Chief Evangelist: A fancy title… but what does it mean? Interview with Jason Gould for DNEVNIK.HR

Technology companies often have roles with very interesting job titles. Whilst most of them are related to the technology they deal with, some roles in the company sound, well, a little unusual.

Speaking of unusual, one such role is that of the Chief Evangelist.

But what exactly is a Chief Evangelist? What is their role in the company, and what can they tell us about the importance of that role? We found out in a conversation with Chief Evangelist at Syntio, Jason Gould, who enthusiastically swapped his home in the UK with Zagreb, and asked him precisely those questions.

What does the chief evangelist actually do in an IT company? And why is their role so important?

The role of an evangelist is to help colleagues and customers understand the latest ways of working and suggest approaches to solving problems in the right way. The role of technology within any organisation is to support the business in achieving its goals. Technology solutions should be delivered quickly and be easy to change and align with changing business needs. It should also cost as little as possible to meet the business goal. Too many companies spend more on technology than they need, as they are pushed by tech companies to buy software and systems that are not fit for their intended purpose and are very expensive to operate. An evangelist’s role is to help customers understand exactly what technology they need to meet their goals, to extoll the benefits of new ways of working, or indeed to be honest and let a company know that what they have asked for isn’t going to be the optimal solution. I think that function is very important, whether it’s called an evangelist or something else, so that the company can keep the focus on business success and on the bigger picture of customer value. Unfortunately, in many tech roles, the engineers are so far removed from the customer that they tend to focus on technical excellence rather than on ensuring a positive business outcome.

But you’re not jus a chief evangelist. You’re also a university lecturer. Can you tell us something about how you started your academic career in Croatia? What are your impressions of Croatian students?

I wouldn’t say that I have an academic career here. In the past I have done guest lectures at universities in the UK and Sweden, and I have done the same here. I was privileged to be asked to give a lecture on “Data Privacy and the Impact of Data on Society” for the School of Sociology at The University of Zagreb. Additionally, Syntio has a graduate program, so I have been exposed to a lot of students coming out of FER and RIT. They are some of the best graduates I’ve ever come across. The knowledge and skills they are exiting university with is impressive, and when you add in their work ethic and thirst for knowledge, they are amazing. I would say that they are certainly better than most, if not all, other European countries I’ve worked in.

How has a Brit come to Croatia to work for a Croatian IT firm? What was the appeal? And can you make a comparison between Croatian and British companies? Or the Croatian and British IT sector?

It’s an interesting story, I first came across Syntio in 2018, when I met Davorin Cetto and Tomo Domanovac, the co-founders. I was working in Sweden at a very well-known company and Syntio were brought in to help with data strategy and delivery data pipelines as part of a digital transformation. We hit it off right away. I appreciated their approach to problem solving and their focus on delivering business value rather than focusing solely on the technical aspects, in which they were also lightyears ahead of the other companies I was working with at the time. Clearly, they saw something in me as when I left that company they invited me to work with them at Syntio. I think to this day they are still a little surprised that I moved to Zagreb rather than work remotely.

The appeal? What can I say, with beautiful mountains, amazing beaches, great people, and everything you need right on your doorstep, Croatia is a fantastic place to live and my family and I are very happy to be here. For me it’s one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

Regarding the difference between the British and Croatian IT Sectors, it’s very hard for me to make a direct comparison. In the UK I worked for very traditional global enterprises; I also haven’t worked in the UK since 2016. Here in Croatia the business I’m in is hyper-agile, fluid and on the very cutting edge of what’s possible with data and ways of approaching business challenges. I would say though, that if you look at what is happening in Croatia, some very well-known and respected tech driven companies are opening development centres here, as well as having the newest European tech unicorn… clearly Croatia is doing something right and the tech sector seems to be going from strength to strength, which is something all Croatians should be proud of.

Tell us more about Dataphos platform that Syntio recently launched? Does it use artificial intelligence or machine learning?

We recently launched our first commercial product, a data platform called Dataphos. It is our answer to addressing the issues we see across many organisation’s data layers. Typical data platforms are usually very centralised, making them slow to change, expensive to manage and very complex. At Syntio, we believe that there must be a better approach. We want to reduce the complexity, meaning companies can adapt or create new systems much faster to facilitate changing business needs, while also reducing costs.

When we looked at what would be important to companies in the future, we realised that off the shelf real-time data platforms don’t really exist, and so, we took the opportunity and created one. What we ended up with, is a system that has multiple components that work together seamlessly. It can extract data from existing systems or new data sources, ingest data in real-time, assessing any changes to the structure to avoid dependencies between systems, and then, put that data in a data lake for data science, AI, or ML use cases, whilst also making data available for transactional systems. This covers most data use cases that companies have, while still being very easy to implement and operate, and best of all it’s free for commercial use! A module to keep track of the data structure over time has also been added, meaning that you can assess how the data changes. This is very important for data modelling, as it means we can inform data consumers when their data structures change, drastically reducing the amount of time spent managing dependencies between systems. Dependency management is very time consuming and costly for all organisations, and so it was something we wanted to address.

The Dataphos platform itself doesn’t utilise AI or Machine Learning, its role is to enable those solutions, as well as any transactional or business intelligence use case. AI and ML need access to data to function, and so the role of our platform is to provide that data quickly and with ease. It’s an enabler for all data challenges in an organisation.

But the big question is – if we upload our data in the cloud, who owns that data? And how can we be sure they are secured? Also, how can we be sure that our data is being processed in the EU, and not in some data center in the US or China?

Data uploaded to the cloud is always owned by the company that uploads it. In fact, the employees of the cloud company in nearly every use case have no access to the underlying data. The best analogy I can think of for cloud services is banking: just because your money is in a bank account at the bank doesn’t mean that you don’t own it. The cloud company is just providing storage and computing power as a service, much the same as a bank providing financial services. We can take this analogy a step further: much like it’s safer to keep your money in a bank rather than under your mattress, it’s also safer to use cloud services. The cloud providers are some of the best and most respected tech companies in the world, they each run their own businesses on their platforms – as they trust in their own platforms. The platforms they provide are the culmination of all the knowledge they have. Then they combine this with all the requests for features and performance that they get from their customers. This gives them even more knowledge when it comes to making systems that perform in terms of processing, but also in securing their customers data. I personally think it’s safer to keep my data in the hands of global specialists and concentrate on my core business rather than running a data centre, especially with all the costs that come with that. Which brings me nicely onto the other main reason I prefer cloud to on-premise. Cloud is far more sustainable. When you run your own, you need to be able to support the peak usage. This means that for a large period of time you are running systems that are underutilised and using resources that are not producing value. With cloud you only use what you need – when you need more it’s right there, but when you aren’t using that processing power it’s available for someone else, which is a far more sustainable approach to computing power.

When we put our data in cloud, we choose which cloud data centre that will be, and we can choose the country, and often which city if they have more than one. They guarantee that the data stays there and is processed on the systems that we as customers choose. They must adhere to the laws of the countries they operate in. If that’s an EU country, then you can be sure that all EU regulations are followed. We as customers can choose to combine data from other countries as long as we also adhere to our regulatory requirements. However, the combining of personal information between countries is often not allowed, outside of the EU for sure. Typically, it’s also not a great deal of use to a business to combine customer information anyway, especially for retailers. Customer behaviour in difference regions can be so different that, for example, looking at customer behaviour from both the US and Korea would result in poor results, as the behaviour of customers is so different that any assumptions would be tainted. When we look at data about machinery though, we may want to combine that as it’s useful for preventative maintenance, and in this case the larger the set of data, the better any analysis would be, but as this is not personal information it would be fine to store anywhere.

The saying “time is money” has been transformed into “data is gold” in the age of digitalization. Can we even determine how valuable data is? And is there a difference in value between private and company data?

The value of data has always been very high, being able to predict what is probably going to happen before someone else or being able to understand your customer better has given companies an advantage over their competitors for centuries. The thing that has changed is our ability to process larger amounts of data and added to this, is that data is available to far more organisations than ever before. This is what has made the value of the data so much higher. Our ability to use data for a competitive advantage or to better serve our customers has always been there, it’s the process of getting value from that data that has been democratised. In the past few decades, we have seen first-hand how valuable data is, and our ability to harness data has resulted in the rise of companies where their only business is creating and selling data. Social media companies fit this model and they’re valued as some of the highest in the world.

We could therefore say that data is invaluable, as we can’t really make any decision without some form of data. The trouble for many companies though is that although they have been collecting data for decades it’s often difficult or expensive to get to, making it costly to analyse or to be sure of its quality – and making business decisions on incorrect data is probably worse than making them with no data.

The difference in value between company and personal data is a very difficult distinction to make, the world has changed, and people are far more comfortable sharing their own data that at any other time in history. With social media especially, it is hard to really distinguish between what is your data and what belongs to the company. I’m from the generation that’s more careful about what information I give companies about myself and check how they will share that. My son and his friends don’t seem to care about what they share. I suppose with all the data flowing around the world, your own actual personal information gets lost in all the noise of everyone else. Analysis is done at the group level rather than absolute individual – except with companies you have decided to share with that do hyper-personalisation, so maybe there’s no real benefit to holding back. These days I think the value is just in data, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s private or company.

Can you give us your vision of the future? What technologies can we expect to change our lives in the next 5 years? And will it be a drastic change or will it be so gradual, we won’t even realize it’s happening?

I see AI being a big winner over the next few years. Look at the popularity of ChatGPT as an example. It’s still in its infancy, but I’m sure we’ll figure out amazing use cases for it over the coming years. An area where I have more immediate concern is the energy sector, we’re using more and more energy all the time, yet our preference is for sustainable sources. These are often unreliable – we don’t know with any degree of forecasting when the wind will blow or the sun will shine. Technical improvements in energy conservation and production will definitely need to be addressed in the short term if we are to meet our energy needs in a sustainable way. The current geopolitical landscape is adding to this pressure. For me this is an area desperate for positive change and investment.

Most changes in technology happen slowly and it’s only afterwards that we can point to a specific moment in time as the catalyst for major change, the “iphone moment” if you like. Most change evolves, we look up and realise everything has changed and our lives are vastly different to a decade ago, though that process seems to be accelerating. It’s always difficult to make predictions about what will happen in the next 10 years in tech, but when I look at the progress that has been made in the last decade, it makes me excited to be a part of the journey.


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