The interview was conducted by Miguel Roberto Pascual Acheson and written by Kaisa Kumpas, members of the Digit communication team.
PS: For those who are curious to learn more about Ursatile and the story of this multitalent guy Dylan, you can watch and listen to the full interview and also check Dylan’s website, where by the way, he keeps a blog of his own.Dylan Beattie is a software developer, consultant and an international keynote speaker and the list doesn’t stop there. He’s the director of an independent consultancy, Ursatile, based in London, which specialises in helping organisations bridge the knowledge gap between software development and business strategy. Dylan has been in the software world from a very young age, but since the 1990s, he has been building data-driven web applications, managing teams, thought workshops and working on basically everything from tiny standalone websites to complex distributed systems. He is also a Microsoft MVP, and he regularly speaks at conferences and user groups all over the world.
At Digit 2023, Dylan will be talking about communication and presentation skills. He has been spending a lot of his career and his life figuring out how to explain things - how to take concepts of technology and turn them into narrative, turn them into a story that people actually want to hear. We talked to Dylan about his experiences and approached, and of course, about Ursatile.
You're being called a technology strategist at Ursatile by Digitdev. What does that mean for somebody who knows nothing about that? And furthermore, how would you describe yourself for somebody in your seminar who knows nothing about you?
In an event like this, they always want a one-line description, which if you're a program manager at Microsoft, kind of everyone knows what that means. You cannot really describe what I do in one line of stuff. I started as a developer for many years. I was a hobby-programmer in the 80s, professional web developer from the mid 90s, and since then have grown into distributed systems. I've built teams, I've done architecture, recruitment, I was a CTO at a company here in London for a couple of years. Alongside that, I'm doing meetups, conferences and public speaking, and then I start turning some of my ideas for talks into comedy songs, some other speakers join me, and we put a band together. And so like, what do you do? Well, I will come to your conference, I will do a talk, I will hold panels, I will run workshops, I will teach people web and distributed systems, I will get on stage afterwards with a guitar and entertain everyone for a couple of hours. Yeah, the name doesn't really fit. Technology strategist was when I started my own consultancy in 2020. The people I was talking to were like, you can do this a couple of ways: one is you can go and work for a massive agency, two is you can do like six months at a time, or three you can work with people who want someone to come in maybe once a week or just connect with them periodically and help steer them in the right direction and validate their decisions. When I was on the other side of that relationship, I worked with some people whose input I found incredibly valuable. Just someone you could kind of pay and go ‘hey, we think we figured this out, but we're not sure, we haven't really done this before. Can you come and validate our design decisions and stuff?’ And so I thought, well, that's something I'd be very interested in getting into. The problem is then the pandemic happened and completely shredded everybody's expectations around how you go building a consultancy and meeting with clients. A lot of companies were not investing in any development because they thought the world might be about to end. And by the time that sort of blew over, I was basically doing training and teaching and speaking enough that A, I was solvent, I was making a living from it, and B, I was too busy to do anything else. So yeah, that's kind of where I ended up. I say I ended up, but that's where I am now. I have no idea where I'm going to end up. I still don't know what I'm going to do when I grow up. But Ursutile is just a company I set up to have a proper corporate presence and accounts and all that kind of stuff. But yes, I am a one-person company, which confuses the Americans.
If you heard about someone who also wanted to become self-employed, the same as you did with your company, Ursatile, what would you insist they had in mind before starting?
The people I know who have done this successfully, many of whom run their own company as they are the directors of a limited corporation and established as a legal entity. Some of them just do three-month contracts here and there and it’s basically that they do short-term full-time roles and it’s a very popular form. And I know people that will actually start a company. They will go out and do, and their first activity is sales and what do you do in a consulting agency where you make websites - so the first thing is we are going to go pound the streets and knock on doors ‘hey, do you wanna buy a website?’ and they build it up from there, they hire some people they grow there. I know people who start a company to run a single event. So there is no kind of consistency to it. I think you got to have a good idea of what you want to do and for some people that is literally ‘I want to establish a brand or ‘I want to make a product and iI want to grow it’ and eventually i think the dream of a lot of people in startups is ‘I want to get acquired’ so they work really hard for three or five years and then in the end of it there is a big payday. And I know a handful of people who have set things up and I haven't seen them in years while they have been working on this thing and then they get acquired by one of the massive platforms or one of the big companies and they do very well with it. But for some people it’s a vehicle - if i have my own company, i can explore the things i wanna explore, i don’t have things like non-compete agreements, i can work for what i want to work for and mark my own hours and if I travel I can do it as a digital nomad - laptops and hotel rooms all over the world kind of thing. So I would say try and see, just don’t break the law you know. I think that if you want to succeed you need to have a certain combination of drive and ambition and a network you can draw onto to figure stuff out. I’m talking to a lot of people like ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing and I don't really know what I'm doing’. I think if you mess that up you’ll actually get into trouble as opposed to just having no money or having no work. But there are a lot of companies out there that are just kind of ghosting along with a relatively small amount of turnover, but the people involved are doing quite well out of it and enjoying what they do. But that’s the one thing - go to as many people as you can find and people who know you and can give you advice that reflects the particular situation that you are in.
The next question is more about what Ursutile actually does. So you mentioned that it gives training and development advice - what more would you like to add to the description?
It does what I do! Fundamentally, the company is a brand that I set up and basically I wanted something for the people I know who want to book me for training. They are like ‘Do you have something I can show my boss? Because we’ve got your website but that’s full of a hairy guy making jokes and playing the guitar.’ And then I’m like ‘well show them this’ and make a nice shiny present. It’s basically a digital equivalent of me in a suit. And I've got a lot of interest through that. One of the things that a lot of people are asking about is communication training. A lot of teams have gone remotely and fully distributed. They try to embrace synchronous communication patterns like how we use slack effectively and all these kinds of things. And it’s easy for companies to just fall into familiar patterns that are not the most effective patterns when it comes to how they coordinate the work that they’re doing. I still see so many people’s messages, who think it's like a phone call. They need to get some banter going before they can cut to the chase of what they actually want to talk about. And this is just one of lots of different patterns. And so I put together a bunch of workshops and training material about how to shake people out of their comfort zone a little bit and get them to think about ways of communication that are possible with distributed asynchronous teams and also showing them tools they can use. A lot of people are like ‘oh, we've got to go into the office because that's where the whiteboard is’. It's like, no, we have digital whiteboards. You can do that distribution. You can collaborate. You can do backlog grooming. You can do all these kinds of things, mind maps, brainstorming, all this kind of stuff. You can do it online. You just need to learn a new set of tools. But with developers, we love learning new things. It's what gets us out of bed in the morning, right? But yeah, in terms of what it actually does, it is certainly not a company at the moment that is gonna be growing up into anything I'm planning to sell. There are various avenues. I have a lot of people saying good things about the power of video trading as a way of reaching a larger audience without placing, you know, you do a two-day workshop for two days with a group of 25 people. That's two days of your time. You reach 25 people. That's the end of the transaction. You make two days' worth of training videos. Now that takes a lot longer than two days because making high-quality video is hard. You know, a lot of investment, a lot of time, a lot of editing. But then, you assume that that material has a shelf life of a year, maybe two years. You can reach a lot more than 25 people. And if you can figure out the right approach for monetizing that and getting a little bit of revenue every time someone wants some of your stuff, then that can be a very, very, potentially very powerful long-term model. So yeah, that's something I will definitely spend some time looking into over the next couple of months.
Going all the way back in time to when you started as a hobby-programmer in the 80s, that does sound like an innocent time, a time of nostalgia - tell me about that.
Just dig deep enough to find how - the idea that things aren't impossible, someone has done it. What else would you urge these developers to take on board as skills beyond knowing how to learn X and X languages back?
I think the most important thing, and I don't want to kind of be negative or dismissive, is empathy. It's realising that the software you build is going to get used by real people and trying to do everything you can to understand who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. I can give you an example that has nothing to do with software, but which has been a factor in my life for the last two weeks. I have been trying to watch movies and TV shows that have been edited to watch on a big screen in the dark. There's a show silo on Apple TV at the moment, and I was trying to watch it on a plane. I couldn't because the editing on that show is so dark and so gritty that if you're watching it on a plane, you can't see it. Was this intentional ‘we don't want you watching this on a plane, you should be watching this in a projection room’. Or is this just ‘we don't care is this just oh yeah never occurred to us because that's gonna be like the rise of streaming the number of mobile devices’. There has to be a significant proportion of media consumption now is people on public transport watching stuff on their phone with Bluetooth earphones and it blows my mind so I stopped watching silo and I watched South Park instead. That is somebody favouring their opinion of their own craft over the actual situation in which their users are going to be consuming or interacting with that product. And once you start looking for that, you can see little details and those kinds of patterns playing up all over the place. And you're building something people are going to use, do everything you can to find out who the people are and what are they going to be going through?
A hypothetical question, let's say you are starting out in development as someone coming out of university and you are building up the skills to get your first development job. What skills would you prioritise working on?
How much are you in a position to disclose about what your seminar will be about?
I'm gonna be presenting, doing a talk, but also delivering a seminar about communication and presentation skills. And basically I've spent a lot of my career, a lot of my life figuring out how to explain things, how do you take concepts around technology and turn them into narrative, turn them into a story that people actually want to hear? How do you support that? We have this wonderful landscape now where you can do a presentation with slides, you can use video, animation, audio, props, you can use all these technologies, and still I see so many people doing bullet point lists in PowerPoint when there are far more interesting ways to communicate what you're doing. And then we'll also be incorporating some elements about how to collaborate, which builds on some of the communication training stuff we were talking about earlier. And, okay, well, you're doing a presentation in front of a live audience, you approach it a certain way. You're doing a presentation online for a virtual event, you approach that a certain way. You are meeting with a bunch of people on your team, why are you having the meeting? What are the artefacts you're hoping to get out of it? Is this keeping everyone in the loop? Do you need to make a decision? Do you need to come away with actions and a to-do list, this kind of stuff? And it's going to be fun. There's a lot of interesting material to bring in there. I hope and expect that we'll get a good group of engaged people who will actually get into the spirit of the thing. So it'll be interactive, a little bit hands-on, and yeah, I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fun!
If you could give a really short, concise little bit of advice regarding presentation and communication skills for the seminar, what would you give?
Oh boy, that's a good one. Tell a story. Stories work. And if you can, tell a story no one else can tell. That is, I got that from Hollywood. It's, I can't remember who said it, It's, I can't remember who said it, but the quote was that every great movie director, sooner or later they make a movie that no one else could have made. And so I say to people, you know, if you want to be a presenter, sooner or later, you're going to have to give a presentation nobody else could give. And that means that it's not just, hey, look at the technology. It's like, this is my story. It's where I came from. This is how I got here. This is why I care about this. So, yeah, tell a story nobody else can tell. That's what you want to aspire to.
You could also catch Dylan during the conference and chat more about software development, business strategies and most importantly, great communication and presentation.