Interview and article by Phillipa Jefferies, Joanna Chustecki and Sara Jebril With thanks to the EPS Community and Alumni Relations Office.
On Wednesday 8th March Osman Kent, computer science and electronic engineering alumnus, returned to the University of Birmingham to inspire a whole new generation of technologists and entrepreneurs. He was cited by Business Insider magazine as one of the top 15 technologists in the world in 2012. However, as he discusses in his EPS distinguished lecture, it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
Whilst at university, you invented a real-time graphical music transcription device. What motivated you to do this?
Well, I’m a musician but my sight reading was terrible. So I said, if I could find a way of improving the feedback loop between what I’m playing and what would be notated, I could improve my sight reading and other people’s as well. This was an audacious project but in those days, we were very free to choose any final project we wanted. I decided to design the hardware and the software to make this happen. The hardware took ten breadboards – all lovingly wired by me. I put all this together and amazingly it worked, but the most important part of it wasn’t any of this. In 1980 bitmap graphics didn’t exist so, unbeknown to me, to display musical notation, I happened to invent some of the fundamentals of bitmap graphics. Many years later, I realised that start in bitmap graphics charted my path for the rest of my professional life.
What was it like going from being a student to an entrepreneur and starting your own company, Benchmark Technologies Ltd?
When I first came to England I had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. In fact, after the second year when my father went bankrupt, I said “I don’t want to be an entrepreneur, I just want to have a secure job, go 9 till 5”. Many years later, two years after I graduated, I was giving a training course in Vienna about a robotics camera that I had developed at the time. The Austrian agent said, “That’s strange. Are there many Turkish engineers in England?” I said, “Well I’m the only one I know”. He said, “Well two weeks earlier, there was this other Turkish guy giving us a training course about a lighting system he’d designed”. So I took the phone number, I came back and I gave this guy a call. Dr Yavuz Ahiska was seven years my senior but luck would have it that he was also a University of Birmingham Electrical Engineering graduate. He was a bit of an entrepreneur and he said “Can you design me a high-resolution graphics PC?” Not having designed one before, I said “Sure! Yeah I can”. He said, “I’ll give you £500 now and £500 when the project is sort of running”. Many months passed and in the end this thing came sort of limping along and working. “Osman” he said “to tell you the truth I don’t have the other £500, so why don’t we start a company instead and you be a shareholder?” That was my entrée into entrepreneurial work.
Along your journey have there been any particularly memorable characters who have inspired you?
Hundreds. One of my inspirations was actually Pedja Jovanovic, my boss in the CERN research department during my internship. He taught me so little and so much at the same time and it was one of the best summers of my life. I had a mentor during the early days of my business life, who was actually one of our investors too, and he taught me this: “Osman” he said, “you need to be wise to be wisely advised”. I heeded that because I would go to all these advisors, accountants, lawyers, and what have you, and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about because I hadn’t researched that particular aspect. I changed that and became an expert in tax, law, IP etc.
Interestingly, in all my companies, many of my employees were inspirations for me because of one thing, again, this mentor taught me: He said, “Osman, when you are building a company, one of the things you need to focus on is how to make yourself dispensable”. This was very contrary career advice because you would think that the normal thing would be that you would try to make yourself indispensable. But, especially at the top of a company, if you make yourself indispensable, when the company is sold you have to stay with it. Whereas if you make yourself dispensable, the company is sorted and you can go out to your next thing. As a result, I always recruited people more or less who were better than me. They were, for that reason, sources of inspiration.
You have been part of a lot different ventures, what gives you the motivation to keep trying new things and how do you know when it is right to move on?
It’s all about making a difference and pushing the envelope, that gives me the motivation. And time to move on? You realise this: there comes a time when you feel you can no longer make a difference and that’s the time to move on.
During your career, you must have reached many decision points where things could have gone either way, if you could go back would you have taken a different path at any point?
That’s a very tough question and I have two separate answers for you. On the professional front, I would not dwell on the past decisions because they probably felt right at the time and it’s difficult to know what the different outcome would be. The tougher question for me is the personal choices I have made and one of the dilemmas every entrepreneur I know faces is balancing family life and entrepreneurial life. You need to have someone around you who will always put up with your absence. So, with hindsight, I wish I could have spent more time with my three sons. In fact, I missed all their time preteen. In 2002 I fixed it and we started being together again, but by that time they were all in their teens and in their bolshie phase. So, that’s what I would change.
Where do you see yourself and your ventures moving in the next 10 years?
One thing I have learned is that I will not stop. I’ve retired twice already and it was so overrated. The first one lasted a month, I did lunches all the time and I got very bored. For me personally, it is very important that I keep thinking, inventing and coming up with things. If not, I’ll just become very demotivated and there’ll be nothing to pick me up. I want to write at least one book and release at least one personal album, which I have started doing and is a combination of poetry over improvised piano. I would also love to discover something in biosciences.
If you had just one piece of advice for current computer science or electrical engineering students who are about to leave university, what would it be?
That’s an interesting one. I would say, find a cofounder that you can trust and just go for it. Don’t be afraid of failure along the way because failing in an entrepreneurial endeavour is just part of the course and it’s essential on the way to success. It’s so important to enjoy the journey as well because, as someone who had these high expectations on my potential success points, what I realised was, by the time I reached these points, they were actually hollow. So, enjoy the journey.
SATNAV is thankful for the opportunity to interview Osman and gain an insight into his incredible career. We have especially enjoyed his lecture on how to learn from failure and the importance of the journey.
Missed the lecture and want to know more? There is an online copy of both the lecture and interview. Osman’s achievements have also been featured separately as an article on our website.