Tech lead, Owen Kelly, and co-CEO Allan Waddell, discuss the finer points of digital transformation, solving problems, and a Moog synth.
Allan Waddell Hey guys! Allan from Kablamo here, founder and co-CEO today. I’ve got Owen, one of our tech leads with us. Owen, what’s your backstory, man? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Owen Kelly Hey Allan! Yeah, I’m a tech lead with Kablamo, based down here in Melbourne. Before this, I was working at a small media company. It was a really interesting and exciting world to be in. Before that, I was freelancing and doing a bit of stuff around audio engineering. But, programming has always been a thread throughout my life. So, when I landed here, it felt like a really good spot.
Allan Awesome. So, what is your role here? Tell everybody what you do for us.
Owen So, I mean, there’s that challenge question. I do something slightly different all the time, right? Exactly what I do is hard to nail down. For the most part, there is the client work. This includes working with the client and helping lead the technical part of that engagement.
This ensures that what we’re building is going to work and it’s going to do what the client wants. It’s helping with interfacing and with the team that I’m working with. We help solve those little problems that come up every now and then. Also, we guide people to get the solution where it needs to be.
Allan Yeah, it’s a pretty senior role for us. You’re in a lead role. When you look across the country, there aren’t that many people at that level - we consider it quite an elite role.
So, apart from all the good stuff that you do, what does a good day at Kablamo look like for you? When things are just going really well, and you come to the end of the day and you think, “that was a day”. What happens?
Owen So to me, there’s probably two big ones.
Firstly, there’s the technical stuff. There are those times when you get a really good chunk of time just to solve a really hard problem. That’s always an exciting thing to do when you’ve been working on something - maybe you’ve been planning it for a little while, or you have an idea of one way to do something - and you want to work out if that’s actually going to be possible. They seem to come up every couple of months or weeks, depending on the project. And when you actually get into them and solve everything you’re like, “Okay, this whole direction - we can do this, we can do that. That’s always a really enjoyable thing.
Secondly is the flip side of that is the technical side is the people side. Every now and then you have these great conversations with the client - you find out what they want to do, you know how to do it. Then, it’s just a matter of actually putting the pieces in place to do it. And that’s always really exciting, too. Because, yeah, getting an idea out of someone’s head, getting aligned on what that’s going to be, and knowing how to build it, that’s always a very exciting thing to do.
Allan Yeah, it’s often trivialised. One of the challenges we have with working with customers who haven’t done digital products is that the things you just mentioned sound simple on the surface. However, each one has so many traps and so many things that can catch you out if you don’t know about them. So actually, yeah, it’s an amazing process. Totally agree.
This is going to be a bit controversial, but what’s a really bad day at Kablamo look like - when you’re hating it? We all have bad times and there’s no point in hiding it. What’s the worst case?
Owen I mean, it’s when you don’t get anywhere, right? One of the things I love about this company and the work we do is that we’re always building stuff. We’re here to help solve a problem for someone. Sometimes that involves writing code and sometimes it involves things that aren’t writing code. But every now and then, you’re going up against an idea or one way to solve a problem and it doesn’t work out or it is not going to be the right choice. Those times where you just don’t get anywhere tend to be the sucky ones.
Allan Yeah. I can point at scenarios, particularly ones where we ultimately spend a lot of time with customers to help them transform.
Transform is a dangerous word, so I probably shouldn’t have said it…
Allan It’s a scary word. But, it means they need to change the way they work because the way they worked before wasn’t working.
Allan So when you land on one of those projects, it’s like, “Well, here are the things we can influence and we could change and we can feel rewarded about”. But, inevitably, there’s going to be those big, hairy enterprise things that need to be changed. When you’re right at the start of that journey, it can be pretty frictionful if you’re used to rapid change. So that’s really cool.
I know it’s hard to talk publicly about customers, so I’m not going to name names. However, I am really interested in the work you’re doing on one of our internal platforms. I think anyone would like to hear about it, so tell us a bit about that platform.
Owen Yeah, so this is a bushfires platform.
Back at the start of 2020, some pretty terrible fires came through a lot of Australia. A bunch of us at Kablamo just really wanted to do something. Now, knowing what we could do was the first problem, so a bunch of us spent time just diving into what area of this whole problem we could even tackle. We wanted to find something that we’re already good at, there’s no point in trying to go into something that we don’t already have expertise in - there are probably better people to do that.
After chatting to a large number of people working in the industry, we landed on a platform that enables bushfire predictions to be managed in the cloud. This includes a really strong user interface, designed for making everything as easy as possible. So, that was one of the first parts of the whole problem. We discovered that we already have a really good skill set in that. We also know how to do machine learning and we know how to do it in the cloud. We build cloud applications of absurd scale all the time. So, that is the stuff that we’re used to doing. Also, the client base consists of big companies with a lot of people. Working with big enterprises is also something that we have a fair bit of experience with. So, there’s a whole area here that has real big room for improvement.
Allan Awesome, man. I think that’s a similar sentiment to everyone I’ve spoken to about this thing. I think ‘unique’ is one of the words that people have used for the project. How does working on a project like that make you feel?
Owen I’ve grown up with firefighters around me my whole life, so it’s very much an area I’ve been aware of. However, I never really saw myself going into firefighting directly. So, this is a very interesting sort of ‘coming back around’ to that area. It’s something I know a bit about tangentially, but I’ve never really done it myself. The whole space is just something that I have a tremendous amount of respect for.
I respect firefighters and the work they do. Being able to help with that in some way is very rewarding. Of all the things that I could, or any of us could be spending time on, that’s definitely one that I can get behind because you can see the impact of what happens when these bushfires take hold. Being able to do anything to help with that is very satisfying to work on.
Allan That’s awesome, man. Yeah, that’s amazing. I’d love to talk about this to the cows come home!
Owen Yeah, me too,
Allan So, tell us a bit about the tech - I’m interested in when there is a problem to be solved. We’re curious about what’s underneath it: how is this thing put together?
Owen Yeah, so it’s a really interesting problem here. We’ve got geospatial data and time-series data. We want to have a lot of it and we want to be able to work with a lot of it. One of the approaches that I was looking at was: how do we grab these chunks of data in the most efficient way possible to solve the problem? We ended up working out a very nice way to use DynamoDB: an Amazon managed database. It is very fast if you know how to use it to store geospatial and time-series data. Ignoring predictions and running ML models in the cloud in reaction to fires coming in, I’ve discovered that it is a really hard problem by itself. Just storing that data in a way that we can get it back quickly is a fairly fascinating problem by itself. So, in addition to the whole bushfire stuff, the geospatial world itself is really interesting.
Allan Yeah. Cool.
Owen And that’s just one little bit of it.
Allan Yeah, absolutely. The cloud texts evolving so fast as well. There’s going to be a huge number of tools that become available that can help this initiative. Hopefully, when this gets legs, we’ll be able to adopt those and keep evolving.
Let’s pop that one because I like it. It is a very deep area. Everyone would love to know a bit more about you. When people think about tech guys and see the beards and glasses, they get the vibes.
Allan But, what do your hobbies look like? What’s Owen at home doing?
Owen So interestingly enough, I am the sort of person who loves to program. That does factor into my outside of work hobbies. To some degree, it’s kind of like the cabinet maker who still works on his stuff just because sometimes you want to make something exactly the way you want. Sometimes this is just diving into technology or an error and understanding it a little bit more.
In addition, I’ve recently got back into a really old hobby that I had way back in high school: electronics. When I first got into that, I didn’t understand it very well. Coming to it now with the understanding of programming that I have, has both made it easier and harder. It’s not the same. But, it’s very fascinating because it’s different in some very fundamental ways. It’s just a whole new thing to learn, which is really cool. That follows into the other sort of hobby that I have, which is music. I enjoy making music with instruments and all that sort of fun stuff. That’s funny because way back in the day I was an audio engineer. I was focused on recording engineering. So, being in a studio with artists and recording them is always good fun. But yeah, I’m sort of keeping going with playing music and not necessarily publishing it. I find it’s a very nice way to spend time.
Allan Yeah, therapeutic.
Owen Yeah, exactly.
Allan Have you got a favourite instrument? Is there one particular piece that you have in your collection, which I’m sure is vast, that you love?
Owen I do have one that I really love. It’s just a little Moog synth. It’s got that real sound to it. It’s a full analog synth. Not that I have anything against digital synth, necessarily. But, when you spend all your day working on a computer, the best thing for me is to get out of that computer. I find it so uninspiring to sit on a computer and try to make music, which is funny because I know a lot of people who love it. I think because I spend my whole day writing code, the last thing you want to do is keep doing that.
Allan Yeah, I’m kind of like that. I love the accessibility of being able to make music and a computer is what has inspired this new way for me of getting back involved with digital and electronic music.
But one of the things that’s common across everything you said is a superpower that I see. Everyone in our company and our customers sees this superpower of yours too. You have a great ability to pick up something new and run with it. Can you tell us a bit about how you do that and how you keep it balanced with all the new stuff coming up? There’s a lot of choices and a lot of change. How do you think of something new the right way?
Owen I think it starts with the fact that I love learning new things. Realistically, it is just a pretty human thing. I haven’t found many people who don’t enjoy learning something new. If you do have that desire to learn new things and dive into new technologies, it’s key. It can be a new technology that appeared or someone’s new idea on how to do something. Sometimes there’s a new framework or a whole new landscape. For example, when mobile phones dropped with smartphones, it was a whole new world. It can be a really interesting way to advance my understanding of programming. Sometimes I’ll find something new, have a play with it, and nothing will happen. I might work on a little side project that came out of that, but I don’t finish it. It doesn’t get anywhere. But every time I’ve done this, the very first thing I’ve tried to do is just learn how it works.
It either ends up somewhere, where it’s a tool I can use later on, or something I know probably isn’t going to be useful to me later on. I don’t go and play with every new thing that comes out because that’d be that all I do. So, I guess there’s some kind of filter. If it’s new enough or I don’t know enough about it, I want to play with it. Pretty much all of these things at some point, within the next six to 12 months, tend to come up as really great tools to solve that problem. The tools I find that excel are the ones where you have a whole problem space that’s annoying and hard.
And there’s this new technology that makes it the problem space not even a problem. Just get rid of the whole thing. Now you start working at this next level of stuff. I think of two really good examples. One example would be when React came out. React just changed the whole front end world in terms of understanding and building front end applications. And the next one that came out probably would have been graph qL. It changed the whole way of doing data fetching on the front end. And the cool thing about them is that they just take this whole problem space and they just chucked it in the bin. You don’t even worry about that anymore because it’s not part of the thing anymore. I’ve always found those new pieces of technology to be the really interesting ones.
Allan Awesome. So, I have read that as people age, they lose their curiosity. Have you got any tips for somebody who’s feeling a bit flat and probably hasn’t gone out of their comfort zone? Are there any directions you can point them in that will help them reignite that curiosity?
Owen Yeah, I think probably the first thing would be to burn out. If you’re getting stuck in one area of your life, or of an area of interest, nothing new is going to be exciting in that area. There are many ways to combat it. That’s one thing I found with electronics is great: it’s so different. Everything that you would think about programming might relate in some ways, but not entirely.
So, probably the biggest thing to avoid burnout is to avoid things that don’t seem interesting. Find something in a completely different domain and just hang around in there for a little while. I bounced from side projects, probably every couple of months, and I have many going. I’ve found that very sustainable because I can work on something until it’s not interesting. Then, I put it down and pick up one of the other ones. This means that, over time, I can make some pretty good progress on things. However, just because it stopped getting interesting doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting again in the future.
Allan That’s some really good advice. Look Owen, I really appreciate your time. It’s been awesome hearing a lot more about you and about the stuff you’re working on and about your time at Kablamo. If we want to get in contact with you, is there any kind of social media like areas you hang out on? Is there a Twitter handle or how could people if they want to have a chat find you?
Owen Yeah, probably the two best spots would be owenkelly.com.au. Every now and then I post some interesting blogs, content, etc. on there. Also, there is twitter.com/ojkelly.
Allan Awesome, man. Well, that’s it for me and Owen. If you want to get in contact, our details, we’ll put them somewhere on the screen beneath it somewhere but it’s been great. Cheers guys.
Owen Thank you.