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Lorenzo Muttoni

Lorenzo Muttoni's educational and career path is characterized by a drive for technological innovation, a profound intellectual curiosity and an analytical-rational attitude shaped by the study of scientific disciplines.

Always passionate about computer science and information technology, after a degree in Telecommunications Engineering and a PhD on high-performance computing, Lorenzo was able to put his mindset as a researcher to good use in the most diverse contexts, first at PoliHub, Politecnico’s start-up incubator, then as a consultant and finally as Chief Information Officer of the Italian Electrotechnical Committee.

By designing and developing the online platform MyNorma, he has contributed to innovate the association's business model and the User Experience of the professionals accessing technical standards for their day-by-day activities: he is now preparing to face the most current challenges that new technologies pose to the world of standardization.

Lorenzo, tell us about your academic and professional career…

I decided to enrol at the Politecnico di Milano after having obtained a classical high school diploma, so my background was very far from the technical-scientific world. What made me make this decision was my great interest for everything related to technology, especially information technology, which at the time was still in its infancy. Initially, to fulfil my parents' expectations, I took Electronic Engineering but after three years I realized that I liked software and telecommunications more. So, I switched to Telecommunication Engineering and my real journey began there.

After graduation, my supervisor – Prof. Giuseppe Serazzi, who knew my passion for computer science – offered me the opportunity to do a PhD. This made me very happy, especially since the project I had to work on, ASI-PQE2000, was about high-performance computing. I mainly dealt with grid computing, as it was called back then, more specifically with evaluating the performance of an innovative development environment. At the same time, I carried out research on personal digital libraries that offered users ample scope for customization and suggested them - for example - new titles based on their tastes. Today we are used to this type of technology but twenty years ago it was something radically new and ground-breaking.

After the PhD, I started collaborating with PoliHub, the Innovation Park & Startup Accelerator of the Politecnico di Milano, where I built a small laboratory aimed at implementing projects for the incubated companies and supporting the incubator’s institutional activities. In those years, thanks to my mindset shaped by scientific research, we created and tested various prototypes of frameworks for document management and the construction of portals: all things that, in embryo, anticipated products that hit the market many years later.

At a certain point, I found myself at a crossroads, and I had to decide to either continue with academic research or give in to the “temptation” to move towards the world of industry. Despite being extremely fascinated by research, I realized that I would have preferred to get my hands dirty and deal with concrete problems. So, I began to collaborate with various industrial companies and private research institutes, making use of my technical-scientific training and my aptitude for research in this area as well. For a while I worked with companies that were developing projects funded by the Lombardy Region and the European Community, all of which were extremely interesting, until the Italian Electrotechnical Committee (CEI) asked me to evaluate their information systems.

The collaboration with CEI represented a turning point in my career because a few months after completing my work they reached out to me and offered me a job. They asked me to replace the Chief Information Officer, who was about to retire, and help the association to radically renew its approach to these issues. A figure like mine, with strong technical skills and the ability to do research and innovation, was the most suitable to meet this need, so I accepted the proposal and in 2012 I started working at CEI.

What did you do as Chief Information Officer of the CEI?

My journey with CEI has been – and still is – very interesting because, despite being an association closely linked to institutions and therefore “conservative” by nature, it gave me to opportunity to work on extremely stimulating projects. Thanks to these innovative projects, the Association has radically changed its business model: an excellent example of how a technological contribution can positively affect the way a company presents itself on the market.

In simpler words, CEI realized that market was changing: the standard, intended as a pure publishing product, was becoming less and less attractive to the end user (the professional), while - at the same time - services supporting the proper use of the standards themselves were becoming increasingly important. In such a scenario, the obvious choice for an association like CEI was to reshape its offerings by focusing on the sale of services. Thanks to the foresight and, I would say, also to the courage of the General Director and of the colleagues from Sales Department, CEI was able to start a major R&D project for the creation of an online platform that has changed the way the user interacts with the IT tool. This has been a very large interdisciplinary project, requiring the involvement of many different skills: from storage systems modeling to the study of human-computer interaction, from the performance and scalability evaluation to the study of security systems and high availability. Not forgetting, of course, the overwhelming software engineering activity (as design, implementation, quality control, etc.) that has characterized all these years of research. It took a lot of work, it was very challenging and with uncertain outcomes (as all research projects) but the results fully met expectations, even in the opinion of our end users.

How does MyNorma work and what impact has it had on the way in which professionals deal with a complex reality such as that of standardization?

MyNorma is a kind of container composed by a series of specialized vertical applications. There is a module dedicated to e-commerce, one for accessing standards by mean of a subscription, one for the training courses provided by the CEI... All these independent applications cooperate with each other to offer the end user a unique, seamless experience that solves the needs arising from the daily use of standards and, at times, anticipates solutions that simplify life.

The real novelty of MyNorma, however, consists in the way in which the end user interacts with our information systems. Today we no longer aim to sell standards but subscriptions for accessing the content. If, before, the user only used to interact with CEI's systems for a few moments, limiting himself to downloading the text of the standard once every 2-3 years, today he connects daily to our platform to read it online and to take advantage of all the support services we are now able to provide. Hence the need to improve the User Experience and make it practical and easy to access, not only on traditional devices but on mobile devices as well, since one of the needs of our end users was precisely to read the standards also on mobility, for example, on construction sites.

A further strength of MyNorma is its ability to solve one of the problems most felt by those who are using technical standards: that is, to make sure that the version of the standard they are reading is the most up-to-date. MyNorma, in fact, in addition to the notification services for standard updates that a user can activate on demand, offers visual tools to understand immediately whether the version you are using is the correct one. In fact, a timeline is always present, designed by making careful use of color and graphic structures, which allows you to see, at a glance, all the evolutions that the document has undergone over time. In this way, it becomes immediate for the user to get an indication of whether the selected standard is current or not, significantly reducing the likelihood of human errors. A service like this is of enormous value to a user who has to deal with this kind of situations on a daily basis. For me, it is a great satisfaction to have contributed to simplifying the work of many people who, even if they know nothing about research, computer science, User Experience design or distributed systems, can enjoy the benefits that these technologies are able to generate, if applied in a smart manner.

And now what projects are you working on?

After the design and implementation of MyNorma, which I have dealt with in the last five years, we are working to turn CEI into an active player at both European and international level, able to face the most important challenges for the future of standardization, namely the so-called machine readable and machine interpretable standards. Making a standard machine readable means to create an information model that describes the contents of the standard itself in such a way that they can be enriched with semantic and/or contextual information and subsequently autonomously “filtered” by computers. The next step would be to write machine interpretable standards, that is, ones that can be "understood," interpreted and applied by the machines themselves.

Today, machine readable standards are almost a reality while machine interpretable standards represent more of a need and a long-term perspective. Currently in Europe the idea is to have, by 2025, standards in which every sentence, even every word, is labelled and recognizable according to a certain criterion. A standard includes several types of content: prescriptions, suggestions, concessions, test cases, examples, and so on. Those who consult a standard would like to be able to identify quickly each of these contents, immediately viewing all the specified requirements or all the prescriptions. Right now, such a thing is impossible because standards are written for human beings, in natural language and not without a certain ambiguity that leaves ample room for interpretation. In the future, we would like to reduce this discretion and, consequently, ensure that a machine can filter the standard’s contents according to the user's requests. Implementing this function involves a revision of the information model underlying the standard. Today standards are already written in XML: each piece of text is identifiable as a title, paragraph, table, figure, etc. The goal is to enrich this structure by extending it from structural to semantic elements. Within the Working Groups dealing with this topic at both European and International level, as CEI we are collaborating to propose a solution and to formalize a hypothesis for an abstract information model that could satisfy all needs.

In addition to this, we work daily on the evolution of MyNorma, which remains our most valuable asset.

What do you like most about your job?

I consider myself extremely lucky because I love my job and I am not one of those who has to wait for the weekend to be able to do something more enjoyable. Likewise, for me Mondays are not a cause for frustration but the beginning of a week full of interesting activities. What for others is a passion to which they can dedicate themselves only in their spare time for me is everyday work and the effort it entails is always rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction. For me it would be unthinkable to do something different: applying analytical thinking and solving problems in the best possible way is something that amuses me and makes me happy to do the work I do.

How important was your experience at the Politecnico di Milano for you? And among the things you learned during your university years, is there anything that came in handy later on?

I am where I am and have made the career I had only and exclusively because of the Politecnico di Milano. The technical-scientific culture that I learned has become part of my way of thinking and has given me the opportunity to tackle problems in a brilliant way. I happened to meet smart people who had different education and work experiences, including many good programmers who, despite knowing the latest and greatest tools, had not been trained to think analytically, rationally, mathematically. On the contrary, having studied at the Politecnico, I notice that it comes naturally to me to analyse problems with a pragmatic and rational approach, and, very often, this approach brings out aspects that others fail to grasp or brings out solutions that others miss.

It wasn't easy – the Politecnico is famously synonymous with tears, sweat and blood – but looking back I saw that effort as a form of training that prepared me to face real cases that will never be as difficult as exam topics. Basically, the Politecnico teaches to learn and this ability is fundamental in all those situations – and there are many – in which we find ourselves facing new, unknown topics and we need to be able to understand and master them.

Is there an anecdote from your "polytechnic years" that you would like to share?

Once, when I was doing my PhD, I was in the laboratory with some students and suddenly a near-graduate came running in breathless and said: "You will never guess who I just met!". We looked at him, lost, and he told us that he had seen Elio [frontman of the band Elio e le Storie Tese, Ed.]. Some of us, not knowing that Elio was studying engineering, made fun of him thinking he was joking but he swore that it was really Elio. Someone, laughing, said: "What if he was coming here to see Prof. Serazzi?". Two minutes later the phone rang: it was Prof. Serazzi asking me to come in his office to meet a potential degree candidate. When I arrived, I was petrified: it was Elio!

I was a fan of his, I listened to his songs on the radio and I never expected to meet him in a situation like that. Apparently, he was about to graduate but still had to take Prof. Serazzi’s exam, so he came to ask about the syllabus and to decide when to take it. I had been involved because for the thesis he wanted Serazzi as his supervisor and my help was needed to find a topic that could satisfy his needs. I immediately took the chance and suggested him to evaluate the performance of the website [the band’s website, Ed.]. My proposal was met with enthusiasm and a small collaboration began there.

After the exam, I supervised the writing of his thesis and at the end there was the graduation ceremony. That day he was very excited, perhaps one of the most excited students I have ever met, despite being a showman used to being in front of thousands of people. Excitement aside, he discussed his thesis brilliantly and when he came out he was immediately surrounded by all the other undergraduates who wanted at all costs to get him to sign an autograph! I think about this story with great pleasure because it involves not only me but also all the guys in the laboratory who, in some way, were part of the event.

Finally, what advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a profession like yours?

By my nature I never give advice because everyone is made in their own way and what is true for me for someone else could be insignificant or even harmful. Having said that, what I would like to advise in any case is not to take the risk – which unfortunately is absolutely real – of chasing the latest technological advance for fear of not keeping up. As I said, the Politecnico is a gym, a training course. And the value of training consists in learning the ability to understand, think and deal with problems analytically. Those who manage to acquire this ability will not be dependent on a technology that may have already become obsolete in the meantime. On the contrary, they will always be able to face the challenges posed by innovation and will always be able to adapt to novelties. Today, who does a job like mine needs to be constantly updated and to stay up to date you need to understand, study and know how to distinguish what is worth investing in from what is not destined to last. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, but I believe that a good rational approach to problems helps to limit the risks involved when one ventures too hard on the latest technological innovation. So, my advice is: learn the theory and the why of things, learn to distinguish what has value from what is only a tool and you will become brilliant professionals who will be able to best satisfy the requests of their customers or employers.


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Do you want to stay updated on all the research activities, events and other initiatives taking place at the Dipartimento di Elettronica, Informazione e Bioingegneria of the Politecnico di Milano? Subscribe to the DEIB Community newsletter!