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CIO interview: Richard Sharp, CTO, Shazam

We speak to the new chief technology officer at music discovery service Shazam about how to foster an innovation culture

Richard Sharp recently joined music discovery service Shazam as chief technology officer (CTO). He previously led the product team responsible for banking comparison products at Google, and more recently he was CTO at Yieldify, a Google Ventures-backed marketing technology startup.

In many ways, Shazam pioneered mobile phone-based tune identification, with a service called 2580, where users used the shortcode “2580” to ask Shazam to listen to a piece of music via the device’s microphone. The service would then trawl its audio signature database to identify the track and send a text back to the user. This was way before the era of the smartphone.

It later developed an app for Apple’s App Store in 2008, which was available on the iPhone 2 that debuted that year. Shazam was also ported to Android later in 2008.

For a company that has been pioneering music identification for over 15 years, technology and the role of the CTO is clearly significant.

“I’m passionate about music and have relied on Shazam to discover great new artists and tracks for almost as long as I can remember,” says Sharp.

“I couldnt be more excited to join a company with such a well-loved and ubiquitous product. Im looking forward to working with our world-class engineering team to extend our leadership in music recognition while continuing to deliver magical new experiences for artists, users and brands,” he says.

Technology simplified

Ongoing improvements in technology have made it easier for organisations to innovate. The services now available to business are becoming abstracted further up the technology stack, meaning they can focus on innovative ideas without having to worry too much about how to wire everything together from a technology perspective.

“People do not have to worry the about the underlying technology,” says Sharp.

Read more about innovation

  • Palo Alto Research Center – formerly Xerox Parc – is the home of the modern computer. Computer Weekly speaks to its CEO about innovation.
  • Innovation often features high on CIOs’ agendas because it is recognised as being an important means by which information systems and technology can contribute positively to the evolution and performance of the business.

Shazam is a user of elastic cloud services. For instance, the 2017 Grammy Awards was Shazam-enabled. “When we got a surge in traffic we could just scale up,” says Sharp. Without elastic cloud computing, trying to build the IT infrastructure to support the peaks in demand from the ceremony would be akin to “trying to change the wheels while the car is still moving”.

Cloud computing is also linked to the so-called application programming interface (API) economy, another area where Shazam has been developing new ideas.

“You can take high-level services and create innovative products,” says Sharp. “This is how Shazam integrated with the Snapchat picture messaging service, which it made available towards the end of 2016. We also provide music recognition as a service.”

Cloud computing has also lowered the barrier to entry for machine learning. “When machine learning started out, it was hard to find the right people,” he says. “They came at a high price, and only Google and Facebook could afford it. But now we have open source frameworks, and the cloud means it can all be automated so someone can apply machine learning easier than before.”

Tech culture

Sharp discusses the role of the CTO in a business: “You bring someone into a senior role, allow a bit of flexibility, and provide clear responsibility to lead the engineering organisation and connect people.”

From a Shazam perspective, this translates into reflecting across the team how the work of individual engineers contributes to the firm, and how it contributes to the wider world. “It is about how lines of code contribute to making the world a better place,” he says.

The other big focus area for the CTO is innovation. “We are the world leader in music recognition,” says Sharp. The company recently extended its platform with augmented reality. “We have to ensure we are right at the forefront.”

The company is looking at how to integrate music discovery and has developed artist follow cards to widen the appeal of the service. The company is also launching a game show on Fox TV. Beat Shazam, hosted by Jaime Foxx, will see competitors try to identify music faster than the app.

“We are combining the show with the mobile device,” says Sharp. “This provides a way to enable viewer participation.”

Driving innovation

Sharp believes there are a number of tried and tested techniques, such as hack days that can be used to stimulate an innovation culture in organisations, but he says their success depends on people being in the right frame of mind.

“You need to get people excited about the organisation,” he says.

This is easier if the organisation is fortunate enough to have lots of success. “You don’t want to get in a situation where people just build and release code,” says Sharp. “It is the leader’s responsibility to keep up the excitement. You want people to talk to their friends about new ideas, and even work on Saturdays.”

While he clearly does not advocate having engineers locked up hacking code over the weekend, Sharp believes the idea of people loving the work they do comes about when they get excited enough to celebrate successes and talk enthusiastically about their job.

Making breakthroughs

Statistically, as many as nine out of 10 ideas will not work. “Taking something from engineering into a product doesn’t happen often, but when it does, we need to shout about it,” says Sharp.

At Shazam, there are people who work on pure research and development (R&D), such as hardcore music recognition, and investigate new ways to do it faster. “A lot of engineers work on delivery projects as well as innovation,” he says. “They have an opportunity to work on things that may not pay off.”

“Taking something from engineering into a product doesn’t happen often, but when it does, we need to shout about it”

Richard Sharp, Shazam

The pay-off may not necessarily mean a breakthrough. “I have never seen an R&D project where nothing has come out of it,” says Sharp. “R&D provides new knowledge that delivers on future roadmaps.”

R&D still has its ups and downs, and as a CTO who has to manage both the expectations of his staff and the board-level executives, he says it’s important to remain open and honest about expectations, and that sometimes it pays off to take a gamble.

For Sharp, being a great engineer is about more than just coding. He believes truly great engineers should be able to come up with opportunities for the company that no one else would be able to spot.

“The really great engineers write code and have also got the skills to spot and deliver great ideas,” he says. “They are the people who will become the future leaders in organisations.”

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