Jazz Shaper: Christian Nentwich

Posted on 16 April 2022

Christian Nentwich is the co-founder and CEO of data automation company Duco.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today is Christian Nentwich, Co-Founder and CEO of Duco, technology company aiming to make managing data easy.  Having grown up in Austria with a passion for technology, Christian arrived in the UK aged 19 with, as he says, nearly a decade of programming under his belt.  After a PhD in Computer Science, he founded software company, Systemwire in 2004 and it was while working in the financial services sector that Christian saw the problem he wanted to solve.  As he says, “Financial services produced huge amounts of data.  It’s difficult to control and costly to get wrong.”  One of Duco’s clients had a spreadsheet with an incorrect calculation, costing them $3 million every year.  Duco, meaning ‘I lead’ in Latin – of course you knew that – was launched in 2013.  The cloud service aims to create a safer, faster way to manage information by replacing spreadsheets and manual work with a user-friendly platform and clients now include Fidelity, ING and fourteen of the Top 30 global banks.  My Business Shaper today is Christian Nentwich and he is the Founder of a business called Duco which, as I mentioned, is ‘I lead’ in Latin.  Hello Leader. 

Christian Nentwich

Hello.

Elliot Moss

It’s nice to have you here.

Christian Nentwich

Nice to be here.

Elliot Moss

You’re a doctor. 

Christian Nentwich

Of sorts. 

Elliot Moss

Of sorts.  Yes.  And for most people, when they think about data and data science and software engineers, they kind of feel inferior immediately.  In your own words just explain a little bit about what you’re qualified to do and how you ended up, how you ended up in this big mess, this wonderful business called Duco. 

Christian Nentwich

It’s a… the thing with data, right, it’s this, it’s so abstract for people that it’s almost impossible to get across what you actually do, right, so we’ve been, we’ve known this for a while now so we always have to come up with metaphors and explanations, right, and it’s much easier running a business where you are directly doing something to save the planet or you know solve a real problem for consumers, right.  But we’re not like that but then when you think about what the world economy actually runs on, right, so on a daily basis, it’s all data, right, and it’s heaps of it and I guess the way we stumbled across these problems is in large business like a big bank or a big insurance company or a huge logistics company or a shipping company, right, these companies look shinier on the outside normally than they are in the engine room because keeping that much data under control is seriously hard.  It’s a bit like imagine you, you’ve been organising your life on paper and spreadsheets and every single payment you’ve ever made for your gas bill or whatever, you’ve kept it all and now there’s 70,000 of you and the rooms are stacked and now you go, I want to find out about that bill I had in, you know in 2016, and it’s a horror show.  So, while these businesses have spent so much money on the sort of data experience for the customers and so on, the truth is in the engine room, there’s tens of thousands of people sitting there with highlight pens and spreadsheets, trying to sort of do things manually and the question was you know, why is it happening now, right, this is like technology is way smarter than this now, why is this necessary, right?  We’re doing real-time face detection in videos for consumers, why are we sitting there with highlight pens and spreadsheets?  And so we wanted to just solve this in a very different way using like machine learning and completely new types of algorithms and so on. 

Elliot Moss

Which makes perfect sense.  There was a book I never wrote, Christian, it was called Dead Paper and I lived in India many years ago and I used to go into these amazing rooms full of paper and I had this whole idea that inside every piece of paper there was a story about someone’s life and it is a good idea but of course, like you know, but I haven’t written it so we’re here, we’re talking about but you just, you just reminded me.  And your interest in all of this because what you just described makes the complicated sound very simple.  Your interest as a young person in developing a set of skills, where did that come from?  Why was technology?  Why was data?  Why was the world of programming interesting to you?  What piqued your interest at a young age?

Christian Nentwich

Well I was inspired initially by my father, I think, because sort of one of these early adopters of computers, right, so we built our PCs together and we sort of… I still remember I was at the time, people were publishing magazines still, with source code in them so it was just copying game source code and you know implementing you know a version of space invaders or something like that and you just like literally just copying down what’s written there but you sort of learn as you do and I was doing some games programming and then you know over time I actually found that I quite liked solving problems with this stuff, right, so my first summer jobs were sort of writing billing systems for a credit card company.

Elliot Moss

You had a crazy childhood, Christian.

Christian Nentwich

Slightly.  And then I ended up you know here eventually studying, studying this in a bit more detail.

Elliot Moss

A PhD in Computer Science after your first Degree, you I imagine were in heaven, I mean is that, you know when you study, when people look at the names like Computer Science and they think he’s doing a doctorate, they would imagine they wouldn’t understand a thing, just again for the uninitiated, what does Computer Science look like at that level?  What is that you’re actually trying to get to grips with?

Christian Nentwich

Well, Computer Science is a big field that has many different areas, right, so you know everything from computer graphics, virtual reality, human computer interaction, theoretical stuff which is basically just maths, all the way to you know say software engineering.  I was in software… what they called software systems engineering at the time, which is the sort of the study of how big, complex software systems work because you know complex software systems are some, well probably the hardest thing that humanity has ever created, is complex software systems, right. 

Elliot Moss

And why is that?  Why are they so complex?

Christian Nentwich

They’re very large, they have a lot of interdependencies and there’s no way to guarantee that they will work which is why you see bugs in software, right, and we actually still don’t understand how to write software in many ways, right, we’re getting better and better but we still produce buggy software and software that falls over and things like that and so on.  This field is sort of, how can we get a little bit better at this and follow it a little bit better, right?

Elliot Moss

You know when people do their jobs, they look at how they can improve what they’re doing and if you’re a scientist of some sort it’s trial and error, a lot of this is, especially we’ve just seen over the last few years with the vaccine, you just keep going until you get better results.  Is software creation similar?  Is it incredibly iterative?

Christian Nentwich

It’s much, it’s definitely not a science, right, it’s a craft, right.  If we’re going to become a programmer, it’s a craft, right, it’s sort of like you almost need to just do it, do lots of it, you get better at it and you’ll probably have somebody who is more experienced than you sort of sits next to you at Master level and makes sure you don’t screw up, right, that’s sort of how, that’s sort of how it goes with that, yeah. 

Elliot Moss

And transitioning from the world of academia because again you do a doctorate, you’re pretty seriously interested in an area and as you said, there was a wide area and you focussed on the software.  You very quickly worked out in your own head that you weren’t going to work for anyone else and then it was just a question of how fast you could get there.  That’s my impression of the things I’ve read about you.  Firstly, is that true?  And secondly, why?

Christian Nentwich

I was 100% sure I was going to do research, right, so I still remember I was going to do computer graphics and like do game stuff and I thought I was really cool and then I talked to Anthony Finkelstein who was my PhD Supervisor and he said “That’s all nice and well and sexy stuff but why don’t we talk about some real world things and you work on that,” so I let him convince me to do what I did and I was going to get into research but after a few years of the programme, I think the reality of what it’s actually like to be a professional researcher, really hit me and for me, that environment isn’t right, right.  It was too slow moving for me, right, so I had to get out but luckily we decided to set up a company together and so that’s how we moved on. 

Elliot Moss

And that setting up the company and then all the different things that come with setting up a business and then running a business, all the other stuff, Christian, the bits of your brain that you don’t need for software, clever software stuff, how has that been?  If you can go back to when you first were in that business, was it a bit of a shock or was it, okay it was just another problem to solve?

Christian Nentwich

I mean, over the years, right, but when you build a company, you have to learn a lot about yourself, I think and you have to fundamentally change as a person.  That didn’t happen so much in the first company, more in the second company but you then find out quite a lot about yourself, right, so who’s going to sell the stuff, right?  Do you like selling, right?  Do you like speaking at conferences?  Are you a product person, right?  And so I learned that I really like selling, right, which if you’re going to build a business that sells software for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year, because that’s the sort of stuff we’re talking about here, right, you’d better like selling, right, if you’re the CEO or otherwise you can’t delegate that early on, right.  So that was a big revelation for me, right and that’s never changed, I still really like selling so, yeah.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out much more about Christian Nentwich and what he has discovered about himself and what is important in terms of making sure a business is successful.  Much more coming up from him in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan and Alastair Moore discuss artificial intelligence and machine learning, their possible application and the key things for organisations to consider when seeking to implement them. 

You can hear all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again with Christian if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker, it’s intelligent, you just have to ask it to play Jazz Shapers and you will be greeted with a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today and my eminent guest, Doctor no less, Christian Nentwich, Co-Founder and CEO of Duco, a technology company aiming to make managing data easy.  So, I love this, the thing you said about you find out things about yourself and luckily you found out that a) selling is important, which you knew but b) you’re good at it.  What did you discover you were less good at and what have you done to address that since you set the business up nine years ago?

Christian Nentwich

Yeah well, for selling I like people stuff, I like dealing with people, motivating people, leading people.  Anything operational, I enjoy a lot less, right.  So you know there’s the sort of thing, what are the activities that give you energy and what are the ones that suck your energy away, right?  And luckily when the business gets big enough, you can just hire a great exec team to… there’s always somebody who loves the things you hate, right, somehow, right, there’s some people who just love being the operator all day long and not being out, you know outdoors, you know pitching and you just get a good team together I think, right.

Elliot Moss

And those people that you found, how many people are in the business now, actually I should ask?

Christian Nentwich

About 180 at the moment, yeah.

Elliot Moss

Okay, and your operational team, you’ve obviously got strong views I imagine Christian so, when you, even if you don’t like doing it, you’re going to have a point of view about philosophical approach or implementation issues.  Is that a relatively easy thing to manage though because the implementor says, well, okay, well that’s a really good point, I didn’t know and they crack on or are there points where even though it’s something you hate, you secretly think you could do it better?

Christian Nentwich

I’ve never had a delegation issue in a way, right, so I think it’s really important to focus on outcomes and not tell people how they should do things but what the result should be, right, and we agreed a result and you go off and you do it, right.  Yes, sure, I mean there’s some core things that you, like for example, the values of your organisation and what is okay to do and what is not, you know how are things done around here so, those need to be agreed, right, and does need to be enforced, without compromise but mostly, for me, it’s about setting people outcomes and letting them go about things, right.

Elliot Moss

In the nine years that you’ve been developing this business, have you, apart from learning about yourself, have you noticed a tangible difference in the way that businesses understand the problem?  Because often when you come and you look at total addressable markets and the issues in businesses, you the entrepreneur are often ahead of the market and you have to persuade the market, this is the issue and where are we now?  It feels like things have shifted quite a lot over the last few years. 

Christian Nentwich

Yeah, I mean look, the technology cycle is just incredibly fast, right, so I mean we sort of went out there in 2013 and we said, we said to a whole bunch of banks, you know, you’re going to send us all your data in the cloud, right?  Send it all over and we’ll check it for you and in 2013 that was slightly absurd.  We actually were in this accelerator where you had to pitch to get in and we pitched to 14 banks and we said we’re going to do this in the cloud, they said, they all said you’re going to fail.  We said well, respectfully, we’ll do it anyway and they let us in, right, into the accelerator anyway and now, fast forward right, everything is in the cloud right so, you know, I think most people are still trying to figure out what exactly the cloud is but everything is in the cloud.  Things have changed fundamentally, right?  Also, machine learning, you know, these things are more accepted now, right?  Can we trust computers to make decisions for us?  You know, I think we’re starting to, we’re starting to trust them a little bit, right, to make decision for us so, I think a lot has changed over that timeframe.  

Elliot Moss

Trust is a really important word because obviously as you said, back then and I remember the businesses that I met at the time, the cloud was an anathema because it wasn’t safe, people didn’t trust that the data would be secure over there.  The trust that people have put in you since accepting the idea to on, you know your business to go into the accelerator, lots of funding over the years, you’re a well-funded business.  How do you maintain that trust with the people that are investing in you and how do you maintain that trust with your clients as the technology landscape evolves?

Christian Nentwich

Yeah, I mean it’s a bit different with the two of them I guess, right.  With the clients, interestingly the more, the bigger you get and the more you sign up large companies, the more people just want to know who else is using it, right, so you know you sort of get the trust from saying look at all these other big companies that use us, right, we’re the safe choice, right, and that’s the difference between running an early stage business and a late stage business.  So, early stage is sort of, look at cool new tech and algorithms and late stage, nobody wants to hear that, they want to know that they’re not going to fired if they buy your stuff and so, I think we got there.  With investors, I mean everybody approaches that differently.  For me it’s complete transparency on the good things and the bad because there’s a lot of bad and a lot of good that happens in a growing company.

Elliot Moss

It’s one of your values as well, no spin. 

Christian Nentwich

Yeah.  Yeah.  And now I think, especially with a Board of Directors or you know, no spin, right, tell the truth always, right.  And like relentless commitment and hustle at all times, right, so that people know you are going to work day and night to make the thing a success, right.

Elliot Moss

Are you still as close to the product as you were in the early days?  I mean emotionally, I don’t mean…

Christian Nentwich

Emotionally?  Yeah, emotionally, yes, I think so, right, so I, you know and I know that because when it’s not working, it’s painful to me, right, so we go down or if we have, you know, if a client has a problem because we haven’t got a release right or something, that’s painful to me and I will investigate what’s going on, right. 

Elliot Moss

I will investigate.  I love it.  You should see his face, he’s smiling in a sort of wicked way.  You don’t want to be investigated by Christian Nentwich, he’s my Business Shaper today and he’ll be back along with some New Orleans Blues from Professor Longhair so don’t go anywhere, that’s all coming up in just a moment here on Jazz FM. 

Professor Longhair, possibly the best name ever, with Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Christian Nentwich, the other great name today obviously, is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes, he’s the Co-Founder and CEO of Duco and you’ve been hearing, I hope, unveiling what it really means to manage data and think about it in a simple way, which is messy in the engine room and you make it clean.  The people in your business and you’ve talked about a hundred and eighty, hundred and eighty people or so, you look relaxed to me, which means something’s working, of course you’re not relaxed, he’s now raising his eyebrows, going where’s this going?  The ability for these other people in the business to really be invested, sometimes that can go, and get smaller as the business gets bigger because they feel less part of things but it feels to me that the business is actually growing because people are really taking responsibility.  How have you managed to inculcate that sense of care and that sense of ownership?

Christian Nentwich

That sort of thing always feels to me like, like any human relationship, could be a private relationship or a business.  This does not happen without a lot of work, right, it’s all conscious effort, right, to creating a culture, talking about it, creating a sense of responsibility, agreeing what sort of people we’re going to hire into the business and what sort of people we’re not going to hire into the business and having people around that care as much as you do, relaxes you a lot, right, because you know they’re going to be there when you are underground somewhere or you are asleep or you know, I think that’s, it’s really empowering for everybody actually, right, everybody feels a little safer in an environment like that. 

Elliot Moss

Your own view of where you are at now nine years in, obviously things are going well.  Is there a lot of a runway still?  Is this business going to change fundamentally or is it just going to get bigger?

Christian Nentwich

It will change quite a bit in the next few years, right, so we are in a bigger growth phase, we’re going to be probably 7-800 people in you know, three to four years’ time, you know, we are not going to just grow by doing things ourselves anymore, you know we will likely acquire some other businesses and integrate them and that’s exciting, right, I mean I think everybody’s really excited about that but that has consequences and it will change the business and we have to make sure it doesn’t change it in a bad way, right?  That’s we’re going to be very focussed on that. 

Elliot Moss

And are you nervous about something like that Christian?  Again, I’m just thinking about the way your life has gone and how successful you’ve been over the years.  Do you get scared about stuff where there’s going to be significant change or is that what, is that what actually gives you the energy?

Christian Nentwich

I get very scared if there’s no change, like I have zero, I get don’t get scared by any of that stuff at all, right?  If the thing was going sideways, I’d be very concerned, right, so I guess it’s a sort of natural environment where your risk appetite is going to be high if you’re doing the sort of things I’ve been doing in my life, right, so no, that doesn’t make me nervous, I think sideways or shrinking, that would be very hard for me. 

Elliot Moss

So, expect more change from Duco.

Christian Nentwich

Oh yeah.

Elliot Moss

Oh yeah.  Buckle up, there’s going to be a… the ride’s going to continue.  It’s been really lovely chatting to you.  Thank you and thank you for helping me and many other people at least get a simple grasp of what ostensibly looks pretty complicated and of course under the bonnet I know it is complicated but we won’t go into the algorithms and the various other things because that would be, that would go into a rabbit warren very, very quickly.  Just before I let you go, I know you’re a keen musician, keen pianist and I know that ideally we may have been looking at a classical piece right now and a beautiful Chopin but without Chopin, instead of Chopin, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Christian Nentwich

So, I picked Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, I Put a Spell on You and the reason I like that song is I really like people who have the guts to express themselves fully, right, and if you just listen to what’s going on in that song and you look at the video, that guy gets it done for sure, right, so that’s why I like that song. 

Elliot Moss

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins with I Put a Spell on You, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Christian Nentwich.  He talked about the journey he’s been on in terms of learning about himself and he said of himself, ‘I like selling’, very important in a software company.  He talked about how he’s managed to grow a team of people into a team of people that really care, that are really invested in the business and it enables him to sleep at night and he’s done that by focussing on outcomes rather than telling people exactly what he wanted them to do, which I think is a really good and simple thought.  And finally, he talked about the importance of relentless commitment and hustle, doesn’t matter how big or small you are, that is what it takes to be really successful.  Great stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

Duco is a cloud service used by the largest companies in the world to make sure they can safely and rapidly deal with important data.

Originally from Vienna, Christian taught himself programming and came to the UK for his undergraduate studies and PhD. By his own admission, he has, to date, failed to get a job anywhere other than his own companies.

Highlights

The thing with data is it’s so abstract for people that it’s almost impossible to get across what you actually do.

When you think about what the world economy actually runs on, it’s all data.

Being a programmer is definitely not a science. It’s a craft.

When you build a company, you have to learn a lot about yourself, I think you have to fundamentally change as a person.

I like dealing with people, motivating people, leading people.

I think it’s really important to focus on outcomes, and not tell people how they should do things but what the result should be.

I think most people are still trying to figure out what exactly the cloud is. But everything is in the cloud. Things have changed fundamentally.

When you’re in the early stage it’s about ‘look at this cool new tech and algorithms’. Late stage, nobody wants to hear that. They want to know that they’re not going to fired if they buy your stuff.

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