November 26, 2020

CTO Talk: Q&A with Texthelp’s Ryan Graham

By Robert Scammell

Ryan Graham is the CTO of Texthelp, a company that creates software to help people read, write and express their thoughts and share information more accurately and fluently

As Texthelp CTO, Graham is responsible for leading and directing the company’s team of engineers to deliver literacy and STEM products that are used by tens of millions of people every day around the world.

He oversees the development of Texthelp’s products – which include solutions for both workplace and education – to ensure they are safe, secure and easy to use.

In this Q&A, the 39th in our weekly series, Graham explains how machine learning still lots of “untapped potential”, why software is about people not technology, and why narrowing the digital divide is crucial for society.

Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?

Ryan Graham: I used to be a software developer and started my career working with content management systems on websites. I was always looking for something outside the scope of simply building websites and needed a new challenge.

I come from a family of teachers – my dad is a retired special educational needs teacher, and my sister is a special educational needs teacher. Being immersed in the world of education, I was particularly interested when I came across Texthelp. The role matched my skill set well, combining my interests in technology and education. I first joined Texthelp in 2013 as a developer on mobile apps and have recently moved into the role of CTO.

What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?

The shift to remote working in business and in the education sector has been accelerated by the pandemic. Remote working and learning are becoming the norm, and this has caused a massive shift in the way we work, how we communicate and how we learn. Technology that supports this transition is hugely important, especially in education. After years of studying on paper, schools are embracing digital learning and education.

Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?

Machine learning and AI is not necessarily ‘emerging,’ but there is still so much untapped potential in terms of what it can deliver for businesses and society. We’ve only scratched the surface of what machine learning is capable of. Machine learning is going to be a fundamental building block of software in the future.

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?

Someone once told me, “software engineering is not about the technology, it’s about the people.” When you’re creating software, you have to keep the end user front of mind, but you also need to think about who is building it. This is where diversity comes in. You need a diverse team of developers that is representative of the demographic of the users you are building the software for.

Where did your interest in tech come from?

I was interested in technology from a very early age. I’m very lucky that my parents recognised my enthusiasm for technology. I always loved building computers and from my early teens began building websites. My mum worked with computers and my dad was a teacher, so I had exposure to both of these worlds. Ultimately, having a passion for both technology and education put me on the path to Texthelp.

What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no such thing as an average day, but I tend to start my mornings fairly early. I’m the most productive in the morning, and I like to give myself some thinking time. Espresso in hand, I’ll research topics I’m interested in, or think about particular challenges that I might be having at work. After that, I break my day into sections for mentoring, planning and delivering projects. I’ll always end with a non-work-related activity to help my brain wind down.

What do you do to relax?

I like to get a good dose of nature! I spend a lot of time outdoors on the weekends. In the evening I enjoy playing the guitar, although I’m still very much an amateur.

Who is your tech hero?

Bill Gates – he was always ahead of the curve in terms of building products that people needed. He didn’t just build software for the sake of it, he actually understands what people need and what is most useful to society. He is aware that he has a responsibility to help people and has given a lot of funding to help the education sector.

What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?

In the education sector the biggest challenge is the ‘digital divide’. Now that remote working and learning has become entrenched, I think there is a gap between people who have access to technology and those that don’t. Narrowing this gap will determine how we succeed as a society.


Read more: CTO Talk: Q&A with Splunk’s James Hodge