Vol. 4
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 4

Shooting Hoops with Dave Bolton

December 2014

Programmer, leader, mentor, basketballer and all-round nice guy.

Dave Bolton is Head of Engineering at William Hill in Sydney, tasked with leading the company's ambitious push into the digital space. In this volume we talk to him about the transition from craftsmen to manager and his ongoing desire to learn and contribute in equal measure. Dave's ability to build teams and help people grow has seen him become a leading figure in the Sydney tech community, ever-ready to listen to and mentor others working in the digital space.

Dave Bolton--- 19 October 2014

By Lorenzo Princi

Who or what influenced you to enter the technology space?

Oh yeah, okay, that one’s sort of an easy one because it was always around at home. My dad started out as a session musician and then was an electrician by trade and then got into computers very early on-- just started-- we just had a lot of computers around the house and he kind of got into the corporate world and away from the music stuff but so-- at a young age, just had computers around and I got to learn how to program just-- you know, from about the time I was six or seven. Programming very simple stuff-- so always around technology really.

I think-- all kids are around technology now but it-- probably a bit rarer back then so, it’s a bit-- bit of an easy entry.

Do you feel the magic is expected nowadays or that perhaps our generation has more appreciation? The leap to today’s tech-savvy world from the late 80s has been great.

I think people are going to-- even-- I, I was exposed to computers but the version of that thirty years before me was the kids who were soldering up their own ham radios right, or thirty years before that, what-- you know, people want to create stuff, whether it’s technology stuff or other stuff they’re just going to find ways to do it. So the kids who are doing this stuff now-- there’s a lot of effort going into teaching kids how to program, so there’s lots of you know, “this is how kids should learn about computers.” But there’s computers-- but that sort of thinking is critical, that idea that, you’re not just doing stuff in order, you’ve got the ability to control things and have different outcomes and that sort of thinking is really key.

So yeah, they’re not doing-- soldering together something, which is one level of effort, or programming an early computer, they’re now programming a little video game, it’s easier but it’s the same thought process, so they’re still creating. Or Minecraft even right? Mindcraft is a game but it’s a process of creating and “how do I solve a problem?” And it’s a different sort of problem but it’s still problem solving.

You completed your MBT (with distinction) while we were in the thick of building westfield.com.au. It was very impressive to see. By the end you had some serious responsibilities at Westfield in a high pressure role. Yet you always had a calm demeanour. I imagine you were pedalling hard under the surface despite never showing a wrinkle or crease or hair out of place. How did you balance the two?

That’s a good one, I think-- you know, you’re a creative person yourself and you probably have this burning desire just to create things right? And it’s a little bit-- I’m not-- I wouldn’t call myself particularly creative but I love-- I love learning and the great thing about doing my masters was that it forced me to learn, so it was-- I love learning anyway but there were deadlines attached to it so you have to do it. So for me, particularly with kids, the way I get stuff done is I get up at 5:00AM and I do stuff until 7:00AM when the kids tend to get up and that’s it, that’s the creative time. Now since I finished the masters I still do that but I don’t have to do it. So there are some days where I just don’t, alright and that was the thing-- it was actually-- I won’t say that it was easy but it was just a routine, “everyday I get up, I do this for two hours and I have to do it and then a few hours on the weekend to finish assignments and stuff like that.” But just so-- bang, bang, bang, routine.

So I think in that sense I think it was-- yeah there were times that were stressful but it never killed me. Probably earlier this year when I changed jobs and I got out of that routine, it’s probably been way more stressful, even though I’m doing less, like, you know, work about the same amount of hours, really full on role but out of hours I’m not doing as much creative or learning stuff and that’s stressful.

Lorenzo: That’s interesting, people always say “how do you find the time” but it’s not the “time” that’s the issue...

Yeah, well, like I said before and I can see it in you, you’ve got this burning desire to create, you’re going to figure it out right. You know, if you really want to, you’ll figure it out and people that want to do that stuff-- it happens.

"People want to create stuff, whether it's technology or other stuff, they're just going to find ways to do it."
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Your career has been on an upward climb from dev, to team-lead, to department head. Is this due to ambition or natural progression? This type of thing obviously takes softer skills and typically, developers, creatives, etc are high-think people and can struggle to do this. How do you manage to balance this and swap hats?

Yeah, that’s a really good one, particularly when you’re coming from a discipline that’s quite technical in a lot of ways, so, you know, the stuff that you do (user experience design) … that programmers do. You’ve got you’re craft of what you do and then there’s other stuff and that’s the; how does a business work, how does management work and for me it’s-- I’ve always been really interested in both.

It’s probably been creative tension for a number of years around, “well do I really just focus on the craft of programming” and then by virtue of that architecting big systems and that sort of thing because I find it really fascinating and I love that creation process or do I focus-- and it’s not a dichotomy, it’s not you do one or you do the other but there’s points where-- yeah, particularly in a career sense where there’s a bit of divergence. So for me it had always been, “okay, which thing should I focus on.” I was doing a masters, a management type masters but I still love programming which is why I was working with Ruby (programming language) which tended to be smaller teams and I’d been a team lead in a corporate environment before but I particularly went to Westfield to be a team lead there because it was Ruby and it was the sort of thing where you get people who are really into it, really creative, people-- you know, cutting edge, bleeding edge sort of stuff but I think at some point I kind of made peace with, “well, I’m a decent programmer, on my good days I’m a good programmer but I probably have more to add--” I think there’s a, you said before, you need softer skills and there’s a real dearth of good technology leadership in Sydney, probably globally, who knows but people who are sensitive to what it takes to be a good craftsmen but can also lead a business. I actually think, you know if I can add value anywhere, that’s it, being someone who cuts code and knows what it’s like. But then the more you spend-- the longer you spend doing management stuff, the less time you spend cutting code and I don’t get to cut a lot of code now and that kills me but it’s still not where I can add-- be the most useful and valuable for a company but also for individuals.

That’s another big thing for me, it feels like there’s, not a responsibility, maybe call it an ability to help people who are-- whichever route they’re following, whether they want to be a technology manager or want to be a craftsman forever, I can-- yeah, I’ve got an ability to help them and that’s something that feels like-- that’s my contribution. I can try and make the right environment for them, mentor in some sense and be a boss when I need to be as well, yeah.

Building teams and leading teams are listed as two of your specialities. Recruiting is one of the biggest challenges in management, how do you go about it? What do you look for?

Yeah, that’s an awesome question because over the last couple of years I would’ve hired, you know, fifty plus people in my teams, in a variety of places and it’s a tricky one because the easy-- and I’ve seen this in so many places, the easy thing to do is to go out and find the smartest person you can find or the best person in a particular dimension, you know, the best programmer or the best designer or something like that and it’s just obvious-- the best analogy for this is sporting teams right, you can have a team of champions but not a champion team. You need to be across, you know, how does it work as a team and in a-- I guess in a sporting context it’s tricky but when you sign up your team, you know, Sydney FC know this is their team for the season and ideally they’ll have the same team for years and years but you don’t know.

In a corporate context it can be even harder because you just never know when one of your team is thinking about, “oh, what’s the next job for me?” So I think the only way to think about that is, okay, you recruit a team, that’s hard and I’ll get back to that part in a second but you never know when someone is going to leave so you just need to accept that people are going to be out there thinking about what the next challenge for them is or how they want to grow and just see that as-- it’s organic, right, people are going to move on, they want new challenges. Maybe you can’t provide them here, maybe they’ve grown out of it, maybe if you focused so much on their growth and improving their skills they’re just, you know, banging their head and they want to, you know-- there’s the ceiling and they want to go and extend themselves and that’s fine and it can be good-- getting back to the recruiting part, that can be a really good story for recruiting as, “hey, I helped this person and now they’re in San Francisco working for a startup,” or something like that so I think if you get a reputation for helping people grow then the recruiting part gets a bit easier and there’s-- you’ve got a bit of collateral to just say, “if you come and work with me--” or “if you come-- if you go and work with Dave Bolton or whoever, that person is going to have your growth and best interests at heart,” and I think that’s a really compelling story. So that helps with the recruiting thing.

But then on the other side you’ve got to-- I’ve turned down plenty of a-grade programmers because they just didn’t fit in our context or it would’ve been frustrating for them or, you know, the team was already too senior. I think that can be hard, one guy at Westfield said, “I’ve never, ever been turned down for a job before.” “Well it’s not a reflection on you, you’re an excellent programmer.” And he was at a team lead sort of level, excellent team lead but, “just not what we need right now.” So, that happens.

"I've got an ability to help them and that's something that feels like... that's my contribution."
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You are now at William Hill as Head of Engineering. You outline your key focus as; “to establish modern software development processes and practices — including the business wide prioritisation processes and concept to cash flow” — I suspect that is a demanding position, in a company which is moving fast and acquiring in the Australian market (now the second largest after its Head Office in the UK). How are you feeling/coping?

Oh yeah, the role is great it-- I’m six months in and really enjoying it, I-- I’m just in a position where I think I’m learning a lot but also contributing a lot as well and I think that’s all you can ask for. When you’re ticking both boxes it’s awesome. There’s periods where, in other roles where I’ve thought, “I’m learning a lot but what am I contributing,” or vice-versa, “I’m contributing a lot but I’m not learning anything,” so to tick both boxes is excellent.

I think-- the-- you get to-- I guess you get into situations where you think, “this is the right thing to do,” and sometimes you have influence to make that happen and sometimes you don’t and I’m lucky to be in a position where I’ve got a lot of influence to make that happen and I think that’s something that, in a lot of ways trained for so-- in previous roles, you know, you’re throwing ideas out there but it’s not really your-- everyone’s a leader, like, I always say it to-- you know, you can be the most junior person but if you’ve got ideas, you may not be able to direct that they happen but you can influence them you know? It might be presenting them to your boss in some way or talking to you team mates and getting them on-board. So I’ve just done that a lot and that’s all been a training ground for now actually having a lot of influence and being able to-- and point a company in a particular way and then trying to bring people along for the ride.

So, that’s the role at the moment, okay, it’s not just about technology, it’s about the-- how the whole thing hangs together. It’s basically a startup that’s been going for twelve years and its been very successful and made lots of money and grown but hasn’t grown a lot of it’s processes and disciplines and so there's a-- it’s really ripe for influence and for bringing in those things that you mentioned. And I think-- and this isn’t just for technology, I think some areas of technology are really on the leading edge but there’s a lot of companies where there’s disconnect between different functions of the business and you know, good managers these days are just looking to break down those disconnects, so talking about prioritisation or how do we make sure we work on the important things, things that are going to change the business right now rather than something else. This is a classic agile (methodology) problem that you’ll be very familiar with yourself. You see it everywhere, people just working on stuff, you know, “why would they be doing that?” [Laughs]. Less of that and more of the good stuff.

"Everyone’s a leader, like, I always say it to-- you know, you can be the most junior person but if you’ve got ideas, you may not be able to direct that they happen but you can influence them."
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William Hill’s UK boss James Henderson has stated that Australia’s online gambling market is growing faster than the UKs* I’ve noticed that gambling as a concept has boomed through the mainstream with more options for people. How do you feel about this?

Yeah it’s really interesting because I knew nothing about it because-- eight months ago I knew very little about gambling and I guess coming to the role, you know the first time I heard about it I thought, “this is terrible, this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d want to do.” But you-- I got-- I met the guy I’m working for, who’s excellent and I’ve got comfortable with it and I bet on things all the time, I went to-- I went to the basketball recently and said, “Oh, I’m there, I’ll put a little bet on.” You know, a little thing on the horse races, I find it really-- it’s entertainment. It’s a great way of adding a little bit of extra interest.

I think the-- you know? People talk about problem gambling and what not but the thing is, a problem gambler is bad for our business right, you don’t want someone to blow all their money. It’s a-- a much bigger focus for us is, you know, how do you get-- ten percent of Australians are fine with gambling, the other ninety percent are on some spectrum of, “yeah, I understand but I don’t do it,” to “Wow! That’s morally reprehensible.” And-- and for us you know a-- a thing is, “okay, how do we change that ten percent into twelve percent or fifteen percent--” right. Because that dramatically-- if we got it to fifteen percent, well that would you know add an extra fifty percent to our business and-- but it’s just a little shift in the percentages in Australia. So I think that’s where you see a lot of the effort is. There’s a lot of marketing and it’s just to say to people, “hey, you’re going to watch a sports game,” or “you’re at the pub with your mates, how can you make it just a little bit more interesting than it was before?” And in that sense, as a form of entertainment, I enjoy it myself. Now I’m talking about it all the time!

* Read the full acticle at The Daily Telegraphy

Online Privacy is a hot topic. What are your thought on this?

It’s fascinating because as you know, a man with children and all that sort of stuff I’ve only got so much time in the day but I also think that stuff’s important to some degree but then there’s just you know pragmatic practical life and the thing it reminds me of is that XKCD comic where-- where you’ve got the crypto-nerd saying, “well, you know, I’ve encrypted my password to fourth thousand and ninety-six bits and that’s really going to foil the bad guys plans.” And they’ve got a five dollar wrench and just hit you over the head until you tell them the password right, they’re not getting a supercomputer to try and crack your password. They’re just going to use the brute force method and that’s sort of probably ultimately reflects where I’m at.

It’s-- I think that stuff is important but I don’t think it’s as insidious as people think. There are genuine things, what was the one about-- there was something in the last couple of years where it was a bit too revealing about something on a social network and the argument was, “well you know journalists use-- journalists in countries where you would not want someone to know that you are a journalist could be found out through this thing--” well that’s a serious thing, it’s not my issue but it’s-- it’s society’s issue and so I should be concerned about that, then on the other hand I’ve-- there’s only so many hours a day and every time I think about deleting my facebook page, I think about all the cool things I see on it, like, like, you know? Caffeine & Concrete and articles-- interesting articles from The Economist and stuff like that-- well yeah, I probably don’t want to shut myself off from that completely.

Lorenzo: Yeah, it’s a balancing act for sure. I think you posted something-- a write up about how people seem to think it’s a government spying type of thing, but really it’s media tracking for advertisers which is really collecting your data so that you can have stuff marketed to you, no one seems to focus on that angle as much.

Yep, yeah, that’s a funny one isn’t it because ultimately we are valuable to market to. So, there’s a guy who had a-- think it-- was he, ebay-ing or kickstarter-ing his, like everything about him? “Well you’re going to try and get it all through tracking me so look I’ll just give it all to you!” and you know, “for whatever, a thousand dollars for all my information on eBay.” That’s basically what we do everyday, every time someone complains about a newspaper putting up a pay wall, well, you know, when I was at News-Corp that was the thing, people were like, “how can you put up a paywall?” “This stuff doesn’t come for free!” You-- you know, that’s one option for monetising it, the other option is, “we keep it free and we get more and more information about you and we sell it to companies.” Which is actually more valuable but--

Lorenzo: You can’t have it both ways.

Equally-- yeah, you can’t have it free and untracked, it’s-- it’s not going to happen.

"Every time I think about deleting my facebook page, I think about all the cool things I see on it-- well yeah, I probably don’t want to shut myself off from that completely."
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Your interests range outside of tech. How do sports such as basketball impact on your professional career.

That’s a really interesting one-- I always say, particularly because I deal with programmers-- you look at programmers’ outside interests, it’s almost a cliche now, they-- they tend to be into things like-- you know all these people right [laughs]; bike riding, rock-climbing, photography, what’s the fourth one? There’s a fourth one I always point to and they are interesting because they’ve got an element of art and an element of technology to them. “Okay, I’m into photography, what lens have I got but I’m still capturing images.” Right? Or, “I’m into rock-climbing” and it’s technical but it’s also, “hey it’s my body, I’m up against this wall” and it’s not competitive to a degree it’s more, it’s, “competing with myself rather than someone else.”

Whereas I can see why people are into those things, but I’m much more into, yeah, there’s a scoreboard and you’re competing, at the end you know who won and I love that sort of thing and it’s probably a bit rarer in the fields we play in but for me it’s been really useful because, I guess, bridging that gap between technology and business and business is full of that idea of competition and a lot of technologists aren’t and I’m kind of in the middle. You know, competition, particularly, say in the gambling industry, that’s really-- so much competition between the different companies out there and you kind of have to embrace that. Whereas-- yeah the-- I guess-- I guess there’s a lot of areas where you don’t necessarily think about competition everyday.

Now, where it’s useful for me is, when it comes to building teams, the way you build a sporting team. I don’t think it’s all that dissimilar to the way you build a good team in a company. You want-- you couldn’t have a team full of Michael Jordans because no one would pass the ball to each other right? You need to have a team of role players and stars and that sort of thing and that’s just how I look at teams in-- and look a programming team is about the same size as a basketball team [laughs], so you know, it doesn’t directly correlate but there is something there that-- giving a team something to focus on-- on their goal, realising that they all play a different part in reaching that goal is how you build a good cohesive team but one that play for each other. I’m talking about playing at work, play and contribute for each other. So see where they fit in the team and you know it’s the same in the sporting field. I played basketball yesterday, I’m not the star of that team in any way, but I can make my contribution, so and I’m really aware of what my limitations are and the other guys know what my limitations are [laughs] and I know what theirs are and that works.

So I think that’s been very useful for me because if you come at it from the other angle, where you do things and you’re competing with yourself, you might not have that idea of, “okay, so how do I fit with a group of people?” Not saying you don’t but it’s possible that they don’t-- that someone who hasn’t worked in a team, that-- been around the camaraderie and the good times and the bad times might not really realise how that works to that degree.

"Realising they all play a different part in reaching that goal... is how you build a good cohesive team."
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You are a social media activist of sorts, and I’ve seen you post many a time about human rights, especially in regards to Asylum Seekers. What are your thoughts on that, why do you care?

Yeah, right, you look-- there’s so many worthy causes out there and the reason that one is interesting to me-- my mum has done a lot of work with refugees, she’s the principal at a school which teaches English to refugees out at Parramatta-- she’s retired now but that’s what she does as a volunteer. And-- so for our family, that’s the cause right, that’s the thing we care about. So I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with refugees-- not nearly to the extent my mum has, just through her, contact with a few families who have been through that path-- which, their ordeals and how it affects their lives even for sometime later is-- it’s traumatic for them and we’ve got an amazing country that could easily make a difference to these peoples lives and we’re not and for me that’s frustrating and feels like something worth speaking out about and so that’s my thing. I’d like to do more-- I’d like to be involved to a greater degree--

Lorenzo: It’s a hot topic that shouldn’t be a hot topic.

Yeah, it feels like we should move past it and it should be done, I don’t know why the politicians-- look they’re not dummies, they’re doing it for a reason, it must be a hot topic with the population.

Lorenzo: Yeah, not speaking from naivety but from frustration.

That’s the thing, you think, well, “(Tony) Abbott’s not an idiot, he wouldn’t be saying it if there wasn’t a reason, or the polls didn’t say. Then you think, leadership is-- is, can be taking you to a place where not everyone is already. Not following the polls and saying, “this is what we believe in as a group.” And that’s the frustrating thing-- with things around the budget-- a lot of furore around the budget this year, and you say, “I understand why they’ve done it this way or that way” and it’s a lot more nuanced than the-- than the headline about, you know, pensioners being hard done by or whatever. So well it’s-- it’s complicated. This one feels like it’s not complicated-- There’s no economic reason why we do what we do to refugees, it costs us a lot more to have our current stance than it would to do anything else. It’s actually unexplainable, I think even when you keep diving into it there’s just actually no particularly good reason. So that feels like it’s ripe for leadership to say “hey, wider Australia, look at this, this would help us as a society to change our stance on this and I’m being a leader in expressing that to you.” And we don’t have that and that’s frustrating. That’s probably what you are getting at.

Lorenzo: Even though people will say it’s different, I don’t see any difference between people x now and people y in the 50s, having the same negativity and abuse aimed toward them.

I didn’t see it the other night but there was a Foreign Correspondent thing called the-- The Italian Solution. Apparently, I wished I’d seen it but apparently they were welcoming refugees and they get an order of magnitude than we do each year and it’s like “hey, welcome.”

Lorenzo: All the same abuse and fear was aimed at...

Migrants at that point ... and look at our culture and society now, it’d be nothing without that--

Lorenzo: Yes, it’s no different now to then but people have just acclimatised, or whatever the right word is, over 50 years to the arrival of those migrants.

Yeah, I don’t know if there’s any truth to this but you do hear that sometimes it’s the migrants from that period who are most against migration now, not their children but them themselves, I don’t know if that’s true?

Lorenzo: I could see that and it’s mind boggling. I guess their angle might be, “I did it hard, so they should do it hard.”


Lorenzo: We’re not going to solve it here...

"We’ve got an amazing country that could easily make a difference to these peoples lives and we’re not and for me that’s frustrating and feels like something worth speaking out about."
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What’s next for Lightning DB?

That’s a really good one, a lot of the things I’ve always been interested in-- like before you started the recording, I was talking about a drum and bass website I used to run. I’m really into electronic music and that side of things and I still go to nightclub events, which is really incompatible with my life as a father and family man [laughs] but I love it-- like I’m really into that. And there’s-- it’s the sort of thing you-- you want to carve out the time and do that sort of thing. But then, if you’re also ambitious and trying to contribute like I was talking about before, well I’m focusing a lot on the learning and contributing in a career sense for myself and other people I guess, in the sense that I can help them.

But I really just want to at some point say, “no, I’m going to get back into doing some music stuff--” or drawing’s been a really interesting thing for me and I’m a terrible-- terrible with a pencil in my hand but I’ve done a bit of it and I’ve said to my wife, “when I’ve got the pencil in my hand, that’s probably one of the few times where time just melts away for me.” I’m trying to draw something, very poorly but I’m trying to draw something and I just forget about everything else and that’s really cool. So I think just more of that and then just career wise, I think just finding places where I can-- I feel like I’m learning and contributing and zeroing in on that, so...

"When I’ve got the pencil in my hand, that’s probably one of the few times where time just melts away for me."
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A real, down to earth high-flyer, please, shoot some hoops with @lightningdb.

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby.