September 29, 2020

Getting to Know Jon Thomason, Brain Corp’s New CTO

Brain Corp
Brain Corp

Editor’s Note: Last week, Brain Corp announced the hiring of tech veteran and A.I. leader Jon Thomason as its new Chief Technology Officer. To get to know him better, we asked him seven questions. Here are his insightful answers.

Can you tell us briefly about your professional background, how you got into autonomous technology?

I have always been a student of how technology makes businesses “go.” I often fume while standing in line, wondering why it takes so many keystrokes to check in for a flight or register for a driver’s license. Computer systems are supposed to save us time, but tend to be maddeningly tedious. I have an intense desire to build systems that work the way we all wish they did.

I started in systems programming. Operating systems and APIs are the foundational building blocks that make everything work. I later moved up and around the stack, but never lost my passion for understanding and improving how things work all the way down to the “metal.”

I’ve managed a variety of teams of different sizes and compositions, each with different goals. I’ve studied the mechanics–and the art–of running big teams. And I’ve educated myself about performance review and compensation systems, finance, legal, and a host of other things a CTO needs to be successful.

Over the past three years, my focus has been on making self-driving cars safe for public roads. I’m excited to use what I’ve learned and apply my experience to the commercial space.

Besides the great San Diego weather, what made you want to join Brain Corp?

The first reason is the quality of the people here. Brain Corp has assembled a tremendous team, and I realized I wanted to work with them the moment we met. As Brain Corp’s CEO Eugene Izhikevich said, “we’re already completing each other’s sentences.”

Secondly, I was excited about the opportunity to balance business and strategy with the deep tech I’ve always worked on. While I’ve had a seat at the table for a number of years, I’ve been looking for a chance to shoulder more responsibility for a company’s technical growth.

Lastly, I’ve always been interested in partnering with businesses to make them more efficient and profitable. We’re living in unprecedented times, and Brain Corp’s technology can make a real difference to our partners and end customers.

What makes you so bullish on the future of robotics and the emerging category of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)? What do you see as the key market trends supporting wide adoption?

So many parts of traditional software are considered “good enough,” despite lacking any real intelligence. When was the last time a computer system actually helped you by simplifying your work or taking over some of your tasks? Computer systems today are primarily used for virtual data entry and are no smarter than a pencil and paper.

AI and robotics are the big breakthroughs of the past five years. They are a revolution that will change the way we do things and make us more efficient and effective. But we still need to build the programming tools and systems to make them a part of everyday programming.

There is no question that AMRs will play a big role in ensuring cleanliness and safety during this ongoing global pandemic and beyond. An online-only world isn’t realistic; humans crave in-person interactions and sensory stimulation. Many of us need to handle an object before we can commit to buying it. That’s why retailers need to keep in-person shopping experiences safe. AMRs will increasingly become a core business strategy for retailers and many other businesses.

What role does data play in building and implementing AMRs?

The AI revolution is shifting software away from the traditional “if-then” rules-based methodology to machine learning (ML) models that are trained to recognize and respond to patterns. This shift is titanic and will eventually change everything about how computer systems are designed and built. Training ML models takes a staggering amount of data, so gathering and saving data in modern data warehouses is critically important.

Businesses also thrive on data. Brain Corp’s robots constantly collect data to learn from, and that data also gives the businesses that use our robots unparalleled situational awareness about their operations. Our AMRs can alert businesses of incorrect states and catalogue and count inventory. Tracking these trends over time helps businesses make informed decisions, contributing to profitability.

Why is usability, specifically within the human-robot relationship, so important?

Smart tech today is often more complicated and difficult to maintain than the dumb tech it is replacing. This is a step backwards. Brain Corp’s smart tech is easier to deploy and simpler to maintain than its dumb counterparts because it is self-managing, allowing for a more balanced human-robot relationship.

What are your top three principles for running an effective technology group?

1. Make it about the tech. Everything the group does should be aimed at fostering an environment where the engineers can focus on making products that delight customers. Managers (and CTOs!) should do everything they can to soak up the necessary procedural and administrative overhead.

2. Have a strategy that comes from a story. This sounds obvious, but all too often, daily tactical concerns trump strategy and strategy gets relegated to something done at an offsite once a year. The group should have a story that permeates everything they do and that drives strategy and goals.

3. Communicate with cheerful transparency. A culture of hyper-accountability leads teams to hoard information and only share successes. A successful team is transparent about successes and failures. The highest functioning teams foster a culture of cheerful transparency and a desire to help others succeed.

What do you like to do for fun?

I’ve always had an unrequited desire to be a musician, but I gave up music for computers as a tween. Five or so years ago, I realized I needed a stress outlet, so I decided to pick up the guitar. While I’m not an expert guitarist by any estimation, I make a point of playing every day.

I’m also an avid cyclist. I’ve spent many hours on Zwift (an indoor cycling simulator) and I’m thrilled to be back in San Diego, which might be the best place to ride a bike short of Southern France.

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