Tomato growing has been touted as an ideal hobby to take up amid Covid-19 restrictions. Nurturing a plant that yields edible produce can engender a sense of achievement while other areas of life are on hold.
However, not every home gardener applies software engineering principles to the cultivation of salad ingredients.
A climate-conscious vegan, Singletrack Co-Founder and Chief Technical Officer (“CTO”) Paul Dyson decided to channel his product development experience as he set out to grow tomatoes hydroponically.
Following a successful proof of concept (starting with one plant without soil in a small cupboard with a single light), Dyson is now iterating (making small changes to test what works) in order to scale (produce more than the 12 or so tomatoes he’s harvested so far).
While it’s a little early to assess his achievements in the horticultural sphere, Dyson’s technology credentials date back to his time at the University of Essex, where he completed a PhD in software engineering.
Start of the trail
Singletrack’s origins can also be traced back to Dyson’s student days, when he and his future co-founder established the university’s mountain biking society: the term “singletrack” refers to a mountain biking trail that is wide enough for only one bike. Incidentally, the pair’s enthusiasm for the sport was not dampened by the absence of mountains in Essex!
After initially pursuing separate careers post-university, the mountain biking society co-founders came together once again in 2009; this time to establish a capital markets Customer Relationship Management (“CRM”) platform.
Their initial customers were medium-sized banks that lacked the internal Information Technology (“IT”) resources to build the type of platforms the large investment banks were using to monitor the value their sell-side analysts were providing to their buy-side clients.
Without user-friendly platforms, it was difficult for medium-sized banks to demonstrate the value their clients derived from services such as the investment analysis reports written by their analysts, or the meetings they arranged with the management teams of companies in which their clients showed interest.
And, at a time when banks’ research departments were funded indirectly in the form of commissions from stock trades that fund managers allocated based on the perceived value of sell-side research, there was an obvious need for a way to prove their worth in the eyes of the buyside.
Bet on nascent cloud technology
Singletrack addressed this issue by taking a bet on nascent cloud technology and offering an off-the-shelf but customisable cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (“Saas”) solution. Everything from installation to customisation to maintenance to updates was taken care of, without the need for an internal IT resource. As well as banks, independent research providers could take advantage of this outsourced service.
MiFID II a game changer
The seismic changes to the way in which research is paid for resulting from the implementation of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (“MiFID II”) in January 2018 added regulatory considerations.
Transparency requirements meant that sell-side research could no longer be funded indirectly via trading commissions; it had to be paid for separately. The need to track and quantify value arguably became more acute so that both buyers and sellers could ensure they were were complying with MiFID II.
This resulted in tough decisions, as banks were forced to assess if there would be sufficient demand for their research offering as a stand-alone product in a crowded market. And fund managers had to consider which research and related services were worth paying for.
Market economics made it increasingly important for sellers of research to track and analyse data so they could tailor their offerings to client demands and generate appropriate revenue levels. For their part, buyers needed to allocate research budgets where they felt they would derive most value.
“Software is a team effort”
In terms of the value that Singletrack provides, Dyson believes “The quality of the product is directly correlated to the quality of the development team and their ability to work”. He says “It’s not about hiring one or two superstar developers”; it’s about creating teams that work well together and “Giving them an environment in which they can be creative and productive, have a lot of fun and work really hard”. He endeavours to create an environment that allows developers to find out what they’re good at, and give them the freedom to self-organise.
Unusually for a CTO of a business of this size, Dyson remains sufficiently familiar with the codebase to occasionally write production code.
Pair programming pays
He encourages pair programming, believing that having two developers work together simultaneously on each line of code yields a number of advantages. In addition to producing a better result, he sees it as a sociable activity that’s a great way to learn from and help other people.
Dyson also notes that it eliminates the need for the “interminable” code reviews or pull requests that tend to feature when one developer has written code alone and it needs to be checked by someone else.
He also points to the safety net for the organisation that pair programming provides, in that intimate knowledge of a particular part of the codebase is not confined to one individual.
Broader business benefits
Although Singletrack is Dyson’s third business, he’s never really thought of business as purely a way to make money.
He has chosen to build an owner-managed, sustainable business that allows him the freedom to run the company without an obligation to cater to the demands of venture capital or institutional investors. He relishes hiring people, developing careers and delivering great products. As he says, “You can do really interesting things through business”.
Investing in northern England
Dyson contends that businesses should, where possible, do more than just make money for founders, senior management and investors.
While Singletrack is headquartered in London and also has a New York office, Dyson had for a long time wanted to distribute wealth and opportunities to the region in which he was born, lives and that he cares about, i.e. northern England.
He was delighted to establish an office in the northern UK city of Newcastle upon Tyne earlier this year, within commuting distance of the Northumberland hill farm that houses his horticultural endeavours.
Who would have thought just a couple of decades ago that it would be possible to deliver technology solutions around the world while living in the wilds of Northumberland?!