.

From there computers came and went, time passed and as a teenager I continued investigating. The Sony Walkman revolutionised my life (I still have mine, in the museum) and I could tell you a lot of stories, but because this list is about the technology that truly shaped my future there is room for just one more. 

Intel i486DX2-66 Processor

I was absolutely determined to get an Intel 486DX2-66 processor (I was twenty years old now). It was the king at the time. It came in a whole range of machines and every one of them was in a beige box. I wanted one of those beige boxes and in the early 90s I got one. It came with Windows 3.11. My best mate gave me a copy of an MS-DOS handbook and I was away. That computer went a long, long way. I performed a lot of hardware updates on that machine, I remember clearly installing a CD-ROM drive, upgrading it to Windows 95, extra memory, different disk configurations and countless hours of entering commands and code. I kept going with it and it kept me going for years.

Investigating and experimenting with that device gave me the confidence to share the thrill of discovery at work. On those first small Microsoft networks I built NetBEUI became a good friend, I probably had too much NetBEUI in my life but by then I had found my passion and wasn’t looking back. 

Five Steps to Getting AI Projects Right

AI projects are not IT projects

You might be relying heavily on code, developers, cloud services and data stored in systems managed by IT  but an AI project is a business project, the focus should be about solving a problem, not investigating the technology.

Momentum is important

Momentum makes these projects successful. You’ll need to be bold and disruptive to make progress. The best leaders give people the freedom to be creative, find one of these to be your sponsor.  

Building the team is vital

Good AI projects enable a team not replace a team. For success you should use your existing experience to find new results across larger data sets, opening up scale that never existed before.

I use this equation to build out the team

Success = Platform + Expertise + Data + Domain Knowledge

Platform = Extensible, secure and open public cloud

Expertise = Developers, data science, cloud architect

Data = Organisation or 3rd party source. Note you don’t need it all to get started

Domain Knowledge = Field expert

Success should come quickly

If you have put the right team together you should be getting results or proving the validity of the project in just a few weeks. In IT we call these ‘sprints’. One or two ‘sprints’ and you should be making progress. I’ve seen results much faster than this too. 

Investment should follow success

Finally, major investment should not be provided until success has been shown, but it should then come quickly. Losing momentum dampens enthusiasm, causes rot to set in and then projects fail. Failure is not a bad thing, it helps us learn but failing to move a successful project forward because it has nowhere to go means we’ve got the wrong sponsor or are not solving the right problem. Reset and go again!  

Successfully Working from Home

I’ve learnt quite a bit about working from home in the last ten years and thought is was about time I shared one of the secrets to my success.

It will take longer to get used to than you will first admit. 

Working from home has some obvious benefits; no travel time, no interruptions, working all day in your pyjamas. It’s a breeze right? When I look back I can honestly say it took me over a year to get into the correct rhythm.  I had started a new job, I had a new baby (our first), I was sent a laptop, filing cabinet (don’t why I got that), chair, printer, tech. toys and I was away.  I knocked off what I thought was a day’s work by morning tea and was a very happy man. But how do you get by with no interaction with anyone at work? Monday is great but by Wednesday, outside of the odd phone call and customer conversation, who do you have the work chat with? What happens if you get frustrated at work and the next person you see is your new child or sleep deprived partner?  You suddenly need to slip out of work mode and into home mode, then back again.  You think Superman makes a fast change in a phone box, it’s nothing compared to mental gymnastics of the accomplished home worker.

As you get used to the transition you’ll be telling everyone how great life is but some times you’ll be doing this to convince yourself, more than anyone else. But working from home can be very rewarding and productive. It took me a while to work this out as I am not someone that has had much interest in physiology but you need to train your brain.

What did I do? I decided I had to identify in my mind where and when I was at work.  I picked a space and made sure everything was the same each time I started.  I created a routine of work, emails, calls and customer visits that I stuck to. I even cleaned and tided the space every week and set it up for Monday. I mentally told myself when I leave this spot I am no longer at work, I am at home. I moved a chair by the door and said to myself, work goes there when I leave this room. Over about twelve months I began to surprise myself with how quickly I was able to mentally switch roles.  I could stride through the house be dad, walk into my work space, sit down and get straight back into it. It was at this point working from home truly became great and productive.  

Without knowing it I was taking my brain through a series of mental exercises.  My brain was getting a workout and learning how to flip modes very quickly.

I have switched companies now and at Microsoft I have the flexibility to work at the office or at home. I can spend weeks in the office environment or at customer sites an then a period at home and the mental flexibility is still there. All I have to do is remember to get dressed when I go into the office.

This is a skill I’m sure anyone can learn.  I’d be interested in what makes working from home a success for you. I always say we all learn by sharing and if you have found another way don’t be shy, let the world know.

Where are the Innovators, Gartner Symposium 2014? 

I’ve just come back from the Gartner Symposium ITXPO on the Gold Coast #GartnerSYM. This was my trifecta having been to the 2012 and 2013 events.

Gartner opened the event with the keynote on Tuesday morning by hammering in hard their new definition of the market. With a brief introduction touching on constant change and the Internet of Things (IoT) we were introduced to the “Digital Business.

According to Gartner “Digital Business” represents this current age of technology and its impact on all companies.

Attendees were told to embrace risk, to focus on building a new talent pool with experts in mobile, user experience and data science and to understand that disruption will accelerate the decline of markets.

The message made a point but I don’t think went far enough, time was still dedicated to telling everyone to keep the foundations secure and solid. Like a rock everyone was told. Almost as if Gartner wanted to keep their feet secured to what they know and trust and not be too innovative themselves. This was a shame but like all vendors Gartner have a product to sell and as much as we try and swim in the new oceans we always like to look back at what made us successful and pays the bills. Jumping from the boat isn’t easy, especially when it looks like the party is still in full swing.

Gartner made a good job of selecting other keynotes that focused on the impact of change and innovation.

Andrew McAfee @amcafee of MIT challenged us with information on change and automation, he touched on topics of his research and in his book The Second Machine Age http://www.secondmachineage.com/. Anyone listening to this either left thinking well it’s still will not happen to me or probably rushed to lock themselves in a bunker and wait for Arnold Schwarzenegger looking machines to take over the planet. All should have been left with the impression that the rate of change is exponential and we have a fantastic opportunity as well as responsibility to capitalise on this.

Guy Kawasaki @GuyKawasaki http://www.guykawasaki.com/ took us through his rules on innovation. Not surprisingly it was very well delivered. It didn’t take Guy long to win everyone over. If you could take a bit of that sparkle, energy and experience into a role in your organisation just imagine what the results would be. Although would you because he’d probably be running the joint in a couple of weeks. Just how many of the audience will cut their presentations down to 10 slides and 20 minutes I’d love to know. I’m certain no one will invest in dog food dot com but I’m sure there will still be mission statements made at expensive hotels in and around the golf course.

These two in particular helped support and promote the main theme Gartner were delivering, it’s just a shame that the real innovators appear to still be on the outside.