Blaine:Joining me today is Neil Cattermull, Director at Frontier Technologywhich is a UK-based advisory for current and future technology roadmaps. Neil was formerly an analyst with Compare the Cloud, a tech-savvy creative media agency and was a director and founder of the Canary Wharf Consultancy. Thanks for the time, Neil! Let’s have some fun.
Neil: Yes thank you very much, Blaine!
Blaine: Are there two Neils? I see you and I see another you right behind you in an action pose. What’s going on there?
Neil: That’s my alter ego.
Blaine: Which is the good one?
Neil: I’m not going to tell you!
Blaine: We’ll find out for ourselves when we’re doing this. Of course, those on the podcast version can’t see the cardboard cut out Neil behind the sitting Neil. But, take our word for it, he looks pretty good in both.
Neil: Well, you too Blaine!
Blaine: So, tell us a bit more about yourself and your current company.
Neil: Well, Frontieris more of an integrator/advisory company that advises small to large cap firms on tech roadmaps/strategy right across the board from applications to tech roadmaps with digital transformation to best fit advice at the right place at the right time, really.
Blaine: Excellent. And how did you get to where you are today? How do you get to be a guru, an influencer, and somebody that large and small companies call on to advise them?
Neil: A lot of pain, a lot of study, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of travelling, a lot talking, and a lot of people around the world – if they listen, obviously. Focus, really.
But it’s not an easy thing to do. The word “influencer” is typically overstated now. I’ve had a deep grounding of tech for all my life. Maybe about 10 years ago, I decided that tech is good, but I actually enjoy discussing where the tech is best placed and where you can capitalize on it in the best way.
For the last 10 years of my life, I’ve done nothing but travel, talk to people advising on what they should do. Sometimes they listen which is good and sometimes they don’t.
Blaine: Yeah that’s the way of the world. Let’s dive into something. You recently wrote an article on LinkedIn called “Time Waits for No Man, Not Even a Developer”. What was the core thesis of that article?
Neil: Well, it’s interesting because it’s based on one of the events I went to in the U.K. about AI and adoption of A.I. and the fast uptake of it. In all reality, it is pretty much still the Wild West out there.
Developers get a bad rap, in all reality. Normally, they’re seeing them as they’ve developed something really quickly and push it out. It’s buggy and it’s not quite ready. They’re working under pretty stressful, chronic conditions.[Through] a couple of the presentations I sat through, one struck a chord for me from Oracle. I was quite interested. It was actually on a code base point of view. When you look at adaptive intelligence, that’s where we need to be. Artificial intelligence is fine: if this precondition here is met, do this. So, I understand that. When we then go one step further, then we’re into the realms of machine-to machine learning. That’s even more funky and wacky and out there.
Self-healing code, autonomous patching code – now that’s adaptive intelligence. That’s way different from standard AI, query-based analytics.
Blaine: Are you fundamentally saying that you think AI-based applications will replace or must replace developers? In other words, developers are moving too slowly?
Neil: I think, in the future, yeah, to be honest. I mean, you look at the speed up of technology of late, over the last five, six years, cloud adoption is the norm. It never used to be. Now, you look at the next logical step: how do we develop to the cloud? Now let’s automate that. Let’s make that easier. There wouldn’t be any skill shortages of that stuff.
I saw an example at that event that just blew me away and I just thought, “Wow! Okay. Sorry developers, but your days are numbered.” Even to the point of speaking code: you tell a computer to do something and it codes it for you!
Blaine: So, you think we’re going to be moving toward this nirvana situation where the business side, the LOB owners, will be able to literally dictate their requirements, what the business requirements are, and then the process of writing code to execute those requirements will be done more automatically?
Neil: It’s like any industry, really. You have this boom and expansion and it contracts. We saw it with cloud: there’s a boom. It’s great. And then, it’s contracting. Now, we have maybe half a dozen, what I call, huge, big players in the marketplace and the rest are just also-rans, this commoditized market.
I think you’ll find that the next level of skills down will be how do I develop and what am I doing? We live in a software world now. If we can automate that, then we automate the generation of the code and even the code going into a cloud that’s already automated as well. We’re going into a far more automated tech environment now and it’s speeding up like you wouldn’t believe.
Blaine: I think that’s inevitable, that transition. Speaking of transitions, we talk a lot about so-called “digital transformation” on this web series. What does digital transformation mean to you and is it really happening?
Neil: You know what, about three years ago, maybe four years ago now, everyone was hailing digital transformation as the next best thing since sliced bread. Everyone was using the analogy of Kodak and failed companies that were dominant players in the industry that sat back, didn’t move forward, didn’t actually progress. Now, look where they were.
The irony with Kodak in itself is that they decided to create some kind of blockchain environment on its own coin and then it sold itself a lot of money because it had the word blockchain in it – the irony of that! It’s not just about digital transformation. An easy analogy would be to say, “I’m going from a publishing house, and I’m going digital.” That’s very simple.
Look at, for example, pet care. This is an interesting one. You go from, “How do you even approach one of the most dominant pet care firms in the industry to digitally transform?” You could look at that in so many ways. Yes, you can look at the tech that underpins it. “Let’s go digital. Let’s be flexible. Let’s store stuff and let people access stuff very, very quickly on the move, etc.” That’s great, but that’s just a tech transition. What’s the business value for that?Why would I want to do it?
What about being at the pure transformation? It should be a business transformation. What business objectives can the tech underpin?There could be a myriad of things. In that particular environment, if you’ve got two hundred pet stores and health care pet stores, how do you look at that and go, “Wow! How can I digitally transform that?” We’re not talking about chipping the dogs, checking their heartbeat, and figuring out whether they need to come in for a checkup.
It’s more of what we can do for their business to drive their growth and also use some of the mainstream technology behind that to ensure that happens. That’s just connectivity. Communication is key – right place, right time.
But also it’s a cultural thing; the cultural point of view – I dare to say, I’m not going to say it’s ageist, but it’s bordering on. We have a generation gap which the younger generation can adopt the new agile lead tech and the methods of progressing in business where the older generation finds it hard. It leaves that massive cultural divide. That’s a big thing; talking about the cultural divide between a millennial and someone like me.
Luckily, I can understand the tech, thank God. I should be. I’m supposed to be an influencer, so I should understand it, really. It’s a cultural thing, technical change. But, you need to have the right business drivers at the top at least to point.
Blaine: We actually did a previous podcast about attracting millennials to work in tech companies and how it can be so different to attract and retain and motivate those folks than it was in earlier generations. And I think what you’re pointing out is that digital business transformation that organizations need to undergo also has to do with some generational shift. They’re connected to each other. That’s really interesting.
We talk a lot about how digital transformation is fundamentally a cultural issue, a business issue, as well as a technical issue. I hadn’t actually thought about the cultural issue in terms of the generations. I think that’s an astute observation.
Neil: It is interesting because it’s something that is quite often overlooked. The millennials today are going to be the influencers and business leaders tomorrow. They have no baggage. They have no history. They know what they know and they know what they know today.
I always say business change comes in cycles. As one generation ages off, a new generation comes to fruition. It’s like a 8-10 year cycle. It’s an easy business analogy to compare against.
Look at financial services. What comes around like the fall of the banking system back in 2008-9 where everyone just oversold stuff to people that shouldn’t really have bought it. Now, we’ve gone full circle again. Now we’re back to another 10 years on. We’ve made the changes from the mistakes that we’ve had. It’s like fashion. It comes back, but with some certain twists. So, the core is still the same, but we just fluff up the edges and go, “Now that’s correct. It should be like this. This is how our business model goes forward.”.
If you’ve got someone very young without that and also without the social skillset to pull that off, we’re missing a big trick. These guys are not going to be able to perform. It is really going to be a big culture issue. They’d rather text the answer to someone rather than talk to them. And that’s today.
Blaine: You were talking earlier about adaptive intelligence and we talk a lot about human-machine collaboration, about systems, increasingly intelligent systems and people working closely together. I wonder if that’s another area where the younger generations will have an easier time accepting a partner or a collaborator that is a machine, so to speak, whether machine is a literal machine or a software system or not. Any thoughts on that?
Neil: Well it’s funny, really, because I bought a device on the weekend, an Oculus Go VR headset, mainly to shoot a lot of zombies on the games. I quite enjoy playing games. [laughter] But it’s actually amazing how far we’ve come down the virtual reality to mainstream now. This is still in its infancy, really.
I can live in a virtual world. I mean, quite literally, for four hours, I was killing zombies and watching documentaries with this headset on, ignoring everyone else around me, and even inviting people in from different countries around the world. We’re all playing these games together. Not only that, also meeting up and chatting.
I think with AI, adapted intelligence, [as it] becomes more and more prevailing within technology, everyone’s becoming more reclusive. We won’t have this social development, these social skills that are really needed in business. The younger generation will take it for granted and say we don’t need that anymore. We don’t need interactive personal skills. Dating will be a thing of the past and that kind of thing, which it is for a lot of the younger generation at the moment.
Blaine: I wonder what the implications are for businesses that are trying to figure out how to transform themselves and if already many companies are becoming sort of distributed organizations where they don’t have central offices. They have people working from home. Now, you add on augmented reality and virtual reality on top of that, I wonder if organizations the way they’re currently formulated will even exist 10 or 20 years from now.
Neil: We’ve got some big shots coming in the next 10 years. Some of the largest companies in the world won’t be here. Having spent many, many years of my life interviewing business owners from small to some of the largest companies in the world, it’s very prevalent that a lot of the people within those organizations, there’s this big divide. As the tech is superseding itself monthly, your employees can’t keep up.
If you’re a tech firm you have to adapt, adapt, and adapt.I hate to say it, and that’s an ageist thing, really, but a lot of them are not capable of learning new technology, a new way of thinking, for future proofing their existence at the firm, not anything else. You’ll find staff will be aged off. And then, basically, younger staff coming in. That sounds really awful, but I start to see that already. There’s a lot of middle-aged people out of work in the fact that they can’t adapt to the technical change.
Blaine: I think there’s certainly some truth to that. Although, being a gentleman myself who is certainly not of the Generation X or the younger generations (and you’re another example obviously) it is possible for people to keep up. I also think, as technology improves and AI, and VR, I think it hopefully will become less about people modifying their behavior to adapt to the pace of technology and more about technology and people working it out together; technology being an enabler that gets people to be to accelerate their own development.
People can bring their knowledge and wisdom to the game. The artificially intelligent machines can bring the speed, the multitasking, and the stuff that the supposed younger generations are actually good at. Maybe that’s a more hopeful future.
Neil: Please don’t get me wrong, Blaine. I’m not anti-tech in the future. I’m far from it. I think tech has its uses and absolutely it wouldn’t stop progress of technology. But, in the right way, technology doesn’t solve every problem. If we are trying to get it to solve every problem on the planet, we’re going to fail. Typically, what we’ll end up doing is over-solving problems. We’ll overcompensate for that and then we’ll have a mass unemployment like you’ve never seen before.
Blaine: All right. Well, if technology is not going to solve every problem, then that leaves government. Government will solve all our problems. They’ve attempted to solve a lot of our problems recently with the GDPR legislation. I know you’ve been involved in that from the consultancy side. Is GDPR helping or is it hurting our transition or slowing down our transition into the future of technology-led innovation?
Neil: It’s interesting because in everything, you need regulation. If you don’t regulate something, it’s unregulated. It’s Wild West. Anyone could do whatever they want. However, if you go over too much in regulation, then it will constrict the growth. Financial services is probably a very good example of that. There is a reason why we regulate banking and have governing bodies like the FCA to control what should be done and the appropriate conduct.
GDPR is an interesting subject because we just lived through this the last three or four months. It was a two year waiting countdown. It became a bit of a dead squid. You had consultancy companies, not me I might add, that would say, “You’re going to get a fine. You’re going to get a big fine. You need to do this, this, this.” The confusion that created! Because nobody knew it.
When people tend to get too confused, they just put their fingers in their ears and hope it will never happen. I would say, (I’ll probably get shot for saying it) probably 60/70 percent of the firms in the UK are going “la la la la la la” at the moment. They’re not quite sure how to deal with this issue.
The law has passed and we’re already three or four months down the line. We’re all waiting for someone to be the sacrificial lamb, to be called out. And then, you have the shock factor. Everyone goes, “Oh no!” And everyone knee jerks and overcompensates. Typically, firms don’t actually become proactive in a regulatory law like that. They wait until somebody gets prosecuted or fined and then they’ll knee jerk because they don’t want to be the next one.
Blaine: Very interesting. I haven’t seen any actual stats, but that surprises me that you think the number is that high of companies that haven’t moved to compliance yet. That shocks me if that’s actually the case.
Neil: Yeah. I would say [that applies to] the low to mid-tier organizations. Large companies have budgets to set fire to that and teams of people to run with that regulation, amongst many others.
Blaine: No doubt. Cool! Well, this is the part where I get to ask you to call bullshit on some aspect of conventional wisdom that most of the market thinks something is X and you actually maybe think it’s Y. What would you like to call bullshit on, Neil?
Neil: There’s a risk of upsetting quite a few people. There’s probably quite a few, to be honest. Can I have a couple?
Neil: I love the word blockchain. It’s something that I understand and articulate quite well and I’ve worked alongside other people in an analyst capacity. Everyone seems to think that blockchain ought to fix every problem on the planet at the moment from the plastics in our oceans to the garbage collection outside of our houses to IPR for music distribution to food distributions, everything.
It fascinates me because that’s one way of looking at a concept of infrastructure of how, what I call, the Napster of old – and it pretty much was. It’s supposed to be designed for anonymous, transactional computations. Now, we’ve re-engineered it to actually be mutable and based on a trust system.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s an exceptionally large place in tech for block chain, but unfortunately, it’s so overhyped. Yeah, a lot of it is bullshit, really, quite literally. And there’s lots of people capitalizing on that. When you look at it, inherently, it’s not about the infrastructure, the concept of block chain. What do you do with it? How do I store money? How do I store transactions?
People don’t realize that actually it’s your digital wallet that actually comes under scrutiny, not the blockchain. There’s a few people, naysayers, saying, “Oh! It’s insecure. It’s not ___.” Actually, it is technical infrastructure. It’s as secure as you want to make it. But, I have a wallet today and it’s in the back of my trousers. Someone can steal it and I get mugged and they run off with them.
It’s exactly the same with the digital equivalent. If I don’t secure it enough, if I do my pocket up on my back pocket, that makes it difficult for a pickpocket. It’s the same thing in additional space. If you don’t secure it, someone is going to steal it. You’ve got hackers out there that are from their bedroom. They don’t even have to get out of bed and they can make money out of that.
Blaine: All right! So, calling a little bit of B.S. on blockchain and you’re not the first to do that on this series. I think that means something. Did you say you had another one?
Neil: Yeah! The whole social media aspect. I’m very active on social media. When you become an influencer, you can look at people like Trump. Right? He puts a tweet out and everyone reacts massively. And they go, “How dare he say this on Twitter!” Well you can say what you like. That’s the whole point of a platform like that.
But then when you start gauging people’s interactions and how many impressions they had and what type of influence they have, there’s a whole different world. It’s a whole, complete different world of where I can talk to you on Twitter telling you what a lovely, fluffy cat that I sent picture of to you. And you reply, “Yes. Lovely! Longhaired. What do you call it?” We’d have this conversation about this cat picture and that builds up your influence, but it doesn’t actually build up your influence in your field.
So, you’ll find that I don’t send pictures of fluffy cats to anyone; maybe funny pictures, maybe tech funny pictures with a tech anecdote. However, you will find that there are lots of people around saying they’re really big tech influencers but, actually, influencing what? Pictures of fluffy cats? GIF images that we send each other? The whole gauge and Twitter’s analytics and the way that they gauge their influence and other third-party tools, to be honest, I believe is well needed of a complete revamp.
So, who are influencers? People who know what they’re talking about. People that have a voice and an opinion and a valid one get understood. The people who just want a bit of fame and notoriety shouldn’t be put in that same kind of category.
Blaine: Interesting. A little too easy to game the system right now I guess.
Neil: Yeah! People do massage it and play that system like anything else.
Blaine: No doubt. All right, so to wrap it up, do you have any final words of advice or wisdom for business or technology leaders who are looking to drive their real-time digital transformation?
Neil: Get your checkbook out. [laughter] It’s going to cost. Nothing’s for free in this world, so you’re going have to look at the right place at the right time with the right tech. But, to be honest, don’t believe the hype. Take your case as an individual and don’t compare it to anyone else’s business. Start from within. Look at the change. Get your strategy guys and the people that are driving your business forward today. Bring it in house and work out what you need to do. You don’t need to follow the rest of the herd. It’s very specific and very individual to you.
That’s my biggest advice if people are looking to do that business change using digital transformation to underpin it. Not all firms need to convert digital. That’s as simple as that. Don’t spend money you don’t have to. Of course, you can hire me, obviously and I will help you out! [laughter]
Blaine: There you go. Well thank you, Neil. That wraps it. Thanks much for joining us today for this great conversation. Those interested in hearing more of Neil’s thoughts can follow @neilcattermull, that’s two T’s and two L’s on Twitter and also check out his website frontiertechnology.co.ukand you can reach out to me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neil, again, thanks so much!
Neil: Thank you very much Blaine!