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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Blenheim Chalcot Group CTO Mark Ridley on a rollercoaster year

Blenheim Chalcot’s group technology director Mark Ridley has been on an interesting journey over the last year or so.

In June 2016, he left Reed.co.uk after 19 years at the company, where he started as developer and ended as director of technology. After working at the same company for so long, it’s no surprise that Ridley had a special affinity with it – and so when he gave in his notice, he did so without having another job to switch to straight away.

“I didn’t want to run behind their backs; I wanted to make a clean break,” he says.

His idea back then was to become a ‘CTO-as-a-service’ – where he could carry out the role as a chief technology officer at several companies at the same time. One of the first jobs he applied for was a CTO role at Accelerate Places, a Blenheim Chalcot company that provides co-working spaces throughout the UK.

However, he decided not to take up the position and took up a consulting role at Accenture. After a successful stint at Accenture, his boss suggested a new position: group technology officer for all of Blenheim Chalcot. This more senior position appealed to Ridley – and he began this new role in November 2016.

What is Blenheim Chalcot?

Blenheim Chalcot is a venture builder – unlike venture capital companies in which start-ups pitch an idea and look for investment, venture builders look to bring in companies who can be built up into fast-scaling businesses. It supports them with a range of services from tax and legal advice, to HR and recruitment.

Ridley’s area of expertise meant he would focus on how Blenheim could scale-up start-ups using technology.

But what made the role more interesting for him was that Blenheim had a number of different companies within its ecosystem – fintech firms, ed-tech businesses and companies in the B2B technology, media, influence marketing and content space. It essentially felt like he was getting to work in a ‘gig’ type role and in a big business at the same time.

“Had I just taken on the Accelerate Places role I would have just been focused on that. Now, I get to work with the Accelerated Group which is everything from providing finance, to tax advice. In addition I directly work with a Blenheim Chalcot company called Avado as interim CIO,” he explains.

Gigging at Blenheim Chalcot

His role at Avado – a distance learning company that is one of Blenheim’s older businesses rather than a start-up born and bred within Blenheim – mirrors much of his work at Reed.co.uk.

“It’s all about how we can move to the cloud, how we can take on the DevOps culture, how we can use Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products rather than on-premise software – and that’s exciting,” he says.

While he is helping Avado with its digital transformation efforts, he is also looking for a CTO for the company, and helping it to move into a new building.

But his remit doesn’t end there – Ridley also works with Accelerate Places, which has co-working spaces in London, Nottingham and Manchester.

“It allows us to understand what start-ups want out of a place to work, but it also gives us access to those start-ups before they look for funding, so we can build closer relationships with them before they go on their campaign trail to do their investment rounds,” he says.

Accelerate Places can provide start-ups with a home, and Blenheim’s other companies can provide them with services including help with IT procurement. And then, Ridley says, that the icing on the cake is for the start-ups who are selected to become a Blenheim Chalcot investment.

Learning curve

The transition going from Reed.co.uk to Blemheim may have been an exciting one for Ridley, but he says that it has been challenging in some ways too.

For example, Ridley has to work with a group of CTOs at Blenheim, and rather than prescribe the technologies they should use for their particular organisation, he has to advise them on areas they feel they need help with.

“There are a huge number of very talented CTOs and the last thing they want is for me to come in and give them an opinion on what the technology stack should look like. If they’ve never worked inside sales teams and with CRMs then they’ll be happy for me to give them advice about that but if they’re a C# developer using [Microsoft] SQL Server and Azure, the last thing they want me to do is come in and say ‘use the Google Cloud platform’”.

This was even the case at Avado, which is a strong Microsoft-house and was already rolling out Office 365 when he was about to join.

“It seemed inappropriate to come in and tell them to stop after they’re that far along the journey because I have a preference. It made me have to rethink things and draw out the benefits of the Microsoft stack. I still have preferences but it doesn’t mean I can’t see the benefits,” he says.

Brexit – a disappointing, smaller world

Ridley says that Brexit has meant that the world has become a disappointingly smaller place.

“At Reed, I probably had 30 countries represented in my team, so I had an incredibly diverse team and it was fascinating and refreshing to talk to everyone,” he says.

“The people who have moved have taken a brave decision to move to the UK. They’ve already demonstrated a greater level of ambition and drive and risk-taking than someone who has fallen out of a university degree,” he adds.

This commitment means they’ve already ticked many of the boxes that Ridley would be looking for in new recruits – particularly their mindset, resilience and ‘grit’.

“I think to make it in any way harder for people to cross borders is a traversty for any business – I think it’s worse for Europe and it’s worse for the UK,” he states, adding that there will be programmes that help people to work in the UK, but it would still be harder for them to do so.

This obstacle will then have a detrimental effect on the UK technology scene, he says.

“If talent can move to Paris or Berlin more easily than London, it could jeopardise our start-up system, which is currently a shining light in Europe.”

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