You will never be done learning — Technology never stops. There is always something new to learn, keep up with, or a perception to change. You have to be open to it and embrace the fact that things you knew last month are obsolete.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Slee.
Christopher Slee is the Founder, Principal, and Chief Product Officer at AWH, a Dublin, Ohio software engineering firm currently celebrating its 25th year of creating innovative digital products for business clients.
At AWH, Chris leads internal and external development teams across all applications, from web, mobile, and desktop platforms, to virtual reality and machine learning.
Even though Chris has been programming for more than 30-years, he continues to push the technology envelope. From drones to artificial intelligence, Chris Slee continues to exemplify the spirit of continual learning in the tech space.
As a passionate technologist and mentor, Chris founded Dev: Launch, an apprenticeship program where aspiring software developers have the opportunity to work on real client projects alongside experienced development teams. As a mentor, Chris teaches apprentices how to be efficient and productive developers, not just how to write code.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My father was into ham radio and would often go to radio Shack. One day we were in a radio shack and I remember walking over to this silver machine, and it was basically a television with a keyboard on it. And I went up to it and typed on a keyboard. I didn’t know what a computer was at the time. After typing I hit the enter key. The words “syntax error” came up on the screen. I remember then typing in the word giraffe and hit enter and “syntax error”. I typed “What’s a syntax error” and hit enter and it said, “syntax error”. About this time, the guy from around the counter comes over and I remember him typing “circle” and then a parenthesis and then three sets of numbers, and then close the parentheses and hit Enter. The screen cleared and there was a red circle on the middle of the screen. I remember that. Right then, I just connected with what it was. It was like one of those cliché movie moments, when you gaze into someone’s eyes and see the future. It was that kind of moment for me. It was just done; at that point, I knew what I was doing. I was driven to learn more and more, and figure out how these things worked and how it could be applied. I built games, learned languages, figured out the hardware. I entered into this pattern of learning that I still continue today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I started writing code, professionally when I was 14 at a local computer shop. That summer I worked on a project in CPM (that was the operating system), dBase two was the database and language, and that was all done on WordStar on Kaypro computers. That summer, we built an application to do data collection and reporting for an oil rig company. This was back in 1983. Time went by and I went to school and built a company, but beyond being a student or a founder I always continued to work on computers.
About five years ago, a buddy of mine who also worked at the computer store at the same time I did he called me and told me that the company that we built that software for called him, because they were examining the source code and found his name. He was still local to that area, so they were able to find him. They have been using that software since it was deployed, it was locked in an oil derrick rig, and was running since we built it. They called because they wanted a couple of changes made to some of the reports that the software put out. Keep in mind this is something that was built in the early 80s with software programming language editors that don’t exist anymore. He sent them to me, and I had a conversation with them about what they were looking for. I then told them in no way, would I ever touch that piece of software or make any modifications to it and nor should anyone! I also told them never turn the hardware off, because I’m not sure if it would even turn back on. It booted off five and a half inch floppy disks that were at least 35 years old. So, I claim, amongst my friends, the longest running production application that any of us have.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Currently, I’m working on a clinical therapy application for remote, in home recovery care. We’re using machine learning, and building machine learning models that understand human physiology and human movement. It can assist physical therapists with remote delivery of clinical care. Our approach uses AI to support recovery in physical therapy activities in home without having to go to a clinic, and without having to have any equipment sent to the patient. It helps people recover quicker, and under the guidance of a physical therapist. It also allows them to adhere to their therapy when it might be difficult to do remotely outside the clinic.
How do you think this might change the world?
By being able to deliver care in people’s homes, without equipment, more people will be able to receive therapeutic recovery care and exercise more often. That helps everyone get stronger and live longer. We are not just constrained with physical therapy. We can also use this technology to promote wellness in individuals across the board.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Any technology can be misused, but a black mirror episode would be along the lines of all your devices nagging you to exercise and recover, so, maybe not so bad.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
The pandemic. Before that we were very focused on in clinic and gym rollouts with sensors (IoT) and cloud services. Once the pandemic hit, I locked myself in my office at home and worked on this AI until we had something, we were able to deploy to the military in the fall and are now rolling it out to our health care partners.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
The correct therapists and providers to realize this allows them to reach new and existing patients and help more people.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We are already deployed into the military and currently its arranging demos and blowing people away with the possibility of the future of the tech. AI has had a significant hype cycle in the past but is now really starting to become the go to technology to solve problems that we had no way to address before. I follow the old saying, you can’t IF THEN ELSE your way into a self-driving car. You train a self-driving car the same way you train a self-driving teenager.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have a couple of people that mentored me early on and I still rely on most of them. Advice I got early in my career was “You are more credible after a win than before the win”. If you want to make a change, you must be able to win with the cards you are delt before you can change the game. This came from a project early on. I was working at a chemical company and we were producing a piece of software to manage internal project cost and delivery to the customers. The CIO at the time had picked a development language and operating system that was extremely difficult to use, and no one else had really adopted it yet. It was very one off, not mainstream. This advice was given to me by my manager at the time as I was complaining about how bad the technology we were using was. He told me, “You have to be successful with what you’ve got. You must be able to show the win, and then you can talk to the CIO about changing it to make it better. But if you just go to him to complain. He won’t listen to you.” We use that platform to build that system, and did such a good job with it that the company that released the programming language and runtime environments included us as a case study in a magazine that they published. The CIO was happy about that. After I told him that we could do so much better with more mainstream technology, he allowed our organization to switch over and use that more mainstream technology going forward.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have played an instrumental role in starting careers for hundreds of talented developers who might otherwise have been overlooked. From hiring them when others wouldn’t to building out a paid apprentice program at our company. We still push for hiring junior developers and getting them started as part of our quarterly goals. Getting people into technology and mentoring them was always a direct way to contribute back to the next generation. As an organization, we always look for products to work on that have impact in peoples lives. It’s part of our core vision.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will never be done learning — Technology never stops. There is always something new to learn, keep up with, or a perception to change. You have to be open to it and embrace the fact that things you knew last month are obsolete.
- You have to figure out how to tell the fads from the keepers — Because everything moves so quickly and you can’t possibly keep up on every change, you have to develop the skill to see through technical ideas and decide what will stick and what will go away. Your time is precious, and you have to be able to spend time on the things that will be around.
- You have to be willing to go all in, even if it is not your idea — Never assume that your idea is the best idea. Listen to your team and the people that are around you. Be able to make a decision, but be open to being wrong and flexible enough to change. If change is the only constant, understand, that includes your decisions.
- Always look for people that are better than you and hire them — I always joke with the team that I don’t want to go to an interview unless our recruiter thinks this person is better than me. Always hire up. Be looking for a way to make yourself inconsequential because that is the only way you will be able to spend time growing and finding the next “thing”, technology, or idea.
- Your job is to take the arrows shot at the team and it’s also your job to give away the credit for the team’s success. — The lead is up front for a reason. Ultimately you make the decision on who to hire, who stays on the team, what technologies to pursue. My job is at the bottom, to make sure everyone has the roadmap, skills, desire, and tools to get the job done. If they don’t it’s my fault, if they do, it’s because they did the work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Look for ways to improve other people’s lives over everything else. Everything else you want will come from that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From a business perspective, there is no problem your team has now, that sales can’t fix. That was a piece of advice early on. Understanding cash flow, and how to spend resources wisely also comes with the understanding you have to have those resources in the first place.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
— — Having been in startups to exits several times and understanding the role of VC, I would hold off talking to VC until we are ready to take it to the next level. There is so much work and planning that needs done prior to VC involvement, that when its time, we should be a dead simple choice to invest in.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
— — @chrisslee on twitter, but linkedin is the best way to connect.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.