Steve Plunkett: CTO, Technology Strategist, Product Innovator. Get to know the man with over 25 years of technology experience.
A highly creative, results-oriented executive with over 25 years of international technology, business and entrepreneurial experience in mobile, broadcast, media and Internet industries. Having started his career in banking as a consultant, moved into the mobile industry as Chief Architect for Motorola before moving to Broadcast Media as CTO of RedBee Media and latterly CTO for Ericsson Broadcast. Steve has a wealth of experience of building high performing technology teams and leveraging emerging technologies to deliver exceptional business results.
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What are the top 3 priorities in your most recent role?
Focusing on the past 12 months they would be:
Data – One big area for us (Ericsson/RedBee Media) was data and understanding how we collect and utilise data that exists in the business. I don’t think we were unique in this, as many businesses today are looking to become more and more data driven by collecting data from systems, people and activities. Plus understanding where that data is found and how to best optimise it.
During the last 12 months, I spent quite a lot of time developing a data strategy and looking at how that would be implemented from a technology point of view; how it would be used from a business point of view; and how it could drive more efficient operations.
AI / Automation – The media industry has been evolving very quickly with the emergence of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services. The likes of ITV and BBC are now competing with a totally new breed of content provider. In Ericsson/RedBee Media, there were around 2700 people, with 2000 performing operational tasks on a daily basis. Our priority was to be able to analyse newly collected data and look at AI and Machine Learning to see how we could use these new technologies to change the way we operate.
Scaling – How to scale up the business and this came in a couple of categories. How to use technologies such as the cloud or by using new approaches such as machine learning to scale. Also, how to scale up skills. New approaches require different skill bases and you can’t simply bring in new staff, the need is to scale up skills across existing teams too.
Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?
That’s a tricky question, I suppose I would look at my most recent role as CTO of Ericsson’s Broadcast and Media Services. It coincided with an industry going through significant technological change, coupled with lots of commercial disruption from new entities. It was a really exciting time with a lot going on – I learned about the complexities of managing much larger teams, the challenges of going into a business that had acquired various different entities with different technologies, all of which had been independently evolved in these different businesses and trying to bring some cohesiveness and a common strategy across them all, in synergy with a common culture.
How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?
In many ways, I think the role will be the same from a technology point of view, one of anticipating and understanding what’s next and how that can be leveraged and taken advantage of by a business.
There’s the external facing aspects of the technology leadership role. You need to be abreast of the latest technology trends and participate in standards, bodies and trade organisations to try and influence things in a way which suits your particular business. Then there are the internal aspects; mentoring, developing, recruiting and retaining great talent and getting them to believe in and commit to your strategy / mission. All of these things are universal and have been around for a long time, I don’t think that part of the role will change.
What I think will change, particularly over the next few years, will be the role of AI, some of the tasks that were always historically delegated to staff will now be delegated to software. We’ve used software to build systems which humans interact with and operate, we’ll need to think differently about how we create software based machines that can perform roles which people would have done in the past. It’s almost a new category of employee, but a very different one. As a technology leader, I think it’s very important to know what that means technically, organisationally, and from a people perspective – how can you augment and improve people’s capability, creativity and productivity utilizing something potentially as disruptive as AI.
What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?
Skills – Looking through the lens of the Media Industry, although I do believe this is fairly universal, there are roles that didn’t exist in most companies until very recently, for example a whole new category in data; data analysts, data scientists and data architects are roles that are very new and companies will need to recruit. How do you enable your existing teams to embrace and take on new types of roles and new technologies? How do you know how to identify what good looks like, if you are bringing in expertise from the outside? How do you get new people and your existing teams to work cohesively?
Diversity – I mentor some coding classes for younger kids / early teens, it’s fascinating to see that in the later stage age group of these classes it’s almost entirely made up of teenage boys, whereas the younger classes of which my daughter was sitting in, the majority of the class was made up of young girls. There seems to be a shake-out, around the starting of secondary school, of excited, capable, talented and able-to-prosper girls. Why don’t they make it through to later stage roles?
If I look at the 170+ software developers I had in my previous group, the vast majority, although spread across many different culture and countries, had a very heavy predominance towards men. We are missing out on a massive talent pool, I think it’s a massive problem we need to address as societies and as industries.
Data – I’ve already talked about creating a data strategy and this has made me think about what data is. It comes in many different forms, shapes and sizes. It’s now on a much larger scale and dealing with that scale is a challenge. I read a statistic recently that most businesses use about 1% of the data that they have; a very small subsite of what’s actually there to use, is being used. It’s an opportunity and a challenge. It’s an opportunity because that data could unlock great insight and create competitive advantage. It’s a challenge because unless you know how to unlock it (data) from applications, systems and processes that it sits within, plus know how to collect it at scale and utilise some of the cloud platforms, it’s an issue because even if you want to become more data driven, you don’t know how to.
What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?
There’s many to choose from and some of them are quite broad categories, but if I had to choose I would say:
AI – It’s an obvious one for me, and I think everyone you speak to will have it in their top three. I’m excited by it because it’s quite radically different in what it could enable people and businesses to do. The way we are seeing machine learning and particularly deep learning based techniques develop and the speed it’s developing at is incredible. It’s become more accessible, over the last 12 months in particular, we’ve seen the emergence of frameworks where you don’t have to be a statistician, a maths prodigy or algorithm expert, to be able to take advantage of AI. There are lots and lots of software tools becoming available that mean much of the complexity is now hidden, and you can start to think more about the business problems or opportunities that you would like to target using AI.
Microservices – if we look at software generally and how we make it more scalable, more robust, easier to troubleshoot and with less defects, I think the microservices approach to software development and teams is an important and exciting trend. Over the past couple of years, there’s been some very good commentary on why building software in smaller component parts makes it easier to iterate and scale horizontally. I think Microservices will continue to change how we build systems and software, and how we operate them.
Serverless – Whether its Lambda on AWS or Functions as a Service on Azure, as you start to create small functions, it becomes easier for you to deploy directly to the cloud which is very powerful. Somebody else will worry about very large scale deployment and resilience, so I think that changes the way you think. If you are a business making software, or software as a service, you can spend more of your time writing code that delivers some value internally to your business or directly to your customers in the form of a product. The more time you can spend focusing on that code, instead of patching operating systems and building infrastructure and plumbing, the better.
What product or company is having the biggest impact?
That’s a tricky one, there are so many different things that I use and so many different companies, there’s also lots of open source projects. If you had to single out one organisation though, it would be AWS for lots of different reasons; the pace in which they evolved their platform and the experiences that other organisations have been able to share based on that platform, particularly in the media industry.
What mobile app do you use every day?
I spend a lot of time on various forms of instant messaging or group collaboration tools, things including Slack, Stride and Whatsapp. There’s something about the immediacy of it and being able to tell if someone has read your message, it’s a low-friction way of reaching out to lots of people easily.
What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?
People Skills – Understanding how to motivate people, understanding how to get people to all point in the same direction, and doing this in a way which makes people want to follow your lead as opposed to forcing them down a particular path. Leadership, management, mentoring, the soft skills can often be underestimated, particularly as you move into a leadership role and take responsibility for teams. You need to be able to engage with people as people, you need a side that is compelling to others, if you don’t have this you are going to have a problem.
Learning – Something I learned very early on when I embraced a technical career path was the amount of continuous learning that goes with that. On other career paths you learn your degree, you learn your subject and become a master of the sector. In Technology there’s so many things I’ve learned and have spent time refining over the years, which are now completely redundant and yet you invested thousands of hours into mastering them. Understanding the need for continuous learning is one of the most basic attributes of a technical leader. You have to find a way, whether it’s reading blogs, reading books, listening to podcasts or participating in events. You need to dedicate enough time to stay abreast of what’s going on and be prepared to let go of your previous learnings however tough that may be.
Context – Understanding your business context. Most of the time your business is about selling some form of product or service, not selling technology. You are using technology to enable the product, it’s a means rather than an end. You have to understand what your business strategy and goals are - the technology leader should be able to express a technical viewpoint which can influence the viewpoint of a company, but equally you need to be able to take on board and understand what’s going on financially in the business and competitively in the marketplace - those things should help your decisions. You often have to make lots of technology compromises.
Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?
Most recently, I use medium. It was created by the co-founder of twitter, Evan Williams, who originally created blogger. I find today more and more great technical content being authored on the medium platform. I also use techmeme everyday for general tech news.
What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?
This is tough one, I read a lot of books and always have. There’s been so many great ones I’ve read over the years – if you are in the business of building software you can’t have avoided agile development and Scrum in particular. Jeff Sutherland’s book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time is a great read to understand where it came from and the intentions behind it. There are some older software books that influenced my thinking, including: The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware. There are some interesting thoughts on how you scale a business or a software division and the constraints in doing so. I also get inspiration from stories of other people who’ve built technology businesses; there are so many examples and it’s hard to pick one but Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators is a good example.