While studying physics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the early 1990s, Quentin Clark had the unsettling realization that he would never be a great physicist. Instead of giving in to the downward spiral of an identity crisis, Clark turned back to something he’d been doing since he was 10 years old, something he loved — programming.
He picked up computer science as a second major alongside physics and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in both fields. Clark is now the CTO of enterprise software giant SAP, and he said his physics background has come in handy throughout his career.
“The interesting thing was that the physics curriculum really taught me how to think and how to approach problem solving differently than a lot of the other people I was a student with or working with,” Clark said.
Upon graduating, Clark landed a job at Microsoft in 1994 working as a program manager and software test engineer. He remained with Microsoft for 20 years, working with products like SQL Server and various Azure products. Clark most recently served as corporate vice president in business applications before leaving Microsoft in June 2014.
Clark started at SAP in November 2014, and he is finding that CTO is one of the most diverse job titles in the industry. Culturally, SAP is good at letting people define their job roles, he said, so it’s a nice fit.
“I think what’s changed in the technology industry, really in the last several years, has been just the pace,” Clark said. “People are trying to create that picture of success for the future and the execution of it. So, I think we’re finding a lot more that the roles are a lot more combined together.”
As CTO, Clark’s role is to help chart the technical course and define product roadmaps which, in a way makes him a navigator or helmsman of the SAP product line. It’s fitting because Clark has always been interested in enterprise software. Additionally, his other passion is platforms.
Platforms are an incredible enabler, Clark said. Applications have the power to affect users, but changes in platforms can cause deep ripple effects in other areas. For many years, he has worked on platforms for the enterprise. More recently, though, the journey to the cloud has been a massive sea change in the industry that’s captured his attention.
“I think, as an industry, we’re really only at the beginning of understanding how the cloud will dramatically change how businesses exist going forward,” Clark said.
Cloud technology has transformed the technology industry in two ways, Clark said. The first is in the delivery model. A lot of the early success of the cloud has to do with this model — just think about how software, infrastructure, backend, and databases are delivered “as a service” now. It doesn’t alter the foundational capability of the company, he said, but it does change how the company spends its energy and maintains its tools, which is still important.
The second shift comes from the the things cloud computing has uniquely created and how they are altering the products and industries around them. For example, an API for speech recognition can fundamentally enhance a developer’s app and the data they gather, and that developer can access it via the cloud without having to know how to build the API.
The cloud is a rare example as many technological advancements aren’t causing the revolutions they used to in the past.
“If you look at IT spend as a whole, the percentage of that spend which is going towards maintenance of systems versus the innovation of new capability for a company is out of balance,” Clark said.
Imagine the moment that tools like email or ERP systems first came on the scene — productivity jumped exponentially after those tools were introduced. According to Clark, many of the other tech leaders he works with said that there is a big opportunity for more meaningful progression in IT.
“Technology is increasingly becoming, not just a differentiator, but a matter of transformation or even survival,” Clark said.
In his own words…
What do you do to unplug?
“I think this [is] also core to me being able to do my job, which is exercise. I’m a runner and I row a lot. I use rowing machines in my houses. Right now I’m split between living in Menlo Park so I can be down here; my family is still up in Seattle until they move in the summer time, so I’ve got these water rowers in both these houses. For me, whether it’s a long run, or whether it’s an hour on the rowing machine, getting into this flow of the exercise, it’s almost meditative. So, that’s something I do reboot the brain, if you will, which helps me of course also be effective at work…And, of course, I have a family. I have two boys that are 11 and 13 and I spend a lot of time with them and their activities. Just this past weekend, my younger one was in one of these Rubik’s Cube speed competitions. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s like the most bizarre thing ever. People can solve Rubik’s Cubes in nine seconds. My kid only has it at the 25 second mark so he’s still working through the ranks, but it’s only been a couple months. He’s not doing too bad.”
What music do you listen to?
“I have this incredibly eclectic taste in music. I’ll go to my iPhone and read some stuff that’s on it. It will probably give you a pretty clear sense of how wide-ranging this stuff is. I’m a subscriber to Tidal, if you know about this service, it’s super cool. So, on Tidal I have [Claudio] Monteverdi, I have Richard and Linda Thompson, and I have GoGo Penguin, you may not have heard of this, and I have Natalie Merchant.”
If you weren’t working in tech, what other profession would you love to try?
“The other thing I was really interested in, that I almost majored in but then decided to go into physics instead, was architecture. I still have this dream of, I would love to design and build something. I could never be in a job role where I wasn’t also building things, responsible for shaping and producing things that I can see being put to use.
“I was one of those kids that took apart everything in the house, left things half put back together, built things from scratch. I was always creating stuff or breaking stuff in the process of trying to learn about them, and architecture is the other things that I seriously thought about. I’m not a good free-form drawer, but I am a great draftsman for some reason. I just sort of have an intuition on spatial design and these kinds of things. It was something I was interested in pursuing, maybe one day I’ll dabble in that, but it sort of seems unlikely at this point. I had a great passion for that for a long time.”