How to provide the spark for continuous learning amidst ongoing disruption

CJ Little, head of engineering at Magic Memories, proffers a way of taking on business challenges in the current era of digitalisation and disruption.

Something to consider is that there are lots of services today that did not exist five to 10 years ago, he says.

“It is worth looking at whatever your existing problem is, whether or not you have solved it.”

Step back, take it apart, look holistically, he says. “If I were to solve the problem today, how would I do it?”

He says that taking this approach really gets you into a mind frame which allows you to think outside the box, and not be limited by capital expenditure, hardware constraints and bandwidth.

He uses this mindset at Magic Memories. The company was number two in the Ernst and Young top 10 companies to watch in the 2017 TIN report, given to businesses with the largest revenue growth over the past year.

CJ Little, Magic Memories: “It is worth looking at whatever your existing problem is...step back, take it apart, look at it holistically, and ask, ‘If I were to solve the problem today, how would I do it?’”

The Kiwi company started by taking photos of people in venues such as theme parks, and is now present in hundreds of venues across the globe.

Little talks about how the company uses new technologies to tackle digital disruption, and looks at what they can do with technology to create a different experience.

Magic Memories’ core systems are on AWS, and bolting on features such as Amazon Rekognition for real-time face recognition provides them with data on guest cohorts and guest sentiments that will allow them to provide other products and services to their customers and partners.

“We take your photo and if you don’t buy it, you have a code for it and you can come back. In a week or a month, you can go online, put a code in and you have access to photos, you can purchase.”

Ten or 15 years ago, once we took a photo, our only revenue opportunity came if we saw the subject immediately. If we did not see them, they were gone, along with the sale opportunity.

“We are testing digital products; we are working on a mechanism to reach out to folks after they have left the park.

“We are increasing the lifetime value of our customers by engaging with them after the event.”

Today, customers can go online after they leave.

Little explains that the physical copy of a photograph is still their primary product, but they also offer digital rights to the photo which customers can download.

“We are also working on increasing types of offsite products that are not just digital downloads,” says Little. “You can buy a photo and we can bring it to you as a book.

“That ultimately increases our value to the customer.”

Little is also exploring services and products they can offer to people waiting in queues.

He says Magic Memories is working around some concepts for this audience.

“I have yet to meet someone that really enjoys waiting in line, you either tolerate it or hate it. What sort of things can we do for folks in a queue at a theme park?”

There are interesting opportunities to provide them with compelling services.

Little also points to the need to prepare for emerging technologies that can impact the business.

One of these is machine learning, whose impact to organisations can be compared to that of the internet.

“If it were 20 years ago, I would tell you that you need to look at this thing called the internet,” he says. “It is going to revolutionise your business and my business.”

“I feel [that] artificial intelligence and machine learning will be the next big thing,” he says. “You can take any business problem and apply machine learning to [solve] it very quickly, with almost zero capital expenditure. To have that in 2018 is impressive.”

“If your business it not embracing that, if you are not doing an exploratory survey or looking at products that are doing this, it is likely someone will come along and eat your lunch.”

CJ Little at the 2018 AWS Summit in Sydney

Little ensures that he finds time talk to students to encourage them to forge a career in ICT.

“We have an obligation as leaders in the industry to open their eyes on what the potential options in technology are.”

He says he finds the best ages to do this is for students who are in junior high.

At the age of 12 to 14, they usually don’t know what they want to do next, and do not know what the actual job opportunities are.

He tells them about different roles in the industry, like product management or product creation.

“It is very much a logistical sort of role; a science role with a significant amount of creativity. You are sort of in the middle,” he says.

When you describe that role to students they typically say they did not know it existed, and will start asking you questions on what it means.

He says his favourite prop when explaining the role to students is a white board.

He draws the person, the product manager, talking to different people and taking in their ideas. The product manager aggregates these ideas and builds a blueprint for the engineering team. The engineering team will say they could do it, but one part would be tricky. “So they find a solution and make a blueprint. You help create the product, you do the underwork to make it,” says Little.

He remembers how growing up, his interest in technology was sparked by similar discussions around space travel. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. Everyone wanted to be one,” he says.

“You give them a spark,” he says on what he imparts to the children during these meetings.

“Every one of those kids could go to a computer and get [the] education they need online for free. It was not like that 15 to 20 years ago.”

Fill the gaps

Pete Yates has always adapted the mindset of being in a continuous learning mode, particularly in the age of cloud technologies.

“In all my roles I have encouraged and supported personal development, from instructor led training, time off for self-learning, paying for exams or attending seminars or conferences,” says Yates, who has worked as a CTO and CIO in different sectors, such as healthcare, local government and telecommunications.

“As IT leaders, we need to support and grow our team’s skills and knowledge which will then help retain and attract talent, and also fill skill gaps in hard to find areas of expertise.”

“With new ways of working and changes in technology, IT professionals need to be constantly learning and developing new skills,” he says.

Before joining a company, make sure they will support your personal growth, by freeing up time for you to attend training courses, self-study, relevant seminars or even secondment opportunities.Pete Yates

“They should definitely not rest on past skills to get them that new role or advance within their current company,” he says.

“This thinking is across the board from chief information officers to network engineers, where we as IT professionals must remain relevant, especially as the robots are coming.

“Joking aside, personal development should be taken very seriously and you need to own it,” he says.

The company and the manager need to be supportive of one’s developmental needs.

Thus he advises that before joining a company, make sure they will support your personal growth, by freeing up time for you to attend training courses, self-study, relevant seminars or even secondment opportunities.

When Yates was at Spark Ventures (the innovation and incubation arm of Spark NZ), he supported and encouraged his team to develop their experience to cover a broad range of in demand skills such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), scripting and open source solutions.

“They could see that their specific set of skills was becoming less in demand and the industry move to AWS was inevitable. To start with they were all allocated sandpit accounts to try out and experiment with AWS as well as attending free lunch and learn sessions, online courses and official AWS courses.”

He says he also hired two experienced AWS engineers who acted as subject matter experts with the others in the team learning a lot from them.

“I also ensured that skills and solution knowledge was shared amongst the team with the 100/80/20 rule, 100 being the go to subject matter expert (SME), 80 being the main cover for the SME and 20 being the person who can get by.

He says pretty much the whole team ended up being AWS certified or at least having attended a number of AWS courses.

Pete Yates at a CIO roundtable discussion in Auckland

The portfolio career

Twenty years ago you went to an office, you had a cubicle. That is how you did your job. Now, you have open spaces. The workplace has evolved, says Bettina Baer, GBS managing partner at IBM.

By 2030, workers will spend more time learning on the job, and almost 100 per cent more time at work solving problems, says Baer, quoting the report on The New Work Smarts: Thriving in the New Work Order by the Foundation for Young Australians.

The same report says workers will also spend 77 per cent more time using STEM (science and mathematics skills).

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We need to be teaching children not just how to add, but how to solve problemsBettina Baer, IBM

“We need to invest and be ready for that,” she says.

We need to be teaching children not just how to add, but how to solve problems, she says.

When things become automated, workers can focus not on mundane things but on areas that are strategic and require problem solving.

At the same time, the incoming workforce will have portfolio careers, or a variety of jobs throughout their lifetime.

“We need to think differently if we want to retain talent,” she says.

Organisations can provide cross training of staff by allowing them to work in different areas of the business, and help them get certification as they move into the workforce.

At IBM, a person who works in HR and talent management can be assigned to work in global business services, or move to the software or hardware part of the business.

This way, the person is learning on the job, doing different things and picking up different skills.

She says SMEs may find this a challenge and there should be resources available to help these businesses to do the same thing for their employees.

“It is incumbent upon us to help lead this conversation and come out with programmes to support these types of things.”

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