We Are Windmill… Meet Flavien Aubelle

Malcolm Gledhill

We Are Windmill is a series that profiles Windmill’s employees, digging into their philosophies, experiences, and passions. In this post, we meet Flavien Aubelle, our Geneva-based Acting CEO, who makes sure that the various teams at Windmill help founders and digital leaders to create and improve their digital products through design thinking. Flavien joined Windmill in 2020 as a Product Owner and has since advanced to this position of greater responsibility. In his free time, you can find Flavien organizing online Go training camps as well as tournaments in Switzerland and all over Europe.

Below is a condensed version of our interview with Flavien.

Tell us about your professional background. What was your path to becoming Acting CEO at Windmill?

I have a degree in Computer Science, but even before I graduated I realized that I could not see myself as purely a developer or programmer. I didn’t have that thirst for it. What I also realized was that my differentiating skills are in human relationships, which led me into consultancy, as a bridge between the two skill sets. I learnt more about the human side of things: business, project management, how to define something. After leaving consultancy, I began to explore different venture ideas, notably in virtual reality (VR).

I came to Windmill, which was right up my street, to combine both those experiences. Windmill is a very flexible company with many opportunities, and I was lucky to find a partner in Sunny Gambhir willing to give me the keys to try and execute my vision. My interpretation of the role of CEO is that communication, from me but also among the team, is critical. My responsibility is making sure people are aligned, processes are respected, and that what was communicated is executed or moving forwards. I’m now on a journey of learning, and with the support of all the team we are improving ourselves everyday.

What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?

To keep a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish, and how, is an important one. Especially in our ever-increasing changing environments, with new priorities every day. For that purpose, the whole team needs to be open-minded, engage in discussion, and always try to find a common understanding for everyone’s own interpretation.

What do you do differently to most?

I prioritize ensuring clarity in communication. Whether it’s to understand how something works, or straighten out communication issues within my team, I always try to understand in detail and clarify my interpretations and the interpretations of others. Often, I find people leave things left unaddressed or assumptions not discussed or challenged. It’s vital to clarify those in order to reach a common understanding.

But this isn’t something that can be forced. It’s important for me to be a trustworthy figure so that people are comfortable speaking their mind and expressing frustrations and concerns. I will then try to mediate discussions between people so they can reach a mutual understanding. 

What question are you asked more than any other?

If I may interpret that literally, probably “How are you?”, given that is our human communication protocol.

To ask more than to listen, sometimes. It’s interesting to note, we know that question is important enough to be our first in most interactions, and somehow, we often forget to listen closely to the answer. That is also something everyone has to work on (listening deeply rather than just “asking”) to ensure that we stay connected—which is even more important in these remote working times.

You are the President of the Swiss Go Federation—How has your mastery of the boardgame transferred to how you conduct business?

Go is a very interesting game! Many aspects of Go can teach you about business and many other fields. In Asia, it is common for students or CEOs alike to learn Go to broaden their horizons. Of course, there has never been one specific situation in business where I thought, Aha! This is exactly like Go! No—where it can help is thinking conceptually and about the big picture. 

Some interesting parallels spring to mind:

Being patient

We often say that Go is a mirror of your mind. You can be aggressive, defensive, balanced, or all-in. You learn the benefits and costs of each style. Sometimes I’m impatient and attack the opponent before being fully prepared on my side. But fights spill into other areas of the board, so if I haven’t prepared my groups, they will suffer for being included in a fight they are not ready for. 

Separating the local (tactical) from the global (strategy)

This is related to tunnel vision. Go is played on a big, 19×19 board with 361 intersections. When you play close to your opponent, you can easily start a fight over the area, but doing that you risk being drawn into thinking only about that area. While natural, you’re putting your focus there while forgetting the global picture.

Taking a step back is a fundamental part of Go. When you focus on a specific (local) problem, you should never forget the global strategy. It can be the same with business: you can be so focused on one problem that you forget the bigger picture. You can make a decision that you think is good but is actually detrimental to your global strategy.

Keeping a balance of your territory vs. your influence

You can draw a parallel between these concepts and business. The business-as-usual things, the proven revenue generators can be seen as the territory; and innovative parts of the business, with more speculative returns is like the influence. In both cases there’s a balance to be struck. Too much territory risks compromising the strategic vision. Too much influence without territory makes you vulnerable.

Being light rather than heavy (innovator rather than laggards)

This would be closer to the 80/20 rule. In Go, if you play superfluous moves in one of your groups, it becomes “heavy”. That is, it is inefficient. The more moves you invest in a group, the greater the importance of that group in your eyes and the more you want to save it. The effect is it becomes ever more a constraint, detracting from flexibility and agility.

It is often the same when building products. When you spend too much time developing and improving a specific feature for months and months, you feel as if the time you spent on it justifies its importance. That can make you delay decisions such as switching your focus more quickly. 

Unpicking bad habits

All of the above can be improved, but it takes time. Even when I analyse and understand my mistakes on a purely rational level, I still continue to do them for some time! I can see a situation and think “Yes, this is the proper move… Buuut I would really like to play there instead!”. It takes time and effort to really understand my thought process, deep down, and to change my way of thinking, my habits.

Go teaches you a lot about yourself, the way you think and the things you focus on. I could talk a long time about Go, I would recommend for everyone looking for self-introspection to try their hand at a few games!

Photo of Windmill Acting CEO Flavien Aubelle with six Go teammates
Flavien, second from the left, with his Go teammates
The top-ranked Go player is now a robot, AlphaGo. What can we learn about the present and future of AI from AlphaGo?

Well, firstly there are two iterations of AlphaGo. The original AlphaGo was trained on all recorded professional AlphaGo matches. It learned from humans, then beat all humans. Then, AlphaGo Zero was created. AlphaGo Zero was entirely self-taught. As the name suggests, it received zero human input. And very quickly it overtook AlphaGo and beat it 100-0 in a series.

AlphaGo Zero was unrestrained by tradition or cultural precepts. It would often play strange moves and moves that were considered crude or lacking in style. Further, when humans play, we have a tendency to prefer to leave areas unsettled to leave our options open. AlphaGo Zero doesn’t do that. It closes positions aggressively. As a result, a lot of established moves and sequences have changed at both the professional and amateur levels. 

AlphaGo Zero serves as a reminder that tradition and culture can inhibit the way we think, producing sub-optimal outcomes. Belief sometimes holds you back from true understanding and can blind you to what you can’t imagine.

What early experience shaped who you are?

When I was young, I had two cousins who read a lot. And I was fascinated by their discussions, and the power imagination had. They’ve shown me that worlds of knowledge were ready to be explored.

I am still drawn to people who think independently and challenge the status quo. Everything around us, except nature, was built by people who came before—so theoretically everything you see can be re-done. You have to challenge assumptions and test and try.

Bio: Malcolm Gledhill is Windmill’s Content Marketing Manager. He holds a BA from Southampton University and joined Windmill in 2021 following five years working as an editor at a major US data company. 

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