CTO Sessions: Dr. Guy Bunker, Clearswift

What makes an effective tech strategy? "Listening to customers and their needs, and then working through the strategic requirements of the products."

Name: Dr. Guy Bunker

Company: Clearswift

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: October 2012

Location: Theale, Berkshire, UK

Dr. Guy Bunker is Chief Technology Officer for Clearswift (the cyber security products division for the Swiss RUAG Group.) He is responsible for product strategy, R&D, technology partnerships and M&A. Bunker is an internationally renowned IT expert with over 20 years' experience in information security. Previously he held senior roles with companies including HP, Symantec, Veritas and Oracle.

What was your first job? Depends how far you want to go back… I had a Sunday paper round and then worked in a cash and carry store. However, my first ‘real' job was with a company called British Robotic Systems who worked on Automated Visual Inspection systems.

Did you always want to work in IT? I first came across computers as I went into Sixth Form at school. And knew it was for me… my first computer was an Acorn Atom, which was the predecessor to the BBC Micro.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? My first degree was in Electronics, followed by a post graduate business qualification (DMS) which I studied for part-time while working. I then went back to full time education to do my PhD in Computer Science. I'm qualified to run a gin distillery!

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. At the end of my first degree I decided I wanted to work more with computers, but also to understand a little more about business. I ended up taking a job as a Management Trainee in a manufacturing company. There was a programme which took me around each department for 3+ months at a time so as to learn the business, and at the same time I was on a post-graduate management course. Just as that was coming to an end the company was acquired and my job was going to move to Scotland… however I had a good life in London so it didn't appeal. Furthermore, I had had several offers of PhDs at the end of my undergraduate degree, so I thought a return to academia was in order. It was a detour at the time from where I was, but I wouldn't be where I am today, had it not happened. When in academia doing research, I then thought that was the place for me… but there were changes in the system which didn't appeal… so I ‘detoured' out of academia when my PhD finished and moved into ‘hardcore' computing, i.e. a software company. After that the ‘detours' have really been opportunities which have come along and I have taken.

What type of CTO are you? I see my role as both ‘inbound' and ‘outbound'. On the inbound side, it is about understanding our products, connecting with customers and working with engineers to ‘translate' what is heard into features. It is about inspiring our engineers to think about things differently and encouraging innovation. From the outbound perspective, my role is about being a spokesperson for the company - working with the PR company, providing comments for the media, speaking at events and conferences. It is about looking to the future and providing Thought Leadership - for both the inbound and outbound aspects of my job. If you were to cut me in half, one side would say engineer and the other marketeer… the reality is that I like to create products which customers like, ones that solve their problems. If you can create the best thing in the world, but can't communicate it, then it is a missed opportunity.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? The obvious one would be AI… except that my PhD is in AI (Neural Networks for Speech Recognition.) One thing that taught me was that some problems benefit from AI, but for others, other ‘traditional' techniques are better! However, as we create (and therefore collect) increasingly vast amounts of data, there is a need to be better at extracting the value from it. AI looks like the most effective way to do this.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? AI… it's not a silver bullet for everything… and neither is Blockchain! While we're at it, having speech recognition, a topic close to my heart, enabled in everything is not necessarily a good thing, sometimes pressing a button is easier and creates less frustration.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? I was fortunate to work for someone early in my career who was interested in what I was going to do when I left the company… yes, he was interested in what I was going to do while I was there, but it was about the longer term future as well. Today there is AMP (Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose) as a methodology which if I look back, is exactly what I was encouraged to do - coupled with a strong sense of responsibility. Today at Clearswift, we are using AMP in conjunction with an Innovation program to drive and build our engineers and managers. Our Innovation program, where engineers can schedule time off their usual work to work on research projects which interest them, is growing and I'm very proud of that. It's not unique, Google et al have done it before - however, it is making a real difference to our organisation.

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? It is always a balancing act between tactical and strategic. We have a set of business guardrails around protecting our existing revenue. We are a subscription business, so it is extremely important. We have moved our marketing from being ‘push' to ‘pull' and as part of that we are driving the digital transformation story. Doing business in as frictionless manner is possible, enabling both prospects and customers to find what they need, when they need it, is key. We tie everything we do into our web experience and measure everything for effectiveness. My primary contribution in our digital transformation is around Thought Leadership, ensuring that we create content which is both relevant and appealing to the market.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? We have to continue to innovate in order to stay ahead of increasingly sophisticate cyber-attacks. Today we are seeing images as a threat vector which can be exploited in multiple ways. We are working on solutions to address problems which are seen today in fairly niche markets, but we know will become mainstream in 12-24 months.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? This is always a challenge… it is very easy to fall into the trap of only solving existing customer issues / requests and not looking to the future. I chair a monthly meeting which includes all the product stakeholders to understand new requirements - which can be both tactical and strategic - and then work through priorities whilst keeping business goals and objectives at front of mind. We operate an Agile development group, so priorities can change during the product development cycle. It's a balancing act to get things right, but regular communication makes it easier to keep people aligned.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? We work hard to manage technical debt and ensure that customers, and therefore the business is kept happy.  Communication is critical and as with most things, there is a balance to be had which means that ‘no' is an option, but we try and minimise the use of it. We work through the upcoming release(s) prioritisation at a monthly meeting which enables us to consider new requests from existing customers, as well as those from prospects and the sales team. This meeting also provides us with the time to discuss strategic technical decisions and the benefits they will bring in the future. Our Agile development environment provides us with the ability to make change when required - bearing in mind that if something new comes into the next release, something else will probably move out or be delayed. Having all the stakeholders involved means we can make decisions and progress at the speed the business needs, while working on the technical strategy as well.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Listening to customers and their needs, and then working through the strategic requirements of the products. Technology moves quickly, and there is always the draw of the ‘new'. Working with the R&D team on what's working and what really need to be replaced is critical. While everyone would like to work on new technology, it isn't practical, so again there is a balance. By having a long-term technical strategy for the products means we can better plan for the future - knowing that some tech will be replaced means the technical debt around it can be de-prioritised to focus on the replacement. We are componentising our products at an increasingly granular level, which will greatly help in the future, but it does take time.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Information has long been the crown jewels of the company and technology is what keeps it safe. The way we do business has changed and continues to change, threats are constantly evolving, so technology has to evolve to keep up. To me, the role of the CTO is one of communication and Thought Leadership. Communication to different groups of people and therefore with different priorities and understanding. It is about listening and understanding what is being said and then being able to ‘translate', infer, corroborate and ultimately make decisions on what is understood - which then drives actions. Actions within the engineering team and more widely within the business.

What has been your greatest career achievement? This one is quite difficult… but I think it was having my first book published. At school, I would have been voted, "person least likely / able to write a book", so that was / is one that is up there. On the other hand, my first patent was also a great achievement for me. Or perhaps it was the first time I flew around the world with ‘my' product I was launching which included my first trip to Japan - I've been back many times since. So, it's a tough call - I've been fortunate to do so many things that I didn't even know existed when I started out. Perhaps my greatest achievement is yet to happen, who knows.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? It's ever so easy to look back in the short term and say "I wish I had…", however in the longer term, things have a way of working out. I try not to spend too much time over-analysing past decisions - I like to think the decision I made was the best one made at the time. I'm happy with where I am today, a change would have meant a different path. Would it have been ‘better'? Who knows!

What are you reading now? There's never just one book on the go, so… I've just finished "Radical Focus" by Christina Wodtke about OKRs, which we are looking to introduce into the business, and I'm now starting the more in-depth "Measure What Matters" by John Doerr. I also have "Is that a Big Number" by Andrew Elliott on the go and am re-reading Larry Niven's Ringworld series.

Most people don't know that I… Was the youngest exhibitor at Farnborough Air Show. When I was at school, I was part of a team who built an aeroplane. It was a 2 seat, Evans VP2, made from plywood and canvas and had a modified Beetle engine. The team was led by the very forward-thinking woodwork teacher and when finished, a couple of us had the privilege to travel to a number of airshows to showcase it. One of these was Farnborough, however when we arrived at the gates (the plane had flown in, in advance), I was too young (at the grand old age of 15) to go in, as it was a working base - and only open to the general public on specific days. A short ‘discussion' took place and I got special permission to be ‘on base' for the preview days (prior to the public ones). It was great fun… looking back I was so young and naïve!

In my spare time, I like to…listen to a lot of music. The iPod / iPad is never far from my side - and is my saving grace when travelling. Outside of this there is family with a couple of dogs who need walking and if the weather is fine then a surf (in the sea!) is in order. I used to surf a lot while growing up in Cornwall, it helps clear the mind completely - and the world is always a better place after being in the water. I'm also a keen amateur photographer - landscapes, especially the sea, are fascinating to me.

Ask me to do anything but… Please don't ask me to eat "Queens Chocolate Pudding"… I can eat almost anything, but this dessert is a leftover from primary school. It was truly disgusting - and we had to eat everything on the plate. It scarred me for life! However, these days, I will eat basically anything, so perhaps it did what it was supposed to and make me an unfussy eater.