My primary interest is looking at ways to solve business problems, become more productive and come up with more efficient ways to do things like marketing and how we select and use digital information systems.
I like free and open-source technologies that get you powerful and cost-effective technology solutions while protecting your freedom to use and change things as you need.
How I Got Started In Consulting
I started my career in an energy consultancy in 2004 that was one of the first organisations to bring the methods and processes used in financial markets to the energy market.
People at that time (and still now to some extent) saw electricity and gas purchases as akin to stocking up on paperclips. You went to a number of suppliers and got competitive prices, selected the cheapest and got the best deal.
Except it doesn’t work like that in a traded market.
In traded markets we get a choice every day – futures allow us to agree a price now for something that we need in the future. If we don’t make a decision, then we pay the price that is available at the time.
This results in a more complex situation than simply whether the deal on the table is the cheapest. Instead, we are making decisions under risk and if we manage a £20 million portfolio of energy consuming assets, we could see variations of 30% either way as a result of our decisions, suddenly making the strategic choices we make very important.
I built tools that help manage this complexity. They were built in Excel because that is something an analyst in a business could use quite easily.
How was this different? At the time, one of our competitors used to boast that they had 25 masters and PhD level analysts carrying out mark-to-market analysis on their client portfolios every night.
I had a spreadsheet that did the same. Our costs to provide accurate, up-to-date information must have been a fraction of their costs.
Programming and modelling
My first work experience was with ARM, a hardware designer of microchips, helped me develop an understanding of programming which I still use today to create small functional programs that do one thing well – ideal for creating minimum viable protypes – for modelling problems and creating prototypes. ARM introduced me to the world of commercial coding.
I followed this up with a year as a research assistant, working towards a PhD in nanotechnology, modelling semiconductor nanostructures. I learned the power of Python here – reducing a 4,000 line c program to 100 lines of python while dramatically increasing the speed of execution.
I dropped out of academia, however, to experience life in a startup as the first employee. That was a good decision, as the company grew and was eventually acquired.
New product development
I have created new products and capabilities for all of my career. My briefs start with a blank sheet of paper – this process is taking too long, how do we enter a new market, what do we need to do to win a client.
The last fifteen years have been a period of incredible innovation in the energy industry – and my primary interest has been in creating new products and the capability required to get the value coming out of these opportunities.
Soft systems and visual thinking
In 2013, I felt it was time to go back to school, and enrolled for an MBA at the University of Sheffield.
This was a management degree that specialised in consulting, although I didn’t know that at the time. I picked the University because it where I did my undergraduate degree and it was walking distance from home!
During the MBA I learned that there is more than one way to look at things.
As an engineer, we think of the world as organised of precise, logical blocks. We put them in order and they work.
There are bugs, of course, but once we work them out and it works most of the time then things should be fine.
Except they often aren’t – and when this happens we point at people and say they are the problem.
Except they’re not – it’s our thinking as engineers that is the problem.
People are inextricable from most situations – they form part of the machine we are building.
So, we have hard systems – the machines and programming we do – that goes from simple to complex.
What we miss is that we are putting these machines into a world full of people – some of whom agree with us and many who are a mix of happy, neutral and antagonistic.
As I looked at systems that looked at people AND technology – socio-technical systems – I was introduced to the work of Professor Peter Checkland, who researched systems thinking at Lancaster University.
Professor Checkland realised that systems weren’t right or wrong – better or worse – good or bad.
Instead they were a way for people – who are designed to be purposeful – to come to an accommodation. A compromise.
So this makes for a different approach to creating systems. In essence – we try and look at the real world – what the connections are, what people do and think about how all the interactions take place right now.
Then we build a model – an exploration, hand drawn, no straight edges – that is a picture of how the world should work. It’s not a map of what’s already there but a conceptual model of what should be or what could be.
We then can ask questions using this model about what is there, what isn’t there, what works and what doesn’t – and come up with ideas and insights for change that different people in the business can think about, debate, modify and finally accept, adapt or compromise on.
We can then take these ideas back into the business and make them happen – knowing that what we have is something that people can work with while keeping their sense of purpose.
The tools we use to make this happen are visual thinking tools – maps, drawings, ideas expressed in lines and squiggles and doodles.
Does it work?
I think so. It’s changed how I work from thinking about things purely from an engineering point of view to a more accommodating one.
Then there is GNU/Linux.
The beauty of the free software movement – founded by Richard Stallman – is its uncompromising adherence to a completely crazy idea.
Giving software away for free? What about intellectual property? What about ownership? How will programmers eat?
That is a long debate – but regardless of where one stands on the principle – I have found the GNU/Linux platform an interesting one to work with.
The UNIX philosophy appeals to me. Small and simple instead of big and monolithic.
So it’s a perfect platform for mocking up something quickly – whether its code to solve a problem or creating a system that requires interaction between hardware and software or just an office file server.
So, if you want to get in touch…
I’m always interested in connecting with and chatting to like minded people – whether it’s on ideas or collaborations or projects, so please do get in touch if it seems like we have something in common.