IT Life: Making Business Information Social

jonathan Howell Huddle

Consumer-style tech can make business information more productive, says Jonathan Howell of Huddle

Jonathan Howell is chief technology officer of enterprise collaboration provider Huddle – a company that aims to let organisations work together on content. Huddle’s customers include many UK government departments (through the G-cloud), as well as NASA and brands such as Unilever.

In Howell’s fifteen years’ career he has built technology teams from scratch and built high volume web-facing systems. A big fan of agile development, he is in charge of all aspects of Huddle’s product and technology.

Finding the content you need

Jonathan Howell HuddleWhat has been your favourite project so far?
It’s definitely our intelligent recommendation technology, which uses machine learning algorithms to analyse documents and the way people interact with them.

We recognised that in today’s enterprise, one of the key issues people have is finding the content they need – or even realising that it exists in the first place. Thanks to the cloud and mobile devices, people can work with anyone at any time from anywhere. But when information is shared and worked on with colleagues, customers, partners and contractors, people simply drown in data and don’t know where to look for content.

The answer lies in intelligence. Amazon has used its recommendation engine in the retail space for years to push products that it thinks will be of interest to you. Now we have developed a platform for the enterprise that understands what content you’re likely to need and on what device you’d like it on. This is the future of enterprise search.

Last Minute Flip FlopsWhat tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Ten years ago the dot-com bubble had well and truly burst and I was working for a small start-up, trying to close our last big deal before finally calling it a day. These were interesting days and we all learnt that, contrary to the wisdom at the time, revenue is pretty important! The idea was sound – online billing consolidation – but the market simply wasn’t ready for it yet.

I then joined (a dot-com boom success story), and was developing a system that would connect to numerous hotel and holiday suppliers over the web using XML, rather than exchanging faxes. Fax was the main way hotel bookings had been confirmed up to that point.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
We are at the beginning of a major shift in the technology we use in the workplace and in ten years’ time that shift will be complete.

There are a number of parts to this change. Firstly, user experience will become increasingly important in enterprise software. The crusade led by Apple to make technology a pleasure to use rather than frustrating for people is now standard practice in the consumer software space. The rise of business cloud applications has made it possible for employees to choose software they like using and unsurprisingly this software has the same great user experience that people are used to in their personal lives.

office business phone apps work suit  ©  violetkaipa ShutterstockIT departments have to deal with this “shadow IT”; but they also realise that user adoption is a key success criteria for enterprise software and a product that delights people is more likely to get used. Of course, enterprise software should no longer be considered fit for purpose if users hate using it. And this will be the norm ten years from now.

Secondly, mobile devices will become more established in the workplace and mobile working will erode the concept of the corporate network. The post-PC era is here and we’ll soon see a big increase in business apps optimised for tablet and mobile use. These apps will address security and control concerns to ensure the safety of corporate data. Mobile devices, and the user expectation that they can work from anywhere, with whomever they need to, are diminishing the idea of the corporate LAN keeping all corporate data on the premises.

Finally, intelligent analysis and machine learning techniques will provide respite from the information overload that we all suffer from, surfacing the information we require each day. I’m drowning in data everywhere I look. When I open Spotify, there’s so much choice I just don’t know where to start; so I turn to social media to find out what music my friends are listening to or recommendation systems like’s “similar artists” for inspiration.

This is even more true at work. The content stored across an organisation represents valuable intellectual property, but the sheer volume means that getting the right information to the right person at the right time is a rarity. Old-school knowledge management systems attempted to solve the problem, but missed the fact that the person who wrote the document is as important as the document itself.

As for non-work related technology, I think that in ten years the self-driving car will have finally arrived.

Steve Jobs suit and tieWho’s your tech hero?
Steve Jobs features all too often in this column – as a hero and villain. For me, he’s a hero. He made two significant contributions to the tech world that I particularly appreciate.

Firstly, he made computers cool. As a computer geek in the 80s and early 90s, the idea that technology could be cool was completely foreign. Yes, we enjoyed tinkering with computers, but were under no illusions as to what the rest of the world thought of us.

I’ve also always been interested in great design – from cars to furniture – and in music. The rise of the internet was one part of the rehabilitation of the geeks. But it was really the way in which Apple applied computers to music, rather than accountancy, and making them beautiful and desirable objects, which completed the process.

Secondly – and I’ve only appreciated this properly recently – Jobs made technology for the masses. The focus on simple user experience and sensible default behaviour rather than an array of confusing choices made gadgets loveable rather than intimidating. This brought advanced tech to a wide audience.

 Who’s your tech villain?
A tech manager I used to work with talked about “outsourcing bog standard developer jobs.” While it would be a little harsh to make him my tech villain, he represents the frequent corporate sentiment that software development is some kind of painting by numbers exercise. It’s in fact a highly skilled and creative craft.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
My iPhone is clearly my most used technology. The instant access to information about anything and everything, wherever I am, is extraordinary when I stop and think about it.

As for my favourite technology, I think the technology to record, distribute and play back music is something we take for granted. But imagine a world with no recorded music – it has certainly enriched my life.

What is your budget outlook? Flat? Growing?
Growing. The team has doubled in size over the last year, we’re on track for a record year in government and we’re continually hiring top talent to help us continue the development of our mobile and intelligence capabilities.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
I admire the way The John Lewis Partnership is adapting to the e-commerce world while sticking to its core values that have made it successful in the past – carefully selected products, competitive pricing and great customer service. Innovations like collecting your order from your local Waitrose are turning their network of stores into an advantage even for online shopping.

Cloud computing © Sashkin Shutterstock 2012What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
I think the greatest challenge for the IT department today is moving from being a function that keeps an organisation’s lights on to being one that innovates and has an impact on the bottom line.

With cloud computing placing IT maintenance, support and updates, firmly in the hands of the cloud supplier, IT can now focus on the business and its information rather than just the tech. IT leaders can now spend time examining where they can drive revenue and reduce costs.

How can current technologies be optimised? What technologies can be deployed to help the business meet its objectives and drive growth? What products can the company build to boost sales? These are the questions that IT leaders can now spend time answering.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
Given my current role, it will come as no surprise that I’m going to say go with the cloud. It provides flexibility, scalability, constant innovation, and gives you the benefit of other people’s economies of scale. That applications work inside and outside of the firewall, across desktop and mobile devices, is rapidly becoming standard.

The IT department of the future will not be developing new systems for the business, but instead acting as an approver and curator of the internal app store: a selection of cloud applications that meet the corporate non-functional requirements, such as security and availability, and interact together. Departments can then pick from this list according to local needs and pay directly for just what they use.

Rally car race racing desert © Salim October / Shutterstock.comOf course there are exceptions to this. There will be a small percentage of situations where specific legislative requirements mean the cloud is currently not an option; or if your requirements are obscure and unique to your organisation and you have significant scale to justify operating you own data centres. But these are the exceptions. Developing, installing and operating your own internal content collaboration application makes no sense.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a rally car driver. It never occurred to me at the time that writing software – something that was a just a fun hobby for me in the era of the ZX Spectrum and BBC B – was something I could get paid for.

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