CTO Sessions: Frances Sneddon, Simul8

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? "While I think AI and machine learning are great technologies, I do feel they are often seen as the answer to everything, which they are not!"


Name: Frances Sneddon

Company: Simul8

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: April 2005

Location: Glasgow

Frances’ expertise as a business leader has helped grow Simul8 from a start-up to the global leader in the simulation market. Since joining the company in 1999 (progressing from an intern to now CTO), she has been helping organisations around the world use simulation to deliver cost savings and efficiency gains.

What was your first job? My first job was at Simul8. I joined as an intern and then started as a simulation consultant.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I wanted to become a defence lawyer and free all the innocent people, but I soon realised it wasn’t going to be quite the LA Law show that I had hoped for. I turned to maths and then onto software. I found myself hanging out with the developers and asking lots of questions, as I was naturally really interested.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I don’t have a computer science degree, but I did study script-coding which I later learned how to put into practice at Simul8. I did want to join a computer course at school, but my mum told me it wasn’t a serious enough subject. So I taught myself to code and learnt about all the development practices. I remember getting an Amstrad computer for Christmas, for example, and working through all the computer programmes. My brother on the other hand did study computer science so I borrowed a lot of his books!

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I’ve been working in software for more than 20 years so, while I have not taken any detours, my role has evolved significantly. When I joined Simul8 it was a start-up with three or four employees. I would be doing a bit of everything from shrink wrapping orders to taking on the company website. Over time, there became a need for me to code and build actual applications which I really enjoyed. I got the bug. The CEO at the time then helped me upskill and build my knowledge so I could fully understand not just coding but agile principles too. Now I’m CTO for Simul8, and I am responsible for the strategic direction of our products.

What type of CTO are you? I am a product and customer driven CTO. I look at how we can make great products for our users both from a technical and user experience perspective. I love software and every part of what goes into creating an amazing end user experience from the initial connection with our website, to how you interact with the software itself. I’m also a forward-thinking CTO. I like to understand what’s next for Simul8 and our products and focus on our long-term vision.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m excited about how AI and machine learning can help transform simulation and, therefore, decision making for people. Working off live data feeds can really change how simulation is used as an operational tool and the uncertain times we live in show just how much we need sophisticated simulation tools.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? While I think AI and machine learning are great technologies, I do feel they are often seen as the answer to everything, which they are not! Sadly, many firms want to launch something cool and sexy, and decide to stick an ‘AI’ badge on it.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I’m really proud of taking our desktop products, which have been around for more than 20 years, online. This enabled us to change our business model to a subscription service.

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? Every business is going through some form of digital transformation but less so for us as we have always been a digital business. That said, we see digital as critical to driving our customer experience and operational efficiency, and we are using our experience to help our own customers digitally transform. In fact, they are using Simul8 to help them figure out how to balance customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Covid-19. Since the outbreak, we have been helping our customers, which include NHS trusts, plan for the uncertainty and use our simulation tools to help them redefine their organisation and their processes.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Technology is at the heart of almost every business activity these days, in some form or another, so the two things are necessarily linked.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? We’re a technology-led business. This is our product, but also the way we operate across all business functions, even more so now as we ramp up the use of tools such as webinars, e-Books and remote learning.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that considers people, process and technology. Any organisation must ensure their tech strategy aligns with their wider business goals, and that it has been developed based on feedback from their customers and staff.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The role of the CTO will become even more important that it is today. It will be seen as a key enabler or even a leader for other parts of the business. Technology is no longer a separate entity and there is an opportunity for CTOs to grow exponentially. We could even see the CTO role separated into more separate, specialist roles.

What has been your greatest career achievement? To become the first female Chair of ScotlandIS, and I believe the youngest. This is an organisation that supports the success of the ICT industry in Scotland.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? From a career perspective, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I’m very comfortable with the CTO that I am now, and thankful not to have had the typical education route into this role. It’s enabled me to help others on that same path.