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Ian Taylor on Founding Animation Research and Winning an Emmy

| Posted by Shane Hastie Follow 28 Followers on Dec 21, 2015. Estimated reading time: 13 minutes |

Ian Taylor is the founder and CEO of Animation Research Ltd, an award winning (including a Sports Emmy for the 2014 Americas Cup coverage for Outstanding New Approaches)  digital production house based in Dunedin, New Zealand.  He gave a keynote talk at the recent Agile New Zealand conference in which he explained Animation Research’s journey from the initial concept to becoming a major player in the production of groundbreaking digital content.  

Lynne Cazaly summarized his talk in this graphic:

After his talk he spoke to InfoQ. 

InfoQ: This is Shane Hastie with InfoQ we are here at the Agile New Zeeland conference and I am talking to Ian Taylor. Ian welcome and thank you really for what was an inspirational keynote. Would you mind very briefly introducing yourself and the organization Animation Research for our audience?

Ian: I am Ian Taylor, CEO of Animation Research, which stands for Chief Entertainment Officer, that is the description they gave me at the office in Dunedin, New Zealand, because I am so useless when it comes to technology. When we set up in 1989 we did so on the basis that we believed digital data would be the currency of the future, and that we would turn that digital data into pictures that people could understand. Which is why we started with the America’s Cup – there was this mysterious sport that happened out there on the ocean and nobody on shore could see what was happening. I still remember the discussion; somebody just said “Do they have any data coming from those boats?” Yes they do, x y coordinates – location information. We could take those, we could turn them into pictures that show people where the boats were, most importantly who was in front, and that was the start of turning digital data into pictures that people could understand.

InfoQ: And that was a product that was built very, very rapidly and deployed and used or viewed by millions of people around the world?

Ian: It’s one of the things that I was highlighting here. We have been fortunate to work right across the board in computer graphics; we’ve built an air traffic control simulator, an FI simulator for one of the worlds leading F1 teams, we have done a lot of the Christchurch city rebuilds; we’ve worked in all sorts of other areas. But sport on television has those key ingredients I talked about today, that demand a high level of agility. Although we never called it Agile, and we probably still don’t, we just called it getting stuff done. I think I mentioned that I made a decision, thirty years ago that I had found the place I wanted to live. It was Dunedin at the bottom of the South Island and so that’s another thing. You pick an environment like that without thinking of it consciously, but it does mean that you had to work with agile people, agile thinking because, being at the bottom of the world is not the natural place to do the kind of work we do.

InfoQ: One of the things that you referenced was the Kiwi “number eight wire mentality” which you and I as New Zealanders are aware of. How does that translate into work that you are doing?

Ian: I’ve grown up with this concept of “number eight wire” mentality. I’ve talked about John Britten, Sir William Hamilton who built the Hamilton jet boat; I remember Lord Ernest Rutherford the man who split the atom, Nobel prize winner, he was another one who stressed this idea that we didn’t have the money so we had to think. We talk about it a lot, and I know other countries do, but I do think that New Zealand punches above its weight when it comes to this way of thinking. It’s a mentality that’s in our DNA. The first animated commercial we ever made was for United Airlines and the opening line was “New Zealand. It’s a long way from anywhere - that’s a plus”. Their product was called “Mileage Plus”, but I use it as an example of the “positivity” we can take from isolation. We are a long way from anywhere and that can be a plus. That’s where that number eight wire stuff came from because you had farmers who couldn’t access the stuff that people could in other parts of the world, so they fixed things, with wire. They made wire do stuff it wasn’t meant to do. That’s the number 8 wire mentality. I totally disagree with people that say “We need to move past that, we are not those handy man working out of a garage anymore, we are in a global world”, true but the number eight wire was never about the piece of wire, it was about innovation, it was about finding solutions, it was about being agile. And as I said today maybe we just upgrade it a little and we talk about our “number eight fiber” mentality now, because we shouldn’t lose that. We have got to have an advantage of some sort and I think that’s one of them.

InfoQ: Now coming back to some of the stuff you have been doing at Animation Research: that innovation, that creative thinking, you are doing this with really small teams.

Ian: I’ve intentionally kept the overall team around thirty. We only have six programmers and the work I showed from them today is only the tip of the iceberg really. I am in total awe when I see the work that comes from those six people, and for a long time there was just three of them. I understand that it probably doesn’t work right across the board for other people but it is interesting to see that the ideal size, and again I am only learning this stuff because I never knew Agile before, the ideal size they say for an agile development team is six. Well by accident or whatever I have six programmers. We have a small team, which means we all know each other the other thing is that the people who started with me twenty-five years ago, are still there. So that’s pretty unusual as well.

InfoQ: So you got a small stable team.

Ian: We all do stuff we really love doing, we are in a place we love to live and I think that’s important as well, nobody’s looking over the fence, for greener grass, and even though we live at the bottom of the world, we do get to travel to some of the coolest places you can imagine. People ask if I ever get sick of the travel? Well I love the travel because we always go to places where people want us and we only do stuff that we love to do. Add in some exotic places and it’s very hard to beat, don’t you think.

InfoQ: Sounds like a pretty fulfilling place to work and environment to work in. Could you give us examples of some of the other things that you’ve been doing from this bottom of the world?

Ian: As I look back over the past at some of the amazing things we have done, I do notice now the opportunities that we’ve missed as well. For example we came up with an idea for mapping rally courses around the world. In order to build the models of the race-courses, we build a camera system linked into GPS that you put on a car that we drove around the courses. We would send all that information back and use the pictures from that system to model the tracks back in Dunedin. Today that system is similar to what Google uses to do its mapping photos of the whole world. So while we packed our system away in the basement because it had done the job we designed it for, others turned a similar system into millions of dollars. So we walked past an amazing opportunity, but I don’t regret a minute of it.

InfoQ: You gave a story of something that as an Agilist resonated with me, a project that was under a very tight time deadlines, had some very clear needs, and a customer who was absolutely at your beck and call and totally focused. Why did that make such a difference?

Ian: It was an enormous task for a huge global mining company. If it had come through a normal process, I am certain it would have been analyzed into oblivion. All the risks would have been raised, assessed, debated, assessed again until everyone had forgotten the original vision. In reality, although it was something that had never been done before, the vision was very clear and we knew we had the skill set to deliver the solution. The big thing was the client believed we could as well. He was very clear - “I am not going to tell you how to do it, I am just going to tell you what I would like done, how I will use it and the difference I expect it to make to what we do.” The client actually sat with the small programming team in our board room, we drew pictures on the white board and then simply set about building it.

I like looking forward and imagining the day the software is launched – like the starting day for the Olympics, or any other sport we do, the delivery date is non negotiable – you don’t get to move the Olympics because you’re not ready. So here we are on that day, and there’s the client using the product the way we all envisaged it. Now as we go though this journey we are moving things around to reach that goal; some things work some don’t. This was a huge organization so I suspect this was very unusual, but we had someone who owned that project, believed in it, believed in our ability to deliver and worked hand in hand with us to make that vision become reality. I think there are things about the traditional procurement process that actually work against getting the best results. Although we didn’t call this process Agile, looking back on it I think it is a perfect example of what can be achieved when you think and work in an agile manner. The thing is you don’t “do” agile; you “are” agile. There’s a difference. The other side thing that’s important is that both sides of the equation need to be agile – quite often that isn’t the case. You may be asked to be agile but so often the people doing the asking haven’t really freed their people up to be agile. That’s critical and I think we have been really fortunate over the years because we have always had people who trusted us and let us just get on a get stuff done for them.

InfoQ: If we think of the Agile Manifesto, one of the value statements is customer collaboration over contract negotiation. When you turn that around things get really hard. But when you put that customer in the center it really does make a difference.

Ian: I think that’s one of the advantages we have had working in television. The customer is always in the center and you can’t get a more critical audience than a television audience. It goes across all races, cultures, it goes everywhere. And our programmers are also viewers so they are actually customers too, it’s an easier picture to understand. I think the cool thing that has happened for us is that having TV as our background we have been able to take that philosophy and apply it to everything we do. Somebody walks through the door and says, “I need you to design me something to measure fat on sheep carcasses” – “I don’t see why not”, and you go do it. The air-traffic control simulator I talked about today was a classic example. We’d never ever built one, but as people who worked in television it was second nature to us that it would have to look real, it would all happen in real time and you should be able to record what you did and play it back. I mean that’s what happens in television. Well it turned out that a lot of this thinking was new in this field at the time so the simulator we built was quite distinctive.

InfoQ: You used an interesting phrase and it is one that you used a lot through your talk, “Don’t see why not”, that’s an attitude.

Ian: That’s the attitude of the people I work with, quite often I would go in and say “Could we do balh blah blah?”… They’d roll their eyes and then say - “Don’t see why not, not sure why you want it but, sure”. And I’ve never been let down.

InfoQ: Another thing that I know that you did actually achieve, as an organization, is you won an Emmy. For what?

Ian: It was an Emmy for “Outstanding new approach to coverage of a sporting event” for the America’s Cup. And again I think it was an example of two things: at the heart of Agile. You break the task down to bite sized lumps and you pick people you trust to deliver and let them get on with it. . We knew it had to be done, we knew we needed to do it quickly; we knew we didn’t know how to do it all. So we took the bit we could, we found three other people who we trusted, who didn’t live anywhere near us, and we worked remotely using the power of the Internet, to build this thing. So there we had our team in Dunedin, a programmer in Queenstown, two other in Oamaru, a designer across the road from us and our team working on the event up in San Francisco. They were never in the same room together but they still worked together, trusting each to do their job and the first mobile app we ever built won an Emmy. That’s pretty cool. It’s a great way to get stuff done I reckon. Others might call it Agile.

InfoQ: Ian, it’s been an absolute pleasure. And as I said your talk was inspirational, thank you very much indeed and enjoy the rest of the conference.

Ian: Thank you.

About the Interviewee

Ian Taylor holds an LLB from the University of Otago and was inducted into the New Zealand Hi-Tech Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2010, he was named North & South magazine’s New Zealander of the Year. In the same year, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the New Zealand Computer Society – the top honour of the ICT sector in New Zealand. He was named a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to television and business and won the Creative sector of the World Class New Zealander Awards in the same year. In 2013, Ian was also named Outstanding Māori Business Leader of the Year.

It may come as a surprise then that Ian claims to have no skills whatsoever – is at a loss to understand why anyone would want to hear his story and believes that the reason he has received the accolades he has is because he lives at the bottom of the world where no one has been able to check him out. That – and the fact that he has had the amazing good fortune to have worked alongside some of the cleverest people in the world.

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