Here are some insights we are sharing from our Head of Technology, Russell Collingham. One of our new People and Culture initiatives for 2021 is our ‘ask me anything’ segment. Each month the hedgehog lab team are invited to submit questions for one of our senior leadership team to answer live during the last team meeting of the month.
Continue reading the blog to find out how Russell got into ‘computers’, what he thinks is going to be the next big thing in tech, and how the expertise in our technology team is evolving.
Russell, did you always know you wanted to work in technology?
Not at all. I’d been playing with computers as a kid from 1980 but when I went to university you couldn’t study computer science as a subject and there were no careers in that area as such so I initially studied maths. I was able to change courses in my second year and finish off my degree at Durham, as computer science. At the time, computers were a thing that only a few businesses had so at that stage it became more of a hobby than something that I could see myself committing to career wise.
I still didn't know what I wanted to do as a job so I stayed on at Durham University to do a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Following that I joined the faculty and stayed on to teach and do research so I didn't actually get a ‘proper’ job in technology until quite a few years after university.
Where do you see the future for digital agencies? Do you think AI and machine learning still have a big part to play in app development? What do you think could be the next big trend in software development?
Very good questions. I wouldn't give up on AI or machine learning, it came up twice last week when we were in discussions with one of our existing clients. As the AI providers like Microsoft, Google and Amazon mature their offerings it's becoming more and more viable. I took part in an AI conference run by Amazon, and that was really interesting to get an overview of what their latest offerings are, and they're doing a lot of things that our clients potentially want. In the future, it doesn't mean we will necessarily do it from scratch ourselves, but to know how we can integrate with those services is going to be really useful for us.
What's the next big bet? I don't know but a safe one is probably data. A lot of our clients want to do a lot with analytics, which is an area we can improve on. To raise our game we can spend time learning more about tools like Google Dashboard and Power BI that let you view, and play with data which will enable us to better support our clients.
How do you feel the hedgehog lab graduate scheme is going, what would you improve next time around?
In my opinion it was a big success and Ed’s been a great addition, picking up things really quickly, to the technology team and wider project teams. Having said that we’ve probably been lucky. We didn't have a lot of applicants because we didn’t get into the university cycle as early as I would have liked. So, in preparation, for the next cycle I'd want to work with our new talent acquisition lead to start the process a lot earlier in the calendar, so that we can attract more applicants. Before COVID hit, I'd started the process to connect with a lot of the universities, to give career talks and raise the profile of our grad scheme. Ideally, I want people to want to come to us, rather than us trying to go to the market to find candidates.
In my opinion, it could have been improved by taking on more graduates. We started the programme with two people, but then one left but then Jo joined so we were back to two again. I felt that with lower numbers than we were intending we weren’t able to work as well as a team together, and it must have been hard on Ed working on his own for a while. The technology, design and product team put in a lot of effort to make it a great learning experience which could have easily benefited a few more candidates. Ideally I’d like to be taking on three or four graduates a year, they may not all be successful, but we need to have a bigger pool of candidates to have that continuous group of people who are coming in and that we can ideally take on as full time employees.
What does the future look like for us in terms of technology? As we shift to working with larger clients, does our current preferred tech stack of Python/Django/AWS meet our business goals?
We do have a preferred stack when we build something from scratch but in the past few years we've built on Azure Cloud, AWS and Google Cloud. In the past we have built in Python, Django, C# and Node and two of our engineers spent six months working with a big banking client building in Go to create a microservices platform. So, we're pretty agnostic on our ability to build on a range of platforms and we will fit into a lot of areas. I want us to have capabilities in all those areas going forwards so that we can work with a range of clients. A lot more enterprise clients are using Azure so while AWS may be our preferred stack for a new client who has a blank sheet of paper, a lot more clients are coming to us with a Microsoft background, and we have to fit in with that ecosystem. This still doesn't rule out Python. Two of our senior engineers built a system for a client last year that used a Python backend using Docker so it's quite possible to do that on Azure as well. We're also just starting a Flutter project which is another cross platform project so we've got quite a lot of variety, which is good.
I think the key takeaway from the work we did with the banking client is that the reason the project was successful was that we had experienced API backend developers. The language took us a few days to pick up but it was the knowledge of how to build a secure, scalable, performing backend, not to be an expert in Go that was key. Whether we're using Node, C#, Python, Django or Go the key principle is having great knowledge and great practices to build great software.