Industry Speaks! (May The Better Idea Win)

Alan Noble, Director of Engineering for Google Australia and an Adjunct Professor with my Uni, generously gave up a day today to give a two hour lecture of distributed systems and scale to our third-year Distributed Systems course, and another two-hour lecture on entrepreneurship to my Grand Challenge students. Industry contact is crucial for my students because the world inside the Uni and the world outside the Uni can be very, very different. While we try to keep industry contact high in later years, and we’re very keen on authentic assignments that tackle real-world problems, we really need the people who are working for the bigger companies to come in and tell our students what life would be like working for Google, Microsoft, Saab, IBM…

My GC students have had a weird mix of lectures that have been designed to advance their maturity in the community and as scientists, rather than their programming skills (although that’s an indirect requirement), but I’ve been talking from a position of social benefit and community-focused ethics. It is essential that they be exposed to companies, commercialisation and entrepreneurship as it is not my job to tell them who to be. I can give them skills and knowledge but the places that they take those are part of an intensely personal journey and so it’s great to have an opportunity for Alan, a man with well-established industry and research credentials, to talk to them about how to make things happen in business terms.

The students I spoke to afterwards were very excited and definitely saw the value of it. (Alan, if they all leave at the end of this year and go to Google, you’re off the Christmas Card list.) Alan focused on three things: problems, users and people.

Problems: Most great companies find a problem and solve it but, first, you have to recognise that there is a problem. This sometimes just requires putting the right people in front of something to find out what these new users see as a problem. You have to be attentive to the world around you but being inventive can be just as important. Something Alan said really resonated with me in that people in the engineering (and CS) world tend to solve the problems that they encounter (do it once manually and then set things up so it’s automatic thereafter) and don’t necessarily think “Oh, I could solve this for everyone”. There are problems everywhere but, unless we’re looking for them, we may just adapt and move on, instead of fixing the problem.

Users: Users don’t always know what they want yet (the classic Steve Jobs approach), they may not ask for it or, if they do ask for something, what they want may not yet be available for them. We talked here about a lot of current solutions to problems but there are so many problems to fix that would help users. Simultaneous translation, for example, over telephone. 100% accurate OCR (while we’re at it). The risk is always that when you offer the users the idea of a car, all they ask for is a faster horse (after Henry Ford). The best thing for you is a happy user because they’re the best form of marketing – but they’re also fickle. So it’s a balancing act between genuine user focus and telling them what they need.

People: Surround yourself with people who are equally passionate! Strive of a culture of innovation and getting things done. Treasure your agility as a company and foster it if you get too big. Keep your units of work (teams) smaller if you can and match work to the team size. Use structures that encourage a short distance from top to bottom of the hierarchy, which allows for ideas to move up, down and sideways. Be meritocratic and encourage people to contest ideas, using facts and articulating their ideas well. May the Better Idea Win! Motivating people is easier when you’re open and transparent about what they’re doing and what you want.

Alan then went on to speak a lot about execution, the crucial step in taking an idea and having a successful outcome. Alan had two key tips.

Experiment: Experiment, experiment, experiment. Measure, measure, measure. Analyse. Take it into account. Change what you’re doing if you need to. It’s ok to fail but it’s better to fail earlier. Learn to recognise when your experiment is failing – and don’t guess, experiment! Here’s a quote that I really liked:

When you fail a little every day, it’s not failing, it’s learning.

Risk goes hand-in-hand with failure and success. Entrepreneurs have to learn when to call an experiment and change direction (pivot). Pivot too soon, you might miss out on something good. Pivot too late, you’re in trouble. Learning how to be agile is crucial.

Data: Collect and scrutinise all of the data that you get – your data will keep you honest if you measure the right things. Be smart about your data and never copy it when you can analyse it in situ.

(Alan said a lot more than this over 2 hours but I’m trying to give you the core.)

Alan finished by summarising all of this as his Three As of Entrepreneurship, then why we seem to be hitting an entrepreneurship growth spurt in Australia at the moment. The Three As are:

  • Audit your data
  • Having Audited, Admit when things aren’t working
  • Once admitted, you can Adapt (or pivot)

As to why we’re seeing a growth of entrepreneurship, Australia has a population who are some of the highest early adopters on the planet. We have a high technical penetration, over 20,000,000 potential users, a high GDP and we love tech. 52% of Australians have smart phones and we had so many mobile phones, pre-smart, that it was just plain crazy. Get the tech right and we will buy it. Good tech, however, is hardware+software+user requirement+getting it all right.

It’s always a pleasure to host Alan because he communicates his passion for the area well but he also puts a passionate and committed face onto industry, which is what my students need to see in order to understand where they could sit in their soon-to-be professional community.

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