CTO Sessions: William MacDonald, StarLeaf

What makes an effective tech strategy? "The most successful strategies are incremental. Through continuous product enhancements and additional features..."

Name: William MacDonald

Company: StarLeaf

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: October 2010

Location: California, United States

With a well-founded reputation as a major industry influencer and visionary, William MacDonald's primary role is to set the strategic direction for StarLeaf. MacDonald likes nothing more than pushing the boundaries of new technology and is always mindful to evaluate emerging trends to understand their true potential from both a disruptive and business use-case point of view. Before founding StarLeaf, he was a founder and the General Manager of the Americas for Codian. When Tandberg acquired Codian in 2007, MacDonald was appointed Chief Strategy Officer, which allowed him to help set the strategic vision and direction on a global basis, prior to Cisco acquiring Tandberg in 2010.

What was your first job? My first job, other than working on my father's farm in Scotland, was at a small Cambridge start-up called Qudos, who were writing software for designing and simulation of semi-custom ASICs. My job was designing library elements, which customers could use in their designs.

Did you always want to work in IT? When I was studying engineering in Cambridge, one of the courses was computer programming. I found that it was compelling, and I promptly switched to Computer Science. For the first time in my life, my studies were something I loved to do.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I ended up with a First-Class Honours Degree from Cambridge University, and my dissertation was to build a networking system that joined networks of different types together. In my case, it was a bridge between Ethernet and Cambridge Ring, which was a network topology designed in at the University. I was offered a place to do a PhD but opted to move into industry instead.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My first job after college was as a programmer at Madge Networks, which was a networking start-up doing Token Ring networks before the hyper growth of Ethernet or the Internet. I was hired by Mark Richer, currently the Chairman and CEO of StarLeaf.  I moved to the US with Madge and became a Sales Engineer. After Madge went public in 1993 I joined Mark at a new start-up called Calista, where we built gateway products between VoIP networks and traditional TDM based PBXs. After Calista was acquired by Cisco, we started Codian and then StarLeaf where I was a founder and the CTO at both companies.

What type of CTO are you? I am a primarily outward facing CTO, meaning that I present the company vision and strategy to customers, analysts and the media. My inward facing role is about helping determine strategic direction and setting product priorities. I don't manage any engineering teams.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Solutions which interface directly into our senses. We are starting to see laser projectors that project images directly onto our retina, which allows us to be able to see incredible resolutions that would not be possible without massive screens. The next stage of this technology will be to interface directly to our nervous system. We are already seeing this technology to overcome certain types of nerve damage injuries.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are overhyped. What we currently understand to be AI is actually very good pattern recognition. That's not to say it is not very useful technology, but unfortunately, it is not truly "intelligent". For example, we have many systems which can recognise speech, but they cannot distinguish between a genuine human command from a mimic command, for example, one made by a parrot or a presenter from a radio station playing in the same room, because an AI system can recognise speech but does not understand the meaning or context.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? We have built an analysis of the data collected from customer's video conferences. We monitor the quality of the traffic in and out of customers networks (i.e. packet loss, latency and jitter) and provide them with a report, which allows them to see where and at what times of day their networks are degrading. Video traffic is particularly sensitive to network quality and our customers are able to upgrade their networks to save them having to downgrade their communication quality.

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 consider Digital Transformation to be the migration of a business process to become a digital process. Although this usually refers to paper-based activities, it can also apply to human-based activities. In StarLeaf's case, the whole concept of a video conference is actually the Digital Transformation of a meeting room. All StarLeaf solutions are engineered to deliver a rich and intuitive virtual meeting room experience, which is part of a customer's Digital Transformation initiative.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Our customers are facing challenges with having a plethora of choice in collaboration systems, they have different groups of employees wanting to use different systems. However, it is the IT departments that are tasked with equipping meeting rooms for all these users. By using StarLeaf in the meeting room they are able to connect to a huge variety of conferencing services without having to use a PC or the users own laptop, which may be unmanaged or insecure and lead to an unsatisfactory experience.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Millennials in the workplace are demanding to be able to work remotely, executives want meetings to start on time, users want tools in their business, which are as easy to use as their apps in the consumer world. A good example is the most common and well-known messaging app in the world, which is unsuitable for business use because it stores messages on the user's device that the IT department cannot access. However, its usage is widespread in enterprises because it is so easy to use. StarLeaf solves all of these by focusing on extreme ease of use and an "it just works" approach to collaboration tools.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? One of the challenges we face is that we need to build products for enterprises which have a lifecycle of at least five years. In general, more and more resources are being used to develop technology, components and systems for use in the consumer space. These tend to be designed with a shorter lifespan and reach an end of life much sooner, thereby limiting our choices when we build enterprise hardware devices.

What makes an effective tech strategy? The most successful strategies are incremental. You build an innovative product and hope that some people buy it. You then understand how your customers are using your product and what else they would like to do with it. Through continuous product enhancements and additional features, you end up with a product or solution, which is both innovative yet relevant and useful. However, if you don't start with something innovative and just ask your customers, then you end up with the classic Henry Ford adage, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." However, if you are just innovative in a vacuum, then it is possible to end up with fantastic products that no one wants, such as Virtual Reality headsets, smart glasses.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? As functions normally assigned to the CTO are being taken up by the Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Product Officer, Chief Information Officer, and Chief Strategy Officer, then the role will become diluted in terms of functions performed within the business. In the future, the CTO is more likely to focus more on being a figurehead and a spokesperson for the company.

What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest career achievement was getting banned from the campus of a major Internet company. I was working for Codian at the time. During my meeting, I answered questions from a very technical IT employee of the customer's IT staff, who had previously worked for one of our competitors. He disbelieved the claims I made about our product, despite the fact that he had seen the demo. With each accusation that I "was lying because what I claimed was impossible," I explained the architecture and drew block diagrams of how it worked. His manager, however, who was less technical, felt I was belittling his staff member and left the meeting to arrange for me to be banned from the campus. Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, the once disbelieving IT employee was completely convinced by the product and we ended up selling a lot of units to them. This was a great result for Codian and I had many more meetings with this individual because I became a trusted advisor. Unfortunately, due to my ban, I could not enter any of the buildings, so we held our meetings in the parking lot. Years on and now at StarLeaf, I have visited this same customer and I am pleased to say that the ban seems to have expired.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have embraced cloud computing and hosted services a lot sooner. I had always known that large enterprises would be slower to adopt cloud services, but what I hadn't realised was across all sizes of enterprises was how fast it would grow within each enterprise as more and more applications were identified and enabled, because of the cloud.

What are you reading now? My current reading list is focussed on self-improvement. In particular, recent research has proven the benefits in terms of productivity, clarity of thought, and emotional stability brought about by regular meditation. Two authors who have inspired me are Dan Harris (Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics) and Oliver Burkeman (The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking).

Most people don't know that I… Have prosopagnosia, which is more commonly known as face blindness. This means that I am not able to identify people very well by looking at their faces. I tend to use other factors like hairstyle, location, and posture, which ironically makes me better than most at recognising people from behind. The condition sometimes can cause engagements at events and tradeshows to be particularly challenging for me, because so many people know who I am, and yet I have no idea whether I have ever met them before until I get to read their name badges. People often think I do this because I can't remember their name - it's not, it's because I have no idea who they are.

In my spare time, I like to…Kitesurf. I have been kitesurfing all over the world. I recently commissioned a kite to be made with the StarLeaf logo sewn into it.

Ask me to do anything but… Go to a beach or the bottom of a mountain and ask me to sit still and relax.