Oliver Williams works for Kurtosys as Senior Data Engineer in our South Africa office. Having been one of our original Cape Town employees from four years ago, Oliver explains his love for the company culture as the operation has grown, and how his working life is influenced by his love for mountain climbing.
Oliver, would you be able to tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and studied at The University of Cape Town. After graduation, I spent 2 years backpacking around Europe and the USA, earning money doing a variety of unusual jobs, from picking strawberries in Kent, England, to selling aerial photographs door-to-door on the Isle of Wight, to painting houses in Granville, Ohio, to making pizzas in Tucson, Arizona. Deciding it was time to start adulting, I settled back in Cape Town, where I started my IT career. Marriage, a stint living in London, followed by 2 children and a divorce, brings me up to the present.
What drew you towards your profession and to Kurtosys? How did you get to where you are today?
My decision to work in the IT industry was a pragmatic one, encouraged by my father back in 1996, and I’m really pleased he gave me such good advice. After leaving university, my plan was to become an advertising copywriter, but after some deliberation, I chose the technical computing route instead. While working as a webmaster and DTP operator, I tackled the MCSE and CCNA, which gave me my first break into the world of corporate desktop support, infrastructure, and networking. I also worked as a project manager and IT manager, both in Cape Town and London.
A chance meeting with a school friend inspired me to switch to the programming side of things. This was an exciting new phase, which took a certain leap of faith, and has brought me to my current role as data engineer. I joined Kurtosys for a few reasons. I believe in the asset management industry, because I understand and appreciate the potential for building personal wealth and financial independence by saving and investing, so I am happy working with our clients. I was also impressed by Brad and Greg when I first met them for an interview almost 4 years ago. Back then, the team totalled 6 people. And while the future was not entirely certain, I felt confident that they were the right people to lead the growth of a small South African company that showed enormous potential. And finally, I love working with data and automating otherwise mundane and/or complicated business processes.
Can you describe your current role as Senior Data Engineer at Kurtosys?
I have worked in the Factsheets (aka Document Production) team ever since I started here. My primary focus is on building and supporting data loaders across our platforms, including Talend, SSIS, and more recently, FundPress. I spend a lot of time working with SQL, which I enjoy. Systems analysis is also a core part of the job. I really enjoy the process of automation, and get a sense of satisfaction from seeing my data loaders process files month in and month out, just like clockwork.
You are a keen mountain climber, and have recently spent time in South East Asia at a climbing resort. How did you find this passion, and how was the trip?
I first started rock climbing in 1999, essentially because I was a bit bored with life. My parents are mountaineers, and ever since I could carry a backpack, they would drag me into the mountains with them. For some reason, rock climbing didn’t grab me as a sport when I was a youth, probably because my passion was surfing. But all that changed after doing a rock climbing course, and getting involved in the Mountain Club of South Africa’s climbing activities. Cape Town and the surrounds, especially the Cederberg and Montagu, offer a wealth of world-class climbing. It was a very exciting time to start climbing, as the scene was very active. I found myself immersed in a really interesting sub-culture, meeting cool people, and exploring wild places.
My first big expedition was to Aconcagua in 2000 with a group of 4 friends. We organised the entire trip ourselves. We spent 16 days on the mountain, and I was very proud to summit. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Americas at just under 7000m, and is one of the 7 Summits – the tallest mountains on each continent.
After a stint in London, where we did some climbing in the UK, France and the Nepal Himalaya (trekking to Everest base Camp), I took a long break from climbing while we raised small children. During this time I focused on cycling (which is a lot more time efficient than climbing), but I still missed the vertical world, and three years ago I decided to get back into the sport. Starting from zero is always challenging, but with some regular training, perseverance, and reconnecting with old and new friends, climbing is once more a big part of my lifestyle.
In December 2018, a group of 15 of us South Africans travelled to Laos to sample the superb limestone sport climbing on offer. We stayed at a climber’s resort called Green Climber’s Home, near a town called Thakhek in southern Laos, which is situated on the banks of the Mekong River. The lodge is very well run by two German couples. We enjoyed excellent food, good beer and superb climbing. There are over 400 routes in the valley, catering for all levels of climbing ability. It was great fun meeting fellow climbers from all over the world, learning to climb the strange limestone features, and trying hard on our individual projects.
What are the main challenges to mountain climbing, and do you find these skills applicable to your working life?
Climbing is quite unique as a sport or activity that combines a tricky set of physical, psychological and technical challenges. Climbing is inherently dangerous, so unlike your typical working day, poor judgement and a critical mistake could result in death or serious injury. Apart from this worst-case scenario, there are some important lessons one can apply to life and work, and these are some of my favourite:
- If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough. Pushing climbing grades, or your own personal and professional boundaries, has to involve climbing past the point where you think you will fail. The process of projecting a hard route necessitates a lot of falling while you work out difficult moves and piece together seemingly impossible sequences. And staying with a hard project, even though you aren’t sure you will get to the top, takes patience, persistence, a strong will, and self-belief. The same goes for taking on new challenges at work. In order to progress, we sometimes need to take on responsibility for a delivery that might seem beyond our capacity to perform. Drawing deep on our potential makes it happen.
- Separate probability from consequence. Understanding true risk, and having the ability to take calculated risk, allows you to progress and prevents stagnation. Understanding risk is a key part of managing fear, and managing fear is crucial in order to achieve scary goals. Conversely, listening to fear, and understanding severe consequence, informs decisions to back off dangerous situations when the probably of failure is high. This is a good metaphor for project design, and business decisions.
- Modesty/letting go of your ego. Be prepared to take constructive criticism in order to improve your process. Even if you are skilled and experienced in your field, you will learn something new if you are willing to let your guard down and be open to learning. Climbing can be very humbling, and getting shut down on a route that you feel you should be able to do, can be a real dent to the ego. Especially when you see somebody else cruise it with apparent ease! The point is to keep improving, by setting and aiming for meaningful personal goals, rather than trying to best the next person.
- Having an experienced partner helps. In climbing, your partner has your life in the hands. Trust is crucial, so you can focus on the details of scaling the cliff safely. And having a good relationship makes climbing adventures all the more fun. Having a good team dynamic allows individuals to focus on the task at hand, removes blockers that can hamper performance, and keeps the experience enjoyable, despite periods of intense pressure.
- Focus on the big picture while keeping the details in mind. When undertaking a long expedition to climb a remote peak, or summit a big wall, one has to plan well. There is a budget that needs to be set, the requisite equipment to consider, logistics to handle, food and water to calculate, and a team to assemble with the right mix of skills, experience and personality. With this planning and preparation is in place, one can break the down the effort into manageable daily chunks, working out the detailed problems as they arise, secure in the knowledge that the big picture has been well framed.
- Being present/mindfulness.
Quick fire round:
Favourite Cape Town landmark?
Table Mountain of course!
Top of your bucket list?
My next objective is Yosemite in October 2019, with the objective of climbing The Nose on El Capitan. This route was made famous by Alex Honnold, who completed the first solo ascent (without ropes or protective equipment) in 2018. The documentary film of this incredible achievement is well worth watching, even for non-climbers.
K2 or Everest?
K2. Anybody can climb Everest if they have enough cash to throw at it!
Best thing about working at Kurtosys?
The variety and complexity of projects, and the dedicated, talented individuals that make it all happen. We have a unique culture at Kurtosys, and maintaining this in a group of over 150 people takes something special. I feel fortunate to be a part of it.