In this Episode
Gregor Hohpe is the author of the Leanpub book 37 Things One Architect Knows About IT Transformation: A Chief Architect's Journey. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Gregor about his background, his education in Germany, his time at Stanford, the impact of our current political moment on the tech sector, what it's like working at Google, why insurance is interesting, his book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on February 12, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast, I'll be interviewing Gregor Hohpe.
Gregor is a former Chief IT architect at Allianz SE, a giant German financial services company based in Munich, and he is currently Technical Director, Office of the CTO at Google in Singapore.
Gregor is a popular conference speaker, and well known as co-author of the Addison-Wesley book, Enterprise Integration Patterns: Designing, Building, and Deploying Messaging Solutions.
Gregor is the author of the Leanpub book 37 Things One Architect Knows About IT Transformation: A Chief Architect's Journey. His book is based on his two decades of varied experience, from software engineer to author, to Chief Architect of a large, multinational company, and is intended to help IT architects understand how to meet the many challenges of orchestrating IT transformation in the enterprise.
You can follow Gregor on Twitter @ghohpe, and check out his website at eaipatterns.com.
In this interview, we're going to talk about Gregor's professional interests and background, his books, and a little bit about writing and self-publishing.
So thank you Gregor, for being on the Frontmatter Podcast.
Gregor: It's my total pleasure, I'm happy to be here.
Len: I should say that Gregor is talking to us from Singapore. I want to thank you for taking time out of your morning to speak to me.
I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, and I know you've got a lot of experience in a lot of different areas. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up and how you first became interested in computers, and made your way into computer science?
Gregor: Tn my case, that's actually a fair amount of time ago. When I started, I always liked to build stuff. Mostly construction kits - physical things. Somehow that was just my natural inclination. And our school had a single computer. It was those days when the first computer appeared.
I used to say, one of the reasons I liked it was because it was easier to fix problems. If stuff broke, with software you could fix it, and run it over - versus the mechanical stuff that oftentimes actually physically broke. That was very frustrating if you didn't have the right parts. So I was drawn to computers as a way of experimentation.
I also did a lot of electronics. Again, this being a while ago - it was very simple electronics. I remember having a electronic kit that had a single logic gate. One logic gate that was basically electronic kit. But at the same time, I learned quite a lot. Even as simple as it was, by thinking about stuff in components, in pieces, like the electronics do.
So it was a little bit mechanics, a little bit electronics. And the school had this magical computer which you could start playing with and do stuff. I think that was what what motivated me.
Len: Education works a little bit differently in Germany than it does in North America. As I understand it, students can get separated into streams early on. I wanted to ask you if you had an experience with that?
Gregor: Correct. I went through that. What happens is that after elementary school, you do four years of schooling. After that, there's three tracks that you can take. And to be honest, you're about 10 years old - so your parents largely decide for you, with you, with the teacher. Then you enter one of these three tracks. One track is meant more for the vocational kind of career path. Later, you will do an apprenticeship. And then the other tracks are meant if you're bound more for university.
It's an interesting concept. The way I always looked at it, is that there's two interpretation of equal opportunity. The one is, everybody gets the same kind of education. That's equal opportunity of a sorts. But the other one is also - you give people the kind of education that matches a little bit. The interest and development at the time. Germany seems to follow the latter one. Where you have a slightly different path, relatively early on.
Len: And what if you find yourself to be in what you believe to be the wrong path? I've always been curious about this. Can you correct that?
Gregor: Correct. There is an upgrade path, from the middle track, if you wish, to the university track - you can actually upgrade. It does happen. There's late bloomers. There are folks who'll change their interest. So there's an upgrade path. You basically do an additional three years at the end, and you come out basically as if you had taken that track.
Len: I guess the only answers to this can probably be anecdotal, but what happens if, let's say, a kid disagrees with their parents about which track they should be going into? It would be pretty hard to live together if you disagreed.
Gregor: Yeah, so what rather happens is actually that once you turn 18 years old, you're legally authorized to decide your own schooling. So if somebody was signed up for the extensive track, which would take you right there, you'd be like 18, 19 years old when you would finish.
Some kids just quit and say to their parents, "Today I turn 18 years old, and I never wanted to go to high school" - this is still high school - "or for high school that long. So that's enough for me, thank you very much." That does happen. It usually puts a little wrinkle in the parental child relationship though.
Len: Did you study computer science at university in Germany?
Gregor: Yes, so for me, by the time I had finished high school, at that time, finally computers became a little bit more affordable. There was the Apple II. There was the Vic 20. A lot of folks in my generation grew up with these kind of things. So by that time, it had become relatively obvious that I would go into computer science.
When I was little, I was always aiming to be a mechanical engineer, because that seemed to be sort of the most creative technical path for me. But then by the time I exited high school, it was relatively clear that computer science was the one I would want to do.
I was largely self-taught. What I wasn't quite prepared for was the science part of the computer science. So when we started university, there was actually a lot of theory behind it. Compiler theory and computability theory and all these kind of things. In hindsight, as so often, it was probably good for me. It gave me a good foundation.
But it was a little bit of a shocker for many of us who joined university, because in the first semester, there was essentially no programming. It was all the theoretical foundations of computer science. I guess it is called "computer science" in the end. So, I would say that's fair enough.
Len: I have a question that I often ask of people on this podcast. It's become kind of an unofficial theme. It is: if you were starting out now to pursue a similar career to the one you've pursued, would you study computer science formally at university?
Gregor: I certainly would. How do people say it - before you can do things, or before you're allowed to do things wrong, you first have to learn to do them right. Often you hear these stories where people just break all the rules, and sort of seem to freelance and ad lib everything.
Often artists, let's say architects etc., they seem a little bit crazy and ignore all formalities. But most of the time, you find out that first they learned how to do this properly, if you can even use that word - Picasso is a great example. Like, "Wow, I could paint this kind of things." No, he was properly well-trained, what we consider a normal painter, even though that's a difficult term to use. And then people progress into becoming more creative or becoming more unique. So my personal opinion is, it's always good to have a proper foundation, and then you can play on top of that.
Len: That's a really great answer, thanks for that. I haven't quite put those things together in my mind with computer science before. But yes, coming at things from the perspective of - let's say teaching English literature in university, which I have a little bit of experience with - often you can get students who want to jump ahead and start being very creative, rather than constructing formal arguments and marshaling evidence for them.
I do remember having to say to people, "Of course experimentation is great, but before you get there, you have to prove to me that you can do the conventional things." There's time for the creativity, but that time is not until you've proven that you've got the foundation you need, in order to even understand how you're being creative in the first place.
This might seem a little bit random, but I've heard from German friends that the conventions around attending classes can be a little informal in German universities. Does that accord with your experience? Where people kind of walk in and out of lectures?
Gregor: Yes. But I believe Stanford in the end has a similar thing. I mean, you are responsible for getting something out of your schooling. I would say the big difference is that the German education is free. So for a lot of people, the pressure seems to be lower. And people are just like, "Well, if I don't make it this semester, I make it the next one," right? If you do that at Stanford, either your scholarship will run out, or your parents will have a very serious word with you, because the extra quarter is going to cost them a nice dime.
I think there's a little bit more drive behind really getting something out of the time you spent there. Because there's some folks in Germany, I think, who misinterpret the freedom to attend class or not attend class, if they like. So basically, it's the same rule, but I would say it has slightly different dynamics around it.
In Stanford also - I mean, being in the middle of Silicon Valley, we had a class on entrepreneurship. And some of our guest speakers were like - Steve Jobs came to class, Scott McNealy from Sun came to class. Jim Clark of Silicon Graphics. Those were the biggest names of those days - Reed Hastings, still very famous for Netflix. Those were the folks who came to our class and gave guest lectures. So you want to be there.
Len: That sounds really exciting. And you were there at a very exciting time in the early- to mid-90s. I wanted to ask if you could express a little bit of what it was like to be studying computer science at Stanford at that time? I mean, this would've been around the time when the internet would've been burgeoning - coming to public consciousness.
Gregor: Actually those were the days when I got the Mosaic browser. And we had internet in our dorm room. So we were definitely right there when this was happening.
To be honest, I was probably a little bit overwhelmed by the whole thing. I had a scholarship for one year, for three quarters. And the computer science topic - I used it mostly to broaden my range. So there was artificial intelligence, there was a lot of robotics.
I spent quite a bit of time, I felt, completing my computer science portfolio. And also taking entrepreneurship classes. There was a lot of what was called "engineering management" there. That's probably where you could feel the most that something was happening.
But to me, having come out of the German village, if you will - I was a little bit overwhelmed and I probably didn't grok 100% what was really going to happen over the next 10, 15 years.
I thought, "Oh this is all kind of exciting." But funnily I looked at it mostly from a technical side. "Oh, there's a browser, I can look up some documents," right? And we had some ideas about, "Ooh, could we start a company out of