This will be a different post, no code in here! 🙂
This past week, I had the opportunity to attend Building the Future 2020, an event focused on digital transformation, mostly targeted at Portugal, but I’d say, from what I saw there, it’s pretty applicable to the world in general.
Taking into consideration this blog, and how so development focused it is, this isn’t the kind of event you’d expect me to attend, as it’s a more “higher level view” kind of event, on topics about how what we build impacts the world around us. That higher level view actually made attending it interesting, as we tend to be so focused on code, that we sometimes forget what are we coding for, what’s the impact.
In this post I’ll try to go through some of the topics that caught my attention, things to keep an eye out, things that maybe deserve a bit more focus going forward.
Don’t know if a developer’s perspective on topics usually “reserved” for people with other kinds of roles is super interesting, but I hope it is. This post will probably be a mix of the ideas I saw in the event with my own opinions, hope it doesn’t get too messy 🙂.
Every business is a tech business
The first session of the conference was on a really interesting topic. The premise is that every business is a tech business. Of course this is an overstatement, plenty of more traditional businesses aren’t, and will continue not being for the forseeable future, but as a general observation, it makes sense.
The standard example for this topic is Amazon. Started as an online bookstore, morphed into a more generic store, created AWS, streaming services, digital assistants, etc. Even if we ignore these massive companies, we have our banks that provide us with online services, food ordering services, transportation services, even including the traditional public transportation providers that also have apps to check the timetables and plan trips.
Use technology to improve the world
A bit of an adjacent topic touched during this topic’s sessions (brought up by Laila Pawlak), but the one that stuck with me the most, was that we should apply our skills to make improvements to the world. This probably stuck with me the most because it’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the past already.
The idea here isn’t really about those catchphrases we see a lot of times from some companies, that they’re “changing the world” or “disrupting the industry” with another blockchain based social network to share cat pics.
The idea is more on a fundamental level, improve the lives of people by creating things that actually bring value. A great example mentioned on stage was the Be My Eyes application, which enables volunteers and blind/low-vision people to be paired up, allowing the volunteers to help someone in need of assistance for something as basic as reading some instructions.
Even if we, as developers, don’t do something as impactful as Be My Eyes, we can surely do more under the radar but still relevant things. Many times I wonder if the time I spend building the same LOB applications at work, or other weird things is time well spent. My hope is that given that most of what I do outside of work is public and (hopefully) educational, if the people that benefit from what I share do more relevant things, I end up having some more impactful contributions indirectly 🤞.
Counter argument, not every business is (or should) be a tech business
On the same topic, but with a slight twist, Jens Rassloff counter argument is that not all companies are (or will be) technology companies, but they need to embrace technology. That means being prepared to use technology, partner with actual tech companies to build what needs to be built.
Grabbing an example I used above, it probably doesn’t make sense for a public transportation company to be a tech company, with teams of developers, testers and whatnot, but they need to incorporate tech into their business.
These kinds of companies, should continue to be focused on their strengths, focused on their clients, but not waste resources trying to replicate what is already done better elsewhere.
The future of mobility
Another interesting topic touched was “shaping the future of mobility”. For this topic, there were a bunch of smaller presentations by 5 different people, followed by a discussion panel.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the presentations focused on electric and self-driving vehicles, as well as their infrastructure. Although, as mentioned, I wasn’t really surprised with such focus, in my opinion, don’t know if it should the priority in terms of the future of mobility, but I’ll expand on that later.
What I found most interesting in regards to EVs and related, was actually the infrastructure. It’s isn’t a massive improvement to use EVs while still charging them using electricity produced by non-green sources. This should be a focus, not only in the common ways of production, but also more and more having clients produce energy and be able to use it for EV charging and other needs. Improvements in battery technology are something that’s also very important.
As for my opinion on this focus on EVs and related subjects, the thing is, sure, EVs are an important piece of the future (and present actually), but the focus on mobility should be more on public transportation infrastructure, rather than individual solutions. I think only one of the speakers went in that direction, a Lisbon city councilor. EVs are certainly better than the traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles they aim to replace, but replacing terrible traffic with greener terrible traffic is not the ideal solution we should aim for.
Public transportation needs massive improvements, not only for the environment, but also to provide a better lifestyle for people. Individual transportation should be a second choice, not the first (as it is in Portugal at least).
Besides public transportation, remote work probably deserved a bit more attention as well, even though a bit of an adjacent topic regarding mobility, but still somewhat related. I’ll get back to this topic later.
Diversity and inclusion
Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic, and probably should be even more. There were a couple of sessions on the subject, so given I am not usually involved in these topics, I figured it was something that made sense for me to attend and have a better grasp - besides the usual seeing things happen on Twitter.
The first session was more focused on women specifically, but not really women in tech, more of a broad look at the subject and some focus on the lack of women in leadership positions. As the discussion panel was not only comprised of “tech people” I can understand the direction of the conversation, but I would add that tech seems to have an even bigger problem.
During the session, some numbers were presented, showing the ratio of women that are employed, from entry-level to C level, and the picture isn’t pretty. From over 50% in entry-level to under 10% in C-level.
Adding my opinion to the mix, in tech (in Portugal), there isn’t even good entry-level representation, much less above. Maybe a residual example, but still a real one, taking into consideration the office I work in (when I actually go there, as I mostly work remotely) has like, 30/40 people, out of those, dunno, maybe 2/3 women? That ratio… not even going to comment further.
Something also worth pointing out is that the vast majority of the audience was, you probably guessed it, women. This further shows the depth of the problem. Many men simply don’t think it’s a problem or, don’t know if better or worse, just don’t care enough to even attend such a discussion.
More diversity-related topics
The second session was more broad regarding the diversity and inclusion topic, ranging from LGBTQ, migrants to disabled people. There were some success cases shown by some companies, namely with providing jobs to disabled people, finding the places where they can fulfill their potential. On this note, also the inclusion of migrants in the job market.
Culture and skills for the future
Another interesting couple of sessions were focused on culture and new competences of the future, as well as skills for innovation.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most brought up topics were artificial intelligence and machine learning. What I liked the most about Tanmay Bakshi’s intervention, was that even if very AI and ML oriented, instead of the change the world all-knowing AI that’ll replace humans, which is often preached, he actually focused on its applications to specific problems. He referred to it with an interesting term, “augmented intelligence”.
As for something that’s not really news to anyone (or shouldn’t be), but warrants the additional reminder, the skills to tackle these problems are scarce, so companies cannot simply rely on hiring people, there simply aren’t enough people with the skills to do what needs to be done in tech-related subjects. Companies need to train their people, prepare them for the future. The age of doing the same job every day the whole life is in general behind us, continuous improvement is needed. This was already true for developers (the standpoint from which I’m analyzing all of this), but more and more will apply to the broader society.
Building a sustainable society
Related to the previous topic, but drifting more to the cultural side and the adaptations that should be done in how we approach technology, building a more sustainable society should be on top of our minds.
The usual company premise of focus on customers is important, but it is not enough. Companies need to consider society and the environment in general. Going back to an example I mentioned above, EVs are great, but thinking about the whole, not just individuals, it’s probably not the best all-around answer.
As a side note on this topic, one of the speakers was involved in the Fairphone project, which is a pretty neat idea.
All in all, I enjoyed the event and the sessions I attended, but before wrapping up, I wanted to point out some missed opportunities.
For me, the biggest miss were the lack of references to remote work. Certainly there are other events more focused on this topic, but it makes no sense to me that an event focused on digital transformation, as well as the future of tech and its impact, almost completely bypasses such an important topic like a transition to a more remote working friendly society, not only in tech companies, but in general.
I attended a session named “New ways of working”, which I expected to touch that subject, but it ended up focusing way too much on Microsoft Teams. I’m sure the app is great and helps with a lot of things, but it’s just a tool, and I feel the focus should be actual “new ways of working” in general, not 1001 ways to use MS Teams.
Remote work should be more than just work exactly the same but from outside the office, so it felt like the event would be a great forum for some discussion around the subject.
Wrapping up, it was a nice event, I’m glad I was able to attend.
There were some (not many) more code-focused sessions, but I purposely attended other kinds of sessions. Not only did the more code-focused sessions seem too high level to my liking, but since it’s what I already do and learn all other days, I felt I could make better use of my time checking out other subjects.
There were a ton of other things going on in the conference that I wasn’t able to check out, but for most of the sessions I attended, I’d say I’m happy with my choices there.
What about you, did you attend this event or a similar one? What’s your take on these “future” topics?
Thanks for stopping by, cyaz!