CTO Sessions: Will Warren, Searchspring

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? "Ecommerce is shifting rapidly and growing at an immense rate. We make sure our clients are in a position to scale their business by offering a cohesive and enjoyable shopper journey..."

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Searchspring

Name: Will Warren

Company: Searchspring

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: September 2019

Location: BC, Canada

Will Warren brings 30 years of experience in building software to the Searchspring team. He previously worked at Endeca Technologies and was Co-founder and CTO of GroupBy Inc. – both of which have equipped him with extensive knowledge of eCommerce search, merchandising and faceted navigation. Warren grew up in the U.K. and studied Computer Science at Lancaster University. He is also an executive contributor to Battlesnake, a platform that brings developers of all skill levels together to write AI snake bots and do battle online.

What was your first job? Strawberry picker.  I couldn't eat strawberries for 10 years after that job.

Did you always want to work in IT? Since I was about 6.  Before that I wanted to be a real estate agent.  But mostly because I thought that I could make design choices about the office decor.  Turns out I probably wanted to be an interior decorator but didn't have the vocabulary for it back then.  When I was 6, it was 1984 and it wasn't certain that you could actually get a job in IT but I knew I loved building software from then on.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to Lancaster University for Computer Science.  I have a certification for WebSphere 2 (~1999), which is not very useful.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I was a software developer for 8 years and then went into Sales Engineering. I realised I wanted to start my own company and need to learn how to do sales, spot good salespeople.  I did that for 5 years and then founded my own company.

What type of CTO are you? The Hank Scorpio kind. 

Generally, I'm the kind that hires great people, and then tries to get as much out of their way as possible.  For example, the engineers at Searchspring get 6 weeks of uninterrupted time to build code.  No meetings, 9-5, for six weeks.  They get a lot done and it's rewarding to see.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? OMG.  So little space to answer this question. I'll do a top three in reverse order of importance. 

  • Distributed micro computing. As computers make their way into the fabric of everything (and literally the fabric of your clothing) the myriad of possible applications are unthinkable and exciting.  Imagine having a hard problem to solve and assigning three walls of your living room to figure it out. The bricks are thousands of microprocessors! 
  • 3D printing.  You can now fabricate hair, and nano devices, metal, glass.  This may end the world in the grey goo event but also distributes and comodatises and democratises manufacturing. Takes us to a more Star Trek kinda utopia.
  • General AI (or strong AI, or whatever).  Current deep learning, though brings us amazing things like Tesla self driving cars, is deeply flawed and has a cap on the kind of problems it can solve.  The work of Numenta to actually create human level intelligence will bring unimaginable change.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Machine learning.  It's currently some tricks and throwing a lot of horsepower at a problem.  There is a fundamental shift that will occur in the next ten years to real intelligence. See above.

Conversational AI.  We're getting much better at tricking humans into thinking the machine you're talking to is human, but again, there is a hard ceiling on how many useful applications you can build from that.  

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? ShapeUp. We adopted Basecamps methodology for software development and it made both product and engineering the happiest I've ever seen those two groups. Usually one of those groups is unhappy and/or stressed but here both of them are over the moon. Miraculous.

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? No. Though now I think I should be? In terms of ecommerce adoption, we are seeing a massive transformation but that was due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will be interesting to see how many of those folks that are now using online as their primary shopping mechanism shift back to store shopping.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Ecommerce is shifting rapidly and growing at an immense rate. We make sure our clients are in a position to scale their business by offering a cohesive and enjoyable shopper journey that would in turn increase conversion rates. We help retailers present the right product to the right person at the right time with powerful merchandising capabilities, search relevancy and personalised product recommendations.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? The fabric of software that Searchspring uses for its daily operations, G-Suite, Asana, Github, Miro etc… is held in place by ensuring that we don't suffer from SaaS bloat.  "Hey do we have a license for Excel?" - "No, please use Google Sheets".  Our business objectives operate in this suite of communication and collaboration tools.  New technology is selected based on several factors: Can we accomplish our business goal with this system? If not, should we build it in-house? Is this technology well supported with a thriving community? Does the technology fit in with our compliance and security requirements? Does this technology help us move faster overall?

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Not anymore.  With the advent of the massive array of managed cloud services, nearly every business problem we want to solve can be done so with the judicial choice of provided services.

What makes an effective tech strategy? As with all strategies, identifying competitors, terrain, environment and anticipating their moves, and moving to win within the context of those constraints.  Particularly applicable to tech is the rate of change (an environmental factor) and staying on top of that requires significant training and learning that we encourage throughout engineering.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? You're going to be distributed.  Be it pandemic, or chasing the sun, or chasing the talent, you're going to have more remote work to contend with. 

What has been your greatest career achievement? The people I have met along the way.  Having a rolodex of amazing people is my greatest privilege.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Controversial, but I probably wouldn't have gone to university.  I had been programming for 12 years before I went to university and it added only incremental benefit.  If I had spent those 4 years honing my craft, and interning, working in companies I think I'd be further ahead. 

What are you reading now? Various Michael Lopp books. Why We Sleep. Delivering Happiness. Utopia for Realists. Elon Musk's bio. An Everyone Culture.

Most people don't know that I… Pedantic answer: Well to take this question pedantically, there are 7+ billion people on Earth. Nearly all of them know nothing about me, so I'm going to say most people don't know everything about me. So, "exist" is my answer. Actual answer: The thought of touching peach skin sends me into thralls of revulsion.

In my spare time, I like to… I like to build little pockets of beautiful (to me) code that solve a problem that I have at work or in my personal life. For example, I created a tiny Alexa integration that records voice tasks into my personal Asana. I built a little scheduling app for choosing the resources for projects at work. I built my wife a CRM for her business. I like to read. I like to go for runs along the deserted (except for the seals and otters and birds) beaches of Vancouver Island.

Ask me to do anything but… Engage in small talk for an extensive period of time. Write essays. Touch peach skin.