Damon Hart-Davis is the CEO of OpenTRV, an initiative that markets simple automatic heating tools for the domestic space, helping homeowners to save money and significantly cut their carbon emissions.
What’s your earliest memory involving electronics or engineering?
My dad wiring up circuits for me, possibly when I was preschool age, with batteries and bulbs, and then baffling me by apparently breaking the circuit with a bulb still glowing dimly.
What was your first job in the industry?
I did some ‘consultancy’ helping a businessman to sort out his work computers when I was around 16 years old. My first actual paid job before university was for a bunch called Personal Robots and involved building a robot toy collaboratively with two of the world’s biggest manufacturers. It was based on a message-passing OS that I put together originally on a Z80 board that I designed and wire-wrapped, with a single LED to debug it! Luckily no one told me that it was too hard to do...
Who is your professional hero or biggest inspiration?
Sadly, one of my heroes, David MacKay, lately chief scientist of DECC, and barely older than me, just died. Going back to childhood, the sci-fi works of Arthur C Clarke encouraged me to think about what could be. Having two fairly practical scientist parents and the home computer revolution cranking up as I reached secondary school, pointed me in the direction of actually making things happen.
Name a book, paper or blog that you think everybody in your field should read.
I’m not sure what ‘my field’ is, but energy efficiency, renewable energy, climate change and distributed computing are what I seem to spend all day thinking about!
Geeky answer: Leslie Lamport et al’s 1982 “The Byzantine Generals Problem” paper about allowing distributed systems to continue to operate in the presence of faults. At USENET’s height I’d have said comp.arch.
Slightly less geeky answer: now I’d say a handful of low-noise Twitter feeds and the irreverent The Register for which I occasionally write.
If you could speak to yourself five years ago, what would you tell them?
Wait for the Raspberry Pi 3? Don’t attempt to build a business around fragile government subsidies? Provide a very specific set of investment picks? Start the OpenTRV project and company sooner?
Other than specific political events, I don’t think that the world has changed so dramatically in the last five years; ten years ago I would have urged myself to take energy efficiency and climate change more seriously more quickly - and definitely to not buy Lehman Brothers stock.
Where do you hope to be in five years time?
‘Moving the needle’ on carbon emissions across Europe, with OpenTRV’s smart valves installed on the first few million of my target 400 million radiators, saving householders tens or hundreds of millions of pounds a year already.
Aside from your own, what projects or innovations in the Engineering space are you most excited about right now?
Moving quantum computing from the lab to the desktop, if it can be done. I got very excited about this stuff while thinking about ‘Non-deterministic Turning Machines” at university 30 years ago. It really would be that fabled “step change” in the set of problems we could tackle easily.
What are the biggest challenges facing engineering at the moment?
Missing huge swathes of our potential work force, such as women. I watched two idiot PhD students who were supposed to be 'helping' us with practical work, more or less by themselves drive 80% of the female students out of our computer science course in the first few weeks through their attitudes. Some of the same condescending attitudes, and an environment where people succeed by belittling others, continues to persist in STEM fields, in and out of the workplace. It really upsets me - let’s not frighten away smart people of any stripe like that, please.
How can these challenges be tackled?
I wish I knew. Where I have any influence I try to encourage openness, candour and diversity of opinion, and accept imperfections in people while minimising them in the work produced. We could all do a lot better.
How do you like to spend your time outside work?
I don’t understand the question...
What does success mean to you?
Making the world a better place each day.
What advice would you give to an aspiring engineer?
Go to it: it’s a vital profession that holds the world together. But if you can, combine it with another skill and learn to communicate better. People that can bridge the gaps between disciplines, and explain what they are doing too, are like gold dust.
To find out more about OpenTRV and Damon's insights on energy efficiency and the IoT space, read our in-depth profile here.