Interview with Andy Cross

Andy Cross
Azure MVP, RD / Elastacloud

Tell us a few things about yourself. Where did you study, where do you work?

I was born in the North West of England; a part of our country called the Fylde coast. A marshy grassland, it has a dull heritage from ancient English farming to Roman naval hub which livened up during the late Industrial Revolution when its major town Blackpool, which was my nearest town, became the first seaside holiday town where people from the industrial towns of Liverpool, Wigan, Manchester and further afar would spend their free time. It’s an interesting part of the world to grow up in, with industrial ruin surrounding a people who are born and bred engineers. The people in the Fylde are the children of the first ever industrial engineers; they’re a proud people who prize making things.

I was initially schooled in Lytham St Annes and caused mischief on the world famous golf course there in my spare time. I took a year out and worked for a leading IT out-sourcer which began my career in IT. It was always going to be professional software for me; I was writing HTML and Perl for fun and wrote an ecommerce website for my schools’ canteen aged around 14. It was a good way for me to pre-order my chips with gravy.

I left the Fylde to read Computing Science at UMIST, now part of Manchester University. The learning process for me was a little different from my peers; I’d taken a year out in industry writing Java and C++ so I was way ahead of them when it came to programming, management issues and the all-important drinking. It was a fun time.

Following university I took work near London and found myself swept back in time; I was writing COBOL for mainframes as a graduate developer. Still work was important and I mastered COBOL (wishing all along that I needn’t have had to) and I learnt ASPNET v1.1 and C# in my spare time. I wrote a few applications and a basic CMS system, and plotted my escape from COBOL.

After a year, I moved to Leeds, back North in England and took a job doing ASPNET for a living. This was a great time, with seemingly endless free time and I began my transition into an entrepreneur – around 10 years ago now. I began by formalising my CMS I had written into a product and selling it to a few local companies. I created electronic devices based on the .net MicroFramework. I wrote a “neighbourhood watch online” system. Things were good, and then in 2008 the economic crash happened.

I put my business aspirations on hold and travelled to London, taking work as a freelance ASPNET developer. This lasted a few years, and in this period I discovered Azure and began working, eventually evangelising about the Microsoft Cloud. The cloud was going to be my new home, and my career to date from this point has been solely working with this exciting technology.

What is your typical day at work?

My typical day is very varied, I’m lucky that I run a business called Elastacloud alongside a great team. We’ve three MVPs, two RDs and a few Azure Insiders on the team and we are pretty much unparalleled in terms of technical excellence in our Data Science niche.

Day to day we’re building out Data Science solutions for our customers; helping them to learn more about their operations and how to reach their user base. We use the power of Azure to turbocharge the computations required and helping them to build modern technical stacks; our goal is to make the business think as an entity, to create a living entity of reason from the data held by a business.

I’ve moved a step away from some of the more low level technical delivery and I focus on meeting and exceeding customers’ needs. It’s a role that I’m finding very exciting and challenging, and as we look to build out projects, platforms and services we have many opportunities to revolutionise business, culture and society. The application of software to a targeted prediction of outcome continues to be the primary deliverable of Elastacloud, and I’m proud to be leading the charge in the customer domain.

Outside of work but closely linked I help organise and run the UK Azure User Group. We’ve hosted some amazing events including monthly evening events with community and Microsoft speakers. This takes a lot of time to organise as I’m sure the ITCamp organisers can relate to. Along with arranging speakers and venues, I often have to liaise with sponsors to make sure we can afford to put on our great events.

It’s also not just organising events, I’m an active public speaker and cover topics from IT Change, Cloud Computing for Marketing and of course technical content around Big Data and Azure.

What inspired you to be active in the community?

After I fell in love with Azure I started trying to use it at work. At the time I was a freelancer and I had very little say in overall architectural and business decisions of the company I worked for; instead I was expected to churn out code. This led to a lot of blog posts about Azure; how to use it and diagnose issues, how the Cloud changed IT economics and how it empowers developers. As cathartic as these blog posts were, I found the lack of real world adoption frustrating as I was still dealing with OS patching, IIS configuration and obsolete hardware issues during my 9-5. It was endemic through IT at that time, the elephant in the room – everyone could benefit from Azure but nobody wanted to explore it.

Eventually I met a like-minded software developer, Richard Conway who would eventually become my business partner. We moaned to each other about having so few opportunities to use Azure and so we decided to foster a few by running informal evening events for developers. Elastacloud, our business, was actually a naïve offshoot of the UK Azure User Group (London Windows Azure as it was then) – we thought that people would want to immediately do business on Azure since it was so great, and we’d need a corporate asset to just scoop up that work. Well it didn’t come that easily!

In more general terms, I personally have always enjoyed public speaking. I have a few stories about how I learnt, but I’ll save those for Cluj!

The greatest reward for running the Azure User Group is seeing the repeat attendees getting Azure jobs and pushing Azure in the real world. I love hearing of people’s pain points and workarounds, because I happen to think that we are most creative when we facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge and I find a great deal of beauty in the act of an individual or group solving a challenge.

Are there any things you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

I’m aware that through studious application of effort I have been exceptionally lucky to end up where I am. I’ve had the good fortune to meet more talented and passionate people already in my life than is fair to meet in a whole lifetime.

I don’t really spend time analysing for regret, instead trying to build on what hasn’t worked for a better tomorrow. The things I’ve learnt along the way revolve around over-eagerness to hide behind code – fear has sometimes driven me to write software to distract myself from the misdirection of my effort. I am sure everyone falls into similar traps; it’s easy to write software but the thing you should be really doing is make that difficult phone call to the customer and ask what they want. I’ve written reams of code that nobody ever wanted, but I wanted to write it. There’s a misery and glory to that. I could have been more efficient.

I’ll give an example; in 2009 I created a touch-screen smartwatch based on .net MicroFramework. It only had one visualisation built in; that of a chart showing progress against targets for Industry who had firm and real-time objectives (n thousands of products created in a day). The effort was in man months, and the outcome was a device with a high chance of failure, electrical fire and disappointment. In the end, the customer told me they just wanted a chart in a web browser. The glorious device was never needed.

The electronic engineering, software engineering and swearing was a significant distraction from the gnawing fear that they didn’t want the watch. Still, I created a smartwatch before it was cool.

If you could go back in time and choose a different profession (outside of IT), what would it be?

There was never really a chance that I would work outside of IT. From a child I was aligned with technology – I remember very clearly being told at primary school I’d never get a job unless I improved my handwriting, to which I replied “I can type faster than anyone at school including the teachers and in 10 years nobody will be using pens anymore”. I might have been a little insolent and falsely optimistic about the timeline but the sentiment was always there. I was born in a time during which computers would revolutionise the world; the old ways would fade to tradition and I was going to be at the forefront of that change.

I would however say that almost everyone is in IT these days, for some definitions of IT. We all walk around with supercomputers with touchscreens in our pockets. We use spreadsheets to organise our company hiring policy. We advertise on websites before television. We watch digital videos to train ourselves on new trends and technologies.

The empowered technologist no longer sits in a broom cupboard, locked away from sight and playing dubious music. The empowered technologist makes proactive change through international communication with Yammer, Facebook and Twitter. The empowered technologist reaches new global customers without leaving his office. The empowered technologist is the next CEO of the company.

What do you think about ITCamp, and what brings you here again?

This will be my third visit to ITCamp – I’ve met some amazing people at these events, international stars from Peter Leeson to Tim Huckaby and great local speakers like Alex Mang, Radu Vunvulea and Florin Loghiade. I’ve always received a great deal of friendship and an insight into the can-do passion of Romanian IT.

I met Mihai Tataran in 2012 in Redmond when we both had slots on AzureConf 2012 and it was then that he invited me to ITCamp – not knowing anything about Romania or Romanian IT I was a little unsure. He persuaded me and from the moment that ITCamp started I knew that the event was going to be one of my favourites. There is an atmosphere of excitement, a sense of being on the cusp of success that pervades the attendees.

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