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Thomas Lee-Warren, chief technologist - R2 Data Labs, Rolls-Royce

Thomas Lee-Warren

Path to power

My career has been eclectic one, operating on both sides of the entrepreneurial/corporate divide, across industries and geographies. After studying both philosophy and computer science, I cut my coding and architecture teeth at Marks & Spencer. Back then, we built everything ourselves, warehousing, ordering, procurement systems; you name it we were thought leaders employing the first use of object orientation and genetic algorithms before they became household names.

 

I ended up running the applications and support function for the Food Group, which turned over $10 billion annually. As we had been at the frontier of technology and business building, I moved into a consultancy role after leaving M&S, helping to guide corporates with setting up development teams and how to implement a successful outsourcing strategy.

 

I was then headhunted to work with a start-up out of the MIT Cad Labs. Here I formed my love of the entrepreneurial spirit, helping to scale-out a business, and getting to grips with what it means to be a product manager – a mini CEO following the model that put Silicon Valley on the map.

 

I became a serial disrupter, starting businesses in recruitment, property development, revision management and control, and even built and operated one of the foremost art galleries in the North East of England.

 

My business building helped me to build a reputation on the early identification of trends, often three to five years before the hype sets in and a herd mentality forms. I have been working to form change portfolios that translate from macro trend towards tangible opportunities that can become material in size.

 

Taking a break to help concentrate a little more on my family, I decided to move back into the corporate space where I was instrumental in digitising the UK rail system through the Orbis Programme, a portfolio that constituted an investment of over £500 million.

 

We all receive taps on the shoulder, and mine came three years later when I received a call from the Royal Mail Group, which was going through its IPO. I was being asked to digitise the parcel and postal service with a mandate to create a third business foundation, predicated on monetising data as a premium corporate asset.

 

One good call deserves another, and next came Rolls-Royce which again was seeking a leader to help transform the company from a product company to a leading technology company, through emerging technology, and an internal capability and culture.

 

I continue to be deeply involved with the entrepreneurial community, working with the SAID Business School, its CEO and start-ups. I am also on the governance board of a number of universities in both Europe and South East Asia, where I am helping to configure the course curriculum to help guide students in an increasingly technological age.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

The clear winner is helping to coach some pretty remarkable talent that I have had the good fortune of working with over my career. The satisfaction of seeing what was otherwise a caged bird take flight and soar is the single greatest energy booster that keeps me feeling refreshed and keen to get out of bed every morning. Next would be the work we do with communities to improve the fortunes of society, and after that would have to be the businesses I have helped to build and grow and the mark I have made across so many industries.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

He may not be with us any longer, but Steve Jobs. My teams will often hear me quote one of his most profound statements. “Make sure you are thinking about where the puck will be, not where it is today.” If you are an entrepreneur or want to be a business builder in the corporate space, you best get this printed on a T-shirt and wear it every day.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

It was as expected, the continuation of the onslaught of fancy tech terms, with a different definition from as many people that are in the industry. This caused the creation of many technology programmes that were doomed to fail as the basics became pedestrian and parked for more exciting projects. The winners in my estimation are the ones that build strong foundations based on data being the premium corporate asset and driving value through the coaching of product managers (as in Silicon Valley).

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

Data and AI will shortly march towards the third AI winter. The hype is everywhere. Those who have been disciplined and ensured their capabilities are based on sound data principles will not get stuck in the data and AI blizzard that is approaching.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

Connecting to the Smart City. The future will see being connected as the essential first step to operate. If you have not built a strong foundation you will become increasingly left behind. Also, blockchain will re-emerge as a technology, to change our society and our corporate life.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

Quite simply, making everyone really believe that data is the foundational and the premium corporate asset. Data operations will be established as the next wave of innovation for both corporates and entrepreneurs.

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