AIIA benefactor interview series: Jonathan Hobday, Cortex

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Seth Adler

In this conversation, Jonathan Hobday touches on multi-vendor activation and how proper analysis and decision making result in the understanding of the context of your objective

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You might have noticed that the AI & Intelligent Automation Network has a set of benefactors. These benefactors were kind enough to invest in the network when we launched. You’ve probably seen a fair amount of content from them so far in 2018 and that will continue. We’ve got a number of articles, whitepapers, webinars and survey’s coming out throughout the year so that you can benefit from the work that they’ve done in the space.

As I host the AI & Intelligent Automation podcast, I’m taking the opportunity to sit down with a thought leader from each organization to get a sense of each company’s thinking.

Next up is Jonathan Hobday from Cortex. This is the first (and last) part of the interview. Throughout the year we’ll provide further insight from Jonathan to go along with the content that they share along the way.

Seth Adler (SA): We're here in Blackfriars, wasn't that a show, or was that Blackadder?

Jonathan Hobday (JH): Blackadder. A TV show. That's a little while ago now.

SA: Yeah, it's Rowan Atkinson, though, right?

JH: Yes, Rowan Atkinson.

SA: What were your thoughts on the show? Is that something to spend time on?

JH: Oh, it's hilarious. That’s my kind of humor.

SA: Cortex... let's just set the stage here for folks that don't know the brand. Let's make sure we understand what Cortex is.

JH: Cortex is a UK-based software company and is part of the Innovise Group. We were acquired by the Innovise Group back in 2010. The technology has quite a long history. It goes back to about 1986, so it's based on a load of techniques and technology that was built for NASA to refuel, if you remember the space shuttle, which we don't have, so we've gone through an entire generation, and that technology and those techniques grew through manufacturing, nuclear power stations, paper plants, and some implants and things like that, all the way to where it is today, where it's in business process, in IT process and network automation, and really we are leading that whole group of techniques and technologies, which still grow in the engineering and manufacturing space.

SA: Understanding that there are certainly rocket science bona fides in the history here ...

JH: Rocket science isn't hard is it? It's not compared with Cortex.

SA: It depends on who you are. For some, it's not so tough.

JH: Didn't Elon Musk design SpaceX on a three hour flight or something, so it can't be that hard if you can do it in three hours. I know he's a clever guy, and a lot of respect to Elon, but three hours. It took us 26 years to build Cortex.

SA:  Well, maybe he's not working hard enough. Maybe that's what it is.

JH: Maybe we aren't.

SA: You're talking about kind of multiple different aspects of the thinking here. You also have multi-vendor activation. How closely does that kind of relate to the history, insofar as what you're doing now?

JH: Multi-vendor activation, it's a really interesting concept because it's something that's been challenging in a lot of industries for a long time, and it's a fairly generic term, and we use that to try and elevate people's thinking. Multi-vendor activation falls into what we classify complex processing. It's not just about doing things. It's about doing a lot of analysis, making a lot of decisions. It's about understanding the context you’re in and where you need to get to, what your objective is, and sometimes you can't achieve those objectives. You just got to be able to get close to them, so it's about finding a direction, and getting machines to do that is quite a new concept in business. Been doing it in academia for quite a while, but very much in a stand-alone environment, so looking at some of the stuff that's been the press headlines in recent years, you look at things like IBM Watson. It can play Jeopardy. Great. Where's the business case for Jeopardy?

“It's the business equivalent of a self-driving car”

It's really powerful technology, but gives me the business case. There are a number of technologies like that. They need to find a way of getting that powerful analysis and decision making into an operational platform where you can also sense your environment directly, you can take actions in the environment directly. It's the business equivalent of a self-driving car. A self-driving car makes lots of decisions, sees its environment and everything. You take the brain out of that car, the car is just the implementation platform. It's not smart. You take the brain out the other way around or the car out of the brain, the brain is useless. What it thinks about is pointless, and it's the same with these technologies. We need to bring them together and really give AI-type technologies an implementation platform, and that's what we're doing in Cortex. We're bringing them both together.

SA: Bringing them both together—you're taking multiple steps back, so that you can see the whole thing, so that you can drive the ship here. When you speak to automation practitioners, enterprise automation practitioners, folks at serious companies, the best and brightest companies that we have here on the globe, what are they doing? What are you hearing as far as what folks are doing in terms of automation?

JH: In terms of automation, the feedback that we get and what wee see on the ground is people taking what we would call tasks, primarily simple tasks, so short run, often high intensity, fairly well-documented, often not as well known as they are documented tasks. We go into a lot of organizations, and they've got their SOPs up in folders sitting on a shelf somewhere, and it's normally got half an inch of dust on it, and you look at it and think, yeah, when were they written, 20 years ago?

You can also make that kind of stuff, but it often goes wrong because, for the reason it's got dust on, it's not right, it's not how you operate today.We tend to find that because most organizations, for any of their real processes, they're made up of hundreds or thousands of permutations of different tasks. They don't know them all. They know some of them that are very high intensity, so they focus on just automating those things, which tend to be things that run for seconds, minutes, at most hours—some data analytics stuff and things like that. We've got clients that run processes for years, absolute years, and going back to the multi-vendor activation, that really manifests itself in two forms.

One is very powerful in IT as a service automation, so really looking at, up at the service level, doing end to end from understanding who you are as a customer of an IT as a service platform, understanding what resources you want, configure them, deploy them across multiple vendors' environments, you know, don't care whether you're using AWS or Azure or whether you've got your own VMware or whether you've got a legacy mainframe with logical partitions that you're trying to play with. It doesn't matter. They're multiple vendors, multiple different environments, and the same goes in the network management automation, Cisco, it doesn't matter what equipment you've got. You need to provision a service across the top of it, and that means first, you need to look at it. Where am I right now? You then need to work out what you need to do to get to your objective or as close to that as you possibly can across a very complicated environment of disparate systems that talk in many, many different ways.

“I want to make my job good… I want all the good bits, I want the machines to do all the horrible bits”

And what we find is that, we go to organizations and they understand those individual tasks. They try and bring technology into automate those individual tasks, but they're fragmented, so then you have to join them up with people. If the whole concept here is that we're trying to get the machines to do the stuff that we don't want to do, the boring stuff, the stuff that makes my job hell, right? That's what I want the machines to do. I want to make my job good. I want all the good bits. I want the machines to do all the horrible bits.

If I'm the one that's joining up, I'm still down there with the horrible bits. Give me a technology that can do all the joining up as well.

“There's a quote, which I love from JP Morgan: ‘Go as far as you can see, and then when you get there, you'll be able to see further,’ it's a philosophy that we use in automation”

You need to start with the kind of technologies that don't require you to have a full end to end definition. It's broken, but that's how people work. That's fine. We know bits, and as we get those bits into machines' hands, then we can learn about the other bits. There's a quote, which I love from JP Morgan. It was over a hundred years ago, but he said, "Go as far as you can see, and then when you get there, you'll be able to see further." And it's a philosophy that we use in automation. We don't care that you don't know everything. That doesn't matter. Capture what you know, even if it is only those little tasks that we expect you to know, that's all at a simple level, the hidden layer in your organization that will get you up into that world of doing things like multi-vendor activation, where you can run entire services, and we've got customers that are putting up entire network services, from customer all the way through configuration, provisioning, running it to an SLA, life cycling it through for years.

“It enables you to put systems in which can self-modify and keep in track with your business because guess what? Here's a newsflash… businesses change, organizations change, technology changes”

They can only do that because they've moved away from the simple tasking up into the more complicated world. In the complicated world you need analytics, you need decision making. Get into the really clever environment, what a lot of people are talking about and very few understand—machine learning—we've been calling it adaptive processes for many years. It has closed loop processes. It's some very mature technologies, and it enables you to put systems in which can self-modify and keep in track with your business because guess what? Here's a newsflash… businesses change, organizations change, technology changes.

SA: It's the only thing that remains constant, right?

JH: Exactly, you need things that change. Whatever process it is, whatever process you wrote in that file that you have up on the shelf that's got that half inch of dust on it, that's not right today because your business has changed. The technology that supports that, that needs to change too, and that's where you move up into more complex environments. The problem that we see in business is they tend to go binary between simple and chaotic.

SA: I've got three final questions for you. I'll tell you what they are. I'll ask you them in order… What's most surprised you at work, what's most surprised you in life, and on the soundtrack of your life, one track, one song, what's got to be on there?

First question, what's most surprised you at work along the way?

JH: What's most surprised me at work from a career perspective is my good fortune to be involved consistently in waves of growing technology, which really transform our customers operations, and I've had the honor and advantage, benefit of working in a number of organizations, and I had a slightly ironic conversation when I first joined these guys, where one of the board directors said to me, "You don't stay anywhere very long," and I said, "Well, I kind of stay in places often for 15, 18, 24 months, but let me give you some examples. I stayed at one company that had failed an IPO at 400 million, 14 months later we were back at market. We've IPO'ed for a billion. I went to another company that was going virtually bankrupt. 18 months later, we sold that company for 130 million. I might not stay places very long, but I stay and get the job done until we get to that point."

“It's a great honor to look back and say, I personally helped that happen, but I was also fortunate enough to be in that right place at that right time”

I've had the benefit of being in environments where I can see where it's going, and I can see the impact it has on the customer, but they're just struggling either to operate the business, or they're struggling to understand how it aligns with the market. It's a great honor to look back and say, I personally helped that happen, but I was also fortunate enough to be in that right place at that right time, and I think being in the right place at the right time is often not something you plan.

SA: No, certainly not. To that end, what's most surprised you in life?

JH: That my wife stayed married to me. I'm very lucky in my personal life, but I do work very hard. Even at the moment, I'm on the road three or four days a week, and when I get home  she's there open arms and ah! lovely to see you.

SA: The key being that you're communicating and that you're present when you're with her, right?

JH: Absolutely. I'm a bit of a workaholic, I will put my hands up to that, and she knows that. She knew what she was getting involved with, but it was about 15 years ago, and I made a deal with her because she was getting a little frustrated. I said, "Right. That's it. I don't work weekends, if I can possibly avoid it." Occasionally I'm traveling to the US and I have to fly out on a Sunday or something, but she doesn't mind that, but general rule is, I don't work weekends.

SA: Most importantly Jonathan, on the soundtrack of your life, one track, one song, what's got to be on there?

JH: Oh Crikey! So many!

I grew up in the 80s. I used to run nightclubs when I left university, and got heavily involved in the music industry. I'm a big hip hop fan and I love Eminem and quite, some of the deep things he says, but I wouldn't really put them on the track of life.

I love Bruce Springsteen and rock as well. that's really motivational, really out there, but it's kind of very American-centric, and I'm a real British guy, so you know .I'm a British guy but also American.

I love American culture, but I'm a bit of a soft romantic—some British tracks, people like Dido and White Flag. If it's a track for life, if it's something I had to listen to the rest of my life, it's something like that.

SA: Yes, Just calm down. Put this on. Everything's going to be okay.

JH: It's a Sunday morning track, isn't it?

SA: That's it!

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