CTO Sessions: Fred Stark, Forterro

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “AI is game changing… We’re in the cyberpunk world. What AI can now do, seemed impossible just a few years ago.”

Headshot of Fred Stark, CTO at Forterro

Name: Fred Stark

Company: Forterro

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: September 2021

Location: London and Paris mostly

Fred Stark joined Forterro in September 2021. Forterro is a London headquartered provider of ERP software and services for the industrial midmarket, with around 10,000 customers across Europe and 1,200 employees. As CTO, Stark is responsible for guiding the technology and product strategy of each of Forterro’s eleven ERP software solutions, each being focused on the needs of specific sectors, in specific geographies. He’s also responsible for their global research and development operations and group-wide Cloud infrastructure services.

What was your first job? As a child, I travelled the world with my parents. In the early 1980’s, while we were living on a boat off Tahiti in the South Pacific, I wrote several accounting applications (In CBASIC) for a local hotel. I was about 15 years old. Later, in 1988, I was paid to port video games from various Atari platforms to the Macintosh. My first ‘real’ job came in 1990; writing business applications to run on NeXT computers (a company founded by Steve Jobs). I was writing Object-Oriented applications five years before Windows 1995 and it felt good!

Did you always want to work in IT? My gift is mathematics. But the moment I had my first computer, a Sharp PC-1211 pocket computer, I was hooked on coding. I see programming as applied mathematics and logic. I am fascinated by the concept of creating something, a work of art, by carefully selecting zeros and ones. Once you have the machine and the electricity to power it, you can create concepts and programmes using your mind, without any other physical resources. I always felt that computing was the ultimate ecological approach to making things. Well, until bitcoin...

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Growing up on a boat, a formal education was hard to get. Returning to France in my late teens, I focused on my education, especially math. I earned a master’s degree in computer science from the Université Jussieu Paris 7, first in Operating Systems, followed by Theorical Computing.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. At 28, I co-founded a fintech startup called Almonde. We built risk management applications for retail banking. This experience truly shaped me, taking me from coding in my bedroom, to managing a 30+ people team across product, development, testing, documentation and support. I went on to manage large software teams. In 2006, we sold Almonde to Misys. I joined Thomson Reuters as technical director for its credit and market risk product, before a spell back at Misys, then in 2014 I joined KDS (travel and expense software) as CTO. It was bought by Amex Global Business Travel, where I become responsible for its ecommerce and digital suite of products. I managed some 200 people across four locations, before being approached by Forterro.

What type of CTO are you? I’m highly technical. I am a product fanatic who loves developing solutions for users. I’m very good at understanding product development and business technology. I’m able to set the vision, delve into every corner of what’s being developed, guide it and mentor and direct the team. I’ve a talent for helping every team member solve technical challenges at their own speed and level of ability. It’s by everyone doing their very best, that together we succeed.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? AI is game changing. A few years ago, I downloaded a neural network that is basically the visual cortex of a cat. Over a weekend, I re-trained it to recognise swimming pools and restaurants in hotel pictures. We’re in the cyberpunk world. What AI can now do, seemed impossible just a few years ago. Some AI applications are now so incredible they appear almost human. And we’re just at the beginning. The potential of AI blows my mind. What was fantasy a few years ago is now becoming an everyday part of our world. I’m fascinated by the power of current microcontrollers, and connected objects have the potential to be game changing too.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Of course, blockchain is overhyped. It is conceptually fascinating, but hard to find any use case that isn’t better implemented with a centralised system. And the ecological costs are way too high. VR is overhyped too. While it has huge potential, current offerings are half baked. It will get there but won’t look the way it looks today. I absolutely feel VR will one day bring us all closer together in virtual, yet intimate settings.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? My proudest recent achievement is jumping successfully from Amex GBT’s product environment to Forterro’s. I’ve quickly gained a clear and in-depth technical understanding of Forterro’s multiple ERP product lines. I’m now already planning what the future product tech strategy of Forterro will look like, inputting my insight to my fellows on the executive team and to our product line heads.

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? Forterro’s ERP products deliver digital transformation to midmarket manufacturing companies. Our products boost the effectiveness of their operations, the viability and profitability of their businesses and change people’s working lives. My work helps Forterro deliver a positive digital transformation experience to customers, while ensuring we’re able to cost-effectively develop products the market wants to buy, making us successful.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? From a product technology perspective, Forterro’s customers want both stability and evolution. They are certainly wary of big bang type change. Cloud is the way forward and we are partnering with customers to help them move their ERP to the Cloud in a simple, smooth and easy way.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Forterro wants to ensure that our product brands/technologies help our customers meet their current business goals and future needs. Each of our ERP brands is both geographically local and industry specific. Each brand’s teams know their customers’ needs intimately. I help the brands ensure their product plans make sense technically and fit the overall vision of Forterro.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? My job is to help Forterro balance the functionality our customers need and want, with technical debt. It’s our job to push innovation when the time is right, and that means it has to benefit both the customer and us (the vendor). This is one of the reasons we’re so focused on cloud, because it’s now been around long enough that it’s driving real, tangible benefits to ERP end users, and it allows us as a vendor to be more efficient at the same time. One thing I watch out for in strategic product plans is the inclusion of any technologies and inventions that are unproven. We absolutely have to be sure every element can be trusted before including it in our products for the industrial midmarket. I always like to say that it’s our job to talk about new tech with our customers, and help them to understand its potential for them in the future, but that doesn’t mean we need to build it. If product and tech strategy is focused on creating or serving customers, then balancing them will never be difficult.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective tech strategy from a vendor’s perspective is one where the product matches market needs, while being as simple as possible, achievable, affordable, reliable and secure. A tech strategy must also be easy to explain to all the different stakeholders, from executive management, through to developers and out to customers. Successful deployment then demands clear technical goals, defined steps to get there and dates to achieve them by.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The role will become ever more challenging. The rate of change will continue to accelerate, and ecosystems will become ever-more complex. This will require even more specialists and make it hard for the future CTO to keep an eye on detail, lead and direct effectively. Talent acquisition and retention will become increasingly difficult, especially since there’s now global competition for the brightest minds. The answer to the talent challenge of course, is to become a better employer for whom people love to work, even when working from home.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’ve had many glorious moments and achievements! From a personal perspective, I’m proud to be one of few people who fully understand every technical process that makes a computer tick. Career wise, I’ve had my own software business. I’ve been CTO across many different industries and led the direction of multiple software products sold to customers. From video games to finance, business travel to ERP, I love all software. At Forterro, I work with wonderful people across many teams and I’m still learning something new every day!

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I created a startup at 28. I should have done it sooner. The experience can’t be overstated. It shapes you forever.

What are you reading now? Technology Strategy Patterns, by Eben Hewitt. I find it helpful to see an analytical mind putting words on things you naturally do. On the non-technical side, I am re-reading the complete work of Philip K. Dick.

Most people don't know that I… Collect computers from the 80s. I have maybe 70-80 of them. My oldest is a MOS KIM-1 from about 1977. I also have an Apple Lisa (predating the Mac by a year). They all still work! I repair the hardware to keep them going.

In my spare time, I like to…Wander in museums with my wife, or make those old computers do stuff they weren’t supposed to do. I’m currently putting the final touch to a video player for the original Macintosh (www.macflim.com). While it looks authentic, it’s impossible to achieve without modern computer power and a lot of pre-processing. It’s a weird temporal bridge, some sort of cyber steampunk. It’s also completely useless, so absolutely indispensable! If a thing runs code, then I can work out how to write that code and write applications for it.

Ask me to do anything but… Attend another meeting, or catch up on paperwork!