CTO Session: Blair Robertson, TVSquared

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? "Business comes first, 'how are we going to delight our customers' - start there and the technology can follow."

Name: Blair Robertson

Company: TVSquared

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: February 2018

Location: Edinburgh, UK

Blair Robertson is CTO at TVSquared, the worldwide leader in TV attribution. An expert in information design, data visualisation and data modelling, he uses his skills to continually refine TVSquared's platform and services. Throughout his career, Robertson has focused on presenting complex technical concepts in an easy-to-consume, business-friendly way and has a reputation for designing analytic products that are highly visual and intuitive.

What was your first job? My very first job was working for a chemist, cycling around as a delivery boy. Not very technical, as you can imagine, so my first step into my tech-driven career was at Accenture, in the Financial Services sector, where I was a consultant for two years. 

Did you always want to work in IT? I think I'm an archetypal technologist; for as long as I can remember I've wanted to understand how things work and how to make them better. I love flipping between the big picture and the details, it's just how my mind works.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Yes, I attended Aberdeen University and have a degree in Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I've moved between different domains, but the trajectory of my career has been pretty consistent. After leaving university, I set up a business, I didn't really know what I was doing but it was a great learning experience. Following that, I went on to Accenture as I mentioned, and then I was a Principal Analyst at data specialist company, Sumerian. After that I ran my own consultancy for a few years before joining TVSquared in 2012.

What type of CTO are you? Not a particularly technical one! I'm certainly not the guy who has to write all the code and understand all the latest techniques. I'm an ideas guy looking for ways to combine continual improvement with the occasional leap and bring the team along with me.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Genome editing, nanotech, 3D printing - take your pick. As someone who believes in utilising technology for the benefit of people, I'm excited by the potential of CRISPR to edit and enrich lives. Nanotech, I also think, has the potential to change the structure of our society with applications in everything from healthcare, engineering, to how we handle big data, and I look forward to seeing how it progresses in my lifetime. Similarly, 3D printing will influence many industries and it's only going to become more accessible as it continues to advance.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think most technologies are overhyped, at least to begin with. It can take years to bed in a new technology and discover its true use value, and it's understanding this information that benefits businesses the most.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? This year we've focused on bringing scale capacity to everything we do at TVSquared.  We're a B2B business that's had to adopt B2C sensibilities when it comes to scaling. Last year we made sure we could scale from a technical perspective, elastic infrastructure etc. and this year we've adapted our business processes and front office to do the same.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We aren't transforming to digital, we were always digital but in-so-far as TV is becoming more digital, we are helping the buy- and sell-side transition to the new world. You have to start with the customer experience, if your customers see value and love using your product you will increase revenue. As you scale you need to have enough operational efficiency to service inbound demand, but there's no point being super efficient with no customers because the experience is horrible.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? TVSquared exists to help brands communicate their products to consumers as widely and efficiently as possible. We work with everyone from start-ups just testing TV to multinationals spending hundreds of millions a year. We also work with the sell-side who want to prove that TV drives value that makes for a very attractive market. We can show what works, where, for whom and how to do more so it benefits both sides.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Business comes first, ‘how are we going to delight our customers' - start there and the technology can follow. Often the technology creates opportunities in itself, those "wow, now we can do this" moments, and that's fantastic, but that shouldn't be the default operating model.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? It's important to have both a strategy and tactics in place to get there. Technology strategy provides the fundamentals for implementing a product strategy, the two shouldn't exist in isolation. Somewhat paradoxically, the further ahead you can plan the easier it is to make short-term directional changes should an opportunity come out of the blue.

What makes an effective tech strategy? My top tips:

  • Spend time figuring out where you are going, time spent in design is not wasted time.
  • Don't build for scale too soon, but do plan to build it. 
  • Stay away from boutique technologies that are not well supported and hard to hire for, use open source.
  • Know when to trust your gut and when more information is required.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The CTO role varies enormously across different sectors; being a CTO in an organisation where the technology is the product is a very different thing to one where technology keeps the business running. The CTO is less and less a ‘technical wizard' who can figure out things no one else can and more about being able to see the benefit of bringing multiple technologies together to create something new.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Ask me in five years - the best is yet to come.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I'm happy where I am, so it's hard to consider what I should've done differently. Moving my domain from Financial Services to Media is perhaps less direct than staying in one industry but overall, I think the benefits of seeing multiple industries from the inside outweigh any loss of velocity.

What are you reading now? PostCapitalism by Paul Mason and The People's Republic of Walmart by Michal Rozworski and Leigh Philips; they both discuss how advances in technology could impact our socio-political structures for the common good and explore the future of work in the context of a productivity surplus.

Most people don't know that I… Opened a restaurant in my home town as a ‘side project'. I sold out to my partner some time ago but it continues to be rated as one of the top places to eat in the country.

In my spare time, I like to…I have a new daughter so what spare time would that be? When I do find a moment I like to listen to, and occasionally make, electronic music.

Ask me to do anything but… Don't ask me to do the same thing over and over with no scope for making it better.