Q&A with Professor Jon Whittle, the new Director of CSIRO’s Data61
Professor Jon Whittle has been announced as the new Director of CSIRO’s Data61 after a competitive international search. Professor Whittle is a world-renowned expert in software engineering and human-computer interaction, with a particular interest in IT for social good, AI research in health sciences and sustainable development. He will begin his leadership of Data61 on July 27th, but until then, we spoke to him about Data61’s areas of opportunity, representation on a global scale, and what role Data61 can play in enabling Australia through this period of change.
1.What attracted you to CSIRO’s Data61?
Who wouldn’t want to work for Data61? It’s a unique organisation that’s not just about doing great science but also having real impact from that science. I’m passionate about cutting-edge digital technologies that have a positive impact on society. And that’s a perfect alignment with the mission of Data61.
2. Can you please describe your professional background and the areas you specialise in?
I started my career in AI, back when AI was in a bit of a slump after the early promises failed to materialize. I was working on automated theorem proving. Then I went to work for NASA, applying AI in software engineering. This led me down the path of a research career in software engineering – I’ve worked in various areas ranging from building tools to studying software practices, which has informed how industry “does” software. More recently, I’ve been interested in ‘IT for social good’ and how we can engineer values and ethics into software products by changing software development practices.
3. What are the areas that you’ve observed that Data61 is experiencing success in?
Working with government is a clear strength, on initiatives such as the Platforms for Open Data program and the AI Ethics Framework. A unique capability is the Engineering and Design program that enables fast deployment of new ideas – Universities don’t have this, for example. Also, Data61 is providing strong thought leadership to the country in terms of how best to leverage advances in digital and data science.
4. What are the areas of opportunity for Data61 that you would like to explore as the new director?
There’s an opportunity to refresh the Data61 vision and to crystalize our thinking in terms of what we want to achieve and what we want to be known for. Key aspects of this should be collaborating closely with other parts of CSIRO, engaging more with Universities, as well as maintaining a focus on industry and government. I’d also like to see some ambitious thinking – what really big things could we do together that would have a substantial impact on the world?
5. How will Data61 be represented on a global scale with you as Director?
I’ve lived and worked in six different countries – Australia, the UK, the USA, the UAE, Germany and India. But I still think Data61 is a unique organisation. Most countries have nothing like it. There is an opportunity, however, to forge partnerships with similar organisations overseas to ensure we build a global reputation.
6. What is your approach when it comes to leading a team to achieve impact?
Building and empowering teams is everything when it comes to getting things done. Diversity of teams is a critical indicator of success – ideas can come from anywhere and all parts of the business need to work together as equal partners. I am a strong believer in professional development, mentoring and coaching.
7. What are the key ingredients for success when it comes to collaborating with interdisciplinary teams including researchers and engineers, product and also across other domains?
Working across disciplines and domains can be at the same time exhilarating and challenging. For me, successful collaborations come down to understanding each other’s values – what do people from different disciplines and domains consider important? These values will likely be in tension with each other and must be navigated carefully throughout a collaboration – but the first step is to understand and articulate those values so there are no nasty surprises later on.
8. Can you share an example of a research or engineering project that you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of, and that has achieved positive impact. What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?
I’m most proud of the projects I’ve done where we’ve really affected people’s lives. Back in the UK, I ran a large interdisciplinary project with a consortium of around 90 SMEs and government organisations. Our goal was to develop technologies to address societal problems. We worked closely with stakeholder groups to co-design the products. These included technologies designed for homeless people, devices to help adults with autism manage social anxiety, and an app that tracked spending habits to encourage local trading practices. I learned that getting people involved to design technology empowers them and can have as much impact as the products themselves.
9. Do you have a motto or a piece of advice that you can share which defines the way you operate in your working life?
Less is more. I’m a strong advocate of work-life balance. To achieve this, you have to know what your goals are and actively prioritise them. Don’t try to spread yourself too thin. And don’t sweat every little detail.
10. What unique role do you think Data61 can play to help Australia through this period of change?
Digital is going to be more important than ever as the economy starts to recover. Almost every industry has been affected financially by COVID-19 and so companies are going to be looking to make efficiencies and pivot their business strategies. Technologies like AI are going to be in demand to accelerate digital transformation. Companies are also going to be more open to digital transformation because we’ve all just lived through one – who would have thought that in a few short weeks, whole workforces would be working remotely? The opportunities for digital innovation are there for the taking.
11. What are the five key things you want to achieve (short or long term)?
1. Learn about Data61 by listening to all the different perspectives, including researchers, engineers and support staff.
2. Collaboratively build clarity of vision that we can all buy into.
3. Create opportunities for our staff to develop rewarding careers and tap into rich collaborations.
4. Achieve visibility for Data61 on the global stage.
5. Make a difference.