CIO50 2020 #26-50: Paul Brady, CarbonClick
“Our objective was not just to improve the current carbon offset offerings but to reinvent the market itself,” says Paul Brady, chief technology officer and co-founder of startup Carbon Click.
“CarbonClick will enable consumers to more accurately understand their carbon footprint as well as offer them opportunities to engage with confidence in the carbon offset market,” says Brady, who first developed the concept for Carbon Click in 2017 with co-founder Jan Czaplicki.
The two aim to reach their goal of channelling US$1 million per day to carbon offset programs by 2023.
The carbon offset market is projected to grow rapidly in response to growing awareness of the climate crisis, he says.
The challenge the team faced at the start was to find technological solutions to systemic problems facing the carbon offsetting industry.
He points out big data combined with machine learning could address the challenge of measuring the carbon footprint of millions of consumer activities and potentially millions of variations thereof.
Blockchain could provide a much higher level of transparency into the assets being exchanged in the system, such as money exchanged for carbon credits and carbon credits realised from carbon sequestration projects like tree planting.
He says while they were excited about the potential of blockchain, they were concerned whether the technology was mature enough to form part of the solution, and what risks it could potentially introduce.
He says that first; they had had to solve major problems that existed in this industry for the past 25 years.
To develop a carbon offsetting program, businesses need to invest a significant amount of time, money and specialist expertise - something most are unable to do, he states.
Because a limited number of businesses offer carbon offsets, consumers lack the opportunity, trust and motivation to purchase.
Currently, people must take the initiative to find a provider and navigate a lack of transparency. In addition, many consumers have become disengaged by negative publicity around double-selling of carbon credits.
People also want to make sure their investments are having a positive effect on the environment. There wasn’t a way for consumers to determine what positive changes their cumulative offsets had contributed to and what others were doing.
They began by working on a new way to measure carbon footprint.
This led to the Emissions Intelligence Engine, a machine learning system that can analyse myriad consumer activities and measure them without having to be retrained. This gave them a broad coverage of the footprint of consumer activities.
They then created the opportunity to offset through CarbonClick Plugins. They have built a set of open-standard APIs and plugins for common platforms e.g. Shopify, to give any business and its customers a method to understand the footprint of a consumer activity. These APIs also allow the purchase of quality carbon credits and the ability to trace details about that purchase.
Brady says the CarbonClick Hyper Transparency Module builds trust in carbon offsetting.
“We have blended conventional data storage technologies with emerging blockchain technology to provide a higher level of transparency than previously possible. Consumers can trace any carbon offset they purchase from us across a distributed ledger showing exactly where their money went - down to the specific tree.”
Brady discusses the difference of building a career and a team in a start-up compared to a corporate or more traditional business.
There are a number of concerns that while not unique to start-ups, take on a slightly different guise to how larger organisations might encounter them, he states.
One of these is the speed of delivery as against the quality delivered.
“The obvious temptation is to build ad-hoc systems to get to market quicker,” he says. “I made a conscious decision to invest in building an enterprise grade framework up front to support our technology stack for a number of reasons.”
Then, there is aligning technology with the product while they are still discovering what the market wants from the product.
“We are innovating solutions in a new market which means product discovery is ongoing and may necessitate significant pivots at any moment,” says Brady.
He decided to build the core using cloud technology and practices available from day one.
“We have a fully automated pipeline for continuous delivery and have invested in building a common framework around AWS that easily allows us to quickly configure and provision any AWS resources to meet evolving needs.”
“In a small and young company, we can do certain things that would not be done in larger organisations,” he states.
Firstly, team members are given the opportunity to gain exposure to all aspects of the business and technology stack. They encourage regular pair programming between developers whether they may be junior or senior.
They can also pick up pieces of work in areas beyond their expertise.
“This can be a delicate balance as I want to use the most appropriate people to get the job done to the highest quality in a short time,” says Brady.
The technical team members have regular debriefs with the leadership where they learn about what’s happening in all areas of the business and can participate in conversations on these topics.
Individuals take ownership of their work and are responsible for defining best practice, where required, and following it.
He also ensures openness and transparency by recording all their meetings, having daily stand-ups and keeping the whole team updated on all parts of the business.
“Because we’re working for a social enterprise tackling the biggest challenge of our time, I organise team lunches and weekly drinks where we discuss topics on climate change and how the landscape is evolving in our operating sphere,” he says.
“These debates are often lively and exciting. Two of our senior technology team members have specifically stated that they shunned higher paying roles elsewhere to join our mission for this reason.”
A techie’s perfectionist trait
This is Brady’s first CIO role. “Coming into the role from technical software development and architecture roles, the range of concerns are baffling,” he says.
Financial through platform selection, UX, security and privacy concerns are now his responsibilities.
In a large organisation, there would usually be a different person for each of these roles.
“In a start-up, we can’t afford full time resources nor can we afford the luxury of moving at the slower delivery pace of many large organisations.”
He has developed several practices to help him make the best use of his time and that of the team.
He uses the ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology by capturing all of his tasks and concerns with tools like coda and trello.
“I perform regular reviews of everything to ingest and organise new tasks, and reorganise and reprioritise using the Eisenhower matrix, as well as internal decision trees I’ve created for more specific tasks such as evaluating the value of every meeting request I receive.
He holds “regular pruning sessions” with executives to make sure they are all aligned in their goals and priorities.
“I have found there is often a perfectionist trait present in technology professionals, myself included. I am trying to counteract this on a daily basis by instilling the “Good/Better/Best” mantra, which means that we strive for ‘good’ in everything initially and good may well be good enough for the importance of some tasks.
“We later progress to ‘better’, usually after gaining insights and feedback from stakeholder/customers. Then, if deemed appropriate, we progress to ‘best’. Incidentally, the 80/20 rule means that we more often than not stay at ‘better’, as ‘best’ is not worth the further investment.”
He concludes: “The biggest lessons I have learned are to value my own time and that of my team above all else, and to internalise the notion that perfect is not always best - good enough is often better.”