Leaders @ Google
I was lucky enough to be invited to participate at Google's inaugural "Leaders @ Google" event in London. This event was designed to bring digital leaders across industry together to share insights and war-stories. I met a bunch of great folks - not only from Google, but from the likes of Amazon, Skype, Facebook etc. As an insurance company - I think Markel was in pretty good company as a digital leader!
As one would expect - the venue was amazing. The event took place in the offices at St Giles street. The offices were amazing - I was incredibly jealous of the full-size Dalek on patrol that would doubtlessly give an inferiority complex to the 2-foot version we have in our own war-room in Markel! I was also hoping to catch up with some old friends who are now Googlers - but unfortunately they are based out of Google's Victoria office.
Intro - The Digital Economy in Europe and the Challenges of Talent Acquisition.
The event was introduced by Andrei Popescu who provided an interesting macro level view on how the UK fits into Europe's digital economy. He called out the UK as a digital hub within Europe due to the many great academic institutions churning out technical talent. He also made reference to the fact that it was easier to find technical talent in Europe than the states. This is scary given how hard finding good people is here as it is!
Inceptionism - How Computers Dream!
My favourite part of the evening was a session delivered (impressively in 10 minutes) by Matt Stuttle on "Inceptionism" - or how computers dream!
There have been a bunch of pictures in the media recently on computers dreaming up crazy images - Matt talked us through the basics of how this was happening.
Matt started by going back to explain our on/off love-affair with neural nets. How basic neural nets have an input layer, a hidden layer and an output layer (these nets need to be trained).
He then moved on to introduce Boltzman machines which can perform similar tasks in a non-directed (no output-layer) way. You can feed one Boltzman machine into another essentially forming a chain of them around 10 machines deep (an example of a deep neural net). The cool stuff started happening when he started to talk about back-propagation - essentially using the machines in reverse and instead of telling them to classify images... telling them to create them. And with a few tweaks to the labelling functions you get dreaming computers!: "make this tree 30% more building like..."
I've doubtlessly done a massive disservice to Matt's explaination so you can read more about these ideas here: Going Deeper into Neural Nets
Curiously enough - it turns out we had daleks hiding at Markel the whole time... lol
Ok - so not much on leadership yet I realise - but it was Google after-all so the chance to geek out a bit was thoroughly enjoyable!
Google asked a couple of their technical mangers to share their experiences with the group. It was interesting seeing how experiences varied between a lateral hire and someone who has only ever worked at Google. It is refreshing to see a whole new breed of leader who has never had to wrestle with the constraints of working in a more traditional organisation.
Google was careful not to endorse any particular engineering methodology or approach. IMHO they clearly described an agile culture being led through servant leadership. I was interested to hear about some of the challenges faced around technical-debt, distributed code-ownership and the necessity for "LGTM" (looks good to me) code reviews. I suppose those are some of the things you need when working with a massive (in fact I believe the largest) open-source code base.
In an engineering-led culture full of talented and empowered folks the mechanism for achieving objectives comes from within teams themselves. This is a very similar to our approach at Markel - what with objectives (or perhaps OKRs) passed down - "the Why"... but the team left to decide "the What" and"the How"...
One area I would like to explore at the next event is the role of shared vision in the process and how Engineering Mangers work together with Product Managers.
An interesting observation for me is that we spoke to a lot of people about their approach to "management" - but in my head this is a very different thing to "leadership"...
In any case - a great event and one which I will continue to attend. It was great to get a chance to meet and interact with some great people. Leadership is a complex and multi-dimensional skill... I'm pleased to report that in this case - Google doesn't have all the answers yet!
An invite only session from Google aimed at bringing together digital leaders across London.