Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Technologists are good for business

This evening's BCS/IET Turing Lecture given by Suranga Chandratillake, founder and former chief strategy officer of Blinkx, at Manchester University was an interesting talk linking the technical excellence of an engineer with the needs of an entrepreneur. His premise was that his undergraduate course in Computer Science at Cambridge University had provided him with many of the skills he needed to have a successful business career - it was just that he wasn't aware he had the skills.

Suranga first compared the stages that an inventor and entrepreneur went through with the evolution of an idea. The inventor would go from a position where he felt he wanted to challenge the world to the point where he had a flash of inspiration  and onto the stage where the invention was now tangible  Compare this to an entrepreneur who starts by thinking 'I need money' (because ideas are not enough)  to the stage where the product or service is now a salable item up to the point where he is now making a profit. The UK is very good at educating and nurturing  many great technologists to create and innovate; unfortunately it is not always good at exploiting these ideas mainly because many of the skills to allow a entrepreneur to exploit technical ideas are not well developed.

He described how he was offered the opportunity to be the founder CEO of Blinkx, a startup spun out from Autonomy. He was reluctant (very!) at taking on this role because he felt that he didn't have the necessary skills to fulfill the role as he was essentially a technologist. He struck a deal with Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, that said that if he needed help with some of the business functions such as finance, HR, Sales and marketing that Mike would help him out. What amazed me was that the skills he needed for finance, marketing and sales were all taught on his undergraduate course, it was just that they weren't expressed in business manner. For example, for marketing to determine the most effective approach to use (e.g. PR, web-page banner ads or search adverts), requires the application of some simple probabilistic modelling, a 2nd year course. I felt he stretched the analogy a bit far when he compare a HR organisation to that of a system architecture; however, I think many aspects of HR (particularly recruitment) can be covered in parts of undergraduate courses particularly with the increasing amounts of team-working forming part of the curriculum.

Suringa summarised that the attributes of a technologist of being qualitative, rigorous and analytical had actually prepared him perfectly for business in a technical organisation. He stated that it is a fallacy that technologists do not understand business, it is just that they assume that they don't have the skills. This is a mental block rather than a a lack of ability.

I found the talk provided much food for thought. Clearly the business environment that Suranga operated in was not typical of many companies but it was illuminating to see he was able to relate back to his undergraduate course. The opportunity to work in a small company with a unique technology (as blinkx)  is clearly not going to be available to everyone. However, provided the opportunities are available I am sure many more technologists should feel empowered to exploit technology to create viable and thriving businesses.

The BCS/IET Turing Lecture 2013: The IET Turing Lecture 2013: What they didn't teach me: building a technology company and taking it to market
Suranga Chandratillake
The IET Prestige Lecture Series 2013, Turing Lecture, Savoy Place, London, 18 February 2013