The Creators Series: Byron Thom

Understanding code can demystify technology and open your mind to the wonders of what’s possible, where the only limit on what’s possible is imagination.

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Creating something awesome can come from different lines of work or, in Byron Thom’s case, multiple different lines of work. Byron is an engineer, a lawyer, and an entrepreneur who has used the combination of his skills from each area to create his own business.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am an engineer who loves robots. I am a lawyer who loves tech policy. And I’m an entrepreneur who left his cushy law practice in Toronto to try his hand at building an innovative technology company, here in Vancouver.

Importantly, I'm a co-founder of a start-up called Optigo Networks, which is trying to make smart buildings smarter... and more secure. As the internet of things explodes, our team has developed a networking solution which protects, connects and manages a building network of any size. Layered on top of this platform, our integrated analytics and security engine ensures the building network is protected and operates trouble-free.

2. How do you incorporate your engineering and law backgrounds with developing technical products?

At Optigo, I’ve taken on dual roles of General Counsel and VP Systems. While handling all of our legal work and government applications, I am also in charge of our systems group, where we experiment with new features to be integrated into our products and also test and qualify our solution before shipping our products out to our customers.

As a patent lawyer, my practice was focused exclusively on obtaining patent rights for new technologies and creating business value for my clients through the development of intellectual property. I had a number of well-known software companies as clients and worked with large and small companies to monetize their ideas.

Now on the other side as an entrepreneur, I’ve had the small excitement in filing patent applications on technology I’ve helped to create. It’s kind of a neat experience to see your own name as an inventor on a patent application you’ve drafted in a technology and with a company you’ve helped build.

3. What do you find are the greatest benefits of fusing these different fields during your creative process?

My legal and technical skills give me a great foundation to evaluate and brainstorm with our development teams. While I do not do much coding myself on a day-to-day basis, I’m part of the design team that identifies solutions to our customer problems, which in turn, drives the direction of our product roadmap.

As VP Systems, my dual background helps identify holes in our testing methodology. My background in control systems and my experience with encryption and security processes gives me a unique perspective on how to create products that can help secure the internet of things in the commercial building space. Similarly, my legal background has forced me to always think about risk and privacy. This awareness drives my input on our software architecture, and colours how we test our products within the systems group.

4. How is coding involved with the projects you are working on?

Optigo is a solutions company that has strong hardware, embedded software and application software components. While we have a hardware platform as part of our product portfolio to easily connect the smart devices in commercial properties, more and more, Optigo is becoming a software company.

Coding is essential to all parts of our development. From hardware drivers to linux optimization, to the latest testing platforms, web technologies and big data analytics; software development is core to our identity. Within our product offering, we have a unified management application running on an embedded system that allows our users to manage thousands of ports from a single screen. Furthermore, our analytics and security engine allows us to protect the building network by identifying potential failures and locking down breaches in network security. All of this is done through code.

5. Why should everyone learn the basics of coding?

Like a language, coding skills will be a requirement of the 21st century. Learning the basics of coding teaches you how to abstract problems into constituent, manageable pieces. It also encourages problem solving, logic and rational thought.

Learning to code also makes technology less scary. Once you understand the basics, the most complex software application can seem less daunting. At the end of the day, even the most complex algorithms (at least for the time being) are written by people. Learning to code removes the otherness of software development and reminds us that code can be written by just about any one. Coders are fathers. Coders are sisters. Coders are friends.

6. What do you think is the biggest misconception about coding?

I think the biggest misconception is that software development is only done by a certain type of person and that it is boring or lacks creative thought. In truth, the development of software is one of the greatest avenues of creative expression imaginable - almost anything is possible. From Flappy Birds to Angry Birds, from photo sharing applications to the software capable of landing a spacecraft on a moving comet (albeit slightly poorly), software is everywhere and solving almost infinite amounts of problems.

7. Anything else that we missed and that you would like to share?

Understanding code can demystify technology. But even better, it can open your mind to the wonders of what’s possible, where the only limit on what’s possible is imagination. It’s a power I encourage everyone to take advantage of. Be a part of it.

written by: Sim Tatla