Hugh Williams on unlocking your digital skills

Professor Hugh Williams is one of the world’s foremost experts on internet search and data management and invented the infinite scroll.

Hugh Williams saw the potential of tech before most of his generation. Now he is unlocking digital skills in others.

At a glance

  • Hugh Williams is the inventor of the infinite scroll, and is one of the world’s foremost experts on internet search and data management.
  • Williams is co-founder and CEO of CS in Schools, an organisation that provides a free program of digital education to secondary schools in Australia.
  • Williams also works as enterprise professor at Melbourne Business School and volunteers as chair of the tech advisory board of the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce.

Today, the world worships the tech innovators, but if you go back to the days of yore, when “bytes” were something you took out of a sandwich, the situation was completely different.

Being first to something to do with computers or technology, Professor Hugh Williams recalls, was not a eureka moment, but simply “sad and lonely”. There he was, in 1977, one of only two primary school students in the small town of Sale in Victoria’s Gippsland who showed any interest in computers.

Williams’ curiosity was fuelled by his dad Harry, an electronics whiz who had built a computer from scratch. Father and son coded their own programs using a low-level “assembly language” written with the hexadecimal numbering system.

Their interest in computers was hardly “of their time”. Williams says he tried to fit in with the other local kids by joining in backyard cricket games, but, try as he might, he just couldn’t tear himself away from the computer screen.

“I didn’t feel I was innovating. It felt like I was sad and misunderstood. Nobody at school was doing what I was doing, nor did the school itself have the slightest clue about what I was into.”

In the years that followed, Williams’ “odd” childhood interests were vindicated. During his wide-ranging career in the software business, mostly based in the US, he has published more than 70 research papers, authored more than 30 patents, and held senior management and technology roles with Google, eBay and Microsoft.

Williams invented infinite scroll, a piece of technology we use every day – one that loads content continuously as a user scrolls down a web page or in their smartphone app. He is also one of the world’s foremost experts on internet search and data management.

In the early 2000s, Williams wrote a book on web database applications that sold more than 100,000 copies.

In 2017, Williams was appointed enterprise professor at Melbourne Business School.

It suffices to say, he is no longer particularly sad or lonely on his career path. Indeed, just about every start-up with ambitions to scale up wants a piece of him.

Williams sits on the board of the State Library of Victoria and advises Domain, DoorDash (US), Expert360, Moonpig (UK) and Ocado (UK). He is also a venture partner at Rampersand and a mentor at Startmate.

Did we forget something? Yes – he volunteers as the chair of the tech advisory board for the National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce.

While Williams laughs at the suggestion that he and his dad were Sale’s version of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, they were clearly far ahead of their time.

Harry talked his way into a job as a computer programmer at Esso without any real credentials, not that there was any realisable CV for computer science back in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, his son tinkered to the point where he could get the computer to beep and then he taught it how to play Bach in an attempt to copy the Moog synthesiser.

A useful language

More than 40 years later, Williams’ most important mission is to give Australian students the kind of education nobody could offer him back in the day. He has set up his own philanthropic venture in computer science, known simply as CS in Schools.

He wants to see every Australian student conversant with coding in the same way as they might know the basics of English and mathematics, or the tenets of history.

“I’m not asking every kid to be a computer expert, and of course it’s up to them to figure out if it’s their passion or not – and if not, then it’s at least in their toolkit along with music and art. Writing code should never be a foreign language to them. We’ve worked out that there are 2745 secondary schools around Australia, and we want everybody to have at least some part of this knowledge.”

It seems ironic that, to some degree, Williams is still being misunderstood by schools.

“Computer speak” – at least in its most popularised form – has become commonplace and is now firmly ingrained in the business world, but, with a few notable exceptions, Australian schools have yet to make the same cognitive leap.

“A light bulb went off in my head – I realised I knew as much as anybody about something that was massively in demand and revolutionary.”

World-class digital technology skills are what Williams wants to see among young Australians, and if anyone should know what that means, it is Williams himself.

He describes himself as a “reasonable” computer science student at Melbourne’s RMIT University, but even then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the discipline was still geared to understanding the big mainframe computers made by the leading companies of the time.

Williams and a few university mates started writing software for oil and real estate companies, government departments and telcos. It was a successful small business, but by 1994, as the internet became a known quantity, Williams realised a revolution was in the making.

“I went to a lecture, and this guy said that, in the future, there might even be a million pages on the internet,” Williams recalls with a laugh. “I think we blew through that in about a year.”

The beginnings of search

By the mid to late 1990s, Williams realised that the entire exercise with the world wide web was about searching for and retrieving information. Suddenly, there was AltaVista, Infoseek, Excite, Looksmart and then another newcomer called Google.

“I knew search was the thing – that it would become the pivotal finding mechanism on the web. A light bulb went off in my head – I realised I knew as much as anybody about something that was massively in demand and revolutionary.”

Williams has had the great luck to be at the cutting-edge of computer innovation just as it was occurring, but also jokes about nearly missing the boat several times.

He saw Google in the US “vacuuming up” his peers, yet turned down a job with the company in the late 1990s. Not long after, he declined an offer from Yahoo’s search division.

It wasn’t until 2004, when Microsoft came calling with the promise of building its own dedicated search engine from scratch, that Williams took the Seattle-based corporate job.

“It was more to my liking. They were asking me to be involved with a start-up company within the main company. I would be one of the early engineers in Bing.”

Williams got to work closely with current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and also with Bill Gates, whom he describes as a visionary.

Not only did Gates understand technology at an incredible depth, he could see the everyday and business applications of it better than anybody. “We had tons of resources, and we had Gates as a mentor of the search team,” he muses.

“You could talk something through with him – and you’d quickly realise he was the smartest person in the room by a factor of 10. He’d say something back to you that nobody else had ever said. He is simply the most brilliant person I’ve ever met and was always pushing you to go harder and be more creative.”

CPA Library resource: The creative mindset: mastering the six skills that empower innovation. Read now.

Leadership skills

At Microsoft, Williams found that he wasn’t just a leader in technology, but had management skills he didn’t even know he had. He grew his part of the Bing team to about 300 people in four years.

“My old boss used to say, software engineering would be really easy if it wasn’t for all the people involved. That’s true: it is all about getting the right people in the right roles and building a team.”

Williams’ career after 2009 reads like a “who’s who” of the digital world.

He ran half of eBay’s tech team and, by 2015, was leading Google Maps’ worldwide product and engineering teams at Mountain View in California. He was particularly focused on innovating in the emerging markets.

Bringing technology to places like Africa and India is still a work in progress, but some of these regions have made great strides, he says.

By late 2016, Williams and his family felt it was time to head back to Australia.

He wanted to be nearer his parents and in-laws, and to give his children an Australian education.

Williams is still hounded for big executive jobs with enormous pay packets, but he resists the pull back to the US this would inevitably entail. He would rather be involved with start-ups and loves his work as enterprise professor, where he has designed two courses – Leading in Data Driven Organisations and Digital Product Management.

Giving Back

Williams has spent a long time at the top of his profession, but his passion is more about what’s going on at the grass roots. He and his wife Selina both work for free on CS in Schools. They are helped by RMIT University and three of Williams’ tech peers, all of whom made big and successful exits from the industry and want to give back.

Williams’ strategy for CS in Schools is to transfer his own hands-on knowledge in tech to the education sector. “Being a professor, it’s all about sharing the knowledge I accumulated over many years in the US – I want to share that back to the next generation of leaders.”

The MBA program at Melbourne University attracts mid-level managers, who are mostly in their 30s, many with only cursory tech experience.

Digital Product Management is about how to solve problems using technology, while Leading in Data Driven Organisations explains how artificial intelligence, analytics and data can be put to work for a business, and how many of the large tech giants have harnessed such data to build outstanding businesses.

Williams often brings in heavyweights from around the world to lecture to the business students, so that they can see the importance of technology to industry.

“I want to show them what world-class really looks like. I want them to meet it in the classroom and have it in front of them,” he says.

In the end, for Williams it’s really all about creating exuberance in a field he has excelled in. Williams knows he was lucky and feels he is almost in fortune’s debt.

“I got where I got because I had good parents and I was lucky to be Australian, landing on my feet in an area that became very important.

“I feel I owe people something. It’s my own little idiosyncratic way of saying thank you – and of giving back.”

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