Scaling Up [S6.E4]: Australia’s Greatest Unknown Technologist with Hugh Williams

Hugh Williams joins us to explore 'what great looks like' for engineers, technology leaders, and high-performing teams of all sizes. We also discuss Hugh's recent passion project CS in Schools.



Ed (02:35):

Hugh welcome to a special episode of Scaling Up, it’s a series interlude of sorts, I guess. Regular listeners know both the founder stories that we try and tell, but also sporadically, we also try to illuminate what great looks like when it comes to other key areas of company building, and there’s no one better in my mind to really explore what makes a great technology leader and what great technology teams look like, but what I am deeply fascinated with is how the best businesses are built, and so I think it’s really important to illuminate this technical side of businesses and their role in building companies. My friend Fraser, who I sit next to at work here, has this great poster above his desk and it says mediocre engineers don’t build great technology companies, and aside from alluding to the technical skills directly, it also talks to the fact that these wonderful generational technology companies are built by people.

I do want to dig into not just what a great engineer looks like, but also what great engineering cultures can look like that allow for people to do their best work. I think that’s already too much from me, let’s get into you and a quick thumbnail sketch of your career, so I think it’s nice for listeners to get a feel for you, you’re upbringing, what brought you to technology, and of course, maybe some case of tombstones in your career, as you see them.

Hugh (04:01):

I was a phenomenally lucky kid Ed when I was maybe six, going on seven years old, my parents decided around the dining table to make a career move, and the career move was. My dad decided he wanted to be a computer program or as they were, as they were called back then, and he had no knowledge of computing, this is 1976. So, what they did was they bought a Fortran book, man, I wish I kept it. And they basically went from chapter one through to the end, pencil piece of paper and taught themselves around the dining table, had to write FORTRAN, and then my dad bluffed his way through a job interview with SO in sale in Gippsland here in Victoria and became a computer program with no prior background.

Which says something about the entrepreneurial spirit of my parents, and the good thing for me was, I guess two things really, and the first thing was there was a FORTRAN book in the house, and so I kind of went this seems interesting and so I started a chapter one and tried to figure out how to program in FORTRAN, and then the second thing that was amazing for me was my dad now had access to mainframe computers, and so I could write down simple programs that I wanted to try, print out the numbers from 1 to 100, and then I could give that to dad and he could take it to work on the weekends, book some time on this mainframe computer, run it for me and bring home the print outs.

So, I was madly writing Fortran when I was like six, seven years old. In the same way that maybe kids learn math’s at school, very elementary or simple stuff, putting to get the simple concepts. But I started doing that when I was 6 or 7, when I was about 10, my dad built us a computer at home out in the garage, and then all of a sudden, I had a computer at home. Which was a massive revolution. So, I kind of fell in love with computing when I was a really small kid, and back then it was very much a solo thing, there was nobody I knew who was interested in computers, or we probably even now on a computer was let alone in Regional Victoria?

Ed (05:59):

What a unique upbringing and this passion and curse led you to RMIT in Melbourne in the early 90s, the internet just was in its infancy and started to get going, how does the narrative arc continue from here, University to working at some huge generational companies, Microsoft eBay, Google, I’ll let you take it from here.

Hugh (06:21):

So, I took a year off after school, actually I went to Indonesia and lived there for a year, and then came back and sort of fell back in love with computer science and went to RMIT University. I started there in 1988, did the classic undergraduate computer science degree and made a ton of good friends who had had similar upbringings, it was really interesting to finally come together with a set of people who had a common interest in a common passion.

But as you say it was before the internet, so back then it was still somewhat mainframes, IBM PCs, but largely it was about building desktop software, and IT as it really was back then was a support function in most companies, they weren’t really terribly many technology companies except for the likes of Microsoft and those kinds of folks, but then sort of existed at that point, I think it had, there was a single modem at Melbourne Uni that connected Australia to the rest of the internet, so it wasn’t common to be able to access the internet, but then in the early 90s, the World Wide Web was born, and I remember that light bulb were going off.

I remember going to a talk, actually, I think it was in 1994, this guy got up and he said one day, I believe there could be over a million pages on the World Wide Web, I remember like you can hear. You hear a pin drop. But everybody’s like, wow, that is a lot of pages because at that point in time, you kind of went to NASA.gov, there wasn’t a lot else to do, and then obviously it exploded and the internet companies were born and search became a thing and so on and so forth, and maybe accelerate the story a little bit. I finish the undergraduate degree in 1990, I started my own company, and then I went back to university in 94 to do the honors year, and then I went on and did a PhD in computer science, and the sort of research area I got interested in was Search technology, which back then was so-called information retrieval and was largely about searching information in libraries, but that technology, it turned out was incredibly valuable technology because it became the basis of the first generation of search engines.

So, if you think back to look smart, site, excite, info seeks, Alta Vista, that crowd of search engines became the technology that underpin those, and then later became the technology that underpinned Google in the late 1990s. So, my area of expertise turned out to be a valuable area of expertise, and I think it was 1999, Google pinged me and said, would you like to come and work for us? And at that point, they were vacuuming up people like me from all over the world people who had this research interest in search technology, they wanted all of them, flew them over to California, went through the interview process, got the offer letter, which was almost like hand typed. I’ve still got it somewhere; I should find it. And then I came back, and my wife and I went through a lot of angst about, should we move to the United States? Is this the right time? The pay was terrible by the way, it wasn’t even enough to pay for the rent in the Bay Area, so I was actually going to go backwards by taking the job, and there were these things called options.

Ed (09:17):

Heavy equity component.

Hugh (09:19):

Crazy options I didn’t understand what they were. Of course, at that point in time, search was a terrible business too, so Google at that point hadn’t invented their ads model and a whole bunch of other search companies have gone broke, so it seemed like going and taking a research job with some awesome people that I would lose money doing. My wife is actually very, very keen on the job, but I kind of went, oh, I don’t know, I’m not really sure, and so we passed and obviously hindsight suggests that wasn’t the best financial move, and then later on, I got a similar offer from Yahoo. We are now sort of getting into the early 2000s to come and do the same thing, similar crown of people, similar kind of job, and then eventually in 2003, Microsoft pinged me and said, which I can work and you sort of a foundational team we’re going and take on Google, we’re going to build a better search engine and change the world, and so I flew over and met them, a few of my friends worked there, there’s a couple of Australians who worked here, and I thought, this is the time. Let’s do it. I took this job working at Microsoft and we moved to the US, and that was the beginning of a career in the US.

Ed (10:25):

The 10th engineer, as you just called out, helping to build Bing from there, move to eBay, which the story is pretty well known, I think by now is a VP of engineering and product, and we can dig into what you learnt in really playing a pivotal role in building that business, and then of course, this little thing called Google Maps, you did end up at Google many years later, essentially running the team and the project around Google Maps, which is now part of everyone’s life day-to-day, so we can now imagine you as one of the leading technologists globally, and we’re lucky to have you in Australia now, giving back and we can touch on that later.

But maybe just to zoom out a little bit before we zoom back in, as an Australian from Regional Victoria, going to the Valley, it’s almost this Disney Land for technologists and really a beehive of counterculture it was attracting people that maybe had felt that they weren’t needed or wanted elsewhere in the corporate world. Can you give a sense of what it was like to be part of Silicon Valley, but also maybe some of the big lessons that you took from your time there.

Hugh (11:38):

The best and the brightest in my area of expertise absolutely work on the West Coast of the US, so whether it’s Seattle, Washington, where Microsoft and Amazon are headquartered, or whether it’s the Silicon Valley proper, where you find Apple and Facebook and Google, of course. I think what’s really amazing about working in companies on the West Coast of the US is the people are just off the charts, amazing, and I don’t just mean intellectually smart, but I mean phenomenally driven and phenomenally focused on results and outcomes and building things fast and making a difference.

So you get the incredibly motivated people who are really, really smart, they want to be in teams and go and drive and do things, so that was the eye-opening thing for me, I suppose the big difference between working in Australia as a researcher and working as an engineer, at Microsoft was suddenly we were all working together, we were a group of people focused on one outcome, and we were driving as hard as we could to go and get that outcome.

And I remember my early days at Microsoft being a bit sad when it got to be the weekend. It got to be about Friday at 5 o’clock and I’m like, ah, what a bummer I’ve got a day off tomorrow? Now, of course, I love going home and hanging out with my wife and my young kids at the time, and that was fantastic too. But you’re like, oh, do we have to stop now? This is awesome. I worked phenomenally hard, and the time went incredibly quickly because it was just such a great set of people to work with, and I felt like we were really making a difference really, really fast.

And I think that’s sort of the culture of the West Coast of the US, is people just work phenomenally hard because they love what they do, and they feel like they’re creating the future. You mentioned Google Maps, a moment ago, I had to pinch myself when I had that job, I mean a billion people a month use Google Maps and where do you get a job like that? Where do you get a job where you can do something, and a billion people are impacted by it? It’s just amazing. I think that’s what attracts people to the West Coast jobs like that, or the opportunity to create new companies that might be like that.

Ed (13:51):

I think it’s probably a nice time to just reflect on this, it was obviously a honey pot for talent, but covid has disseminated that a little bit, we’re hearing the war for talent is still there, but everyone is now dispersed globally in many respects around these great technology companies, do you have a view on the labor market and where you think it’s heading, because we were hearing about the great resignation and the power was certainly with the employees, but it’s felt as though in the last few months. And was the recording this mid-year 2022, there’s been a bit of a shifting power back to the employer, and that may be just some color from your viewpoint as to how this might play out.

Hugh (14:34):

It’s a great question, and I wish I had a crystal ball. And whatever I say is going to be wrong. But I’ll say a couple of things. The first thing I’d say is that the A plus people, the best of the best, have either not moved or can still move wherever they want to move, if the company is still alive and successful and has prospects, I think they are still heads down doing amazing things and it reminds me a bit of 2008 and 20099 in the West Coast of the US. I think the best of the best still kept their head down and sort of rode that out, so I think by and large, the best people that I know are still doing what they were doing where they were.

I think thing number two though, as you rightly point out, is I think that the power balance has somewhat shifted, it was a seller’s market, as a software engineer, you could basically ask for anything. Anywhere, anytime I think that has changed. Particularly if you are not in that A+ kind of bracket. I worry a lot about the remote work piece and a flexibility piece, I think we’ve all watched Scott Farquhar and Elon Musk have a little tussle on Twitter about their opinions. Musk said, right, come back to the office. And then Scott said, this feels like the 1950s. And Elon had a shot back saying it’s something. The great thing about recessions is a little weed out the weaker companies or something like that, so they’re having a tussle about it to bump my pay grade to have those kinds of opinions.

Ed (15:56):

Elon forgot that Atlassian was built in the greatest recession of the modern area, and it was completely bootstrap, but you got to pick your fights sometimes.

Hugh (16:03):

That’s right, I think he dashes of these tweets, heaven knows what time of the day and what sort of mood he is in. But I think back to the early part of my career in the US, and I think about working at Microsoft. And I think the best work that I did was sitting around a table with the best and the brightest or, those sort of incidental conversations that were planned in a one-hour online meeting, and so I look back at something innovative, interesting things we did that really mattered and I wonder, would those happen if we set up a Zoom call to brainstorm about innovation, and I suspect not.

I think Elon, to my mind, has a point, I think if you want to create a generational company, whether it’s a generational battery and car company or solar technology or Space X, there is enormous benefit to having a set of people buzzing in an area and having those kind of informal interactions, I think it’s very hard to programatise that and expect that you’d get that kind of innovation, at least with the technology we have today, from a set of people who are sitting in bedrooms all over the world in different time zones.

Somewhat distracted and somewhat isolated, so I think his point is valid now where the technology catches up and we’re able to have those kinds of interactions and sort of interesting fun ways. Who knows? I guess that’s the premise of meta and a VR technology, but I think it’s got a long ways to go, so I worry about it, and I think probably the truth, of course, is in the middle of nothing is black and white, but I worry about completely remote organizations, and I worry about the kinds of decisions that some of these larger companies are making and what effect that will have on not just a culture, but their ability to create generational companies that really define the future of technology.

Ed (18:04):

I’m one step removed from you, but I tend to agree with you without trying to create too much of an echo chamber, you talked of this a-1 talent, and it’s still doing its best work, you’ve done a lot of hiring and searching for great technical talent. Let’s dig into what you are looking for and what in your mind makes a great engineer, because I think this can help frame up other technology leaders internationally and domestically here in Australia when they are hunting for what traditionally has been very hard to find.

Hugh (18:21):

The first thing I’d say is that skills come and go, so I learned the fundamentals of how to code in the FORTRAN programming language, I pretty much nobody writes FORTRAN anymore, but those fundamental competencies, you have the ability to write a loop, the ability to use variables the ability to have an if statement, print things out, these are fundamental things that exist in almost every language, and so I think skills come and go, but competencies that raw ability to problem-solve is timeless. When I’m hiring, I’m interested in just that.

So I would never look for somebody who’s a ruby programmer or PHP expert or Java, I never look for those things, I would say, Are you a smart problem solver who understands fundamental Computer Science, and maybe put a bit more succinctly, I’d say I really look for four things when I’m hiring people, look at people who are super smart, I look for people who are great problem solvers, because the essence of Computer Science is problem solving, I look for people who are incredibly action-oriented, so they just want to get up and get on with it they don’t want to talk forever about it, they’re just like, Well, let’s just get on with it.

And I look for people who are very driven for results, so they’re very, very focused on a user outcome, a customer outcome, a business outcome, they want to build something that matters to people, and I think you need both of those things, those last two things, you need somebody who wants to get after it and wants to get effort for a reason. You need both of those things. If you’ve only got one of those, it’s pretty dangerous actually, if you have an action already in person who just wants to build things, and it’s not especially helpful, and if you’ve got somebody who’s very driven for results but can’t get started to get stuck all the time, then I think that’s not super helpful so you definitely need both of those things, so when I’m interviewing people and looking for people that add to teams, I’m looking very simply for those four things, and of course, because I’m a software engineer, I’m looking for those underpinned by computer science, so when I’m testing, if somebody can problem solve. Can they solve problems in code, because that of course is the essence of computer science, but I don’t care what language they solve it in.

Ed (20:26):

It’s a great answer, I guess, to wrap all that up, you’re also looking for good humans that you feel can make positive contributions to the team that they’re in.

Hugh (20:34):

100%, and I should have said that there’s lots of other competencies of humans, right. So, humor or integrity, all these kinds of. All these kinds of things, the ability to lead people, I want all of those things to be at par or better, I would not hire somebody who I thought would destroy the culture of a team, it would not fit in well with the set people that. I’ve been lucky enough to work with throughout my career, so it’s incredibly important.

Ed (21:17):

Let’s dig in one step further, and of course, you led massive teams and teams over 1000 people in some respects that were broken up into smaller sub-teams in terms of retaining the best talent, I imagine the great engineers want to be at the forefront of what’s possible and fostering innovation in these larger teams requires fostering innovation and smaller teams and ultimately fostering innovation at an individual level and encouraging that. Can you just give a sense of strategically as a technology leader, how you ensure that from the individual right through to the larger teams that you are leading, how you got the most out of these times?

Hugh (21:57):

It’s a great question. And I have this sort of rule of thumb that I like to use when the team gets large enough. And that is I like to see about, let’s say, 60% of the energy of the team, the person power within that organization. I like to see about 60% of that energy going into building things that are on the roadmap for customers, users, and the business. So, they’re the kinds of things that I think the commercial people in the team would appreciate, the product managers would appreciate, the customers will be thankful that we’re released. I like to see about 30% of the energy going on making sure that we build platforms and technologies that are scalable and last into the future.

Often that work is unappreciated immediately by the business or by the customer. But it’s the work that you need to do to make sure that you can keep on delivering, right? To keep things healthy under the hood. That’s the kind of things the engineers always talk about and want to do. And they’ll talk about things like technical debt, and they’ll talk about wanting to adopt new technologies and they’ll say that this needs to be rewritten to allow us to do something or other. And you often find people outside of that engineering team say, do we have to do that now? Is this busy work? Why are we doing this? But I’ve found over time that you need to have a good amount of energy going into that so that you can continue to deliver for the future.

And that leaves 10%. And I like to see that 10% spend on innovation. What does innovation mean? To me? It means things that are not planned, chaotic stuff. And there’s nothing better, I reckon, than when you’re a leader, when somebody knocks on your door or sets up 15 minutes with you and says, I want to show you something that we built. There’s nothing better than that. They come in and they load up some URL in the web browser and they say, try typing in whatever. And then you play with the thing. You think that is super interesting.

I remember when I was back at Microsoft, this guy, Michael Cameron, who coincidentally is Australian, he’s the founder of Rome to Rio. He came into my office one day and he said, try typing in some local things like busses, things like that. And he basically re-engineered search that if you typed in a word that had local meaning, it would prefer results that were near you. So, you can type in bus. And it wouldn’t just have the most popular bus in the whole of the world. So, you wouldn’t get some bus from Central Station in New York or whatever it is. You’d get the bus that was near you. And I’m like, that’s super interesting. He’s like, yeah, try all sorts of local concepts, like dog Kennel just sat there typing local concepts, and the search results made sense in the context of where I was. And he’s like, pretty cool, isn’t it? I’m like when we get this out the door.

So, nobody was doing this at the time, and Michael filed a patent on this thing, how this piece of technology worked, and the idea of biasing search results based on where you were and whether a concept was local. And we just pedal as hard as we could to get this thing out the door. And Bing was the first search engine to have local results for local concepts. That’s the kind of thing, I mean, if somebody just turns up one day and says, had a bit of spare time, build something interesting, what do you think of this? And it could be a physical thing, could be something in a web browser. It could be anything but something that’s related to the business and the customers and the users, but not something that we asked for. And I love to see about 10% of the energy going on to that. So, I think it’s a huge mistake if you’re a technology leader to 100% book your roadmap and just flog everybody. You don’t get those opportunities to do really amazing things if everybody’s booked 100% of the time. You’ve got to let people like Michael have time and space to just tinker and marinate ideas and talk to other people and work in a more chaotic way.

Ed (25:40):

What I’m hearing is in amongst this chaos, it’s still thematic, it’s still focused, and it has to be customer-centric, it’s not just chaos in its true sense of building something that might be interesting to them.

Hugh (25:53):

Exactly, when I was at eBay, we had this thing called a hackathon, it was not themed at all in the first few years I was there, and so you’d walk around these booths and there was people just doing things that were just not relevant to our customers, our users in our business, so walk up to a booth and somebody has figured out bearings for a wheel or something, and you’re like, Okay, that’s cool. But what do we do with that?

And I think, again, if we go back to the hiring point, if you hire people who are smart, great problem-solvers, action-oriented and driven for results, then those people will innovate in the areas that matter, they will understand the customer, the use of the business, and they will do interesting things within that context, what we did an eBay for what it’s worth, was we announced that the next year I had to innovate within themes, and so we kind of directed people towards things that we were interested in, there were some push back on that I think the people working on better ball bearings for wheels or whatever it is, I didn’t necessarily want to do local commerce, but this wasn’t a research lab, we’re paying people in return for their services, and we wanted them to innovate within spaces that were relevant to the company, and so I wasn’t terribly apologetic about that, but I think we had a much better hackathon the next year, but you don’t have to tell the best and the brightest to do that.

Ed (27:07):

These are great call outs for all technology leaders while we’re in the technology teams. Let’s talk to org structure and reporting lines, as I said, you manage larger teams of 1000, but I’m sure that’s not managing 1000 individuals, that’s managing a whole heap of smaller teams. Can you talk to your experience and the models that you use, that work that help frame an optimal structure was for technical talent?

Hugh (27:34):

So, Jeff Bezos at Amazon coin this term, the two-pizza team, and the idea there is that you can feed the team with two pizzas, and I love that, and what that means to me is that team should be about six to 10 people in size, no more no less. So I love teams that are that size, and I love empowering teams to really own something that matters to the end user, and another way to say that is you want people who are within these teams to be able to go home to see their parents, and in a couple of sentences, explain to their parents what they do, maybe show their parents what they do on the website and for their parents to go, that’s pretty awesome. I’m going to tell my friends about that.

If I think back to some of the early days in my career in the US, that would mean things like there is an image search team, there is a new search team, there’s a team that does auto-suggest in web search, there’s a team that injects heterogeneous data modules into web search that gives you previews of videos and images and a bit of news when you’re running web search, so these are things that make sense as an entity that you can describe to your parents, so you can go home and see your parents. You say, I built image search, the team’s only nine people in size, and if you click on the image tab and you type the query, that’s us, we do that.

I think that’s the art, I get the team size right, and get the team focused on an end user, a problem that matters. And then empower that team to do its best work, now what that means to me is that as a leader, my job is to help that team set its goals, and I love numeric goals. So, I would say things like, Let’s talk about image search for a second, I would say things like, Let’s improve the relevance of image search so that our results are as good as Googles by October 23. So, my job is to help team set those kinds of audacious calls, and then let the team run. Let’s assume that they know more about image search than anybody else in the organization, that they are more customer-centric, that they know they use is better, but they get the technology. Let’s assume that, then let’s ask them to build an aggressive roadmap to go and hit that goal. So, I think that’s the art.

And then when you’re managing a 1000 people or 2000 people or 5000 people, your job is to create teams like that throughout your organization that feel empowered, that are super customer-focused, and then rally them all together to achieve an overall goal. So, when I was at eBay, for example, had a team of 1000 people or so, my job was to set an audacious goal that inspired that whole organization and then meant that organization run towards that goal. And the goal I was particularly interested in at the time was basically, sell more stuff. So, I’ll make up a goal for 2012, our goal was selling 8% more stuff in 2012 that we did in 2011.

So, if you compare eBay at the end of 2012, if you could run a test of that versus eBay at the end of 2011, it would sell 8% more stuff, so. Okay, got to go do that. And it’s a super customer-centric goal, because if you’re a seller boy do you want to sell more stuff, if you’re a buyer, you want to find things that you want to buy at a great price, in great condition that ship to you, so you’re happy, and as eBay of course, you’re happy. So, everybody’s a winner when we win, if we sell more stuff, and so my goal is the leader was to inspire the team, but that was a great goal, great customer centric goal. Make sure that we had the right teams in the right swim lanes, and then let them swim. And it’s as simple as that if you can get it right.

Ed (31:01):

And of course, within these teams, great micro-cultures can be built, and they come together, maybe just lifting to the next level, how did you feel that the technologist best integrated with the wider org? Because without great product, you can’t sell, and so it affects sales, in fact, marketing, the collaboration of different silos within an organization to ensure that that was functioning effectively.

Hugh (31:27):

I think a problem in a lot of technology companies and a lot of organizations that try and harness-technology is that they assume that software engineers can do a really good job of talking to business people, and it tends to end really badly, you’ve got people who just want to put head phones on and write a lot of code and solve hard technical problems, and you’ve got business people who are thinking about pricing, marketing, the brand, advertising, all these kinds of things, and you’re hoping that these people will talk to each other and come up with great plans, and that doesn’t usually end very well.

In the US, in particular, there is a discipline called Product Management, Amazon calls it technical product management, Microsoft calls it program management, Google, Facebook, and Apple call it product management. It’s the same thing, but basically these are the set of people whose job it is to sit between the technology team, the software engineers, the business and the customer, so if you sort of think of a Venn diagram of things, business things, customer things, technology and those circles overlap, the product manager is the person who sits back in the middle of that, and they’re typically computer scientists, but they typically don’t write code, they’re typically people who love hanging around with other people, they’re fascinated by the business, the user, the data. They’re inspirational people that can come up with really interesting ideas that can sell something that doesn’t exist, so they can go and persuade an executive audience about a future that hasn’t been built and get them excited about a road map, and so they’re really interesting multi-disciplinary people who kind of sit in the middle that everybody likes to talk to, and I can run this kind of translation.

I think the trick in getting technology teams sort of well interfaced with the rest of the organization is having great product managers, you typically need one in those two pizza teams, so you have the 10-person team, one of those people is a product manager and their job is to figure out the why and the what that we should be doing, so the engineers can figure out how to build it and when to build it by, and that requires the super multi-disciplinary people, and so I think that is the answer is you’ve got to have great product managers in order to be able to build great technology that actually matters to the customer, the user and the business.

Ed (33:44):

That was the inside I was hoping you’d give but didn’t want to spoon feed you too much in terms of building generational businesses, and you’ve been a part of so many now, and you talk to in your team, really narrowing the focus around goal setting in the eBay’s case down to one from many. What about wider company goals and ensuring that they are aligned, how do you think about those sessions with the other leaders within the organization as to how company goes are set?

Hugh (34:12):

So, we know was at eBay when I first joined, which was 2008-9, somewhere around there. We had 43 goals as a company, that’s a very difficult environment to operate in, because typically what you find is there anybody pushes forward on their goal, it hurt somebody else’s goal. An example for my world was that if you improve the relevance of search, so if you made searching on eBay better, then people would click on less banner ads and text ads, and we’d make less money off the ads, and one of the other company goals was make more of advertising. You had this crazy situation where you’re improving the core product, you’re helping the buyers and the sellers, but you’re upsetting the ad’s team whose goal, it sits alongside your goals at the company level, and so there’s all these arguments going on. If you can’t do that right now, can you wait a month? Because we’ll miss out on our goal and everybody will be unhappy with us, and of course, looking back, it’s very obvious that ads goals shouldn’t have said at the same level as improving the core product, it took some courage of the CEO and the leadership team to say, Let’s put a line through that.

Let’s say that it’s less important, let’s say to the ad’s team, but work is less important, let’s not have them on the company goal sheet, and let’s manage that team through that and help them realize that what they do is important, but it can’t be in conflict with improving the overall core products and making commerce better online, so a very difficult thing to do, but the leadership team literally went from 43 goals, to 1 goal, so that goal I spoke about earlier of sell more stuff was the only company called by about two years after I got there, there was no other company goal now, of course, there are people on the periphery, the ads team, people working on deep dark platform things in the engineering team, people are working on future ideas who couldn’t look at that one goal and say, I work on that.

You had to sell to those folks that what they were doing was important, and there were sort of second order effects of what they were doing that enabled others to work on that goal, so definitely it’s hard sell one goal across an organization, but I don’t know maybe 60-70% of the people we’re working directly on their goal and not in competition, everybody was celebrating everybody else’s success, everybody sunk or swam, depending on how the company did on that one, goal. So, it’s incredibly unifying if you can get down to one goal, but it’s not easy, it takes a lot of courage, and it takes a lot of sales as a leader.

Ed (36:48):

What I’m hearing is also a focus on the metrics that matter, and in eBay’s case, there’s no bigger metric that matters, the GMV, and also, just the importance of that goal being customer centric. In regard to the story around the advertising, that diminishes in many respects, the customer experience or going to eBay to buy stuff that they want to look for, and so having that centricity when it comes to goal setting seems, so important.

Hugh (37:08):

It’s incredibly important. And it’s hard to come up with dolls. Sounds simple, right? Look back at eBay and you say, Well, sell more staff has measured the following way by the following day, it sounds easy, but having the courage to pare it down to the one goal, having the deep understanding of what that goal is and how to drive that goal the ability to divide that goal up amongst the team, the understanding that that goal encompasses most of the work that’s going on in the company, I think it’s an incredible art this goal setting.

When I was at Microsoft working on search, we only had one goal there as well, and I guess a lot of what I learned was from Microsoft, and our goal was around the relevance of the search engine, we wanted to build a search engine that gave people great answers, and that was it. There’s nothing else to it, and we were honest enough to hold ourselves up against the best in the business, which was Google was and still is Google, and ask how relevant are they and how relevant are we, and what do we need to do to close that gap? Because that’s why people choose the search engine because it gives them great answers and being honest enough to admit that being careful enough to measure that and being diligent enough to measure your competitors and understand where they’re at is also super important.

Ed (38:17):

Part of the role of the great technology later is to be a culture carrier and contribute to the wider culture of the organization to build generational businesses, it’s the greatest competitive advantage that they can build is this sustainable strong culture. And I’m sure there are no silver bullets, but maybe just quickly, some of the key things that you learned as a leader in regard to building company cultures.

Hugh (38:41):

The kind of culture that I went about setting throughout my career was one where I wanted people to shoot for the moon, but be realistic about what they’re shooting for, and there was this phrase BHAG at Microsoft, which stood for big hairy audacious goal, and so we used to set BHAGs and what they are is things that are just attainable if everything goes right. So, they’re not impossible, nobody’s laughing going, will never be able to do this. They’re not things that you can just sort of phone in and get their things where everything has to go. Right, and everybody has to be at their best. I loved that about Microsoft. In all the jobs that I’ve had and in the advisory work that I do, I kind of push for that, I try and create culture where everything has to go right, we all have to be our best and work together as a unit to just make it to this goal, and that’s sort of the essence of the cultures that I love.

And of course, we’ve got to play as a team, we’ve got to be respectful, we’ve got to show up, we’ve got to be the best people we can be, that’s got to happen. To reach the B-HAG. I think it brings out the best in people if you kind of get that dial right, and I think it’s an art, especially when you’re just setting a goal in an organization, because you’re not quite sure where to put the dial, so you kind of want the dial, to be at nine and a half but you don’t know what Nine and a half is. So, you might miss you might whoop, I accidentally set it to three, and that was a bit too easy or whoops. I set it to 12, we’re never going to get there. So, I think it’s an absolute art to get this right. But if you can do that and push an organization to go on a chase something, again, that’s used the century customer-centric, that really matters and it’s really stretchy and uncomfortable, then I think you can create these cultures that are amazing.

Ed (40:31):

I love that, and of course, that relies on monitoring and celebrating and iterating and fixing and leading in many respects, to make sure that that’s being upheld. I do want to just finish on the next phase of your career, having talked so much and so deeply around the earliest stages as what you’re doing now is just as important as the co-founder and chairperson of CS in schools.

You’re really giving back to the Australian technology community. Also lecturing through MIT, but what CS schools is ultimately trying to achieve is bring Digi-tech skills to the next generation of Australians, particularly in under-represented groups like females and those growing up disadvantaged areas. I’d love you to give some color to this mission and also maybe to understand the key unlocks in your mind for Australia as a country to be a driving force of technology progression.

Hugh (41:28):

I look back on my life, we talked about it at the start, and I realized, just have fortunate I am, right? So, I was born in one of the greatest countries on me, you basically want a lot of ticket by just being born in Australia, like let’s just be clear about that. And then I was lucky enough to have the parents that I had and the opportunities that I had to get into computing and ride a really interesting wave, and that wave is still going, we are in the middle of one of the most profound revolutions in human kind, this technological revolution, and I think Australia has the opportunity to surf this wave, but you’ve got to create for everybody in Australia opportunity to have the kinds of experiences that I had when I was a kid, and not everybody will get that opportunity at home by having entrepreneurial parents and a set of circumstances that I had.

The best place to create opportunity for the next generation is, of course, at school, we’re lucky in Australia, there is a mandatory Australian digital technologies curriculum. So, there’s a federal curriculum, most of the states and territories have adopted it and said it’s critical to teach in our public and Catholic schools, but if you go to the schools, they’re not typically teaching that in its entirety.

You say why not? Well, crowded curriculum, busy school, teachers who are not computer scientists, a curriculum that’s somewhat impenetrable, so if you stand and read it as a non-technologist like what exactly is this that I’m supposed to be teaching, that my school is supposed to be doing? it’s very, very hard for principles and leaders in schools and teachers to grab this curriculum and run with it and make sure that students get these kinds of experiences in the classroom. Now, if we can give students that experience, then we can move on from being just users of technology to being creators of technology, we can create amazing technologies and amazing companies.

How do we think that that should be solved? Well, we think the fastest way to solve that, and the best way to solve that is to professionally develop the teachers who are in the classroom today, so we build a program where we work with in service teachers, teachers of any background, they’re most commonly Math’s and Science teachers, but we work with PE teachers, language teachers, all kinds of teachers, so we work with those teachers to up-skill them in digital technology, and that means I understand the curriculum and appreciate it, I understand why it’s relevant, and then actually develop the core skills themselves to be computer scientists, so learn how to code, and then they can pass those skills on to their students term after term, year after year, and so that’s the core of the CS in Schools program that we’ve built, is a professional development program for teachers that comes with free materials, the teachers can use in the classroom, comes with industry connections so that the students and the teachers can see the relevance of what they do, and then we’re rolling that out across Australia.

The first year we worked with eight schools, in our second year we worked with 21 schools, in our third year we work with 42 schools and this year. We’re working with 64 schools, and I can promise you next year we’ll work with 128 schools, so we’re doubling the size of the program every year, that more than double is a number of teachers who are involved, there’s 250 teachers involved this year. And that more than doubles the number of students who get the opportunity to do fundamental computing at school in great Digi-tech classes, this, if you believe our website statistics, I do the back of the envelope calculation. And came up with 18000 students learning to code this year through our programs, if you believe our website statistic is going to be much closer to 40000 students this year, so there’s lots of people grabbing our materials and using them all over Australia that we’re not even helping, which is fabulous to see.

Ed (45:11):

I’d love to know what the B-HAG for CS in schools is

Hugh (45:14):

Double the number of schools every year by our math There’s about 2,700 secondary schools in Australia. We work with secondary schools exclusively right now, and so we’re only in 64, but next your 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048 and then bang, we’ve done all 2700 now, I should say, not all 20700 and need help, of course, there are schools out there with incredible Digi-tech teachers who are super highly skilled in this space and doing a fantastic job, so when we bump into a school that’s already doing a great job, we say, Well, here some free materials if you’d like them, if there’s anything we can do to help call us any time. And then we move on to the next school, so we’re here to help the schools that want to create this opportunity for their teachers and for their students, and we think that’s certainly the majority of secondary schools in Australia, but we should get there pretty quick, if we keep on doubling every year, which is a super scary guy, keeps you awake every night.


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