James luke podcast transcript

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

Shona: James Luke is a distinguished IBM engineer and master inventor he’s the chief technology officer for the UK public sector in IBM Global Business Services and has been delivering artificial intelligence solutions that solve real problems for over 25 years. James completed his first degree in electronic engineering systems at the Royal Naval College servicing as an officer in the weapons engineering branch. In 2003, he completed a PHD with the image speech intelligence systems group of the University of Southampton researching the application of intelligence agent’s information protection. He’s held several key leadership roles including being chief architect for Watson Tools and has over 20 years’ experience in the delivery of machine learning and cognitive systems.

Before we talk about your current positions, I’d really like to delve a little deeper into how you got to where you are today. What the Reflecting on Achievements Podcast tries to look at is how people reached where they are in their career, how they gained their success and see if we as listeners can learn from any tips that others may have, I’d like to ask first, have you always been driven?

James: I’ve always been very ambitious and I remember as a child at school, I was frustrated and even early in my career in the Navy and afterwards in data sciences, I really felt quite frustrated and I’d say it was only in my early 30’s that I started to feel content and that I reached a level where I was actually doing something. Even at school, I wanted to be doing more things, having more responsibilities and to be further on in life.

Shona: Where do you think that ambition or frustration came from?

James: I think part of it is natural, I think part of it is your family background and I come from an ordinary family in the northeast of England, I was very lucky that I went to private school. My parents worked incredibly hard because both of them came from a mining background, they both went to secondary moderns, they both went to grammar schools and they believed very heavily in education so they sacrificed school holidays, my father had multiple jobs, he ran an off license, to pay my school fees so education was at the core of my upbringing.

Shona: That’s interesting, I guess you must have seen how hard he had worked for you in order to start you off.

James: Not just my father, also my mother was a nurse and when she first joined the nursing profession and she got married, she was one of the first to stay on and she continued her career and she had no O Levels, no qualifications apart from in nursing but she finished up as a master of arts head of school of nursing in Sunderland so she was very motivated so a lot of the drive came from her.

Shona: It sounds like our success certainly getting over those first hurdles was shaped quite a lot from your upbringing. So, why did you choose the Navy as your first career move?

James: It’s interesting because I think I made a mistake quite simply and the thing is I enjoyed it but quite early on at school, I saw what you did earlier on in the Navy, I liked the challenge, I wanted to be able to lead people and I got steered by friends, family, recruiters and it felt almost like I made an enquiry at a young age and the course was set for me and at the same time as that was going on, I had been bought at the age of 11 a Sinclair ZX81 and I spent my time programming that computer and quite frankly, dreaming of thinking machines and I had been fascinated by artificial intelligence my whole life and I was trying to program this ZX81 to be intelligent with 1kb of Ram and a difficult keyboard to us and in parallel to that my education was taking me down a route to the navy so I joined the Navy and I had an amazing time, I would recommend a career of that sort of service to anyone because they give you public speaking skills, the management skills for leadership and just lifestyle skills and you learn to be very self-sufficient. In the military you train, you go off to different countries, you do wonderful stuff but even whilst I was in the navy doing my degree course, I was focusing on the programming and doing artificial intelligence and then when things went wrong with my naval career, I left and worked on artificial intelligence and so I think it’s very easy for young people to get steered in certain directions but people tend to come back to what they naturally want to do.

Shona: It sounds like you very much had a passion that you were able to not fall back on but was almost driving you forward anyway.

James: I think something happens with education where we can force people. My sons a very keen pianist and very good and he wants to be a concert pianist, he’s good at maths, physics and it’ll be so easy to say “go off and do engineering” and do music in his spare time but actually he wants to be a concert pianist and you’ve got to do what you’re passionate about otherwise you won’t succeed.

Shona: I think if you have something that is really driving you, where a lot of people don’t, or they don’t know where that is in their life, but if you’ve got something then great.

James: I think people sometimes assume that certain career options aren’t open to them, I remember someone saying “if you want to be an airline pilot, go and be an airline pilot” children grow up saying they want to be a pilot and by the age of 15/16, they’re looking to do something mundane. You can do absolutely anything, and I think the other thing to remember is the job you think is glamourous may not e as glamourous as you want. I watched a program on Olympic cyclists and you imagine being a top Olympic gold medal cyclist is a very glamourous lifestyle but actually they spend 90% of the time riding bikes up hills because that’s what you have to do to get that fit, so, if you enjoy riding your bike uphill, then that’s the career for you but personally as a kid, I hated it. You might want to be that successful sportsman but unless you’re prepared to put the hours in the gym, you’re not going to get there.

Shona: It doesn’t sound like you planned your career at that early stage but maybe had some sort of plan? If you think back, where did you think you were going to end up?

James: I didn’t have a plan, but I had a criterion of things I wanted to do so I knew I wanted to be successful, but success wasn’t a financial reward.

Shona: What is your idea of success?

James: I think success is something very personal, I think ultimately, it’s about achieving the goals you set yourself to achieve, meeting your own targets, not something somebody else sets and certainly not looking at things like money and saying “I want to make money and I want to do this”, by going into the Navy, that’s a career of service not to become a millionaire and even in IBM, I’ve taken a career path in IBM where you can go different routes. It’s not about financial success for me, it was about achieving things that were important and that made a difference. I think that applied in the Navy and subsequently IBM, so one of the things I’ve always looked to do in IBM is actually work on projects that make a difference and so in public sector, we in IBM, we run the NHS payroll systems, we work on defence projects, huge projects that impact society and for all the various government departments and that actually makes you feel quite good because we’ve delivered capability that makes a difference to human being and that’s a huge motivator for any work you do. I think it’s about achieving what you feel capable of. When I was younger and frustrated, I felt that I wasn’t fulfilling my potential so a good example would be when I left the Navy and joined Data Sciences, my first goal was to be a team leader and I was told it was too early for me to be one but as a Naval officer, I’d been leading teams of 20-30 people, I’d had so much leadership and management training and yet here I was unable to lead 2 or 3 person team. That was hugely frustrating. My ambition was about getting into a position where I could influence and make a difference and hopefully a positive one, that’s what drove me.

Shona: You sound quite confident I guess given the position you are now, you must be, and you also do a lot of conference speaking, would you class yourself as always being confident?

James: Not at all.

Shona: Where do you think that’s come from?

James: Education training. But also, I think you have to push yourself to where it is you want to be comfortable with. I remember at school, we had to do a 10 minute presentation. I did mine on, I hated mowing the lawn at the time, so I designed an automatic lawnmower that would mow the lawn on its own and I look back now as a professional engineer and there wasn’t any hope of it working, it was terrible in design but for a young 11 year old, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work so I gave my presentation on that but I remember standing at the front of the class and physically shaking, I could hear them snickering because I was shaking. But I started doing more of it, and I am if you do al l the psychometric tests, I’m an extreme introvert and yet I spend my days in environments where I have to talk to people. In the navy, the presentation training went on, they trained you to brief cabinet ministers, and they were fanatical and if the curtains at the back of the stage weren’t symmetrical, you were marked out, everything had to be immaculate. You were taught about cocktail parties, dinners, how to host, and so I acquired skills that are outside my comfort zone which I use every day. What you find though is that when you use those skills, I’ll spend a day at a conference, a day talking then entertaining, and when you get home, you’re exhausted and drained, and you need to make sure you have the time to recover.

Shona: I think it’s good to be out of your comfort zone and to be more comfortable with the things that are naturally outside your comfort zone. It’s interesting you say you’re naturally an introvert, I would imagine in the world you’re in, there’s a lot of data science type of individual and they’re probably quite often the type that like to keep below the parapet rather than above but you taking those steps forward pushes yourself out there.

James: I think it’s really important because I think one of the things I would say is I am very much myself as an engineer and being an engineer is not just about doing engineering and yes I would love it if I could just spent all day at the drawing board purely practising my skill as being an engineer but engineering is about delivering real solution to solve real problems and you can’t do that unless you have user by and you can’t do that unless requirements are being scoped correctly, you can’t do it without the budget of the program and the support of the team so you have to have full leadership and commercial awareness, you have to have those skills. There’s no fun in designing things if they just sit on the drawing board and don’t get used. I think that’s the hard part as well is that when you’re an extreme introvert, you design something and it’s perfect and nobody could fault it. Then you go and use it and actually what you discover is when you open it up to the broader team, it actually leads to a better solution, if it’s done at the right level, you can over do it, you need a strong technical lead but that technical lead needs to listen and be influenced and allow, particularly in the diverse would, we need the creativity the diverse teams bring in and if you can do that, you are in a powerful position.

Shona: Do you think there is any hard and fast rules that guarantee success?

James: I give people that I mentor three rules: Rule number one is if you want to be successful, find out what your manager or your stakeholders want and give it to them. That can be challenging as you know the manager wants to make more profit, grow revenue and you will be aligned of those targets, but you might not be aligned to achieve it so quite often, I found myself in a position where my manager wanted me to go off and present etc, and I’ve thought I could re-engineer the product and I was trying to do the best thing for the manager but I wasn’t doing what that manager wanted me to do and I found myself spending an awful lot of time selling what I was doing internally to that manager and after putting all that effort in selling, I got absolutely nowhere because I got a bad appraisal. I had a row with the manager and I had a couple of career low points where that was the problem, it’s very simple, find out what your manager wants, and give it to them. Rule number 2, is if you want to be happy, figure out what you want to do and do it and don’t convince yourself you want to play rugby for England if you don’t enjoy being in the gym, really figure out what you want to do. I think that’s often what you do naturally, if I leave you alone for two hours in an office or in any environment what do you do? If you turn on the radio and start dancing then go to dance school, I would sit and program, I’ll sit and try and make some more AI on my computer, so I would do that and that’s what I ended up doing so figure out what you want to do and do it. The third rule is a combination of the two and one that everyone gets wrong, if you want to be happy and successful, find a manager who wants you to do what you want to do and I have had that four or five times in my career, I think I’ve got it now but I’ve had it four or five times and it honestly feels like you’re leading a charmed life. You go to work every day, you do stuff you love, you deliver for your manager, you get rewarded with promotions and bonuses and you tell your friends in the pub “I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this stuff”. I think the hard part is we’ve sort of got a culture where that’s felt as bad and it isn’t. I think particularly western culture now, people have got to realise that it’s actually good to enjoy work and I said to someone I mentored earlier, “imagine working in an environment where every single person loved what they were doing, and they didn’t do 2 hours overtime every evening as two hours extra work every evening, imagine they did 4 hours because they were doing what they loved, how would this feel if you had an organisation where everyone was so driven” and the key is for people to figure out what they want to do. Find a manager who wants them to do it. You also tend to be more successful if you’re doing what you want to be doing.

Shona: You mentioned mentoring there and I’d heard from a number of people over the years who worked within IBM, it’s a very strong mentor program relationship that happens, it sounds like it obviously benefited you and talking to someone who’s in that environment where that’s not available, would you suggest they go out and seek a mentor, is it as easy as that?

James: I don’t have a single mentor, I had multiple for my IBM career and they’re not always right and they’re just a different voice and a different perspective and I’d go to different ones for different problems so I have always had multiple mentors and sometimes I’ve ignored them, sometimes I’ve thought I’m going to do it my way and there are time when you’ve got to follow your gut. I think anybody in any position should have somebody they can turn to for advice and guidance whether it’s a close friend you can go for a drink with, teacher or anything. I have somebody I mentor who isn’t anything to do with IBM, I was in some voluntary activity I do and this individual was having some career problems and I was concerned for him as a friend and a colleague so I had a beer and listened to him and we had a talk then he came back to me and asked if I can formally be his mentor and so every 2 or 3 months, we go for a coffee and he simply talks about life and recently he’s talked about getting married and renovating his house, he’s 20 years younger than me so I’ve been there and done a lot of that and he just has that support.

Shona: You said about managers and I am lucky to have had some fantastic managers over the years and it makes a huge difference in comparison to the ones where you’re not aligned with each other’s goals.

James: It’s also a two-way process, because when I sit and talk and have a coffee with this guy who’s 25 years younger than me, he has a very different perspective on careers on issues such as diversity on all this stuff that I can learn from. Just talking to him, he’ll be talking about his manager at work and why he’s got a problem and I’ll discover his generation doesn’t feel the same way about certain things which I then bring back into my job, so I think it’s a two-way process.

Shona: You touched a little bit on career knock backs and the challenge of when things haven’t gone quite right in the navy, how have you dealt with knock backs along the way?

James: It’s hard and it’s very personal when it happens, and it does happen, and I think the first thing to recognise is Clive Woodward, the England rugby coach when he lost the World Cup he had to stay at the phrase “success isn’t achieved in straight lines”. I remember when I joined the Navy, we had a choice of three intakes. We could join in the September, the January or the April and I went for the September after my A Levels because I was young and ambitious and, in my mind, if I did not get there in September, and start being successful, I would slip behind and my career would not be moving in the right direction. I look back now as a 49 year old and say “you know what, joining in the April would’ve made no difference whatsoever”. I could have had 6 months, gone off, sailed and done some wonderful things but it wasn’t that bad. I think one of the ways to deal with it is it’s not all bad and its not going to end your career. Move your career in a different direction, for me the first one was I left the Royal Navy, I took redundancy because I realised it wasn’t the meritocracy I expected it to be and that doing well in training and so on, they like it, but they don’t necessarily give you the best jobs and you’re in this very traditional environment and I think I probably in the back of my mind was that I was forced into it, even though I loved it and enjoyed it, so I found myself a job and I started moving forwards again so I think one of the things you’ve got to do is always go forward and pick yourself up and get on with it. Another thing I would say is, coming back to the “It’s not a bad thing”, I’ve met a number of people in my life who have been made redundant and they’ve lost jobs and had really rough times, and they’ve gone through several months of hell, I’ve never once met one who three months later has not come to me and said it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. You find yourself in these dead ends and your department gets closed down, and if you’re in a dead end sometimes that career knock is actually the move that makes you move so look for the positive in it. The only other thing I’d say is it isn’t anything personal, quite often you don’t get a job you apply for or you don’t get an appraisal or you may have a situation; I had one in 1998 when I was leading a team and it was a very difficult change program and there were many teams going through many different programs, they took it out on me personally. I was literally sitting in my office everyday, being told by members of my team who were a lot older than me “this is your fault, you’re bad, you’re a horrible person” and it was very hard and in the end you have to look back and say that it wasn’t personal, they were emotional and very direct, but they were under pressure themselves and they were lashing out at the person in front of them, and that you’re not a bad person just because somebody thinks you are.

Shona: What sort of manager would you class yourself as or how would the people you manage describe you?

James: That’s hard, I have no idea. I think it depends on the environment, I’ve had people describe me as a very bad manager, I’ve had people describe me as too direct, too aggressive, too pushy. I’ve had other people describe me as a manager who cares deeply about the team. I don’t think I’ve changed between those situations, but I think the situation I’ve been in has changed the way I behaved and the way they perceive me. I think it’s really important that you do reflect on situations and you reflect on it very openly about what happened. There’s a technique called ‘outward thinking’ and that is very powerful because it gives you scenarios and the questions it asks are “what’s your role on this?” because we’re all involved. We tend to as managers to look at a situation and say “right, what is this team doing wrong?” and perhaps we should be saying “what am I doing wrong”. So, I do think you have to be very reflective.

Shona: I love that you brought up reflection because I think in some careers, it’s absolutely ingrained into you that you reflect on everything you do so that its best practice moving forward. But in a lot of roles and for lots of people naturally, it’s not something that occurs and actually building into how you live your life or how you do your job or how you deal with others, I think it takes things forward.

James: If you’re honest with yourself, then actually even when you’ve made really bad mistakes, you know you were trying to do the right thing. I can think of two scenarios I’ve had in my career, one was some advice someone gave me which was when your team is successful, give them the credit, when your team fails, take the blame. It’s actually very powerful and I’ve done that, I sent an email to a senior manager saying I missed the deadline and I said in black and white, that it’s my failure the team did everything, and I’ve never once had them come back to me and say I am in trouble, I usually get a thank you note and then everyone moves on. It’s quite incredible when you do that. The other one I had was a very political situation, and you get politics in all organisations, politics is part of life, but this was nightmare political. One or two individuals in particular were playing power games, and the more political they got, I decided the straighter and cleaner I was going to play it. The more they tried to manipulate and influence, the more I tried to behave ethically better and again it worked amazingly. We got things going in the right direction, but I’m not engaging by just stating very simple and clear facts by not responding to any of the personal attacks by producing clear evidence by acknowledging where we made mistakes. The better and more ethically you behave, the more likely you are to be successful in what you’re doing.

Shona: Do you have any heroes or books that you’ve read that you loved and bring into the way you work or your life?

James: Lots, I love big military heroes, the usual. The obvious, and it impressed me last year, I watched a Churchill film called Darkest Hour and we know about Churchill and the thing I liked about that film was it really did bring out his human side and the fact he was a deeply flawed character in many ways and we forget that, there’s a danger we try and make everybody this perfect professional who never loses their temper, never does this, never does that and actually having some human character is one. The book I would recommend to everyone is a book called Between Silk and Cyanide, it’s about a young man called Leo Marks who went to Bletchley Park in WW2 to be a code breaker but failed the exam and was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to be in charge of the security for the codes as he wasn’t deemed good enough to be a code breaker so they put him in charge of the codes at SOE and Bletchley Park referred to him as ‘the one that got away’ and his achievements in SOE were just amazing in saving agents lives, designing their codes, and breaking codes because if a message was transmitted and couldn’t be understood because they miscoded it, he knew he had to come back there and re-transmit 12 hours later which was virtually suicide so he received these garbled and uncryptable messages and he’d figure out what the agent had done wrong and break it so they didn’t tell the agent to re-transmit and he was briefing agents as they dropped into France and he would say the agent dropped into France, agents gone quiet which meant they’re being captured and tortured. You read it, and he was a young man in his early 20’s and you feel incredibly humble pf the bravery of the agents and what that young man did at a young age, so I’d recommend that to anyone.

Shona: AI seems to have come into its own in the last few years, maybe that’s because it’s in the media more, or maybe because its infiltrating jobs more than it had previously, there’s a public perception that it was a false start in the 80’s and now this is something that’s really going to change the way we live. I would imagine the reality of that from someone like yourself who’s been in this career for a long time is quite different but I think from a media’s perception, that’s how it can come across, where does this industry motivate you particularly and why do you trail blaze this technology because it feels like you do with your conferences and also the work you do, why is it important to you?

James: Personally, AI is very important to me because how human beings think and the wonders of creativity and empathy and how we communicate in being able to do all those things I think is a fascinating challenge. I think it’s a philosophical motivation for me but then you take it and that’s why I have been fascinated since the age of 11. But then you take it a step further and you see the potential of the technology and the good it could do if done well and the opportunity to cure diseases, the opportunities to optimise traffic flow, the opportunities to optimise benefits payments, to help with education and healthcare, adding more intelligence, more cognitive capabilities to our computer systems is such an amazing opportunity for us so I think that’s why it’s so important but I also think that’s why its important we get it right. We’ve got to remember that AI hasn’t had one false start in the 80’s, it’s had multiple false starts and the danger is that people think it’s all about a single algorithm and at present, most of what we’re hearing is being driven by interest in deep learning but that’s not the only algorithm, there’s many out there and you have to use the right technology for the problem. You’ve got to build a solution and not just throw data at an algorithm and to build that solution, we actually need engineers and scientists and developers and designers who really understand AI. At the moment, the reason I’m trail blazing the talks on AI is not about telling people how great the opportunity is, it’s about telling people how to do it for real because if we get that wrong then there will be another period of disillusion and we can’t afford that. I don’t think it will happen and the reason is the opportunity at the moment is too great, society is ready for it where perhaps it wasn’t 15-20 years ago but it’s still important that we get it right because a very small percentage of AI projects are successful and they can be successful but you have to choose the right projects, you have to focus on the data and understand what it is, you have to accept the project may go in a different direction that your final outcome may not be what you set out to achieve. We need the engineers and the love of them to drive this exciting change.

Shona: It’s interesting you mention that because I heard a statistic a couple of weeks ago and I’m not even sure where from, but somebody said they thought that 75 million jobs that would be lost or vanished due to AI and I think there is a concern within the population that AI just going to take your job away, but actually it was going to bring about 150 million jobs and so there’s a real positive there, maybe not everyone will become an AI data scientist but there’s certainly jobs we don’t even know about that will be created which is exciting. How do you convince people to adopt the technology potential rather than it just being a technology that will shift a lot of jobs and cause fear and anxiety?

James: I think you’re right, we need trust and trust ethics in particular so that it’s really important when we develop AI it’s ethical. IBM’s signed up to or was heavily involved in writing the EU guidelines on ethics and we are one of the companies that’s committed to implementing them. It’s not just about doing the right thing but it’s actually about the fact if you don’t do the right thing then people won’t trust you and won’t buy your services. So, if you’re an insurance company, banking company or a travel company, trusting those systems is what brings customers in. But I think, no technological advancement in history has destroyed more jobs, it’s always led to an increase in the number of jobs and those jobs will be different, but I think if you also look historically, you’d also agree in many cases those jobs have been better. We’ve seen increase in prosperity, we’ve seen people move from highly dangerous work in quite unpleasant environments into more pleasant environments so I think we see huge benefits for adopting technology and I think it’s hard to predict where the new jobs will be but there will be a lot of them. The key thing I would say is the best applications of AI are those where you are adding to the human capability. The best projects we should start with are the ones where there’s a human being already doing a job, that human being can articulate why or how they do it, but that human being cannot handle the volume of data. You see these tasks where a human being is sitting, looking at images, making classifications and decisions on those images, it could be quite a specialist role, but they’ve gone from having ten images a day to having a thousand images a day and we need to scale up. The human being doesn’t lose their job, they just move into more of a supervisory role, a training role, the AI is helping them with what they’re doing, and they are the most powerful and they’re actually fun to do. If I think about some of my applications of AI that I’ve worked on, I’m interested at the moment in text analytics and have been for a number of years and working on projects for law enforcement and police officers at the moment spend huge amounts of time reading documents and manually updating index. They do that because they have to have to the consistency and traceability. I can use AI technologies to sit alongside a police officer, so that they read 500 documents a day rather than 5 documents a day. It’s a slightly different process, they’re not reading them line by line, but they can actually do that so long as we maintain the accuracy and the consistency of the evidential trail. You suddenly allow that police officer to be far more effective, you cut out the mundane work and allow them to focus on the more interesting and you deliver something which hopefully proves law enforcement exciting. When those sorts of stories emerge, I think people will start to see the benefit.

Shona: You are a master inventor; would you consider yourself a lifelong learner?

James: Yes, continually and when I mentor people, it’s interesting how early careers, people think that as you become more senior, you stop practising, you move into management roles, some advisory roles, you send out presentations directing. Something I do is talk to people about the senior technical community in the UK in IBM and I’ve shown how many distinguished engineers and master inventors installed the program. If we’re in a meeting or a conference the room has got several distinguished engineers, I’ll ask them to all show the compile that’s on their computer because they’ll have a compiler on there and they’ll be working on something. We a had a guy called Richard Hopkins who wanted to learn new skills, he’s a distinguished engineer, realised he’s falling behind in the technology, so he decided to build a robot canine from doctor who, that’s what he used to teach himself new technologies and how to use web and cloud services. I think I do the same, so I will spend my free time learning a new computer language, find a new book, trying something new. It’s really important that you don’t ever stop doing that.

Shona: What is your favourite piece of technology or app?

James: My favourite piece is actually probably the simplest, I love it when I walk back to my car and my phone tells me how far I am to home. The thing I love about it is it’s probably a simple algorithm, the fact it’s remembered where my car is, it knows where my home is based on my pattern of life and it gives me that little information. It’s starting to say things, “take this route because of bad traffic” etc, and that’s an example of where AI is having an impact and it’s a simple algorithm.

Shona: What advice would you give to your younger self starting out in your career path today?

James: Don’t worry, you will get there. Young people put a lot of pressure on themselves. My daughter is doing her A Levels and she is almost my clone. She’s doing maths, physics, chemistry, further maths she wants to be a mathematician, we need more girls in science or technology and so I am proud of what she is doing but she is beating herself up about her A Levels and I keep saying to her and her friends, there are no bad outcomes here. We’re all in a very privileged position, certainly in the UK and these children have had great education and they’re applying to great universities such as Cambridge, St Andrews, York. The worst outcome here is you go to a top 20 university in the world. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s not Cambridge, you’ve got time and you will be successful.

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