CTO Sessions: Adam Dossa, Polymath

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? "This one is easy for me. Since falling down the blockchain rabbit hole around 2016, I haven’t looked back."


Name: Adam Dossa

Company: Polymath

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: February 2021

Location: London

Adam Dossa is the CTO at Polymath - the leading security token platform. He joined Polymath in 2018 as the Head of Blockchain, helping Polymath to bring blockchain-based financial technology to the market, which solves some of the fundamental issues in today's financial infrastructure and bridges the gap between traditional financial approaches and public blockchains. Polymesh, a domain specific blockchain built by Polymath for financial regulation, products and capital markets, is both public and permissioned, leveraging a distributed ledger for flexibility, transparency and openness, alongside an on-chain governance system to on-board participants and key ecosystem participants.

What was your first job? My first job was at Morgan Stanley within the Interest Rate Derivatives technology team, which I joined through their graduate programme. Working at Morgan Stanley gave me a great insight into the challenges and opportunities of technology in the financial industry, as well as the regulatory landscape that institutional sales and trading teams work within.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yep - we got our first family computer around 1996 and I was hooked ever since. I spent my mornings and evenings pouring over computer magazines and writing games and utilities on our Amstrad CPC 6128 in Basic.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied Maths and Computation at St. Hugh's College in Oxford University, gaining a first class honours degree on graduation. The degree focused more on the theory behind programming, data structures and algorithms, rather than on concrete experience in any specific programming language. This helped set me up for a career in which I’ve used dozens of languages and tools, with a focus on the best tool for a particular job, rather than a dogmatic view that any one language or technology is always best.

In 2012 I took a sabbatical from Morgan Stanley to study for a Masters in Machine Learning at Columbia University in New York. Machine Learning aims to combine statistical learning theory with big data to derive useful business insights and artificial intelligence models from data. It also gave me a chance to work on some cutting-edge natural language processing research with the team at Columbia.

Whilst I don’t believe that formal qualifications are necessary for a career in technology, some of the theoretical knowledge I gained during my education has helped underpin the ability to work and reason about technology across a wide range of domains and decades.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. The main detours I took were for travelling and education. As well as taking a gap year before starting the graduate programme at Morgan Stanley after university to travel around SE Asia and Nepal, I also took another sabbatical year a few years into my career to travel around South and Central America.

The travel helped me avoid burnout in a fast-paced environment, as well as gain an appreciation for different cultures and ways of communicating. These skills helped me grow my career globally, spending time in offices in New York, Tokyo and Barbados. In today's technology landscape, a global outlook, and the ability to communicate effectively asynchronously and at distance across cultural boundaries, is critical.

I feel that continuous education, whether formal or informal, is also important. At Polymath, we have a learning and development budget for each employee to use at their discretion for exactly this purpose. Whether it’s learning a new language, a new technology, or dipping your toes into an entirely new area, keeping your skill set fresh, relevant and updated is as important as ever.

What type of CTO are you? I think of myself as a CTO with a strong technical and architectural background. I began my career as a developer, and try to ensure that I still spend at least a few hours a week writing code. As Polymath grows and matures as a company, it is critical that we have a cohesive vision for how our technology integrates with the wider financial infrastructure used by our clients and partners. Joining up the dots between the different parts of our technology platforms, and ensuring that we have and can communicate a clear path to integration with our partners, are important parts of the role.

I also believe in “light-touch” management - the opposite end of the scale to micro-management! With the right team and individuals, everyone should have a clear idea of the organisation's vision, mission and goals and be able to work towards those ends with minimal hands-on management. The role of the CTO is to ensure that the engineering team is aligned behind these goals, coordinating and communicating well across teams, are happy and productive in their roles and can scale seamlessly when needed.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? This one is easy for me. Since falling down the blockchain rabbit hole around 2016, I haven’t looked back. Blockchain combines cutting-edge research and technology across game theory, economics and computer science, producing a new type of infrastructure which was not previously possible.

Whilst we have seen implementations like Bitcoin really come into the public view in the last year or so, I think there is still a huge gap in understanding how blockchain implementations can help transform businesses in a myriad of ways.

At Polymath, we are focused on building financial technology that is underpinned by blockchain to bring transparency, accessibility and low cost public infrastructure to all participants in financial markets.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? This could be the same answer - blockchains. There is no doubt that blockchain technology, as it is so closely associated with the price of coins and tokens, has seen a huge amount of unfounded hype and speculation. Blockchains by themselves don’t solve problems - they are a tool and mechanism that allow you to re-architect certain trust assumptions in your infrastructure, and remove parts of your design that were required purely in order to have a trusted or permissioned actor take some action.

A well-architected blockchain solution should deliver lower costs and fewer intermediaries, as well as greater transparency and accessibility. Getting this right, and ensuring that a new solution can be seamlessly integrated into existing technology and processes is hard. And whilst there are many teams out there doing great work in this space, we’ve also seen that the lure of a fast buck has encouraged many bad actors as well.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of?  A few initiatives that I think have made a real impact over the last few months have been related to Covid-19 and the move to full remote work across the organisation.

Now that the full team is working remotely, it’s as important as ever to ensure that team members build relationships outside of just day-to-day work related meetings. To encourage this, we’ve set up a daily remote coffee chat, as well as using tools like Donut on Slack to encourage more serendipitous chats between team members across teams and functions.

We’ve also run a couple of company-wide social days where we do a mix of different online events such as murder mystery games and locked room puzzles.

Workshops, conferences and hackathons were a large part of the Polymath culture until Covid-19 hit.  While remote work can be challenging, these types of activities help bridge the gap until we can more regularly meet in person.

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’re not currently driving a digital transformation effort internally at Polymath, but digital transformation is within our DNA. Our work is focused on transforming the outdated and traditional processes of issuing, managing and trading assets, and delivering on the benefits of digitising assets on the blockchain – which concern customer experience, revenue growth and operational efficiency.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? We work with a wide-range of clients - some who are very at ease with cutting-edge blockchain technology, and some who require additional education and guidance around both the benefits and trade-offs of public blockchains. Working with clients, lawyers, regulators and other ecosystem stakeholders to make sure that the risks and benefits of blockchains in their various flavours are well understood helps move the industry forward as a whole. It also ensures that we’re always closely aligned with the problems and concerns that our clients have.

For many clients who have existing technology infrastructure, we work very closely with them to ensure that they have the correct tools and documentation to be able to seamlessly integrate with the Polymath technology stack. Making this process as cheap and seamless as possible is important to both our success and the success of our clients, and is an area of continuous improvement as we gather more feedback and work closely with partners to integrate our technology.

Our long-term aim is to make integrating with our blockchain platform as seamless as possible.To this end, we are constantly working to improve user experience, and abstract away some of the inherent complexity found in blockchains.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Polymath is focused on building technology that solves real world problems. A criticism for blockchains for a long time has been that they are often a solution looking for a problem. Ensuring that we stay laser focused on product market fit helps us avoid this pitfall.

Polymath has an excellent product team with deep experience in the financial industry and technology sector. We work with many partners across the industry to ensure that we’re constantly learning and iterating our products. One aspect of the blockchain sector is that it is heavily collaborative, focusing on open-source technology and research.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Whilst blockchain technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, it is still quite a nascent technology. Areas such as privacy and confidentiality, which are critical to institutional adoption of tokenised assets, are still heavily researched areas.

At Polymath, we have a dedicated research team that is responsible both for ensuring that our products continue to leverage the latest advancements, as well as authoring novel new cryptographic protocols which are suitable for our domain, in a heavily regulated and compliance oriented environment.

Communication between the product, engineering and research teams is crucial to ensure that the whole organisation is familiar with what is possible today, what is being researched for tomorrow, and what we think will be possible in the future. This helps keep Polymath aligned and focused on delivering practical solutions today, whilst being aware of current technical limitations and how we’re aiming to solve them in the future.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective technology strategy needs to tie together delivery and team coordination. It also needs to be forward-looking and ambitious, whilst relentlessly focusing on product and clients. Bringing predictability to our engineering processes allows us to better plan our deliverables and ensure we meet our targets and external commitments.

At Polymath, we emphasise communication, individual accountability and remaining open-minded. All team members are encouraged to contribute to brainstorming and discussions, both synchronous and asynchronous. This is also reflected in our aim to be as transparent as possible - both when discussing successes and when dealing with challenges.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Technology evolves at a breakneck pace. Remaining current with technology trends requires CTOs to spend time learning and evolving their own skill sets and knowledge regardless of the sector, but particularly so in the blockchain space.

With Covid, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in remote work, and alongside this new and existing tools and systems being leveraged to ensure that teams still feel connected, as well as being able to communicate and deliver effectively.

Adaptability, flexibility and thought leadership remain crucial both for startups and established organisations. CTO’s need to embody these skills and lead by example.

What has been your greatest career achievement? My career has seen its fair share of highs and lows - working in the financial industry through the 2008/9 credit crunch crash was certainly memorable, with all-nighters spent trying to pull together risk data to understand our rapidly changing positions.

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