A few weeks ago Jan Bosch joined Merkely as an investor and advisor. Shortly after his arrival I interviewed him about a range of software related topics. Our conversation will form the basis for a series of features which we will be posting over the coming weeks. Today, in part one, we talk about his work in academia and his unique approach to collaboration with industry through Software Center.
Hi Jan, I’d like to start by asking about your roles in academia and industry. You have a lot of involvement in each of these areas. What sort of perspective does that give you and how do you find the time to do both?
Hi Bruce. First of all, I believe technology is a force for good in the world. My professional mission in life is to do what I can to accelerate the adoption of new technologies in society. And that means working with companies because this is typically how new technology is distributed. I run something called Software Center which is a collaboration between 16 companies, mostly European, and 500 universities. Its purpose is to accelerate the pace of digital transformation in the European software intensive systems industry.
Of course you also have your consulting work and speaking engagements.
Yes, I do some consulting with larger companies where I offer advice on more efficient ways of delivering software. I invest in European startups too. It might look like I’m doing several different things, but all of these activities serve a single purpose.
Tell me about how the crossover between academia and industry usually works in practice.
Traditionally, it really doesn’t work all that well. Academics do research, they write a paper, and it usually just disappears. There are millions of research articles published every year and most of them are never cited. Not even once. Very few are actually used by industry to improve business. There is this illusion that new ideas start in basic research, then go to applied research, then go into advanced engineering, and then become common practice. In reality, at least in the areas where I work, the vast majority of computer science research is purely academic and not at all useful for industry.
How does Software Center overcome these challenges? What’s different about your approach to research and industry collaboration?
We really focus on the boundary between industry and academia to help businesses understand and adopt new technologies. That means collaborating on problem exploration as a crucial first step. We start by working with the companies to identify the next set of major challenges we think we should address. Once we’ve established that we develop a solution together, and then we validate our solutions with the company. Collaboration at every stage is key to working effectively on this boundary. We can’t do research for years in a silo and expect to take it to industry. It just doesn’t work this way.
Do you have post graduate students working towards their diplomas in these areas? Does their research run in tandem with some of the projects in the Software Center?
Yes, but this is something else that is different in our approach. It’s about much more than funding PhDs. Software Centre is designed so that all levels of seniority on the academic side get involved in the research. We do this by funding senior researchers as well as post-graduate students. So, for each project, a university will receive funding for associates and full professors as well as individual PhD candidates.
And does this funding go through a typical three year cycle common for PhD programs?
Again, we take a different approach. Academia loves three to five year projects because it fits nicely with the timeframe for a PhD, but we work in six month sprints. We aim to deliver something of value to the companies at the end of each sprint. If we can’t do that then the company has the option to reevaluate their position and reduce the funding or maybe abandon it altogether. On the other hand, if the project is going really well and the company can see lots of progress and value, they might choose to increase the funding and expand the research.
One of the Software Centre’s stated objectives is to increase productivity 10x. Was this an aspirational goal or do you actually measure it?
When we started Software Centre we could already see that the amount of software being produced by companies was doubling roughly every two years. Without an increase in your productivity to deal with this growth, you will end up in a situation where the number of engineers you require is going to increase linearly with the size of the software. And that’s clearly unsustainable. So, we set ourselves this 10x objective to motivate us and keep ourselves focused on the scale of the challenge.
Software Centre has been going for over a decade now. Are you happy with the progress that’s been made so far?
What I see, within Europe at least, is that companies in Software Center are generally ahead of similar companies in other regions. And that gives me a lot of encouragement. I can’t claim causation, but I definitely see some correlation between companies that are in Software Center and the ability to innovate quickly.
In part 2 we ask Jan about DevOps, regulated environments, and what the future holds for software development. And in part 3 we jump in our Merkely DeLorean and go to the future_. Meanwhile, find out more about Jan’s work at_ Software Centre _and you can also find Jan’s latest news on his_ website_._