Mark Heath talks about his journey from aerospace tech to software via networks and Symbian. And why he wanted to be a train driver
Tell us about your company and your areas of expertise
Alfresco produces a software platform to create process and content applications that make businesses flow better. Alfresco was founded in Maidenhead twelve years ago by John Newton, a computer scientist and pioneer of software for managing large amounts of ‘content’.
Our customers include Cisco, GE, and government departments (e.g. UK ministries and US departments) and our business is evenly split between Europe and North America, with less in Asia. I am the product development leader, heading up all software engineering and Corporate IT.
Tell us about your IT career
I started my journey as a graduate software engineer at aerospace systems supplier Smiths Industries in Basingstoke, who developed embedded systems for customers like Airbus and Rolls Royce.
I was with the team developing the digital fuel gauge system for the Airbus A320, which was exciting work at the time. After that, I embedded software for network and telecom communications equipment, where I became responsible for internet protocols and digital telephony (remember Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN)?).
Internet protocols were a stroke of luck. It was the start of the 1990s and nobody knew the internet was coming. Although ISDN didn’t succeed, knowing digital telephony meant I was ready for mobile data too.
At about the same time, I started to manage and lead engineers and I found this work really interesting, as it is not a skill many engineers develop, making it a ‘seller’s market’. Due to my skills and experience, I found myself in a VP Engineering position at the age of thirty-one.
I then joined Symbian a few months after it spun out of Psion and stayed for seven years where I led the mobile communications engineering team and saw the first hundred million Symbian smart phones shipped, and market leadership achieved.
After leaving Symbian, I’ve remained in engineering and product leadership positions since then, most often in VP, Engineering or CTO roles. I also had the privilege to work at Citrix in Cambridge as VP, Engineering for the XenSource team that had been recently acquired. Since then I’ve been at a startup, a private equity turnaround project and roughly, a year and a half ago, I joined VC-backed Alfresco.
What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Smartphone technology on novel 3G hardware. Symbian OS was written in C++ and ran on ARM. ARM is still dominant, but Symbian OS was of course displaced by iOS and Android.
What tech do you expect to be involved with in ten years’ time?
I am interested in technology, but somewhat agnostic. Building winning products is more important than the underlying technology, fascinating though it is. So that is what I’ll be doing.
Who is your tech hero (and why)?
My father, who invented the swing arm head mechanism used in hard disks. The innovative leap was to replace a slow rack and pinion driven slowly by a stepping motor with a voice coil motor from a loudspeaker connected to a pivot. It may look entirely obvious now, but like many inventions it was radical at the time.
This was developed at IBM UK Labs at Hursley in the early 1970s. The team also had the idea to seal the disk unit to reduce head crashes caused by airborne particles. Manufactured near Portsmouth, these drives became the template for all disk drives that followed.
What’s your favourite technology ever made? And which do you use most?
I have too many bicycles, including a 1937 Selbach tandem. I regularly cycle to work!
What is your budget outlook? Flat? Growing?
Product development investment at Alfresco is a fixed proportion of revenue. And revenue is growing.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire most, and why?
Anyone making bold and innovative moves, trying things out. AWS certainly is a favourite.
What is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
Making people happy. I think design thinking can get us there, and this requires user empathy and anticipating their needs rather than simply jamming in more and more technology.
To cloud or not to cloud?
Definitely to cloud. Preferably on the Xen hypervisor, of course.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to drive trains. As a young child in St Cross, Winchester, our back garden ended at the main Waterloo to Bournemouth railway line, so I’ve been around trains from an early age.