Werner Vogels: “Society Is Not Keeping Up In Terms Of Responsible Use of Technology”
In the first of a series of interviews with chief technology officers of the world’s leading companies, Robert Scammell hears from Amazon CTO and programming rockstar Werner Vogels about moving out of academia, the most exciting technologies ahead and the joy of motorcycles
As chief technology officer and vice president at Amazon, Werner Vogels is responsible for leading technological innovation at one of the world’s most disruptive companies. Having joined Amazon in 2004 as director of systems research, it wasn’t long before Vogels became CTO and VP and one of the key architects behind Amazon’s cloud computing behemoth, Amazon Web Services.
In this Q&A he explains how he almost dismissed Amazon as “just a book seller”, why it’s still early days for machine learning and how blockchain is an example of hype overpromising.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
I was an academic before joining Amazon. I was working on research on large scale distributed computing and I was invited to give a talk at Amazon. I almost didn’t go because I thought that Amazon was just a book seller at the time with a web server and a database.
But I did go and I realised this was the best place to apply my distributed systems research skills because Amazon was operating at a scale that I had never seen before and such a diversity in technology, whether it was high performance transaction processing all the way over to robotics. I knew that this was the place for me to be.
“I thought that Amazon was just a book seller at the time with a web server and a database.”
What's the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
There are a variety of very important technologies but I think that large-scale data processing is becoming more and more important to all of our customers. Mostly because cloud computing has made IT egalitarian – everyone has access to the same IT these days and you no longer need to be a high-end, big company to get the best IT.
What is becoming more and more important to our customers is data processing. Taking the data that they have and using it in clever ways, whether it’s using machine learning or real-time data processing, for example, using Amazon Redshift to do reporting. Also the overflow between physical and digital life, whether in factories, home automation, automated cars, 5G, or the Edge, is another important trend taking place right now.
“Cloud computing has made IT egalitarian.”
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures and why?
Even though we are all talking about machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), we are still in the early days of the applications of it. At our recent customer event in Las Vegas, AWS re:Invent, we announced new ML tools for our customers to do ML, but also quite a few of the services that we are delivering are based on ML as well – like our security services Amazon GuardDuty, Amazon Macie, and Amazon Detective.
I think ML will become more important as data sets are becoming increasingly larger and we, as engineers, cannot just write a SQL query to get what we want from the data. ML is the technology that is in the early stages and will become so much bigger than it is today.
“ML is the technology that is in the early stages and will become so much bigger than it is today.”
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
You have to be sensible. One space that was hyped dramatically was blockchain. For years, there has been amazing hype to completely revolutionise how digital systems are being built but it turns out, this is not the case.
In talking to our customers, it turned out that they wanted to have an immutable ledger instead of having a complete distributed blockchain environment. We need to keep thinking about architecture, what our best practices are, and really driving the difference between hype and reality.
“One space that was hyped dramatically was blockchain.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
To keep learning. As a technology executive, it’s extremely important to set time aside to learn about your field and the technologies that your company is building.
I religiously set one afternoon aside a week to either do some programming, or use some of the new tools that AWS is developing, or just read up on technology papers. You really have to block the time off as there are always so many reasons that you can come up with to take your focus off of learning.
“As a technology executive, it’s extremely important to set time aside to learn about your field and the technologies that your company is building.”
Where did your interest in tech come from?
I was working in hospitals, in cancer research, and I decided it was not the field for me. I was looking around in the mid-80s for a career that would provide a decent income for my family. And I picked technology.
Of course I was in technology prior to that. In the Navy, I was a radar and sonar operator, and then I went into the medical world which was technology – but not in the computer world. I didn’t know at the time that I had a gift for technology.
“I didn’t know at the time that I had a gift for technology.”
What does a typical day look like for you?
I don’t have a lot of typical days but many are spent, eight hours a day, with customers in their offices, hearing their stories, their biggest pain points and how we can help them better. I also discuss with them some of the things that they are going through that Amazon may have already gone through.
Many customers want to make a digital transformation and they don’t know how to do it. Sharing with them all of the things that we have done as a company, in terms of architecture, culture, and organisation, often helps them and changes their perspectives on how to proceed with their own transformations.
“I don’t have a lot of typical days but many are spent, eight hours a day, with customers in their offices.”
What do you do to relax?
I ride motorcycles. I have a BMW R1200C and a Harley, and my greatest joy is driving to and from work on my motorcycles. I also love photography. I enjoy the technology side of photography – not only taking the pictures but the post-production. I just made four photo books of a trip I took to Botswana. I really enjoy turning the photos into something physical and it drives great conversation with friends and family when I share the books with them. Every page has a story to tell.
“My greatest joy is driving to and from work on my motorcycles.”
Who is your tech hero?
Jim Gray. He was a famous database researcher and he was my mentor for many years. He worked at IBM, Microsoft, and big database companies. He was lost at sea in 2007. He was my hero. He was a great builder, a great engineer, and a great mentor to me.
“He was my hero. He was a great builder, a great engineer, and a great mentor to me.”
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
The responsible use of technology is a huge challenge. Technology is evolving rapidly and society is not keeping up in terms of responsible use of the technology.
Society has a role to play in all of this but technology moves so much faster, that policy makers and society need to get their heads around it and get in front of it. Every country is different in its policies and how they handle different types of technologies.
“Technology is evolving rapidly and society is not keeping up in terms of responsible use of the technology.”
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