James Dean is co-founder of Sensat, a technology company which creates digital copies of real-world places. Founded in 2015, Sensat is bringing innovation and digitisation to the infrastructure sector and has attracted significant outside investment.
James Dean grew up in Yorkshire and, when he was 18, the normal university route didn't appeal, so he moved to Sydney. A few years later, he was in California working for NASA on their remote sensor satellites. Coming back to London, around the time that drones were booming in popularity, he realised these "new flying robots" could take photos of the earth in much the same way as a satellite. He saw that, due to their proximity, the resolution of data could actually be commercially viable. That was how it began.
James worked part-time on the start-up for a couple of years, going full-time in May 2017. By then, Sensat had discovered they could generate digital copies of the world using these techniques. They could build an entire city digitally, exactly as it was, down to a 2cm accuracy, in just a single day. Doing this sort of thing would previously have taken weeks or months or even have been impossible. It struck them that bringing this innovation to the infrastructure sector, a physical sector, made a lot of sense. As well as being a massive global market, infrastructure was one of the least digitised sectors, and it contributed a significant amount – around 70% - of emissions globally. The sector matched their ambition and their strong sustainability philosophy.
To break it down, Sensat can build an exact digital copy of an infrastructure project – a new railway or a road – and companies can then work digitally on this information, where it had to be done physically before. James explains, "A common task would be measuring how much soil there is. Someone would have to go out with a measuring stick and take about six weeks to measure up all the soil in a construction project. That can now be achieved within two seconds." It's a major reduction in time and cost, with much higher accuracy and, because someone doesn't have to be there, it's also safer."
By summer 2020, the company has 50 people and is based in Old Street, London, with over 40 clients – some are engineering consultancies, some are asset owners like Highways England or Heathrow.
There have been a few challenges along the way. They have a vision of building a better future, but when they decided to put this into practice, they lacked the sector expertise. It has been a steep learning curve, day in and day out, having to learn the basics of the industry they decided to go into. Tech and infrastructure don't really go hand-in-hand, so recruiting people from industry with the skillset they require has been a challenge. It also raises the question of diversity.
Tech and construction are two of the least gender diverse industries. James says, "Your pool of talent that you have to start with is already not diverse." They overcame this by taking a team-oriented approach. "When you're coming to an industry from outside of it, there's a lot of benefits - you're coming without the hangovers and pre-conceived notions – but also the challenges: are you going to miss the obvious things? So you target a 360 portfolio of skills within a team; it's not just one person, it's a team effort, and having diversity of thought and experience can help tackle that."
When it comes to diversity, Sensat openly acknowledges that more improvement is still needed. To help with this, Sensat recently set up an employee-led diversity and inclusion working group to support, empower and amplify the voices of diverse team members within Sensat. The group is currently focusing on ways to maintain the continued improvement of diversity within Sensat while creating a strong sense of belonging within the team. Current diversity reporting is very numerical and label-oriented which, to James, misunderstands what diversity is. He clarifies, "It's more about the diversity of thought and experience, which naturally manifests itself in the labels we give ourselves. It is that which gives us an advantage. If everyone was exactly the same in a team and a company, you'd be at risk of being blind-sided by so many different things." A recent personality-mapping exercise at Sensat has helped identify this diversity of thought, acknowledging the differences in how we receive and process information, how we communicate and work with each other.
The company has doubled in size in the last nine months and is likely to continue on that trajectory. Recruiting a diverse workforce remains a priority, without having specific quotas. They push their efforts to the top of the funnel, bringing on board the most diverse people they can. The executive team is 60% female, which is highly unusual for a technology company, but they're also "just great people doing great things."
If he were to do it over again, one of the first people he would hire would be an internal recruiter: "Your business is built on your people." Towards the beginning, the workforce was around 90% male. There was no intention to create that, but it's a snowball effect, putting off outside candidates. "Right from the beginning, we'd consciously want to build a diverse workplace."
James has a strong sense of purpose and is clear about his end destination. Rather than having an exact vision of what that will look like, he says it's more about "the belief of the kind of future you want to create. This sense of purpose gives you a roadmap and it means everything you do is contributing towards something." By having this, it means he is intrinsically motivated by what he's doing – he wants to get better at it, it means he enjoys the work and that work is a good place to be with people who share a similar sense of purpose and who will positively challenge each other.
He is also passionate about how the world works. Everything from how the technology itself operates, to how the commercial customer thinks, to the best ways of building an organisation. He counts himself lucky to have had exposure to so many interesting fields and having learnt from great people – a combination of mentors and people he has hired. James, together with his executive team and the company itself, is transparent and open. They share information on everything from the Profit & Loss to that month's recruitment. The emphasis is on success being a team effort, not a single person's effort, which comes back to needing diverse 360 thinking.
His proudest moment so far is the realisation that they have created a working environment that makes people happy. He tells a story of a recent hire: "We had a software developer join from Amazon and, the weekend after he started, we picked him up on the way to a barbecue that one of our sales team was hosting. I asked him, 'How are you finding your first week?' He had previously been working in a room by himself and was quite a shy guy. And he said to me, 'It's so nice to be in a place where everyone just smiles.' I think, without realising it, so many people are locked in workplaces that aren't satisfying them, but we've created something different. It's the things like that that matter to me."
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