Mark Foster - Senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services - thank you so much for meeting with me. Now the way i have been kicking things off is I have been asking - what is your favourite hobby, what is your favourite movie and what is your favourite food?
Okay well my favourite hobby is playing 7-a-side soccer. I am a very keen 7-a-side soccer player but I am also very bad at playing 7-a-side soccer, so I play with a bunch of dads back in my sons school whenever I can2
That's awesome, isn't it normally 5-a-side?
Well its 7-a-side because we can't move that fast
Right haha, so this way you can cover more ground?
Yes exactly so we need 7 otherwise we get exhausted too quickly. My favourite film is Lord of the Rings3, which is also one of my favourite books as well and my favourite food - which I am about to have here actually - is pizza
Any particular type?
Nice, very New York. So you studied a Master of Arts at the College of Oxford I believe?
I have a degree rather bizarrely in ancient Greek and Latin history from the University College of Oxford
Wow, so you must be big into history then?
I am big into history, I occasionally try and find ways to use my Latin and Greek in my current job but I find its not quite so obvious
What made you decide to choose that may I ask?
It was the only thing I was good at. No seriously I had some inspirational teachers, like many people it all comes down to having someone that inspires you to do something and I was lucky enough to have a couple of really inspirational people - who by the way I am still in contact with even though both of them are into their 80s and 90s - who absolutely inspired me to love those languages, love that history and really engage
You really do develop that deep connection with someone who that has mentored you through something, it lasts forever. I understand that your first role after that was at Accenture, would you be able to briefly go through your career there?
Well it is very hard to briefly go through 27 years4
Yes I know, 27 years does makes it hard haha
But the key thing there was that was I was lucky enough to be in the organisation and it start off as Arthur Anderson Consulting, became Anderson consulting and then became Accenture and over those 27 years I was part of the building of a really amazing organisation that went from a relatively small to being to several hundred thousands of people. Being involved with that as a leader over that whole transformation was a unique privilege, I learnt a ton and I had various roles culminating in running all of the retail, consumer health and life sciences and industrial space for 5 years and then finally running all of managing consulting globally. So, fantastic ride, learnt a lot and still have lots of friends over there
Mmm I’m sure you would over that span of time. Then you took quite a change in career after that, you joined the UK government?
Well I actually retired in 2011. So I retired in 2011 on the basis that I was tired out after 27 years and also I just wanted to do something different and so I joined a few boards
It was 6 wasnt it?
4 boards, but I was also appointed one of the three people to oversee the UK's aid budget which is 12 billion a year they spend on aid. They had just in fact protected that budget at the time of austerity and everything else was being spent so they wanted an independent watchdog to make sure the government was spending the money wisely. So I spent the next four years travelling to all of the far flung places of the world like Somalia, across Africa, across Asia, sitting under trees in villages and clinics in people's huts and houses talking to them about whether or not the things we we're trying to do for them will make a difference to their lives
That must have been very rewarding I imagine
Very rewarding, hugely humbling and just learned a ton about the world of course through that. Then also had the experience of then coming back and talking about it in Parliament and actually explaining to the taxpayer whether or not it was all working or not
That would give you such a different lens on on life I suppose going through that experience
Well I think both that and the starting point of my background and looking at the long view of history, I think those two things give me slightly more perspective than perhaps the narrow day to day thinking around either a particular technology or a particular project or a particular moment in time or a quarter. You have to think over the slightly longer term to make change happen and understand what people are going through and I think that perspective I find is something I draw upon all the time
That's awesome, and then how did you come to join IBM?
Surprisingly I think
Surprisingly haha, just sort of fell into it?
I mean after 5 1/2 years of doing pretty much anything else apart from full time working it wasn't part of my plan to plunge back into it, but to be honest with you, the call came through and I had a set of very exciting interesting conversations with Ginni and within a month I'd turned my life upside down. I'd stepped off all these boards, moved my wife and I over to the US and had taken on running a 130 thousand person, 17 billion dollar, thing
The size of a small city
It was a big deal, but actually one that I have not at all regretted and I've been on an amazing learning curve. I've had to plunge back into all these new technologies, whether it is AI, quantum or block Chain - the whole world and this change that is out there. I thought it would be exciting but it's actually outliving living those expectations
That's awesome. Well it's a it's a very good time to come back
I think this is a really important inflection point. And I've spent my time here at THINK really talking about - this one of those moments in time when technology kind of comes together, It converges at scale and makes a really big difference as to whether or not you're going to be able to transform your business. This whole idea of the Cognitive Enterprise we've created is really our thought leadership around what that means for our clients
It’s funny, everyone I have interviewed everyone also believes that we really are on that elbow of exponential growth in technology right now, that's where we have really entered and it's really about to take off. It's exciting. What would you say the most rewarding part about your current role is now?
Quite simply it's meeting people. I mean this is a fantastic opportunity to work with the 130 thousand people in GBS, but now also the 120 thousand in GTS, but more importantly it’s the huge breadth of talent across an organisation like IBM. In the end the thing that always excites me about all the leadership roles I've been fortunate to have over my life has been I just like being around groups of people, trying to inspire them, trying to learn from them and that was something that I was actually missing in my in my 5 1/2 years of being retired and so I'm glad to be kind of back in the middle of that
That's awesome and that's one of the reasons I've reached out to you as well, to help inspire some of the younger community back in Australia New Zealand. When you look back on your career I suppose, when once you retire for maybe the second or perhaps the third I'm not sure what you have planned, but when it's done and you're looking back on your career, what would be the one thing you would like to look back on and say that you did?
I would like to think that I - again like like I talked about being inspired by those teachers who taught me and set me on this path - I'd like to think that I can look back and that there are people that I have managed to touch who feel simply inspired and have gone on to have careers that I hope will surpass mine. I mean that's really the most important thing. I will say also there are other things in life, of course my work is important and those jobs have been big but actually of course I'm hugely proud of my family and my kids and my wife5 and I'm also proud that for the past 25 years I've actually helped to run and operate a small village school which has kept going and it’s those things frankly I probably hope that I'm more remembered for than that I ran a big chunk of IBM at some point
Yeah well that segways perfectly, its like you knew my next question, I did look at your blog before coming and I see that you're quite an avid blogger. It seems that outside of work you've really had a full balanced life you know with friends and family, with your sports, history, photography, you travel, you have all of these other aspects of your life, these other pillars of your life that that you draw happiness from. How do you go about, throughout your career, balancing all of those? What did you find works specifically for you?
No I think it's it's a great point and first of all it is important to have these other things, I believe all of us need to have a broad broad range of things that are interesting us, keep that balance in what we're doing. If we all become narrow it really is really is bad for us and it's bad for the people around us. You do need to compartmentalise it. You also need to plan it. It is not something that happens just by happenstance. One of the things that that actually came out for me having written a monthly blog, pretty much for every month since about 2002
Wow, how many blog posts do you have on there?
Well actually the ones that are actually out publicly are only the ones that happened while I was retired, I had an internal blog over my time with Accenture and now I have an internal blog now here. So I sadly can look back and work out what I was doing every month over that long period of time, but more importantly, because I'm going to do it it makes me think about what the next month is going to be and if it will be interesting enough to have something to write about. That talks to a little bit about making sure that you are planning at least at least a balance of things and I think that's something we can all do. Sometimes of course the work swings to being a bit more than that but I think it's actually much more in your own hands than you realise. A lot of it is about making some choices, being deliberate and planful and I think if you do that then there's a decent chance of things working out
If you could go back and perhaps speak to a younger version of yourself what would be the advice that you would give to yourself?
I think keep on trying. Keep on pushing on. I mean I think that the key thing about all this stuff is that first of all, the one thing you can’t be planful about is actually where your career and work is going to go. I had no expectation I'd be doing this right now, at all, even a couple of years ago. I had no expectation at any point in my time at Accenture that I was gonna have the next job I was gonna get through that time. All I was focused on was trying to enjoy what I was doing at that moment in time, try and do a good job and try and slightly push the boundaries if I could, to either see an adjacent area, something else that might interest me and I think that keeping up that curiosity, keeping up that sense of - do a good job but also think about what’s next, exploring something new but adjacent - I think that has what stood me in good stead and it's something even now I still draw on all time
That's really good advice. If you could recommend one book to somebody, and it can't be your blog or your series of blogs, what would be the book that you would recommend?
I'd recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It's a great book that makes us all realise how we sit in the in the universe. At one level how insignificant we are but also at one level how amazing we are
That feeling when you when you go through those exercises of sort of putting everything's subjective can be very humbling
Mark, thank you so much for your time
It was a pleasure Kyle, nice to meet you