IT Life: Taking A Screwdriver To UK’s Internet

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Simon McCalla, CTO at Nominet, likes to take stuff apart

Nominet is the non-profit organisation that manages 10.5 million Internet addresses registered in the .uk domain space. In layman’s terms, it runs the Yellow Pages of the whole British network.

Simon McCalla is the current CTO of Nominet. During his 20 year career in IT, he has been a developer, consultant and entrepreneur. He launched several companies, worked in retail IT and, while at Warner Brothers, made sure that everyone got their copy of Harry Potter on time (without the use of magic).

In this interview, McCalla tells us about the Internet of things, his views on Napster, and the importance of the average IT guy.

Behind closed doors

What’s the favourite project that you’ve ever worked on?
It’s difficult to single out one project. Work I really enjoy happens behind the scenes, but it can make a huge difference to the business. It’s not particularly glamorous, but I love it when end-users come to you and say, “I absolutely love the new systems, they are faster and help us serve our customers better.”

Not many people know about Nominet, but we serve around 3.5 billion DNS queries a day. We are a small company in Oxford doing that reliably – day in, day out, 365 days a year. We are very proud to be able to provide this experience to .uk users.

harry potterWhat technology were you involved with ten years ago?
I would have been working for Warner Brothers, integrating their IT systems with other companies. We had 72 European retailers that all needed to get their supply chain working with Warner Brothers, so we could do “just-in-time” replenishment. So every time someone bought a copy of Harry Potter from the shelves at WHSmiths or Wal-Mart, we would have another copy of Harry Potter rolling off the production line and being shipped to that store, to make sure there was one in stock the next day.

We were using a whole host of technologies from up-to-date Microsoft software to some pretty old stuff like FTP, EDI, exchange of CSV files, you name it. It was a time of real change in technology. Web services had not been invented yet, APIs had not been invented, and we mostly had to work with proprietary systems. It was very enjoyable.

What do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
I think some of the big players like Microsoft and Oracle will still be providing enterprise software. We’ll be using cloud services significantly more, relying on APIs and Web technologies to a greater extent. I certainly expect mobile to be a huge part of what we do.

I think we will also be seeing IT systems integrated into everyday objects. We’ll stop thinking of computers as computers, and just see interfaces. The “Internet of things” will be much more prevalent – our car will be integrated into the road system, and if it’s an electric car, it will also be integrated with your smart electricity meter, which will buy you the right amount of electricity using the cheapest tariff.

The way we interact with technology will change significantly. With that, we’ll see a lot of issues around privacy, data ownership. It’s going to be a very interesting ten years.

Cyber security © David Evison Shutterstock 2012What do you think is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department?
Number one would be cybersecurity. We are seeing huge DDoS attacks, a lot of spam, a lot of malware, and that’s just going to grow. We’ll have to be asking our customers to start understanding how to use technology in a way that keeps them safe.

Our awareness about our data, and what people are doing with our data, is becoming a key challenge. We’ve seen a number of interesting battlegrounds over the last few years, like Google, accidentally or not, capturing Wi-Fi data while mapping our streets. Corporations are analysing our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and whilst we benefit from a lot of that, it raises questions about our privacy.

To cloud or not to cloud?
The cloud has huge benefits for small businesses, when investing in an actual IT infrastructure can be a challenge. It allows you to set up enterprise-style services with the backups and reliability built-in that you just couldn’t afford as an SMB, benefitting from the economies of scale.

I think it’s a nuanced debate. I don’t think you necessarily need to put your whole business in the cloud. At Nominet there are areas that we believe we absolutely need to run ourselves, and we also have areas where others have got greater expertise than us. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?

Unsung heroes

dotshock © Shutterstock 2012Who is your tech hero?
My tech heroes are the folk that keep the services running. They have to work long hours, not getting a lot of money, but they do it because they like the job. They are the backroom guys and girls who don’t get recognised, but they make sure the business works. They will never be famous, their name will never appear in a magazine, but they do it anyway.

Who is your tech villain?
The thing about tech villains – they are important. They change the debate, they come up with a controversial service or a piece of software, possibly even do something that is borderline illegal – but it allows the industry to talk it through.

For example, Napster was an ultimately illegal service, but it changed the way we thought about distributing music and the media. As a result, now we have portable devices that can stream movies. When I was working at Warner Brothers, people at Napster were definitely the villains, but they changed the face of the entertainment industry.

What’s your favourite technology ever made?
The device I find myself relying on most is my iPhone. It manages to find new uses for itself every single week. It rarely leaves my side, and consequently I can’t help but love it. With a small amount of hate thrown in.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most and why?
I have to admire the way Google has managed to build its business. It grew by providing services that people really want. Google changed the way we think about something as simple as search, it changed the way we think about location and mapping, the way we capture our life.

They’re a funny company: a company everyone likes to hate, but I admire a lot of what they do. I am fortunate enough to work with a number of people at Google, and they are all fascinating and exciting individuals. I respect the element of secrecy around how they do what they do, particularly the page rank algorithms.

Screwdriver tool green © H.Kan ShutterstockWhat did you want to be when you were a child?
When I was a kid, I liked taking things apart. There wasn’t a device in my house that I wouldn’t take a screwdriver to and try to figure out how it worked. I always loved dismantling and trying to understand things, and wanted to have a career somewhere in science or engineering that would allow me to do that. I’ve grown up to be a big kid who does exactly that.

At Nominet, we are trying to build a better Internet. We want do understand how it works, dismantle it and put it back together in a way that improves it for everybody.

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