IT Life: Taking Book Publishing Into The Digital Age

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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David McNally from Macmillan Science and Education says embracing change is an acquired skill

David McNally has spent the last 15 years moving organisations from analogue to digital. During this time, he helped create Europe’s first digital Video-on-Demand (VoD) platform and transform content distribution at BBC Worldwide.

At the moment, McNally works as the director of Technology and Ventures at Macmillan Science and Education. His responsibilities include coming up with innovative digital education models that have the potential to disrupt the parent company’s textbook publishing businesses.

This week, TechWeek had a chance to talk to McNally about education, the success of Amazon, and adopting to change.

Riding the wave

Education, school © Poznyakov Shutterstock 2012What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
The education industry is currently going through a technology transformation. Now, more than ever, there is a real focus on developing products that have effective outcomes for students.

Adaptive technology is key in doing that. Last year I built an adaptive quizzing engine using item response theory. The software will be used in a number of our products to improve their adaptive capabilities.

We finished it in September last year and shortly after it went live in the first product. It’s great (but also quite rare) to see the products you develop actually having an impact on people’s lives.

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Ten years ago I was working for Quadriga, the leader in technology solutions for the hospitality industry. I built its VoD product; an in-room entertainment system, enabling hotels all over the Europe to optimise guest communication and experience and drive revenue opportunities.

When I left the company in 2006, it had regained its position as the dominant product in the market, today it is installed in over 230,000 hotel rooms across Europe.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
We’ve only really scratched the surface of wearable tech. I believe in ten years’ time, we’ll be living in a truly connected world with mobile devices very much at the heart of everything we do.

There are already some companies doing pretty cool things. Pebble is probably the furthest along. It allows you to customise your perfect watch and essentially program it do to whatever you want. When Apple and Google really start to take it seriously, I think wearable tech will truly go mainstream.

bez0-004Keeping up with Amazon

Who’s your tech hero?
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. We actually used to work for the same hedge fund company (albeit at different times) – D.E Shaw. When Jeff departed the company to build Amazon, the founder, David Shaw, famously said “that would never work”.

Jeff created an industry focused on services. Many people had tried before, and have since, but nobody has succeeded to such a high degree.

Who’s your tech villain?
Robert Palmer, CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation. He famously said that “within three years, all of our VMS customers will be using Windows NT”. This was at the time when the company made billions from VMS globally. This strategy destroyed the company which was eventually sold to Compaq in the late 90’s. Incredible how a “Ratner” moment can destroy so much value, goodwill and great technology.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
Tablets. I love my iPad, it’s an incredible device. I have tested other tablets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but I just don’t think it compares.

Apple is very clever in that it has a consistent approach to UI design combined with seamless integration across its broad ecosystem. You know what to expect, but it’s really hard to leave.

What is your budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
It’s growing significantly. Our education portfolio is really taking off. As the businesses grow we will invest more capital in them.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
Amazon. It has dominated an industry without being seen as ‘the bad guy’.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
Embracing the increasing rate of change, especially in the device landscape where people expect to integrate their mobile phones and other devices with corporate systems like email.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
To cloud, absolutely. Businesses need to focus on what makes them unique. The services that are provided in the cloud are usually commodities, and not the ones that will differentiate a company in the market.

Why wouldn’t you leverage a cloud service that has already been built and tested by thousands of customers, instead of trying to build your own?

What did you want to be when you were a child?
For a while I wanted to be a university professor. Then a nuclear physicist. But computer science came much more naturally to me.

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