So, who are you, Martin Geddes?

I have been writing this newsletter for a couple of years now. It struck me today that some readers might enjoy my personal and professional story. My intention is not to write a narcissistic autobiography, but rather to contextualise my other writing.

I have become an accidental guru on the collision between the IT and telecoms worlds. My career spans both, and they offer very contrasting worldviews. You could consider them two information industries whose common feature is an appetite for electricity consumption. My intellectual curiosity has always led me to seek a resolution of these differences in perspective.

So what led me here?

I was born and grew up in Staines, near London’s Heathrow airport. I am the elder son of an aircraft mechanic and court typist. Aged eleven I got a scholarship to a private school, where I had a strong academic record. The British educational system doesn’t lend itself to developing polymath skills, preferring early specialisation. Unusually, I combined maths and sciences with doing economics and French.

Whilst I had a strong involvement in sports, specifically rowing, my real passion was for computers. When I was about ten years old, I used to slip into Dixons, the electrical retailer, and type in programs into a display computer. The allure of the command line was irresistible.

To coax me back home from the shopping mall, my mother insisted we got a BBC Micro. She even went back to work to help fund my expensive technology habit. By the time I was 17 I was designing computer processors for a hobby together with a school friend. We came up with a complete new instruction set for a 12-bit CPU (with that word length making shared memory graphics easier).

We designed the microcode, and selected the integrated circuits to build it all from. I even wrote a CAD program to design the masks to etch the PCBs. Time and budget limits meant we never got to build it. It didn’t occur to me then that designing CPUs was a bit out of the ordinary for a teenager.

I fulfilled my ambition to go to Oxford to read Mathematics and Computation. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy it—maths and more maths was too narrow an intellectual diet. So instead I took up reading The Economist and spending hours slumped in front of Unix remote terminals skimming Usenet until 5am. When disconnected from the Internet back at home I played endless Tetris (my custom version, hand-coded in assembler by me, naturally).

My first real job was coding artificial intelligence systems in Lisp for an EU-sponsored manufacturing research project. That software engineering experience led me to my second position, building transaction processing software for banks. I then specialised in high availability database design as a consultant at Oracle. The 1990s was a great time for a twenty-something to make a good living from IT without really having to work too hard.

My entry into telecoms came from a personal invitation via a friend to join Sprint in 2001. I moved to live in Overland Park, Kansas and got to experience life in the American suburbs. It felt a bit like being an anthropologist visiting Amazonian tribes, except these natives saw automobiles as the animating force of life rather than trees. The 9/11 trauma also had the silver lining of making travel exceptionally cheap, so I got to explore all corners of the USA at weekends and on vacations.

The team I joined at Sprint was on a mission to create an open platform for application developers (before DoCoMo’s i-mode became famous). I was part of a small skunkworks set up in a semi-autonomous business unit called SprintPCS.com.

We got a long way before the white blood cells of the conservative Midwestern telco surrounded and eliminated us. The project was canned, and the whole business unit was shut down. The key (and in retrospect obvious) lesson was that changing to an ‘open’ business model is a lot more than just creating and promoting APIs.

Whilst licking my wounds, and stuck in a product strategy role I didn’t enjoy, I decided to make my own luck. Internally I wrote a well-received paper on the threat of ‘over the top’ players displacing lucrative telco voice, messaging and video services. Externally, I started a blog called Telepocalypse to document the collision of IT and telecoms.

It didn’t take long for my blog to become a widely-read specialist website. Within a few months I’d even been quoted in Business Week! I didn’t ever mention Sprint, but this triggered an HR investigation. They couldn’t fire me, as I’d done nothing wrong, and there were no policies on blogging. But it was obviously time to go.

In 2004 I returned to the UK and became an independent consultant, focusing on my core interest of ‘over the top’ business model strategy, as well as the specific case of Skype as the icon of this new era. I had clients like Nokia, Motorola and Adobe. The NDAs are all now long-expired, and you can read an anonymous version of one of the reports I wrote here.

From early 2006 to the end of 2008 I was Chief Analyst at STL Partners. It’s fair to say that I was the intellectual engine behind the business. The snapshot I have of the flip chart on which ‘Telco 2.0’ was conceived is in my handwriting. Then I joined BT in 2009 as Strategy Director for the network and IT division. Let’s just say I now understand that my role is to help organisations to change from a position at their edge, not from inside.

For the past five years I have been working with a number of associates and industry experts whom I regard as the best in the business. We tend to work on problems that require a level of intelligence, imagination and insight that the ‘mainstream’ cannot reach.

Sometimes it can be a lonely place exploring and mapping virgin intellectual territory. The compensation is an unparalleled freedom to shape my own career and destiny. My professional reward is having a small influence over the direction of the fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) telecoms industry.

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