CTO Sessions: James Mason, MUSO

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? At MUSO we're helping our clients better understand the piracy audience, to help them to take a more data-led approach to their piracy strategy

Name: James Mason

Company: MUSO

Job title: CTO and co-founder

Date started current role: August 2009

Location: London, UK

After graduating in software engineering, Mason worked for several technology start-ups through his career, specialising in developing enterprise level, high-scale, data-focused software applications. He carries this experience into his role as CTO of MUSO, and it has proved invaluable since co-founding the company in 2009. Mason is a leading innovator in the field of online piracy technology and manages MUSO's team of developers, engineers and data scientists.

What was your first job? After graduating, I started out as junior developer at Alaric Systems, a fintech company based in London. They were going through a venture-backed growth phase when I joined, and I was fortunate to join the team working on a credit card fraud detection system, which turned out to be very helpful exposure to large scale data processing and classification systems, both of which helped greatly with the early MUSO product.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, for me it was clear at an early age. I started coding at 10 years old on a Commodore 64, and continued teaching myself to program by writing games throughout my teens. I've always been drawn to the creative side of coding.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied Software Engineering at university, and during my junior developer role I became a certified Java developer - something I'd very much recommend to anyone starting out as a Java developer. I've mainly been self-taught though - this career is a constant process of teaching yourself new skills, and understanding new technologies.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss.  At Alaric, I worked my way up to a senior developer role. My second role was at Monitise (more recently acquired by FiServ), at the time a rapidly expanding fintech startup specialising in mobile banking software - at the time smartphones were just taking off. During my time there, the business floated on AIM. I was always drawn towards tech startups, and given my entrepreneurial spirit, it was an easy decision to co-found a startup, when the right opportunity came along.

What type of CTO are you? I'm the type of CTO who's been closely involved in defining and building the early product, and who continues to drive technical innovation: so, the classic startup founder CTO. I'd say I've followed the typical journey of a startup founder CTO, with a role that continues to evolve as the company grows, and forces you to adapt along the way.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Hands down, it has to be machine learning. We're at an exciting stage where it's easier than ever to incorporate machine learning into products. Common machine learning tasks like facial recognition and speech recognition are available ‘off-the-shelf' as a service, and creating custom machine learning models is becoming faster and cheaper.Andrej Karpathy's talk on Software 2.0 sums it up perfectly, where he predicts an ever-increasing portion of software to be powered by machine learning, instead of coding increasingly complex rule-based systems.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I'd have to say blockchain. It's a fantastic technology which will no doubt be put to good use, but it's definitely overhyped right now, and thrown around as a buzzword far too often. Much of the hype stems from the buzz around cryptocurrencies and ICOs, and all the press attention around these. 

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? The initiatives that bubble up from within the team are the ones I'm most proud of. An example would be several team members teaching at coding bootcamp, which lead to us hiring and mentoring the course's best students off the back of this, and changing our approach to team growth away from 100% recruitment of experienced developers, to start nurturing talent.

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? At MUSO, we aim to lead digital transformation through evolution, with an emphasis on improved commercial performance and customer experience.

Our data-led approach is less a way of unveiling stigmatised behaviour than it is seeing potential opportunity. It's more about inspiring change in perceptions and allowing others to see value in these trends than perpetuating the negative attitude towards piracy audiences.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? At MUSO we're helping our clients better understand the piracy audience, to help them to take a more data-led approach to their piracy strategy. Piracy is a hidden world, with solid and timely data being sparse, or non-existent. We tracked 190 billion visits to piracy sites in 2018, and only by understanding the volume of piracy, its location, trends and behaviours, you can take a data-led approach to changing these behaviours.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? For MUSO, I find that technology choices stem from understanding how to provide value to our clients. The right technologies for us are those which give the largest increase in value delivered to our clients, by enabling us to create better products faster.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? For the most part, technology strategy should flow naturally from the product strategy. So being clear on long term product strategy gives time to adapt to a suitable technology strategy. During my time at MUSO it's hard to think of any major troubles, as we keep technology and product close-knit.  

What makes an effective tech strategy? It's not only about which technologies to choose, but about when to choose them. Keeping abreast of what's new, without jumping on the bandwagon of every shiny new technology. So I'd say it's about constantly learning, embracing change, and most of all; picking the right moment to change.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? It seems clear that the role of CTOs will continue to expand as all companies become more focused around technology. And as the rate of technological change increases, so will the need for the role to be ever-more about nurturing and driving innovation.

What has been your greatest career achievement? The success and growth of MUSO - and the team and products we've built.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I'd have done more to understand business and client needs in my early developer roles, as opposed to keeping focused only on the technology side. Through understanding why a product is being built in a certain way, the motivations behind product decisions, driven by client needs, all give improved context to make the right technical choices.

What are you reading now? Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of The Rock Stars by David Hepworth. It's a sort of rock history, running year-by-year from the 50s to the 90s, each year focusing on a single rock star and telling their story, from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain. It has a shot of David Bowie on the cover, so I was sold at that!

Most people don't know that I… I played drums in several bands in my 20s. I've not had time to play much in recent years, but one of my bands is having a reunion for the bass player's 40th birthday, so I'm currently having to dust off the drumkit and get some practice in!

In my spare time, I like to…Between MUSO and raising two young kids I don't get as much spare time as I used to… but getting out to the countryside with my kids for bike rides or walks is a great way to relax. I'm a fan of music and film, so I watch a lot of live music, or I take a trip to the cinema as a rare treat..

Ask me to do anything but… Watch football. I'm often met with baffled looks when I explain I'm an Englishman who has zero interest in football!