‘Technology is no longer just a department, it’s at the very core of businesses’

24 Jul 2020

Rebecca Parsons. Image: ThoughtWorks

Rebecca Parsons spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about the future of digital transformation and why we must tread carefully when it comes to AI.

While there has been a lot of talk in recent months about the rapid acceleration of digital transformation, those in the industry know that this has been coming for many years now. As with most trends, the topic becomes popular long after the slow burn of change has actually begun.

This becomes all the more apparent when speaking to industry leaders with decades of experience. One such expert is Rebecca Parsons, chief technology officer at ThoughtWorks, a global software consultancy company.

She previously worked as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida and as a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, researching issues in parallel and distributed computation, genetic algorithms, computational biology and nonlinear dynamical systems.

‘You’re not an insurance company any more, you’re a tech company that happens to sell insurance’

In 2018, Parsons received the Technical Leadership Abie Award, which celebrates women who led or developed a product, process or innovation that made a notable impact on business or society. Parsons is also a frequent speaker at industry events, most recently at Collision From Home.

We spoke to her about some of the biggest trends within the industry. She discussed the number of businesses that are now adopting a technology-first approach and how we are at the cusp of having AI revolutionise the way we work and live.

Tell me about your own role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

My role is to survey the technology landscape, understand what the upcoming trends are, and work to contextualise the impact those trends might have for our clients, thinking about how they would respond. The tech strategy for ThoughtWorks is driven by our CIO, so my role as CTO is to oversee the individualised technology strategies that we develop for our clients.

How big is your team?

My direct team consists of about eight people who work within the office of the CTO. However, since our job is to oversee the work of ThoughtWorks’ 7,000 technologists around the globe, you could also say that in some ways our entire organisation could be considered an extension of our team.

By the nature of the work we do at ThoughtWorks, everyone could be considered outsourced talent. We are brought on by companies of all sizes across a variety of industries to provide a range of technology services to help organisations modernise their businesses.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?

We firmly believe that the digital transformation trend is accelerating. More and more companies are becoming first and foremost technology companies. You’re not an insurance company any more, you’re a tech company that happens to sell insurance. Look at some of the most powerful technology companies in the world today – many of them (Uber, Amazon etc.) are actually in the transport or retail sectors.

However, because they leverage technology to enable their business, they are what we call ‘tech at core’, meaning technology is no longer just a department within their organisation, it is at the very core of their business. We do anticipate that more companies in the coming months and years will adopt this same ‘tech at core’ approach.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

AI has been just around the corner and ready to revolutionise the world since about the 1980s, but I do think that between the increased speed of computers and the decreased cost of memory with the massive explosion of data, we are starting to really tap into its potential to revolutionise the way we consume, the way we work and the way we live.

While AI has the potential to change the world for the better, we must tread carefully. Machine learning algorithms learn from that past and if there are biases present, conscious or unconscious, we can open ourselves up to some dangerous scenarios.

As the scope of AI broadens, we see it being applied in areas such as healthcare and the criminal justice system, where the consequences of getting it wrong are serious. We need to think more carefully about the potential sources of bias in AI, the consequences for getting it wrong in certain applications and the ways to mitigate or combat potential algorithmic biases in our systems.

Quantum computing is another trend that has incredible potential to change the world, but also poses some risks that we’ll need to address. For instance, we’ll need to rethink encryption, given the algorithms we have right now are easy to break in a post-quantum world. It’s hard to assess how close we are to that being a reality, but there’s definitely progress being made.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

We’re firmly committed to the practice of threat modelling, which is looking at actual threats and using that assessment to determine how best to protect against it. The fact remains that any given organisation has to protect against the entire sea of hackers, which can be challenging.

The best approach is to ensure you are taking manual processes out of the equation as much as possible. The manual approach to detecting threats can slow organisations down during a time when every second counts.

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