CTO Sessions: Mark Sheldon, Sidetrade

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “It has to be quantum computing, as it’s a totally different way of doing computing at a fundamental level…”

cto sessions mark sheldon sidetrade

Name: Mark Sheldon

Company: Sidetrade

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: July 2019

Location: Birmingham, UK

Mark Sheldon was appointed group CTO of Sidetrade, a market leading B2B artificial intelligence vendor, in July 2019, after the British AI start-up he co-founded, BrightTarget, was sold to Sidetrade. After a consultancy and in-house career in the software and digital transformation space, he now oversees Sidetrade’s global R&D strategy, leads a team of data engineers and data scientists, and oversees the company’s annual Coding Academy for college and university leavers.

What was your first job? My first ‘proper’ job was working with my Dad during my gap-year before university. He ran a small engineering company (only 1 or 2 people), but I quickly learnt some pretty harsh lessons about how hard you need to work when you run your own business; I think I caught the entrepreneurial bug from here too.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes absolutely. I’ve been interested in computing since I was a kid, taking computers apart and that sort of thing. And my Dad was an electrical engineer, so the techy background has always been there, and his office was full of computers and machines in bits while being repaired.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? True to tech form, I did maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level, then went on to get a first-class degree in computer science at university. It’s a bit easier when your studies are also your passion.

However, I’d also say that I’m very supportive of intellectual diversity when it comes to routes into the sector, keeping the door open to people with non-computing and non-degree qualifications. Some of the best talent I work with have come through non-university routes. We run initiatives like the Code Academy at Sidetrade, to support this.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I spent around four or five years as a consultant, mainly focused on providing software solutions to enterprise, then went in-house at one of the big-six utility providers, focused on digital transformation projects, so I accumulated a lot of corporate experience.

The detour came over (many) games of cricket at my local club, when I got to know to a fellow member who ran his own consultancy firm. He was my first mentor and initially told me to go and get some more commercial experience (which I did)! A few years later and after a lot of persistence, we launched BrightTarget, an AI start-up using big data and machine learning for B2B marketing and sales teams. In 2017 we sold the company to Sidetrade, and I joined the company, heading up the data engineering and data science team in the UK. In July 2019 I was appointed Sidetrade’s chief technology officer, overseeing the global R&D strategy.

What type of CTO are you? An entrepreneurial one! It’s a good question, as there are a range of styles depending on the person and the company. For me, it’s about keeping that entrepreneurial spirit and using that to drive change quickly and to be better than your competition. I think in terms of innovation and always have, whether that was as a self-starter consultant, working in a corporate environment, as a business founder, and now as a CTO. I want to be able to work quickly and in an agile way, making decisions and putting them into action and getting feedback as quickly as possible. I’d also say I’m data driven, analytic, and savvy when it comes to tech, it comes with the territory.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? It has to be quantum computing, as it’s a totally different way of doing computing at a fundamental level, and its applications are incredibly exciting, including its application to artificial intelligence, healthcare and security to name a few. And I don’t think we’re far off from a major break through in the field, whether by one of the big players or a start-up.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Noting that springs to mind. Many people think AI is overhyped, but I think it’s mostly mis-understood by many people.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I’d say it’s the focus on the operational side of AI, a field that is emerging as ‘AIOps’. As the sector matures, AI specialists are looking more and more at how we deploy, manage and monitor predictive models in production. This is something we have been working hard on over the past few years and some of what we have done is pretty industry leading. I’m probably most proud of the team we have built, rather than any initiative.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Our big focus at the moment is on international growth. For me (after our own people) the customer comes first. If you get it right for the customer, revenue growth will follow. But to deliver a great customer experience you have to crack the operational side (deploy quality product features quickly, securely, getting feedback fast and learn). All of the elements above are interconnected in my opinion.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? I’d definitely say it’s the deployment and actionability of AI in enterprise, and making sure businesses get ROI from AI. That encompasses engaging and supporting clients from c-suite level (CEOs and CFOs) and across the different and more operational parts of the whole client business. Our professional services and customer success teams do a great job in this space today and we are working hard on the product side also.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? As a SaaS company our main focus is to ensure our products fit the needs of our customers. The actual technology we use to solve the problem is secondary to this.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I’d say that as a relatively small software company (with 250 staff rather than say 10,000), we have a competitive edge when it comes to moving quickly and being agile, so matching our products strategy and tech strategy is easier for us.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Good question. Firstly, a strategy that everyone in the organisation can believe in and have conviction about and aligns with product/market fit. The strategy needs to be forward looking enough to empower teams, but not so far ahead that it stops the organisation being able to react to rapid technology developments and customer expectations. Finally, and possible most importantly, the board needs to get behind the strategy, including the necessary financial investment and supporting cultural or people change required.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think the lines between CTO, CIO and CDO are definitely getting more and more blurred. Especially with the drive for organisations to become more data-centric as well as the growth of SaaS and cloud platforms. I see lots of companies now creating hybrid roles and will be interesting to see how these roles evolve over the coming years. Chief AI Officer might be next!

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’d say that the acquisition of BrightTarget by Sidetrade has been my greatest professional achievement to-date, however the journey is only part way though!

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? It’s an interesting question, but it’s not part of my mindset to look back in that way. I like to look back to learn from mistakes, but I don’t ever think about anything that I’d change, as it has all been part of the personal and professional journey.

What are you reading now? The Phoenix Project: A book about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. Definitely recommend to anyone managing or responsible for a technical or product team.

Most people don't know that I… did a sky dive and bungy jump on the same day whilst travelling in New Zealand.

In my spare time, I like to…play cricket! I’m a big fan, but having a young family doesn’t make it very feasible these days. Most of my spare time is spend chasing two young kids around which is awesome!

Ask me to do anything but… learn French! Luckily all of my French colleagues speak better English than me!!