Dr Jim Webber, Chief Scientist, Neo4j, switched on to tech when a friend’s dad bought a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the 1980s – here’s what that led to.
1. What would you describe as your most memorable achievement?
In early life it was obtaining a PhD in computer science. That was such an unlikely thing for someone like me who was born to a working-class British family.
In later life at Neo4j, I’m still very proud of the fault tolerant clustering architecture we built – definitely the hardest two years of work I’ve ever put in, but the system itself benefits so many people on a daily basis.
2. What first made you think of a career in technology?
A friend’s dad bought a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (8-bit computer) in the 1980s and I was amazed. From then on all I wanted to do was code on it (and play games, of course). At the time the BBC in the UK was tasked with educating children across the country about computing, and they installed lots of BBC Micro computers in schools throughout the nation. The first real program I ever interacted with was a database written in BBC Basic. From there it was obvious it would lead to a degree and then a career in computing, which ultimately led to me joining Neo4j.
3. What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
My team are all very talented computer scientists. They know more about their research areas than I do, so I can’t just boss them around. Instead, I can be curious about what they’re doing, ask questions and sometimes unearth things that might be interesting to explore. But because we’re a commercial organization, even research has to work towards a deadline and I help my team understand that perfect is the enemy of good.
4. What do you think is the current hot technology talking point?
Generative AI. The IT world has been lit up by it. But I also think that the hype has covered up some interesting work outside of the web hyperscalers. It would not surprise me if Machine Learning techniques from the open-source world ultimately provide more value for more users than the humongous models from some of the leading players in the market. I think some of the larger players may worry about what this means in the longer term.
5. How do you deal with stress and unwind outside the office?
Since university, I’ve enjoyed (usually) Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing. I’m older now so I can’t safely participate in full-contact practice, but I still enjoy the physicality of it. In more peaceful times, I enjoy the outdoors, particularly snowboarding and paragliding.
6. If you could go back and change one career decision, what would it be?
Hindsight is 20/20. In the moment, all you can do is choose based on your context. Any changes I could hypothetically make would have unintended consequences elsewhere.
7. What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?
The AI macro trend continues to gain strength. This is not a passing fad. The age of AI is here. But AI is fuelled by data, and so there is a corresponding (but slightly lagging) curve where investments in data happen. I’m biased here because I’m a huge fan of databases, but you can’t have fast trains without rails, and data is the rails of AI. The data and AI investment decisions made today will determine the leaders of the future.
8. What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in APAC?
APAC is very heterogeneous and very large geographically. There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. What works in Australia is quite different from what works in Indonesia and what works in Singapore seems destined to fail in India. Nonetheless, there are some fundamental capabilities that are common across the region, and unsurprisingly they are founded on data.
Despite the heterogeneity, businesses and governments that can cut through the complexity of their data, at whatever scale, to gain insight will prosper. The APAC region is a pressure cooker of innovation and hard work and to lose the battle is to quickly recede from your competitors – be they other commercial organizations or other nations.
9. What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year, and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
The last 12 months have been tumultuous for everyone in the technology industry. While we’ve seen remarkable innovation, we’ve also seen softness in the general market.
In my role, I have to learn to accommodate those short-term events but keep my team on an even keel for the longer term. As researchers, our goals are typically 2-5 years out from today and we have to make sure to keep our product suite relevant by delivering high-quality research to our product engineering peers.
In the next 12 months, we’re going to increasingly strengthen our good relationships with academia, since we know that the university sector has a huge role to play in our future.
10. What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position in your industry?
Think carefully about why you want a C-level role. Is it a career move? Can you use the role to enact change? Your motivations will have a significant impact on whether you can move into a C-level role and how successful you will be once you achieve it. Be honest with yourself about why you want the position and be very clear with yourself about what you’ll do in that role – it certainly shouldn’t be a vanity project.Click below to share this article