As new technologies make their way into the market, business leaders must embrace them correctly to evolve with the pace of digitisation. Marcus East, CTO of National Geographic, discusses the major impact market trends such as AI, Quantum Computing and Blockchain are having on the technology landscape, while offering his advice to aspiring CTOs.
On being CTO of National Geographic
I am responsible for the technology, software and systems that power the experiences we create to delight millions of consumers around the world, and the tools that allow our editorial teams to create the articles, stories and photo albums that feature on our website, partner sites and National Geographic apps.
The importance of versatility for the role of CTO
Being flexible is critical for any CTO; not only do you need to be able to architect and create cost-effective systems, you also need to be able to manage the delivery of complex solutions while driving innovation. Technology is constantly rapidly evolving, as is best practice and it’s critically important for a CTO to be versatile to be able to keep up.
Discussing management style
I subscribe to the servant-leader model; I believe that teams do their best work when they are developing personally and that a good leader creates an environment where their people perform at their best, feel supported and respected, but where they’re also stretched and challenged.
I sometimes describe my role as ‘looking after’ my team and I believe technologists respond well to this.
At the same time, one must also add tangible value to their work and although the remit of a CTO is broad, I personally like to ensure that I stay hands-on enough to be able to help my team solve problems. The whiteboard in my office is where many designs and architectures come to life!
Developing the skills of others and putting them into practice
I have been very fortunate in my career and have worked for some outstanding leaders who invested heavily in me and helped me to develop the skills on which my career has been based. I am therefore passionate about helping others to do the same.
I believe it to be the duty of a leader to help those around them to develop their skills and there are several ways I put this into practice:
- It’s incredibly important to have clear objectives and expectations for your team so they are clear about what they need to deliver; that allows them to assess which skills they need
- I’m very supportive of training and encourage my team to commit to lifelong learning and regular training to allow them to continuously enhance their skills. I personally commit to at least 10 days of training a year for myself
- The best skills are those we develop through experience and giving people opportunities to do rewarding, stimulating work that stretches them and helps to achieve their potential. I carefully consider the projects and products the team work on so we can create career opportunities while delivering business value
The main challenges faced as a CTO
All CTOs face the challenge of keeping on top of new trends and new technologies, together with hiring and retaining talent in an environment where technologists are among the most sought-after professionals.
Inside the organisation, ensuring the technology has a voice at the top table and helping non-expert, non-technical colleagues to understand the potential for technology to support their goals is an age-old challenge, even at a time when the importance of Digital Transformation is a big focus for many boards.
National Geographic’s key IT achievements over the past year
Thanks to some heroic efforts by our team, we’ve been able to create a new platform to support our editorial and product development needs, called CHIP. The development is an open, cloud-first, services-driven architecture based on open source principles.
In parallel, we have completely redesigned our web experience to be truly mobile first, reflecting the fact that more than half of our consumers now visit us from their mobile devices.
Utilising technology to enhance the customer experience
Technology is used at all stages in the creation of customer experiences, from how we use Big Data and analytics tools to understand our consumers’ wants and needs, the application of multivariate testing (MVT) using a number of tools, and ultimately through personalisation based on content our consumers engage with.
The biggest technology challenge in Europe currently
One of the big challenges facing Europe is the brain-drain of talented technologists that are lured to the US, especially to work at the big technology companies on the West Coast and startups across America.
On many occasions during my travels I’ve met European talent that left Europe because it’s much easier to raise finance and build businesses in the United States, which has both cultural and structural benefits for entrepreneurs. I know there are a number of initiatives in countries like the UK and Germany designed to address this, and London and Berlin seem to be increasing their profile as great destinations for startups, which should help.
Undoubtedly, the uncertainty around Brexit will have an impact too — I think that until there is clarity on the effects of Britain’s transition, it will create anxiety for professionals and the organisations they work for.
The most suitable approach to tackling the IT skills shortage in Europe
This is definitely an issue and there are three approaches which could help bridge the skills gap:
- Deepening the focus on STEM in Education is critical; introducing children to computing, robotics and software engineering will help to inspire them to build careers in technology in the way that it did for me, and ensuring there is a steady pipeline of people entering the field
- Widening the net by increasing diversity in IT professions is essential too; even 25 years after I started my career, I go to too many events that are still dominated by men from traditional middle-class backgrounds. Bring new people into the profession by looking beyond the traditional university educations and the typical demographic. Some of the best engineers that I’ve worked with never went to university and come from radically different backgrounds from myself
- Creating a visa regime that is more conducive to people with valuable skills being able to come to Europe will help; all too often I hear excellent candidates from places like China and India say they are most interested in going to North America because they believe it will be more receptive to them, and that belief has to change. Some of this is connected to the way they are interpreting Brexit in the UK, which I think will have a profound impact on the European tech landscape in the coming years
The future of the technology landscape
There is no doubt we will see an acceleration of the rate at which technology developments are coming to market and there are several key trends that will influence this. These include Artificial Intelligence (AI), Quantum Computing and Blockchain.
However, I believe that the continued evolution of cloud computing will impact businesses the most. This technology gives organisations small and large the opportunity to get access to vast computing resources and power in a cost-effective way. I think this will democratise IT and help businesses unlock competitive advantage without having to build large internal teams or deep technology skills. I think the tools available from providers like Amazon Web Services and Google will enable organisations to innovate in a way that wasn’t previously possible — for example, they can now start using Machine Learning without having to develop their own internal engineering capabilities, thanks to the offerings available in the cloud.
Advice to aspiring CIOs/CTOs
It’s never been more important for technology leaders to have a deep understanding of business so they can play an active role in shaping their organisation and to help drive innovation by harnessing the power of technology.
That said, as technology offerings continue to become more diverse and more complex, leaders must develop a broad understanding across the varying technology fields – they can’t afford to focus solely on one aspect of IT. I would encourage them to frame their approach to think about how technology can solve business problems and deliver value instead of seeking to develop deep expertise in one specific area.
Balancing technology and business understanding will be essential for the technology leader of the future.