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I love managing products and product development

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Interview with Steve Dalton.

Interview with Steve Dalton
Steve Dalton

Elena Ornig:

IT is a young industry but you have been in this industry for the last 20 years.  Do you still get excited by new technologies, new developments of languages and frameworks, including the new hardware which it runs on?

Steve Dalton:

I was born in Wolverhampton and studied in  Birmingham. When I left school, I didn’t know what to do but at school I liked mathematics, physics and computers. I was good at these subjects, particularly computers – I was the best kid in this area. Often I would show my teacher what to do and he was totally cool about it encouraging me to learn more. Since I didn’t know what to do, I did electrical engineering; I was also interested in alternative energy. I became electrical engineer. It was actually a hard degree with many complex subjects and I even took one year off, doing some computer programming working for IBM. 

I graduated with a degree in electrical and computer engineering. I got a job as an embedded software engineer with 3Com, developing software but I wasn’t writing code for average business software. I was writing programs for routers and switches. We were putting web interfaces into embedded devices that had previously only had difficult to use cryptic command line interfaces. Then, we were breaking into a new field and it was really good fun. Looking back, I think it was my best job ever but I wasn’t earning enough money to pay off my student debts. So I took a job in the city working on business software and I eventually moved to Australia and as it happens, I didn’t go into electronics and for many years I was doing everyday business software development.

Currently, there is so much happening in software development and it is exciting but I found that right now, hardware electronics is more interesting to me. So, I am back in electronics, working with the open-source electronics platform Arduino, small low power computers such as Raspberry Pi and 3D printing. I get really excited about it. I mean look at all these diverse devices, coming onto the market: iPads, smart phones, smart wristwatches or goggle glasses – that makes electronic engineering a more exciting and more interesting field.

In Australia, I worked as a contractor for banks, insurance companies and trading and exchange companies. I was developing trading, networking, insurance, stock exchange and financial options based software. I eventually opened a consulting company with my colleagues on the Gold Coast – Refactor  which is now also moving into hardware. I am not really attracted to manage people but I love managing products and product development.

Steve Dalton REFACTOR

If I could take my degree again, I would choose alternative energy engineering. I have really been interested in solar power since I was a kid but in those days it was so new and people who were doing that were looked upon as hippies. There were not so many jobs in alternative energy engineering but now, there are so many jobs in solar power engineering.

To answer your question, I think that now, combining software and hardware is very exciting. When I was about 10 years old, I had a very low powered computer with only a tape for storage – you couldn’t do a lot with it.Our server at school had a 20Mb hard disk for the entire school. Kids these days are quite spoiled. The average PC station is now like a super computer of the 80s with discs 50,000 times bigger than the disc I had.

Elena Ornig:

I know that many refer to you as a connector and you also call yourself connector sometimes. Are you a connector?

Steve Dalton:

I know a lot of people and people come to me all the time. I became quite good at introducing people. I am not like a recruiter; I build personal long-lasting relationships with people. I link the right people together, I connect them. I have found many jobs for people. I receive a lot of appreciation from people and I don’t mind to hear a genuine “Thank you, Steve”.  When people say thank you, I tend to help them again and again. I think a good genuine thank you is good enough payment sometimes!

Elena Ornig:

Just to follow up on the first question. What do you like best in software development – work on the applications which allow your clients to perform particular tasks on PCs or other devices; or do you prefer to work on the applications that allow your clients to control their networks through different devices?

Steve Dalton:

I like the entire system. I don’t think small I always consider the big picture – how the whole system will work and what it can do.

A project that I just worked on as an individual software developer with game developers was one of the most interesting jobs that I have had in ages. The project was called Word Mania. It is a game for kids from 6-12 years old based on the challenge to build new words. We have had so much positive feedback since its launch where some kids spent hours playing it, learning how to build words and how to spell them correctly.  I have an eight year old son, and it was good for us to have fun together. He took Word Mania’s poster to his school and explained to everyone how the game worked. He told other kids that his dad was one of the developers of this game and was very proud.

World Mania Game

In our industry, it is often hard for dads who work many hours on developing software, to spend quality time with their kids. For kids, it is also hard to understand what their dads are really doing. For me, that project was quality time that I spent with my kids. I also have daughter, and she is the artist whereas my son loves IT and learning video production. He loves using and exploring all devices; too much sometimes.

Elena Ornig:

Since you have rediscovered an increased interest in electronics and hardware, what are you planning to do as a hardware developer?

Steve Dalton:

There are not many companies on the Gold Coast that are involved in hardware development. Though it is a huge area to explore, there are only few companies here because almost everything is produced in China or elsewhere. I do my own thing and I believe you have to do your own thing in that field.  We have a couple of projects at the moment. One of them is client based rapid prototyping which means developing something really fast on a limited budget. What that means is that you can write a little integrated circuit for a particular device and then demonstrate it to potential clients. If the clients really like the product – you can then produce it very quickly. What is interesting is that the more I talk to the people involved in electronics and hardware development – the more ideas come up. I have about 10 ideas in a queue at the moment but there are not enough investors for these ideas. People who could make these ideas work need a stable income to provide for their families. We have people but we don’t have investors. If I had a spare million dollars today, I would hire everyone and start developing these ideas – but without money, they will stay in the queue.

Elena Ornig:

Even with your expertise in computer programming you still need to keep up to date with new computer languages, software, tools and overall new technologies. Where and how do you brief yourself and have you found this process tiring or exiting?

Steve Dalton:

I think I have a bit of a funny answer to your question. I am a very lazy learner.

Elena Ornig:

What do you mean, lazy learner?

Steve Dalton:

I use to read a lot but now I do not have time. Have you heard about Tim Ferris? He wrote a book – THE 4-HOUR WORKWEEK. One of the topics he talks about – Low-Information Diet. No newspapers, magazines, news websites, web surfing only if you must. No audio books or non – music radio. Television and book reading is limited to a pleasurable time of one hour for each activity. However, listening to music is permitted at all times. What he is teaching is to value your time instead of wasting it. For example, when you have you coffee somewhere – ask the waiter “Hey, what’s new, today?” He will brief you and you don’t have to read a newspaper. I am doing this in briefing myself on news in technology, only I don’t ask a waiter, I ask the people around me who are involved in the same industry. This is one of the good things about Gold Coast TechSpace. We have speed readers here who are able to absorb a lot of new information and understand technology very well. These people will summarise all the new information for me or others. These people are like Mavens.

A Trusted Expert

One more good book for your readers which explores the particular phenomenon named – the tipping point. The bestseller The Tipping Point was written by Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about a maven, a connector or a salesperson and what specifies these types of people.

It doesn’t mean that I do not read at all, I just reduce the time for reading. I do read about the latest IT news on TechCrunch or Reddit but not too much and yes, I do goggle the news sometimes. I do get a lot of valuable information from LinkedIn and Twitter. I use LinkedIn the most and occasionally I read Hacker News.

Elena Ornig:

What are the challenges of being a software developer today?

Steve Dalton:

The first challenge today is just to keep up with the rapid developments in science and technology. However, one of the biggest challenges that I see today is that we don’t have enough young people who are coming into the IT industry. If you take into consideration that the IT industry will triple – the biggest challenge is to fill the huge gap in professionals.  The pioneers of software development are becoming older and we are losing them. In Australia, we don’t have a lot of people who are doing computer science and engineering degrees. Schools are not teaching computer programming.

As a President and Co-Founder of Gold Coast TechSpace I am strategically organising workshops to educate teachers from the local schools who in turn could inspire the new generation to do programming. Last weekend we conducted our first workshop to stimulate interest in computer programming and electronics. We used the Raspberry Pi mini-computers. Our workshop attracted more than 30 teachers. It was great!

TechSpace Gold Coast

We are also planning to get involved with Griffith Cutting Edge Science Professional Learning Days for teachers in December.

I have observed that we do not have apprenticeships in the IT industry. If you want to be a plumber or a builder you can become a professional through apprenticeship training. My granddad, for example, was a builder who had several sons. Each of his sons was his apprentice and all of them became successful builders. My brother is a very good carpenter and he learnt from my dad. What I am saying is that we might need to look at this example and learn from it. In the IT industry, I do not know anyone who has apprentices and I don’t understand why not?

Elena Ornig:

You are so right! That is a very good idea and definitely should be investigated further.

Steve Dalton:

That is why, I have started Gold Coast TechSpace and we already have positive results. Quite a few of our members were employed in IT even without any higher education. Yes, you need to understand the theory but in our industry it is all about practice, practice and more practice. You can learn theory online but you need to combine it with practice in places like Gold Coast TechSpace or similar.

Elena Ornig:

How do you see or would like to see the future of Gold Coast TechSpace?

Steve Dalton:

I recognised the value of people coming together in one place. People who are involved in the IT industry or people who are interested in technology and science in general are often hidden behind doors and considered introverts. I want these people to get out and to get together because of my experiences with a different group – BarCampGoldCoast which I started in 2007 and which very quickly became a quite popular group. I really liked the atmosphere. People were making valuable connections and some even formed new companies with other members of BarCampGoldCoast. However, this group didn’t have a permanent place.

About three years ago, I began to think of how to form a new group and provide it with a permanent place. The first place for Gold Coast TechSpace was at Johnson Street – it was an industrial shed. We started to do robotics, build 3D printers, organised Lego-workshops for the kids and we tried many different things. At the beginning I treated Gold Coast TechSpace as an experiment and sure enough, we made many mistakes but we have learnt from them.

Now we are located in the new modern building of the Community Centre in Robina. Today’s Gold Coast TechSpace organisation is a physical place for people to come together, learn and practice their skills in technology, hardware, software, robotics and electronics where all the activities are determined by members of all ages.

Gold Coast TechSpace Location

I am happy for people to start new businesses from here and that is why we are now moving toward organising business incubator programs.

Of course not everything goes according to plan but I love this organisation. I would like to see our organisation grow into an IT education centre but I want us to stay lean and agile.

Elena Ornig:

There are a couple of particular issues that are recently gaining momentum in the IT industry – professional certification and pressure on quality assurance which was brought up by the agile development of high frequency testing. What is your view on these issues?

Steve Dalton:

I don’t really pay too much attention to certification; I think it is a waste of time. We had ‘certified professionals’ who we interviewed.  Though the interviews went well when we did practical tests we discovered that they couldn’t code. So, it is very easy to make someone look brilliant on paper but in reality it could be quite the opposite. Now, I don’t pay too much attention to what’s on paper, I want to see what you can do. I had a young man, right here at Gold Coast TechSpace who had no formal IT education but I saw what he could produce and I hired him. That is why, I think that apprenticeships or on the job training groups could be a better solution for the IT industry. You can observe these people and quite quickly sort out who is capable and who is not. Organisations that are running certification programs are just making money from the training. It is a business in itself and I know that certification is so easy to get. I believe that certification alone doesn’t make you a better software engineer.

Elena Ornig:

So, what do you think about the second issue – product quality assurance?

Steve Dalton:

In many projects that I have been involved with I do follow agile and lean methodology. We do a minimum amount of work just like an experiment and then we test it. When we do a minimum viable product, the initial quality often is something we do not even care about because it might not work. When you deliver a product you need to make sure that it is working perfectly. However, even if you deliver a quality product according to all specifications – it will not necessarily be seen by a customer as a quality product. The product’s quality also needs to adhere to customers’ specification and the customers’ needs. What is the point in developing a quality product that the customers do not want to use? So, the quality of a product is not about traditional technical quality checks it is more about what people actually want. A lot of products’ developers are thinking about the technical qualities of a product and the bugs in the system: will it crash or not. They also tend to add many features to their products, interesting features but these features will not necessarily be used by the customers.

For example, one of my Startup’s ideas began as one thing and gradually evolved in something else through pivoting; through pivoting several times after talking directly to the customers. Often it was a process of simplification instead of making it more complex by adding more features. In some way it is worthwhile removing the complications in a product in order to make it better – keep it simple. Also, making it better by removing some features may well make it cheaper and therefore more profitable.

Agile Methodology

There is one more point I want to add – automated testing. The automated testing in agile development is a way to ensure that a product does exactly what it is meant to do without testing the whole system from beginning to end. You can add something new or change something in a particular fragment of a system via feedback loops by using the small and tight feedback loops or a bigger loop, such as the customer’s feedback loop. All it does it helps you to ensure that nothing is broken in a particular segment of the whole system. If you do not do this agile testing it can negatively affect you team’s work and even kill the whole project by keeping you fixing the whole system again and again. Agile is a good system, it is an empirical process of ensuring the correct data analysis but it is not a silver bullet or blue print for everything. However, for some people it has become a panacea and they think that they have to apply it to everything. These people have forgotten what agile methodology is all about and they practice it not in the agile way but rather in a ridged way. So they say – this is agile, that is how we do it and we will not change anything. This is silly because agile is all about the ability to change and it is not a single process for everything. Therefore they are making agile into fragile.

Elena Ornig:

Here on the Gold Coast, your friend, Aaron Birkby, one of the Directors of the non for profit public company Silicon Lakes Limited, is putting a lot of effort to promote and establish the Startup program.  Why do you think it is important for the Gold Coast to have a company such as Silicon Lakes?

Steve Dalton:

This company is very important for the Gold Coast. The population growth is strong and it’s predicted that in 2050, The Gold Coast will become the fifth largest city in Australia. The Gold Coast has about 400 companies in the ICT industry and some of them are large National and International companies. In fact, across all industries we have 43,000 small registered businesses. I read somewhere that the Gold Coast is the small business capital of Australia and apparently has the largest number of small businesses in the World on a per capita basis.

Startups are not small businesses but the Gold Coast is primed for these Startups because they are like an engine for the economy. Australia was spoiled by the mining boom which generated easy money for the economy. Resources are not unlimited and soon we will need to look elsewhere to generate growth. The Startups are not just about the IT industry they are about the development and commercialisation of intellectual property, encouraging new ways of thinking and responsible development. Startups are really good for people to learn how to practically register a company, find investors, apply for patents; and it’s all about practice, practice and more practice. I believe kids should be involved in Startups and learn early to master the whole process.

The first Startup we did was ShareYourLove.com – a genuine feel good project and we are in the process of setting up the company.

The second Startup we did was Rehydrate – developing a bracelet for fire-fighters which could save lives by sensing when a body is dehydrated and prompting fire-fighters to drink. We are in the process of patenting our device.

Steve Dalton Inventor

The problem with these Startups is that we are not short of ideas but we don’t have enough funding for new projects. Working on Startup project as a part-time commitment is really stressful and hard. I am not sure why we do not have enough investors here. Maybe they think we should go to them where we think they should come to us. I personally do not feel comfortable in going out and asking for money to fund my projects. Maybe we have to organise a way that will bring them to us. That is why I like lean Startups because you can find a customer who can fund your project or product through a pre-selling process; collecting money through pre-orders. The same way the KICKSTARTER is now operating in Australia.

The other way of investing in Startups could be the involvement of the government. They can become investors too, including investment in organisations like our Gold Coast TechSpace.

Elena Ornig:

Would you like to offer any advice to people who are thinking of becoming software developers or programmers? What should they focus on during their study at colleges or universities?

Steve Dalton:

Practice as much as they can! It is important to know theory but nothing can compare to the experience of working on real projects. It can be a project at Startup or something that they want to build or develop for themselves. Have you heard of the phrase ‘itch scratcher’? When you feel that you need something or want something try to create it yourself instead of buying it. Do something real for yourself and that will be a good start. What if that product becomes popular?

When I was at university we did way too much theory and not enough practical exercises. Even when we worked in the Labs it was all very contrived. What you can do shouldn’t be limited; they must be unlimited in order to spark the creative process. Look at kids for example, they constantly come up with new ideas of what they want to do or to build and that is because they do not feel the limitation of a laboratory at university.

Unlimited and practical projects are the best way to learn. That is why Startups are good way to practice. I think every university should organise their own Startups. What people have to remember is to be active participants in real projects. I think this is my best advice.

Elena Ornig:

Thank you, Steve. It was a real pleasure to interview you.

Steve Dalton:

You are welcome!

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