In the latest instalment of our ’10 Questions with’ series, Hamilton Forth consultant, Tom Watson caught up with Richard Marshall to find out more about his career to date.
The 10 questions focused on Richard’s experience being a former Vice President, CTO, CMO and Gartner Analyst; as well as discussing his learnings throughout his career. Richard has a wealth of experience across a wide range of industries and software skills, from coding to corporate governance and strategies. Richard has also participated in presenting lectures and writing papers, articles and reports for many years.
Question 1. Can you tell us a bit about your career to date?
“So, for the last six years I’ve been working portfolio, including a few longer contracts, where I am doing what I generally refer to as ‘car crash prevention’: sorting out projects going off the rails. I also spend a lot of time helping companies interact with the analyst firms and understanding what it is that they need to explain to analysts such as Gartner and Forrester; working through the story, and just generally working with them is large part of what I do. I also do what I like to call ‘outsourced thinking’, where I come up with concepts and ideas, and I do presentations for people. So that’s what I’ve been doing the last few years, working with a whole pile of different companies, and I’m always looking for exciting things to do.
Prior to this I was working at Gartner, where I ended up becoming a Managing Vice President (MVP) in charge of the global team; looking at application, development and design, and also working as an Analyst. Previous to being the MVP, I’d been an Analyst in the mobile app space. At the time, we were just covering Mobile in general. Prior to that, I’d been doing some contract work as CMO/CTO/CIO kind of roles for a variety of firms, having been an entrepreneur for a long time before that.
When I got to the end of my last batch of being an entrepreneur, which was Rapid Mobile, I didn’t want to go on and do another company: I was tired of dealing with investors. But Rapid Mobile is worth talking about. In 2004, I realised the opportunity for mobile apps, which was two years before the iPhone was released. People would literally say, “nobody’s gonna walk down the street looking at their phone”, I mean everybody said that. But we were right, and there’s a funny story in that one; we actually built a screen scraping based front end to Facebook, Bebo and MySpace, both of which were still extant in the day. We showed this to Facebook, and you could post pictures and status updates. This was in 2006 and they looked at it and they said, “well, it’s kind of interesting, but we don’t think people are going to post status updates on the move”. There was a whole bunch of things like that, so we were so crazy ahead of our time!
Prior to that, there were a few other bits and pieces of entrepreneurial activity. The big one that was very successful was a company called QSS that created a product called DOORS (Dynamic Object Oriented Requirements Systems), which is now part of the IBM Rational suite and has been the leading requirements management tool since we built it. It’s in its third or fourth generation of rewrite so it’s not the same thing we wrote all those years ago. I joined that company after having worked at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) which was a mini computer manufacturer. The reason I bring that up was that I was working on operating system level software in particular, literally working at the machine code level on new machines. I got a very good insight into reliability engineering, hardware and failover, and all kinds of poor infrastructure as well.
And prior to that, I’d worked for a company that was building design tools. I spent a year working in England and a year in the south of France, which was very nice, and then came back to Scotland. Then I went back to Paris for a year to work for another company. I did a PhD before that and went on to largely work on what I covered in my PhD.
So that’s kind of it. During that time, I had various roles of VP of Technology, CTO, etc, and they’re all based on this foundation of being a Software Engineer.”
Question 2. What were your ambitions when you left school/university?
“I wanted to build stuff that people would use. It really was a very strong concept of wanting to build stuff that would be useful; I don’t want it to sit on the shelf, I want it to be out there. So, it wasn’t so much software engineering in that sense, I wanted to build software products that people will use, which I did. The engineering part is important, because it’s not just about coding, it’s about understanding the whole thing, from what the product can do through to the architecture, testing and all the rest of it.”
Question 3. What made you become interested in pursuing a career in tech?
“It’s probably difficult to imagine for you that back in the day there were no computers; computers were the size of rooms when I was at school, and we started off literally writing things by hand, sending it off, and somebody punched it onto cards. You’ll have heard about this where literally a week later, either they’d made a mistake or mistyped it, or you’d made a mistake. And so the turnaround was kind of slow. Then we got a terminal into Heriot Watt University – an actual computer centre using a 110 baud modem, which is 10 characters per second. So really, really slow. Anyway, we used to write code there and I really liked playing with the computers. When some of the early sort of individual personal computers (long before the PC came out), I was writing software; I did some software on Apple IIs, which are precursors for Macs. And the fascinating thing there was that it was still very much a focus on hardware and software.
Before going to university, I did a kind of apprenticeship thing at Ferranti (of course this doesn’t exist anymore). It was great fun working in a metal shop, but my ability to do metal work is terrible. Anyway, I had at the time thought that I was going to do an Electronic Engineering and Computer Science joint degree because I was interested in chips and the electronics of it. However, during that course (which involved large amounts of soldering and other things, and I was terrible at soldering), we got these little microcontroller devices. They had a very basic microprocessor and a few peripherals like LED’s which you could turn on, and I could make that thing sing and dance in a way that nobody else could. I absolutely loved it. So I switched into computer science.
I already had an interest in doing things with computers, but the software aspect of it really crystallised that week when I was using those very basic microprocesses. I think there was Z80s and it was really exciting because I could make it work in tiny amounts of memory. From there, I changed to pure computer science. I also wrote packages for people when I was in my last year at school and as a student.”
Question 4. You recently spoke about some of the latest tech trends e.g. AI, resilience and space-technologies – do you have a prediction as to what we may see as the next emerging technology?
“I actually think that we’re at a point where things aren’t crystallising yet, but AI is definitely going to be in there. But whether it is related to generative AI, which is what all of the ChatGPT stuff’s about, or some of the other forms of AI; my belief is that we’re going to see this coming in as an intrinsic part of everything we built in the way that many other things that we take for granted are in there. For example, image processing: I’ve been taking hundreds of photographs in the last couple of days, and I take hundreds of photographs all the time, but the technology involved in that is relatively new – we take it for granted now, it just works, right? We used to worry about whether it’s a PNG or a JPEG or GIF, but nobody worries about any of that anymore.
The other thing I would say is that people used to worry about the clock speed of their processor, but I’ve got an Intel (whatever, five gigahertz processor) and nowadays nobody knows what kind of processor they’re using apart from top end gamers. I have no idea what kind of processor is in this computer I am using and you probably don’t know what processor you’re using either. It’s this process where you know you used to have Intel, it probably still says Intel inside somewhere on the computer, but we don’t care anymore. So that level is going to move on and on and there are a few things that are going to come along. AI is definitely one of them.
I do not believe in crypto at all, that’s not to say cryptography, but all of this blockchain stuff: those are solutions looking for problems to solve. I equally think that quantum is something that is so difficult to understand that it is never going to replace conventional computing. So I think we’re in this gap where true innovation is a little beyond the horizon.
There’s no doubt there’s some new stuff out there that hasn’t quite broken yet. But I do think that resilience you mentioned there, is a huge topic and that we built a lot of stuff that’s very, very fragile. And we’re going through a period of general fragility; the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank last week is an example of fragility, rather than resilience. There are a few people who I do some work for and they are strongly pushing this concept of digital resilience. I think this is an area we really need to look at, and I do think that we’re going to see a lot of really cool stuff coming out, but it’s all kind of grungy down in the infrastructure level stuff that normal users aren’t going to see.
Another company that I’ve done some stuff with does a really cool solution that helps you make sure that when you move your software into the cloud, you maintain all of your security postures, because us software people aren’t very good at security: I’m being totally upfront about that. The people who are good at security aren’t that good at software, because they require a different mindset to work on it. So you need to be working together. And there are a lot of interesting tools that are integrated into pipelines in Azure or AWS, so that when you deploy something in the cloud, you’re no longer going through a deployment to worry about security, you just press a button and off it goes. And somewhere, something automatic makes it run on the computer, and you don’t need to know how it works. But that actually creates a vulnerability, so I think we’re going to see a lot more automation in the world of cybersecurity and in particular, in software deployment. But anything radical? I’m not seeing anything particularly radical.
I think we all know the issues around the AI stuff; it’s prone to doing really daft things, and you need to check it continually. But it will get there. The problem with generative is that it has no concept of truth, so there’s no real world model. It is merely predicting what we’re going to see next, what’s the most likely word that a human would use next in this text? That’s basically how it works, so it can end up inventing things quite happily; its quite good at inventing scientific studies, for example, but it’s really not a good thing to put into text.”
Question 5. Over the years you have held many impressive titles such as VP of Technology and CTO – what do you believe has helped you achieve such success?
“Maintaining an understanding of the full stack, all the way from hardware up to user experience, and into business and compliance, and all the rest of it. The ability to be able to do stuff: to actually be able to go in and fix things. Not that I do that very much at the moment, but I understand how to do it. The point is that the people I’m working with, who are the specialists, know that I understand what they’re doing, so they take me seriously; they understand that I’m not the kind of pointy haired boss, coming in as a manager trying to tell them what to do, I actually could do their job if I took the time to learn in detail.
I’m just going to do a quick detour into the history – my grandfather was a master baker. He would go into the bakery and work with the bakers on the production lines to improve the quality. He was also sent to places where the quality and productivity was low; he would work with those people on the production lines to get the quality of the baked goods back up, and the productivity and the morale of the team back up, and he did that by being able to do the baking. He wasn’t somebody sitting up above the factory in a fancy office: he was a baker. And that’s the kind of model that I’ve had through my whole life, and I know that sounds terribly cheesy, but it actually works. When I’m talking to somebody technical I’m taken seriously, which means I also generally don’t make stupid mistakes when it comes to decisions. I understand where we’re going and what we’re looking at, so when I’m working in one of these senior roles, I actually understand the impact of what I’m talking about.”
Question 6. You have been a founder of several start-up businesses – what techniques help you to be innovative and creative and come up with new ideas?
“Well, the interesting thing here is that I’m really a tool builder. I have a big blank coming up with customer facing or consumer solutions, but all of the products that I’ve been a founder of, were really driven by technology opportunities. Looking at Rapid Mobile – which was where Facebook was saying, “Yeah, that’s an interesting idea, but we don’t think people are going to use it”- we weren’t presenting those applications, we were presenting the technology to build and deliver those applications across 25 – 30,000 different kinds of devices. It’s not really a problem that exists anymore; you can do iPhone or Android, but even then you get different screen sizes. So way back in 2004, we were building technology that adapted things from all sorts of different screen sizes (do they have a keyboard / do they not have a keyboard, blah, blah, blah, all that kind of stuff) – we did all of that automatically. So we built technology to deliver apps, but while we had various ideas, we actually came up with the idea of doing a sort of WhatsApp application; the problem was we didn’t have the budget or the skills to launch such a thing.
Where did the ideas come from? Identifying problems: they’re all technology problems. I have a process. If I come up with an idea, I’ll think about it for a while, noodle it around; and I do this for everything, whether I’m writing some marketing text or working on a presentation for an analyst firm, I will think about it and think about it – not actually do anything apparently about it – but think about it until it either disappears because it was a really stupid idea or it comes into concrete form at which point I can then more or less immediately start delivering because it’s still a good idea. I will also run it past people I trust.
Going back to the mobile app thing, a lot of people did not see the opportunities at the mobile app. As I say, people were all saying, nobody’s going to look at their phone on the streets. So that’s where it comes from. It’s seeing a problem and having this kind of realisation. It’s funny, I absolutely remember the moment when I realised that mobile apps were going to be enormous. And funnily enough, it was when we were in the web technology company and we had been invited in to present to this organisation that wanted to make mobile betting games; very simple ones and for this specific example that they had, they wanted to put on your mobile phone ‘the next car I see, is it red?’, and you could make a bet on that. That was obviously stupid, but the concept of being able to do any kind of constant interaction on your phone, I absolutely remember that crystal moment when I was walking back to our office on Forth Street going ‘mobile, and doing stuff on mobiles is going to be the future’, and that’s really strange: I really remember that exact moment.”
Question 7. In your opinion, what learnings from recent emerging technologies should we bring forward into organisations for the future, and how will these affect organisations on a day-to-day basis?
“Make sure they’re useful! Make sure they actually do something that you need and the biggest thing (something the Analysts at Gartner spend an awful lot of time on) is talking to people about integration; you can’t just turf out what’s there and replace it with something completely new. You have to be able to work with it, you have to integrate with what’s there and bring the people along with you. We’ve seen all of the people who are terrified about AI, whether they’re justified in being too terrified or not, it’s neither here nor there. They are terrified. Therefore, you have to bring them along, you have to understand them. I go back to something like blockchain; people get really excited about blockchain and it’s all magic beans: nothing. There is nothing intrinsic about blockchain that changes anything, other than it’s a terrible, energy inefficient, linked list which is something that’s been around since the 1960s. Nothing is new there.
You should only adopt technology that has some specific immediate advantage that actually solves a real life problem, and I think that AI really does solve life problems. One of the things people talk about, and I mentioned this at the seminar, is this notion that AI writes drivel; but it doesn’t matter, it’s still better drivel than the humans are writing. Most people have to do some writing in their jobs – people who sit at computers write emails all day, right? Most of those emails are really bad, really unreadable and AI improves that. So that’s a real problem. If your marketing department has to generate more content, the AI accelerates that process.
So is it useful? One of the best methods to check this is using the ‘five why’s’. Firstly, begin by asking why? And when the person says an answer you then say, well, why? Just like small children. And if you can get to the end of five why’s and still have an answer, then you have something that’s worth doing!”
Question 8. What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Learn to negotiate, from a work point of view. The other thing is to make sure that you are doing stuff for yourself, for example, when dealing with investors who are only in it for themselves. Feel free to argue and claim as much as possible off them, because that’s what they’re doing to you. I think it’s really important to have that skill of negotiating, which I’m still not very good at and still trying to develop!”
Question 9. If you could invite two people to a dinner party (living or deceased) who would you choose and why?
“Okay, so I’m not a fan of celebrities or famous people (I’m not really interested in them), but I have worked with some absolutely fantastic people all around the world who I’ve either never met, or I’ve not had the opportunity to meet because we’ve worked on projects and they’ve finished before the opportunity has arisen. I would love to meet up with some of the people I’ve worked with at Gartner more regularly. I was working on a huge legal project last year with some absolutely wonderful lawyers from New York and I would love to meet up with them. I’ve also got a friend who was at Gartner at the same time as me, and we’ve worked on various projects since, but we’ve never actually met face to face and I’d love to have dinner with her and a couple of other people like that.”
Question 10. We recently attended the Tech Trends event run by ScotlandIS where you spoke about tech trends and your predictions for 2023. Do you have any other events coming up that people can come to?
“Yes, I’m speaking at the Digit Leadership 2023 event, which is on the 27th of April. The title is “Generative AI: Fad or Fundamental?”. Just like we’ve been discussing here. It’ll be a short presentation, followed by a discussion.”
If you’d like to get involved in our ’10 questions with’ series, and share your career highlights / learnings with our tech community, please get in touch with Tom Watson for more information: [email protected].