CTO Sessions: Chris Royles, Cloudera

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “The electrification of transport, combined with initiatives for carbon capture, excite me.”

Headshot of Chris Royles, Field CTO at Cloudera

Name: Chris Royles

Company: Cloudera

Job title: Field CTO

Date started current role: March 2021

Location: England, United Kingdom

Dr Christopher Royles is the Field CTO for EMEA at Cloudera. He helps organisations innovate through the use of data, working across industries that are regulated and organisations where data privacy is critical. Royles’ focus is on the development of skills and methods for migration to the Enterprise Data Cloud. Royles holds a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence from Liverpool University which he subsequently applied to voice recognition and voice dialogue systems. Royles has advised on Government Open Data initiatives as part of the Open Data User Group (ODUG) and sat on the quick wins stream of the UK Government Cloud Program (GCloud). Previously Royles has held roles at Oracle, Pitney Bowes and Vicorp.

What was your first job? Immediately after leaving university, I joined a small business, Vicorp Group, where I was a software engineer building telecommunication solutions in voice and call routing. Everything I developed was in C++ or Java and I helped to build the international calling card platform for Bell Canada.

Did you always want to work in IT? I wanted to be an architect but when asked at a job fair to write down what I wanted to do I realised I couldn't spell architecture, so put computer science instead.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I didn't do too well at my A-levels but fortunately secured a clearing place at The University of Liverpool where I studied for my BSc in Computer Science. My results meant I was invited to stay and study for a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. I was always great at practical subjects, such as computer graphics, but terrible at statistics.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My big break was crossing over from a software engineering role to technical presales, which brought me closer to the customer. I transitioned through various senior and principal positions, through to my role as Field CTO.

What type of CTO are you? As a Field CTO for EMEA, I have a broad remit. I support the whole territory and since my customers are in diverse industries I need to be a generalist. It’s important I’m well connected to my own organisation so I can take customer feedback on products and engineering and relay it effectively.

My time is divided equally between public-facing communications, scaling methods and listening to customers.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I follow SpaceX and its approach to reusability. The electrification of transport, combined with initiatives for carbon capture, excite me. As much of it requires new innovations in energy, I have high hopes for fusion. These types of innovation come about from machine learning models driven by vast amounts of data.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain and crypto as it doesn't feel like a safe space. 

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? This is a challenging question, not much of what I do is unique as such. I do enjoy driving discussions and prefer a forum where I can contribute questions. I strive to be open and share my work so in this respect I am most proud of my transparency. My hope is that doing so encourages others to be more open and confident in their communications and ways of working.

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? Yes, I am leading digital transformation for my customers by working alongside them. The last two years have made this a necessity in many markets and we have been instrumental in helping organisations in their digital journey. Here we find operational efficiency and improved customer experience are often drivers for improving revenue. My philosophy is that driving good causes result in positive outcomes.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? To scale their organisations so they can apply their most qualified people to their biggest challenges based on informed decisions using data and insight. I’m also helping organisations on their journey to the cloud.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I depend on self-service, small things like creating Slack channels through to bigger things like building my own reports. Many of my decisions and priorities are driven by data. Self-service is key to this.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? It’s not troublesome as such, but there are lots of overloaded terms, such as 'platform' and 'data fabric', where the actual details are not always understood.  

I like to confirm where people are getting these terms from and to understand the background behind their query. My academic years have taught me about the importance of provenance and referencing. It’s always good to know where somebody is getting their advice from.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Having a deep understanding of the business and the ability to map out a strategy from its business drivers and use cases (another overloaded term) to deliver technical solutions that will make a difference.

Most organisations want to rationalise, simplify and build-in flexibility. Being in the industry for a while means the phrase "the only constant is change" really does ring true.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The role is so diverse. It’s really what you make of it. I have held two Field CTO roles and in both cases was asked to write the job specification. In terms of the role for the future, assume there isn't one and instead define it yourself. Be that individual player and enjoy the breadth and diversity it opens up for you.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I helped develop an analytics platform for policing called MapInfo Crime Profiler. From that moment it was clear to me how to make a meaningful impact on people's lives. Ever since, public safety has been an area where I will gladly spend my time.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Difficult to say as there is not much I would want to change. I try not to look back at regrets.

What are you reading now? The three books I pick up most often are: O'Reilly’s Technology Strategy Patterns by Eben Hewitt which has some great templates and business to technology methods and mappings; Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout which is helping me to understand the foundations of good product design and thinking; and There's a Superhero in your Book by Tom Fletcher, read in the style of a dramatic comic book and a favourite of my three-year-old.

Most people don't know that I… In my younger years, I climbed over a hundred Munro's across the UK. I have memories of those experiences which will stay with me my whole life. I have my father to thank for that.

In my spare time, I like to…Tinker with scale models and engineering problems. As with most people that have 3D printers, I spend much of my time repairing or levelling them. Many would call that a hobby. When not working on hobbies, I spend my time with family. I have four young children that keep me busy and distracted, in the right way.

Ask me to do anything but… Play rugby. I much prefer motor racing. Team sports were always my bane as being Welsh, rugby was mandatory, and I was not really built for it.