Dylan Beattie – So Much More Than a Technology Strategist

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.

My father had an Amstrad 6128 that came with Amstrad basic and logo, digital research logo, and a couple of games. And I think even at eight years old, I was looking at that and thinking ‘I bet I can write better games than these’. And it turns out that I couldn't because I was eight and assembly programming on an Amstrad 6128 with no manual and no stack overflow is hard. But the thing that kind of got me sucked in was Logo. Because Logo is a graphical programming language. And it had this wonderful quality that it took long enough to do something that there would be an element of suspense. Like you type the commands and you press go, and then you'd wait just, you know, maybe 20 or 30 seconds while it followed your instructions, which is long enough that you get kind of the suspense, you get hooked into it, but not so long you get bored. And so drawing little shapes and geometric patterns and figuring out how to do things in Logo and functions. That got me absolutely mesmerised by this thing. I think it got me at a very young age into thinking of the computer as just a machine and anything that anyone else can make it do, I can make it do if I can figure out how they did it. And I think that the best developers I've worked with are the ones who are like ‘well, it can't be impossible because I've seen it working over here. We just need to figure out how they make that happen’. And in the early days of the web you would go on a website, you'd be like, ‘wow, how did they do that?’ and then you'd go right click, view source, take it apart, and you'd be like ‘oh, that's clever, so they've made an image map out of an animated GIF, that's neat’. And I remember when, when Ajax first came around, this idea that the browser could send requests through JavaScript. And I think Google autocomplete on Google search was the first thing that we all went ‘how did they do that?’ There's a com active X component in Internet Explorer that can talk to the server without you having to refresh the page. And that was just like ‘boom!’, an entire generation of developers going ‘well, what else can we do with it?’ and then Google Maps came along and so you have infinite scrolling. And that was a revolution in terms of building interactive user interfaces. But we were always like, the only thing that the browser knows how to do is HTML and JavaScript, so if it can work on a web page, we can figure out how they did it - we can reverse engineer that, we can build that on our own applications. And that was such a fun way to learn how to develop and deploy and add rich usability features and all this kind of stuff. But I think it's that mindset of looking at any system and going ‘all right, well, somebody built this and they didn't use magic. So, all we need to do is figure out the technology that was deployed to make this happen.’

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?

That's an interesting question. So I still am a big advocate of the philosophy that most problems can be solved with a relational database, a backend programming language, and a working knowledge of the web. And I realise that that’s not cool. Fundamentally, I think the important thing is to understand the point at which you reach the bare metal. Let's take web browsers as an example. There is a bunch of stuff a browser can do. A browser can render HTML, render HTML using CSS to control the styling, run JavaScript and give you access to APIs like the Fetch API and location services and audio and all these kinds of things. And because those are part of the API platform, they change slowly. And one, the things get rolled out, there's early access, and then there's a window of a couple of months before it goes to production. Once these things are out there, there is gonna be a stable surface that you can address for a long time in your code. And so I think understanding that is significantly more important in the long term than understanding TypeScript or React or Angular, Vue.js, because fundamentally, all of those things have to translate what they do back to JavaScript, browser API, CSS transitions, these kinds of things, otherwise it doesn't work, there is no alternative. So I think that you have to learn JavaScript, CSS, HTML. Understand fundamentally - if we take away all the tools and all the frameworks and we just give you a text editor and a web browser, can you still build something that works? And then, the back end, learn a couple of different languages, but understand that HTTP is about opening a network request and sending strings backwards and forwards. And all of the stuff we do on the web builds up from. I think the value you get from understanding that model, is that a relational data model makes you think about your application, your problem domain in terms of relationships between atomic pieces of data. And then the backend platform makes you think of it in terms of behaviour and modelling interactions between objects. And then the frontend makes you think of it in terms of screens and user experience. And those are three kinds of different perspectives doing an end elevation, side elevation, and a plan elevation of the same building. They give you three different views on the way you solve a problem. Now, the corollary to all that is getting good at that stuff takes time, and a lot of people are like, right, I need a job now. I need to go somewhere that will start paying me money from day one. And I suspect from conversations I've had with lots of people out there, that the best way to do that is to do a 12-week boot camp in whatever the framework of the month is, and then go to a company that is hiring hundreds of devs at a time. And at the very least, you'll be drawing a salary while you figure out you don't like it, or you figure out what you want to do next. Something that I say to people about how to learn stuff, I think let's use a musical analogy here. You can't learn to play the guitar. That's impossible because it is an infinitely flexible and nuanced instrument, and you could do six hours a day of guitar practice until you die of old age, and there are still going to be things that you don't know how to do, things you've never seen before, things you haven't figured out. But you can learn one song, and then you're like, well, now I can play a song. And then you can learn another song, and then you can learn another song, and then, you know, at the end of, you'll learn one song a week, then after three months, you've got enough songs that you can get up and play a show with a room full of people, or you can join a band, and you can go along to a jam session and kind of groove along with that. And at that point, it gets fun, because you're like, I'm making music. The music I like is coming out of my fingers now. This is awesome. And once you get that feedback loop of you enjoying what you're doing, it sounds good to you, maybe even sounds good to other people as well, and so you get a little bit of that kind of validation from an audience. That creates a feedback loop, which is gonna make you keep going back to it and keep improving and keep working on it. And I know some kids I was in school with who did music lessons, but they never learned songs. They just learned scales and how to read. And I think software is the same. You can spend a long time learning theory and doing isolated examples, but unless you're actually building something that kind of scratches a real itch, then you're not going to get that feedback. And actually, let me put one corollary on top of that, which is security. Because security is one of the things that it is almost impossible to figure out by building little applications yourself. Because there are vulnerabilities in all kinds of things. It's very easy to write apps which look good and they work and they're great, and then you discover that there's a SQL injection attack or something. And when you built it, you didn't even know what one of those was. You just kind of hacked the code until you made it work properly. So I think, you know, security is, be, not necessarily you have to solve all those problems yourself, but be aware that that is likely to be a significant gap in your own knowledge if you're a self-taught developer, and make sure when you get to the point in your career when you are working on things which are important or have sensitive user data, that you've got someone there to advise you on that and help you get that stuff right. But, apart from that, play, have fun, build stuff, run it, see what happens.

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.