Ironman Michael Grant discusses the three important players in any organisation


Michael has completed 20 Half Ironman races but remains a techie at heart.

Michael Grant, CTO at Synthesis, is an electrical engineer by training, but before becoming a CTO, he developed a personal fascination with lightning and spent a significant amount of time travelling around the world studying it, and earned a PhD on the subject.

He even came dangerously close to being struck by lightning while on a mountaineering expedition to climb one of the highest mountains in Bolivia. In fact, there’s a link between his interest in lightning and his area of expertise, which is artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“I actually ended up with this huge dataset of lightning observations, but I wanted to investigate this further, so I began using machine learning techniques to extract some of the secrets of the natural phenomenon of lightning from the rich dataset of measurements that I had,” he says. “As a result, I started engaging with machine learning and artificial intelligence – this morphed into my PhD.

“Today, my area of expertise is artificial intelligence and machine learning. I’ve been very innovative in this area and worked on some very exciting projects, such as massive organisational optimisations based on AI – to ensure that my team understands this type of technology and can use it appropriately.”

Synthesis, according to Michael, is doing amazing things in the logistics space. “One of our customers has decided to migrate their entire digital system to something we designed,” he explains. “The value that we brought in was the ability to deliver a complex project that will touch all aspects of their business: from optimising shipping routes to optimising container loading onto vessels, as well as scheduling and staffing.”

Michael has a broad mandate at Synthesis, but the majority of his responsibilities are focused on their Labs and innovation work. It entails becoming acquainted with the array of cutting-edge technologies that are becoming available. This includes Web3, centralised finance, smart contracts, and modern frameworks that enhance user and developer experience, especially for browser base applications.

It’s all about delivering great value, he says, and in order to do so, you must understand the available technology and match it to the requirements of the problems at hand.

Michael is also an inventor, and his expertise in machine learning and AI has seen him make a positive impact on the environment. “I invented an artificial intelligence system to optimise manufacturing operations, and it reduced scrap/waste by 40 percent,” he says. “I’ve also worked on machine learning projects that have strengthened the industry’s resilience to loadshedding.”

The three key tech players

According to Michael, the world of IT comprises three key players: a group of technology-focused individuals, including the chief information officer, chief technology officer, and the chief product officer. “It’s a beautiful convergence of technology, problems, and problem solvers,” he says. “These roles are fundamentally linked in terms of using technology to deliver value to those specific areas.

“The CIO looks at how you steer an organisation with the information that you have, the CPO looks at how you steer an organisation by bringing features into life in a product that are relevant to a market, and the CTO is a little bit of both: it looks at how you make and build the support and technology up to make all of this possible – it’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Michael says that the relationship between these functions also changes depending on the size of the organisation.

“You have a very important product and market interaction in much more mature organisations that have a business to customer offering,” Michael explains, “where the features of the product dominate the ability of the product to generate revenue, and here the CPO makes sure that the product supplies those features and the CTO is in service to the requests of the CPO.

“In the constrained environment of a lean startup, there may not necessarily be the opportunity to have as many executives. So, the technical leader must consider both traditional CTO and CPO challenges and ensure that there is a product-market fit, as well as that the technology that supports this product works,” he adds.

However, there are a few dimensions that make the CTO role particularly exciting and keep you on your toes:

First, the rapid pace of technological innovation creates a sense of impending obsolescence, even when the obsolescence schedule is not as severe as many people had anticipated. In other words, newer is always better in the technology space, but that doesn’t mean old is obsolete: companies that have heavily invested in technology stacks don’t have to throw them away when newer technology stacks that serve companies become available.

Second, there is an ever-changing threat landscape with bad actors considering both old and new technology stacks. As a result, as CTO, you must stay ahead of the ever-changing threat.

Third, the modern developer has evolved significantly, with people who are more competent and versed in a broader range of technologies than ever before. They can now envision a digital future that is far more advanced than our current one. “The evolution of technology in our daily lives has become so prevalent that technology failure has become a failure of daily life,” he says.

Michael is an Ironman athlete who has completed 20 half Ironman races and five full Ironman races to date. But he’s not just athletic; he’s also adventurous and well-travelled, having visited more than countries and climbed several mountains in the Andes and Alps.

In his spare time, he enjoys reading books and is currently reading The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. “It’s a lovely story about the consequences of things, and a specific set of ways you can form (and solve) problems if all your intentions are in plain sight,” he concludes.

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