Tyndall CEO: ‘There is no electronics without software’

6 Jun 2019

Prof William Scanlon. Image: Tyndall

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Prof William Scanlon of Tyndall talks to us about the institute’s next chapter and its focus on deep tech.

Prof William Scanlon is the CEO of Tyndall National Institute.

He joined Tyndall from Queen’s University Belfast, where he was head of the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and professor of wireless communications. Though he has been in the academic field for about two decades, he has also held engineering roles earlier at Siemens, Nortel Networks and Osram.

Last month Tyndall announced 100 new research posts in Cork and revealed plans to expand the footprint of the institute.

‘Even as a wireless researcher I marvel at the magic of radio communications and what it does for business every hour of every day’

Describe your role and what you do.

My main role is to establish the strategic direction for Tyndall and to ensure that we deliver on our plans. We have a specific mission to deliver economic impact from excellence in research across the broad field of ICT.

While Tyndall has traditionally focused on hardware aspects of ICT – that is, micro- and nano-electronics and photonics – we are entering a new phase of development, which will see a rapid expansion of the institute, not just in terms of our scale (which is set to double within 10 years) but also in terms of our technical focus as we move to a much more integrated hardware and software approach – so-called ‘deep tech’.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am extremely lucky to be assisted by an experienced team of senior leaders, including a COO who has been part of Tyndall since its formation. That means that I am rarely drawn into operational details and I can focus on developing our new strategic plan, and building and expanding our leadership team.

My role also involves a lot of external engagement with Government, the EU, and related agencies such as ESA, industry clients and other research providers. That means that my diary drives my working life, and planning is weeks if not months in advance.

In terms of daily work, I try to use train travel whenever possible within Ireland and Europe to be able to catch up on email communication, social media and telephone calls. When I’m in the office, I try to engage in face-to-face meetings as much as possible, and I’m a big fan of direct conversation and avoiding too many slide presentations.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The research business is a people business and most of our challenges are about recruitment of top talent, and creating the right sort of operating environment and organisational culture for those people to develop their careers and to flourish. This is compounded in our field of research where there is significant demand for staff with the right expertise and experience. For example, hiring someone with an established track record in AI research is very challenging as almost every tech firm is also trying to attract the same talent. So, in the public research realm we have to compete in terms of the uniqueness of the environment, the freedom and the opportunity to go ‘off-map’. But our funding is limited and industry has deep pockets, so it is a tough sell.

We are also working on improving the pipeline by stimulating interest in deep-tech research at the undergraduate or high school level. This outreach is critically important for our sector, especially as it can also help address the major issue of gender diversity. Some creative approaches are needed here, and I believe that this is one field where private industry and public bodies like ourselves can collaborate more intensely for better impact.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Put simply, there is no electronics these days without software and, increasingly, all of the major challenges being addressed by even platform software companies relate to the physical world – that is, they need hardware and software to be more tightly co-designed.

Even the cloud is challenged by hardware limitations, power efficiency needs to be improved, we need better compute architectures from the chip/memory level upwards and we need better communications between every element of the system.

This requires significant advances in deep tech, which is best described as the key enabling technologies of electronics, photonics, quantum, AI, security – all spanning hardware and software, and wrapped in a new systems-thinking approach. I haven’t even mentioned the application domains, which are also a major driver, especially in Ireland and Europe.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I have had a fundamental curiosity about technology since my early childhood in north Belfast. I experimented with electronics and radios in primary school, and when I joined secondary school I was privileged to get access to their first (and only one at that point) computer (RML 380Z).

After a diversion into computer programming, I eventually had the opportunity to do a PhD in wearable antennas for medical device communications. That brought me back to RF and microwave engineering, and eventually into academia at Ulster University’s bioengineering centre in the 1990s.

It then took me over a decade to realise that I had a flair for ‘herding cats’ – trying to align the individual motivations and intense creativity of academic researchers.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

During my PhD study I taped an A4 page to the side of my massive CRT monitor that said: ‘People learn from mistakes, I will learn a lot today.’ So, it is difficult to pinpoint only one mistake.

That said, it took me a long time to recognise that individual differences in personality are often a cause of disagreements, but by accepting, and ideally utilising, our differences in approach and style, we can achieve more together. I wish that I had understood that earlier in my career.

How do you get the best out of your team?

A good starting point is having a clear shared vision, and strategic goals and objectives to help align everyone around the task in hand. However, I think that understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team members is a critical success factor. Ultimately, this comes down to getting to know them and engaging with them in both individual and team settings, but there are formal tools and techniques that can help accelerate this process and perhaps create some shortcuts.

Of course, as a leader you also have to understand your own style and approach, and reflect on why you act or behave in certain ways under different conditions. That reflective practice will most likely need the help of a third party, a mentor. All of this will help develop trust within the team as you get to know each other.

close-up of middle-aged man with glasses and stubble wearing a suit and red tie, standing outside.

Prof William Scanlon. Image: Tyndall

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

Our sector suffers particularly badly from poor gender diversity as we are affected by both pipeline and structural challenges. Most of our key staff are educated to postgraduate or doctoral level, and that pipeline of potential engineers, researchers and scientists is eroded at all stages through primary, secondary and tertiary levels. That is why we need to invest more in STEM outreach and also work on this in a more coordinated way across public and private organisations.

In terms of structural challenges, we are conscious that the research business is not particularly family-friendly and this often has negative gender diversity consequences. For example, we often have to travel for project meetings or hold conference calls on a global time zone basis.

One way to identify and work on these organisational, cultural and operational aspects is to engage in schemes such as Athena SWAN, which involves a root-and-branch analysis of all of these issues affecting one’s organisation. I strongly encourage that, and I have committed that Tyndall will pursue an Athena SWAN award in the short term.

Who is your role model and why?

This is so tough. I would love to say Steve Jobs, but this column has enough about him. I am particularly inspired and also challenged by the strong female leaders found in the research community. A good example is Prof Linda Doyle, dean of research at Trinity. She is so competent in her technical field, she was the founding director of the SFI Connect research centre, and she has a way of raising the ambition of all of those around her without massaging any egos or chipping away anyone’s confidence. She is one of the best research leaders I have ever met.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I would recommend The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner. It is a history of Bell Labs, but it also is a commentary on the nature of innovation and how it works when you bring talented people together and allow them to flourish.

The second one is Dance with Chance: Making Luck Work for You by Makridakis, Hogarth and Gaba. It is a popular science book about risk, with a little bit of economics thrown in for good measure.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Laptop and two smartphones, and lots of mobile internet connectivity. That’s one smartphone for work and one for personal use. Even as a wireless researcher I marvel at the magic of radio communications and what it does for business every hour of every day. Think of it as being ‘tetherless’ and free!

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