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DR HUGH WILLIAMS

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THE TOP OF TECH

The Top of Tech

When you were studying at RMIT in the mid-90s, did you predict how the internet would change the world?

When I was doing honours at RMIT, a lecturer predicted that one day there would be more than a million pages on the world wide web. And we were thinking, “Wow! This thing’s going to be big! A million pages!” So I didn’t see it coming. I really didn’t see the internet coming for lots of reasons – one is that the web was initially designed to be a static publishing medium. It took a lot of hackery and crazy engineering to really get the web to behave the way it does today, so that you can interact with the kind of applications that there are, and I don’t think anybody saw that coming.

How did you get your first job in Silicon Valley?

My career has basically been chaos, in a really good way. I was working at RMIT and I felt like I’d been an academic for long enough. A good friend of mine told me Microsoft was starting a new effort in search to compete with Google, and would I be interested in a job in Seattle? Google had an eight-year lead with its search engine. At Microsoft, there were 20 of us and we were all completely convinced that we could do better than Google. The image search on Bing was one of the things I built, and obviously some really good people have done great work on it since I left. But I was lucky enough to start the team who did that. The challenge was that Google and Yahoo had so much of a head start. We had formidable, awesome engineering teams that were working really hard as well, although the challenge was about how to catch up.

Was it difficult going from being an academic to being an executive in Silicon Valley?

Actually, it wasn’t difficult at all. As a professor in a university, you don’t get to tell anybody what to do –that teaches you how to work through influence. You have to think about what motivates people: some people just want to collaborate, some people really need deadlines, other people need a lot of space and just need somebody to jam with on an idea. My job is to influence people to go in a particular direction, to go and climb the mountain, achieve a cause, whatever it is. RMIT was actually a really important experience in learning how to influence people, which is frankly 99% of what a successful executive does.

How did you get the job as Vice-President, Experience, Search, and Platforms at eBay?

It’s been widely acknowledged that eBay wasn’t in great shape in 2009. Two people I’d worked with got jobs at eBay and they called me up in the middle of 2009 and said: “We need someone to come run engineering, are you interested?” And then suddenly we were in California. My role was Vice-President, Experience, Search, and Platforms at eBay. My role was to oversee everything you see on the website, up until buyers make a purchase. I also built the services that the mobile applications depend on. The challenge from 2009 to 2011 was how to reinvigorate eBay and bring a proud technology engineering culture back to the company. I started with recruiting, then I moved on to engineering; how you build software, how you document software, how you launch software, and then the culture in the team. I was really proud to be a part of turning the company around, from being on its knees to being back as one of the Silicon Valley giants. A tonne of people deserve credit for it but I was really proud to be part of it.

You were managing over 1,000 people at eBay – what did you learn from that?

Focus is important when you manage over 1000 people– it’s a challenge to manage a team where you don’t know everyone. Focus is very important in leadership. If you talk about 12 things at once and talk about different things to different people, then you can confuse a very large organisation. I learnt to be very careful about what you choose is important.

What do you look for when you interview people?

When I interview people, I’m not really interested in skills. The skills I was using in 1993 are nowhere like the skills I’m using today. I didn’t know the world wide web was going to happen, but I was lucky enough to have the training and the experiences to be able to adapt when that happened. I interview people for core competencies rather than skills: whether people have intellectual horsepower, are they smart, are they good problem solvers? Are they somebody who can take a complex situation and methodically break it down and solve it? In Silicon Valley, nothing ever stays constant. We didn’t know Airbnb was going to exist, I bet PayPal didn’t know that Square was going to turn up. Those things just happened. You have to have certain raw competencies to be able to adapt. Skills come and go.

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Do you think the speed of innovation will slow down?

I don’t see it slowing down. I think that the past is the best predictor of the future. The iPad is just over three years old, yet you can’t imagine life without the iPad. The iPhone was launched in 2007, and you wonder what you did with your phone before it had Apps on it. I guess we just called people, and we don’t really call people anymore! And we had to text by pressing the numbers! I think everything’s changing all of the time. I think that frenetic pace of change doesn’t seem to be abating to me at all.

Why does Silicon Valley have such a strong tech industry?

Ten years ago, Silicon Valley was THE place for tech. But now it’s shifted somewhat.There are some interesting tech industries in places like Israel, China, India. A tech industry needs a critical mass for it to start to work. People tend to think that you just find a couple of your buddies from uni and you hang out, come up with an idea then start building it. There are examples of people doing that, and doing it really well, but largely that’s not how it works. These are small companies and they need support to get started, and it’s pretty hard to do that in isolation.You need real money sitting behind a community; I think that’s the real challenge.

What is changing at the moment? What are the trends?

The services industry is undergoing a kind of revolution. There’s a lot more efficiency being brought in to the market and the consumers are more in charge. Airbnb has completely disrupted the hotel industry by making it really efficient to put any space that you have online, and you can achieve market value with a really large audience. Commerce has changed massively. I think it’s a little less prevalent in Australia but here in the US, everybody expects everything to be online that’s purchasable these days. I literally ran out of baking paper today so I just turned on my computer, searched ‘baking paper’, order, thanks,the roll will turn up tomorrow. It creates challenges for tech companies, too. Commerce is changing so fast and becoming so consumer-led that it’s really hard to move at the speed that you need to move and be as fast you need. You have to throw away ideas when the ideas turn out to be wrong, and create new ideas that customers really want when they say they want them. That is the single biggest challenge of working in this industry.

How do you cope with working in a demanding job?

I try and make sure that there’s at least one day every week where I turn off all my devices. I’ve always got my cell phone around so if there’s a problem with the website or whatever, of course I’m available. But other than that, I’m not answering emails, no Facebook, no text messages. I find that having at least one day like that really re-energises me.

What advice would you give to people who want to work in Silicon Valley?

Getting a job in Silicon Valley is all about your networks. It’s really hard to get in the door of some of these really big companies, there are so many people who want a job. You’ve got to get in the door and talk to people, which is really the first step to being successful. You need to build a network of people that you can contact later in your career. Things like internships at interesting companies, you get to meet interesting people – even just other interns. Go to conferences, do hackathons, meet people, hang out with your classmates. RMIT is a good place; most of the people will go on and do interesting things. I built a team at Microsoft by basically recruiting Australians. It’s all about connections.

Do you feel connected to RMIT?

I’m really thankful for my experiences at RMIT. I was lucky to do computer science at the right time in life and I was really glad I picked RMIT in 1987. I really think that RMIT has a really great culture and a really big tradition. I feel amazingly blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and the opportunities globally are just phenomenal – there’s just so much going on.

Pictured: Dr Hugh Williams pictured in Silicon Valley, California. Photo by RMIT alumnus Bobbi Fabian.