On Continual Education

I never went to university.

Well I did – I went to Leeds to study music –  but I dropped out after 3 months to go and join a metal band. And had a rip-roaring time of it too.Peet at 17

During most of my 20 years in tech, I’ve often regretted not sticking it out and getting a proper education with letters after my name and all the trimmings. But to be honest, it hasn’t really held me back – I’ve worked as a consultant for the likes of Sun Microsystems and BEA, I’ve run a couple of tech companies, taught programming and architecture at Oracle University (internationally) and spoken at several conferences.

The thing that has allowed me to do this has been the habit of learning all the time.

When I wanted to make the transition from teaching English to working in tech a couple of decades ago, I started a small web startup and bought Teach Yourself HTML and devoured it. On the train to work, at lunchtime, between lessons, on the train home, in bed…everywhere! And I’ve been learning constantly ever since.

This has not only opened up all sorts of doors for me in my career and taken me all over the world, but has made my life WAY more interesting.

The golden age of learning

The best universities have all got courses online for free, almost free or pretty cheap. What a time to be alive! This means that you’ve got access, right now, to a wealth of instruction from some of the best teachers in the world!

I’m a techie, so I’m going to focus here on how to get a great technical education, but the same applies across a  lot of disciplines.


This is where it all started. In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of technology published 50 of their courses online for free. Videos, slides, exercises. All for free.

Their Math for Computer Science course is taught in the same lecture theatre that you’ll have seen Richard Feynman teaching in. The lecturers are truly world-class, and everything that comes out of their mouths seems like the truest thing that’s ever been said.

There are incredible courses on most of the areas you’d expect to see on a top-notch computer science degree, plus all the maths and physics you could ever want.

Check out Gilbert Strang’s seminal course on Linear Algebra.


This is the platform that really made MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courseware) household names.

Co-founded by AI Boffin and Stanford professor Andrew Ng, Coursera started off with courses from Stanford, and then blossomed to include courseware from several Ivy League Universities. Ng’s Machine Learning course is still one of the best introductions you can get to the field of AI.
What Coursera improves on, above what M.I.T. provides is that you have access to teaching assistants, a community of fellow students and graded exercises. Since the courses are run over a fixed time-frame (e.g. 11 weeks), you’re given a push to absorb a large amount of new information or skills in a short amount of time. And the fact that you need to complete both exercises and labs means that you end up understanding the material at a really deep level.

My favourite courses from this platform are:


Khan Academy

I don’t know where I’d be without Khan Academy.
It’s actually made for kids, but it’s saved my life, professionally.

Founder Sal Khan is one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever come across.
After getting two bachelors degrees in Maths and CS from MIT, and an MBA from Harvard, Sal worked in a hedge fund as an analyst for several years before starting to make videos to help his many nephews and nieces with maths. After seeing how popular they were with kids who were not related to him, he quit his job, postponed buying a house and dedicated a year to trying to get Khan Academy off the ground.

Now that it’s had investment from Bill Gates and other large charitable organisations, this not-for-profit foundation has created an amazing education platform to revolutionise the way that kids (and occasionally adults) are taught.

Take any maths or science subject that you’ve always struggled with, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll understand it deeply after completing the KA section on that subject. Do it now! 🙂

Plus it’s a case study in how to really do Gamification well. Check out this dashboard with unlock-your-next-avatar, points, and streak counters.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 15.44.30

I do a lot of computer science courses in ML, AI and algorithms, and have to keep running back to KA to bone up on calculus, and the finer points of geometry and probability.

What next?

In a future blog, I’ll talk about some of the premium online education providers like Udacity and Stanford Centre for Professional Development. These providers charge a substantial fee, but offer qualifications from prestigious educational bodies for a fraction of the price of attending the actual universities.

In the meantime, why not carve out 6-8 hours a week for a couple of months and learn something brand new for fun and profit!


The Inaugural Birmingham AI Meetup

Wealth Wizards have been doing AI R&D in the WW lab for about a year, and our AI Guild has recently grown to 12 members. Now that our developments are starting to make their way into production, we decided to join the Birmingham AI community to share what we’ve learned and get some cross-pollination of ideas.

When we found there wasn’t an AI community in Birmingham, we decided to start one!

In the four weeks since we launched the group, around a hundred members have signed up.

We ran our first Meetup in Digbeth – an area which is quickly becoming the Silicon Roundabout of Birmingham. And it was awesome.

As the organiser, I was nervous that no-one would turn up, but as 18:30 approached more and more people turned up and helped themselves to beer and pizza. In the end, we had twenty-one attendees.

We had three fascinating talks from PushDoctor, 383 and Wealth Wizards (represent!) and loads of great discussion, and one thing that struck us is just how engaged everyone was.

Almost everyone there was working in AI, machine learning or data science, and I loved hearing the war stories from actual practitioners in the field.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 16.58.11.png

Holly Emblem from 383 kicked us off with a talk “Real World applications for Bayesian Statistics and Machine Learning”. 383 have been pushing the boundaries of how to use Bayesian classification to enhance their understanding of their web analytics data.
She also gave some warnings about the next potential AI winter.



Then Josh Sephton from PushDoctor shared their experiences from the trenches running a chatbot in anger for past year. They’d condensed their wisdom down to four key personality traits they’ve found useful to see in a chatbot.

You can see the whole talk here on the new Brum AI YouTube channel.

We hope to get our AV woes sorted out and have videos of all of our talks in the future.


Finally, Kojo Hinson gave an awesome and mind bending talk on “Understanding the ‘Natural’ in Natural Language Processing”. We hope to publish his slides on Slideshare soon, but here’s a teaser.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 16.52.31


Several of the AI Boffins who attended our first Meetup are already signed up to deliver talks at future Meetups. The next one is in Digbeth on the 14th December. Why not sign up and come along!

There’s a waitlist already, but we’ll get a larger venue if enough people sign up 🙂

Birmingham Artificial Intelligence Meetup

Birmingham, GB
99 AI Boffins

A place for AI and Machine Learning boffins and get together and discuss how we’re using Deep Learning, Natural Language Processing, AI Planning, Clustering, Reinforcement Lea…

Next Meetup

BrumAI: December

Thursday, Dec 14, 2017, 6:30 PM
30 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →


How to turn good ideas into great ones

To have a great idea, you first need to have several hundred crazy ideas. This is as true of organisations as it is of people. A culture where people feel free to speak up in meetings and throw crazy ideas about is a really useful thing to develop, as long as we can somehow sort the good from the bad, the great from the good, and the exceptional from the great.

Does your company have a culture of exploring, analysing and weighing new ideas? Typically, wild ideas are treated in one of two ways:

“Mhmm. Sounds good Jeff” (while thinking, that’s a terrible idea, hopefully this guy will stop talking about this soon).

“Yes, that sounds great” [doesn’t really understand]. The book The Mom Test describes how people will often heap superficial praise on the idea, without really understanding it well, because they like you as a person.

Instead of immediately forming an opinion on whether an idea is good or bad, a better approach is to try to put our initial gut-reactions on hold and spend 2 or 3 minutes exploring the concept in a more rigorous way.

A useful way of doing this is to use the ‘dialectic method’, otherwise known as Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

In this paradigm you listen to what is being proposed and take the opposite stance playing ‘devil’s advocate’, to try and find arguments against whatever has been proposed. This criticism creates a tension which you and the proposer then try to resolve. This reconciliation between the two viewpoints usually ends up in something brand new called the ‘synthesis’.

For example:

Thesis: People can only get financial advice from a qualified financial planner, and this is expensive

Antithesis: People don’t need access to a qualified financial planner to get financial advice.

Synthesis: Can we create some software that gives the advice that a qualified financial planner would give, but at a lower price?

Thesis: We should get a ball pit for the office so that people can take naps during the working day

Antithesis: We can’t get a ball pit, the balls will get everywhere and will make the office look terrible

Synthesis: Let’s get a futon!

Thesis: Oil is becoming more and more scarce, we need to develop more efficient engines

Antithesis: Oil is becoming more scarce, but I wonder if developing more efficient engines is the only solution?

Synthesis: Build electric cars

Thesis: No one will buy electric cars, they look like a shoe and perform like a cow

Antithesis: People need to starting converting to electric cars

Synthesis: Build a sexy high-end electric supercar to show everyone the possibilities and use the proceeds to fund a mass-production car


How can we practice this as a company? First, someone needs to be the person in the team who starts flinging ideas about like Billy-o. Could this be you?

Then, here are some ideas about how we can use the dialectic method to explore and filter those ideas:

As a giver
If someone presents an idea, immediately take the contrary view. Do it with a cheeky smile, so everyone knows what the game is. Challenge the idea instead of the proposer. Treat it as an intellectual game.

As a receiver
If you have an idea, seek out people who are likely to think it’s a bad idea. Do you know any grumpusses? Go and find them, and pour your heart out. Keep your cool as they stomp your beautiful idea under their vile jackboots and write down all of their pearls of wisdom.  See if you can satisfy all of their beefs. If you can, you have a winner. If you can’t, then maybe we’ve all learned something today.

As a team
Run brainstorming sessions where you produce ideas on post-its. Then as a team rank them by the most controversial. Then explore the top two or three in depth in this paradigm.


TLDR; let’s take the lead in showing how we can challenge ideas with a smile, and use this as a way to create new even better ideas!