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Idealog's Most Creative: Rush Digital's Danu Abeysuriya talks creativity

Rush Digital's Danu Abeysuriya was one of the People's Choice winners for Most Creative in digital/data for Idealog and Accenture's Most Creative People. Abeysuriya is one of the rare few tech gurus around who can explain big, hairy concepts like computer vision in layman’s terms. He founded his own digital engineering company, Rush Digital, at the tender age of 24 and has since worked with the likes of Microsoft, Samsung and Heineken to bring big creative ideas to life through digital technology. Here, he talks what makes him creative, finding inspiration and where his best ideas come from. 

What does creativity mean to you?

In my world being creative means solving a problem in a new way, being original. This is enthused in my every day at Rush Digital as finding the best solution for a client may not always be the most straightforward one, and sometimes… it is! It means changing a previous perspective, taking risks where risks are needed and overcoming the doubts which stop you from thinking outside the box/facing fears. For me, creativity goes hand in hand with breaking out of an everyday routine and doing something different, even if it is does not turn out exactly how it seems to in my head.

What do you think it is about your nature/habits/interests that makes you creative?

If you ever start to research creative people or creative minds, I am sure there will be characteristics studied that surely apply to many. One of the ideas often associated to creative types is their ability to control their energy — i.e. when necessary, I can focus like a laser beam. This ‘rhythm of activity’ followed by reflection is key to success in my work — for me this means stepping out of the office, or away from the computer to play football, go to the gym and spend time with friends and family.

I also get lost in the knowledge, freely follow my intuition and curiosity when I have the luxury and really have a systems view on the world, its what makes me a good programmer as well. I read a lot of articles and listen to audiobooks and podcasts about lots of different topics, and try to learn what successful and particularly capable people do day-to-day, their life paths and challenges they navigate and face.

What first drew you to your chosen field?

I saw the rise in mobile and how video games might change things, so I figured while I was young, it was the time to be taking risks. I chose the name Rush to mean a rush of adrenaline, inspiration, excitement — that sort of thinking.

With regards to engineering in general, it was probably my parents and friends. I was shown and given freedom to explore computers and how things worked, my parents never told me off for taking things apart —  I would get a new toy, it’d be on the floor in bits within minutes, and it was never held against me. I had (and thankfully still have) a lot of friends that are great artists, creators, mathematicians, physicists, tinkerers and thinkers.

The Rush Digital team

What was your upbringing like, and how do you think that led you to where you are today?

I am Sri Lankan born, spent my early life in Africa, and my family then settled in South Auckland in the 90s. Further along the line, I earned a software engineering degree from the University of Auckland. I believe that this multi-cultural background fostered my ability to get along with all kinds of people, and introduced a huge amount of diversity into my life. My parents are both teachers, so no chance I was going to get away with not having some focus on education either, interestingly, the most valuable thing I got out of both my school and university years were the people and friends I met, more than the learnings.

Where do your best ideas come from?

Ironically, stupid ones. Sometimes I think ‘what if’ - forgetting limitations and then working backwards.  Some of the best ones come when you have a couple smart people in a room bouncing off each other and ‘riffing’ as Geoff Vuleta once said to me.

I also like to join dots, hence the interest in so many fields and consumption of literature in fields not technology related. Stupid ideas can turn into pretty good ideas. They can also just stay stupid.

What does inspiration look like for you?

It’s an eclectic mix of pride in work, moving the needle and beating a challenge. When I see a problem or space that's difficult, can have a big impact if solved and requires skill to pull off, I get inspired to make things happen.

Is there an ethos/motto you abide by in your work?

Paranoia, haha. No, it’s more like solve for the biggest risks first, work your way down, have lots of backups and redundancy and keep up the momentum. We also have a motto at Rush “test what you deploy, deploy what you test”.

If there were a secret to success, what would it be?

Luck, grit and the realisation you can’t do it alone. I think a straight-forward answer would be that, in the end, success is not about being different or having secret knowledge. Rather, it relies on the ability to see things from other point's of view, as well as your own. A somewhat comical, but lasting piece of advice which I was once told is: “you are the average of the people you surround yourself with — so, make sure they are smarter than you!”

In my world being creative means solving a problem in a new way, being original. It means changing a previous perspective, taking risks where risks are needed and overcoming the doubts which stop you from thinking outside the box/facing fears. For me, creativity goes hand in hand with breaking out of an everyday routine and doing something different, even if it is does not turn out exactly how it seems to in my head.

What were some challenges that you faced early on? What went wrong? Any regrets?

Early challenges… errr… does everything count? Had to learn on my feet… fast, and had to learn how to do all the things I kinda take for granted as skills I have now. No regrets. It’s weird but i think you’ll find most entrepreneurial people who are successful or on the way to success lean-in rather than lean-away. Bezos has the right idea: “Regret minimization framework”. in summary: YOLO.

Do you work a lot? Do you have an obsessive part to your personality?

My friends think I do, but the reality is it’s more like ebbs and flows, there’s more work to do but you get a lot more flexibility, so discipline is important. I try not to ever work in my down time (e.g. from home), but head into the office for part of Sunday to either prepare for the week ahead or catch up from the past week. In between there are family occasions, games of footy/gym and the odd holiday and night out. I get up around 5am every other day and most days will get home around 7 or 8 to make it all work. Sometimes I'm a hot mess but for the most part it works.

I’ve learned that I’m most successful at something when I have a good set of objectives in mind, and I try to have 90 day horizons on things I’m doing to always keep the goal in sight. I’m analytical which can appear as obsessive, but who am I kidding, I’m obsessive.
 

What’s the secret to resilience?  

In my mind, I think about resilience as the speed and strength of your response to adversity. So when you come across a difficult problem or challenge, it becomes key to navigate a response quickly and effectively, in terms of whether you can marshal the strength to either overcome that challenge or persevere in the face of it.

I’ve tried many different things when faced with challenges, and for me, I think it comes down to getting advice, talking things through from the position of ‘what do we do next’ as opposed to ‘what’s happened’ - you can’t change the past - it’s a hard pill to swallow but if you can know your endgame, your chips and your cards, you’ve got options. I also hate losing, which helps you dig deep and focus when it’s go-time.

What have been some highlights of your career?

  • The moment we got the first contract to port Disney’s Where’s my Water to windows phone was a point of pride. It was a big deal to a little team.

  • The first time ‘we made bank’

  • Weirdly, when some of our staff move on to other incredible companies like Weta Workshop / Magic-leap and Ubisoft - I’m like a proud mother!

  • The Tug of War - awesome activation that took a lot of ingenuity

  • Winning NZ Hi-Tech Young Achiever 2016

  • An awesome spread in Idealog a couple of years ago!

  • The love for the work that employees, clients, friends, family and strangers have towards it.

     

What do you think New Zealand is like for creativity? Is there something about ‘Kiwiness’ that helps or hinders?

In New Zealand, we enable for creativity and are lucky to have many great advocates in our the creative sector — with its social, cultural, educational and economic benefits. These “creatives”, or people, are commended in a supportive environment — and even more so, through these Idealog ‘Most Creative People’ awards.

Creativity is not always the easiest of areas to get systematic and significant attention to — some may still view it as part of the ‘nice to have’ group. So it is assuring that increasingly there is a positive outlook for fostering creativity as more ‘central’ as a skill enthused in our people as part of the modern world.

What would be the advice you’d give someone who wants to turn their creative passion into a full-time gig?

I was speaking to a group of ‘bright sparks’ the other week at an event, where I referred to my own experience and learning to point out the importance of creativity and the identification of broader opportunities. The talk, though directed to young inventors, has some relevance to us all:

  • There is an importance in learning through experience and in learning from others — a mentor relationship can aid experiences through the navigation of life and creative decisions.

  • Similar to the first point — friends and family play huge roles in these areas and are a huge source of inspiration, wisdom and support.

  • Finding a balance in life that works for you allows you to last and go the distance and gives yourself some room for the softer side of entrepreneurship like reflection and motivation.

What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Having the third world as a key part of who I am as a person, and seeing the different ways people live across the world, I have an appreciation for the opportunities and experiences I have had — key to my upbringing is staying grounded and remembering why I’m doing what I am doing — and the reasons which shadow my actions.

You have to be willing to completely and utterly fail, and not in a half arsed sense, whole hog, full reset and maybe even a few steps backward. Don’t be stupid about it, but yeah, YOLO.

Failing is never as bad as you think it’s going to be, it’s just your lizard brain trying to save you from a bit of pain.

Where to next? Do you have a goal you’re working towards?

Help make Rush a heavy hitter, build the best damn digital foundry the world’s ever seen and make it more sustainable through IP (we want to give computers better eyes!) and creating a world for incredible people to immerse themselves in.

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