Connecting the Community - highlights from the 4th Technology Strategy & Architecture conference

Samantha Chadwick, Head of Partnerships and Judy Parnall, Head of Standards & Industry for BBC Design & Engineering give their account of the 4th Technology Strategy & Architecture Community event (5/6 July 2018), which saw over 130 technical strategists, architects and engineers come together from across the division.

Full house for TS&A Bingo

So as ice-breaking, games-driven, networking events go, the latest Technology Strategy & Architecture (TS&A) community get together was a memorable success! I’m not sure whether the mingling of hot sweaty bodies on the glass-surrounded top floor of a hotel with no air-con actually helped or hindered the ‘getting-to-know-you’ game of ‘human bingo, but for some ‘big reveals’ it worked a treat!

Pre-conceptions about our nearest and dearest colleagues were laid to rest and even better, those quiet ones out-trumped us all with their ‘famous facts’ about themselves.

Human bingo card at the ready

Among us we’ve breakfasted and funeralled with Heads of State - Presidents Mubarak and Mandela - ticked off nicely for a line. We’ve danced, dived, drummed and devoured roasted bullrush roots with the stars - another shout for two lines! And for a full house we found that one of us has designed a sewage treatment plant - we knew it all along!

The multitude of fans (electric ones, not Colin’s groupies following his very own directed indie film) didn’t drown out the laughter. It was a thoroughly good do. And the curry, nice choice in the 35 degree glasshouse, actually worked very well.

Even better was our opportunity to cavort a bit with our wider community outside TS&A. Friends and colleagues from Cardiff, Glasgow, Salford and London shared stories and tactics about how together we can re-invent the BBC! I for one was inspired by the collective buzz and enthusiasm for this quest.

All in all, an excellent tee-up for the next day’s 4th TS&A community event and a hard one at that to follow!

Google Friday

Then on Friday, we turned up nice and early at Google’s headquarters in King’s Cross who were hosting us for the day. As well as the TS&A core team, we were joined by the embedded architects who work in the BBC’s divisions on their architecture. They were wonderful hosts, with the food and drinks flowing liberally.

The theme for the day was “Connecting the Community: What’s Your Story?” and it was a time to hear from a range of speakers from inside and outside the BBC.

Culture & Innovation@Google

We started with a speaker from our hosts. Anaïs Hayes, Google’s Head of Brand Innovation, spoke about Culture & Innovation at Google. We all think of them as being a very innovative organisation, but the question was how to maintain that once they grew from garage start-up to over 85,000 ‘Googlers’. The key challenge to me was to encourage 10 times thinking – ideas that could have a 10 times change. It’s all too easy to do the 10% projects, but this is the way to make a big change; but in tandem, be prepared to fail fast and keep exploring alternative solutions.

My favourite story was that Google Cardboard came from a group of engineers who were talking about how to make cheaper VR systems and decided to make use of some empty pizza boxes they had under their desks to create the fold-out cardboard viewer!

Anaïs Hayes, Google’s Head of Brand Innovation

Lukewarm is no good

Anaïs was followed by Ken Banks, who is the Head of Social Impact at Yoti. He has journeyed from growing up in Jersey to a life of an entrepreneur. But after being emotionally challenged by Live Aid, he has innovated to make a real difference to communities; for instance a text messaging platform which could be used where there is no internet to connect groups. The idea came from living in the communities in Africa who actually had the need. Ken challenged us to use our energy and enthusiasm to make something that fixes things. You need to understand, empathise, aim high for the big picture and aim low so that it can be used in the community where it can make an impact. He’s now working on Yoti – a digital identity on a fob which is trusted and opens doors. Having spent 15 years living in the communities he wants to help, he really can make a difference.

The global media challenge

Anne Bulford, the BBC’s Deputy Director General, challenged us to help the BBC innovate in a changing world. UK originated programming is far the most popular in the UK, but audiences continue to fall. The BBC needs to be fleet of foot whilst respecting the vast audiences watching the traditional platforms. She spoke of the increased respect and value of Design & Engineering to the senior leadership of the BBC to keep us innovating. We need to bring up the best new ideas and be prepared to try new things.

Anne Bulford, BBC Deputy Director General

The Power of “We”

With the same theme, Alan Coad, the Managing Director of Google Cloud (UK & Ireland), challenged us to keep innovating. We should be spinning up innovations more quickly, expecting that many won’t work first time and will need course correcting. But by operationalising the data underneath we can be quick to try things and adjust. You transform work by the power of “we” – a culture of trust and collaboration.

Over lunch we finished off our table top quiz – could we remember the obscure flags of some World Cup teams or recognise the opening credits of TV programme titles (Dads’ Army and Grange Hill took me straight back to my childhood) or guess the TV channel logo?

Just as we were preparing to re-join the afternoon session, having been well fed and watered, an ominous siren led us to all walk down the fire exit stairs (from the top floor) for an unexpected extended networking session in the sunshine until the fire alarm stopped! The quote of the day, “Will all from the BBC follow Major Tom to Hunky Dory”, led some of us to wonder if we’d accidentally stumbled into an episode of W1A!

Think big, fail fast

In a somewhat shorter address than planned, Matthew Postgate (BBC Chief Technology & Product Officer) introduced the BBC’s new Chief Customer Officer, Kerris Bright who is challenging us to keep being the voice of the audience in this time of change. We need to keep having a positive social impact but in new ways. We should always think of the audience, putting them at the heart of the experience, rather than offering them the BBC’s organisation. We are there to bring more of our programmes and services to them. But we must do so in a way that people trust, that we won’t exploit them or their data.

So what did I take away from the speakers and their discussions? The BBC is respected globally and has had huge social impact. But to keep that in the rapidly changing world we need to keep innovating. To do this we need to think big, be less risk averse and be prepared to fail fast and change course. And at all times, keep the audiences at the centre of what we do.

Kerris Bright in discussion with Matthew Postgate

Building a Network

But it wasn’t all a day of listening to talks. Video intermissions had 30 second profiles of different members of staff and what we do. Not only did we learn about each other, but the huge variation in the way in which they create films from a talking head to more of an artwork! And talking of art, we ended up rebuilding a network diagram of the BBC with people and services out of Plasticine – with a number of aliens and daleks appearing as well as characters of all shapes and sizes.

The day ended with prizes, praise and canapes and time for more networking drinks, and an overall sense of feeling more connected to the team and knowing our colleagues that bit better.

And none of this would have happened without the organising team behind the day – so a massive thanks to Ross Kemp, Head of Connectivity Architecture and his team, Alison Kelly, Technology Engagement Manager, Business Co-ordinator, Nzinga Gardner and Team Assistant Diane Richard.

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