10 Questions for Gehry Technologies CTO Dennis Shelden
By Nancy Weil
Gehry Technologies serves architects, engineers, builders and others with their design software and services, including 3D modeling and building information management. IDG News Service quizzed Chief Technology Officer Dennis Shelden on his priorities, challenges and insights.
Name: Dennis Shelden
Time with company: 10 years.
Education: Bachelor of Science in Architectural Design, Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ph.D. in Computation and Architectural Design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Company headquarters: Los Angeles
Number of countries: U.S., China, France, UAE
1. Where did you begin your career and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
We’re in the technology-for-building space and that’s a pretty broad agenda. I started training as an architect. I actually started at MIT as a dual physics and philosophy major, but it turned out that I wasn’t interested in either of those — neither of those professions are upward-looking. They’re very sort of navel-gazing in some ways. Architecture is about the world, which is both physical and philosophical, but architecture seemed to be more a life expression.
I have three degrees at MIT, in succession. The first one was a Bachelor’s degree in architecture. The Media Lab at the time was a small group of offices in the Architecture Department. And then I sort of followed the wave of application of technology to architecture, which was just one step ahead. So when a trend emerged, I already had experience with it.
Next, I briefly worked as an architect, but fell in love with the technology side and the ability of technology to connect all of the sub-categories of architecture. There is a lot of art involved. There is a lot of engineering involved.
Then I worked more as an engineer. I started at a technology startup, which didn’t go very far, so I went back into the engineering and energy optimization side of things. I worked in the technology of scanning for buildings and things like that and then went back to get my Ph.D. at MIT and got connected with Frank Gehry through my adviser. Right around the time I got my Ph.D., we decided to do this startup around advanced technologies and architectural design.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I think I have to state the obvious one, which is Mr. Gehry himself. He has really created a business that is continually trying to push the boundaries of what he does — attempting to do impossible things in a controlled and rational fashion. And, of course, technology is one of the ways you can attack that. I think he has a very interesting management style, which is in one sense very hands on and in another sense very delegating. He is always deferential to his team, but in control when he needs to be.
The other area is in terms of academe. It’s not a very command-and-control environment. You work with people to identify their goals and then they come back to you when they’re done. As GT has emerged out of startup mode and into mature company mode, there are other skills I have had to learn and there are other parties who have come to bear, but I think there’s a sense that you build a great team and then trust in their expertise and don’t try to muck with them too much. You coordinate without strong command and control.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CTOs today?
That’s an interesting question. I think it really is that balance between knowing what you’re doing and being on top of what you’re good at and understanding that there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done that you’re not good at. You’ve got to figure out how to be good at it or find people who are and get them to do their magic.
One of the best parts of the job is the fact that there are things you are extraordinarily comfortable with, but you also have to step outside of your comfort level.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
A good day at work is when something new and great happens that has never happened before and it works. I love when something emerges and it’s actually better that you didn’t plan it because all the ingredients come together. A bad day is when you think something is supposed to work and it doesn’t.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
It should be said that my role is much more to connect all of the other pieces of the organization together. I wouldn’t characterize myself as a strong manager — I’m more of an influencer. I try to get the organization to always be forward-looking and sometimes you have to intrude to do that. Generally, I try to make the gears come together, but also give people the space to do what they’re good at.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
Mostly, I just look for candidates that have a proven track record of being absolutely the best at their respective jobs. It is always my goal to get a great team together that has a track record of being extraordinarily good at a bunch of different things — ideally– an eclectic mix of things.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn’t be a good fit?
One of my favorite questions is “Tell me the thing you were most successful at, and what are you proudest of, and what is your biggest failure?”
Other than that, I don’t really have a set interview style. I’m part of the community, so I know people who are part of it, and we recruit people we already have great respect for.
I think you can tell in the first give minutes — for me it’s a gut feeling when a person is great. On the flip side, I’m learning sometimes there is more to the story than that.
I also think it’s critical that candidates are able to work in a team. It doesn’t do anyone any good to have a bunch of brilliant rocket scientists who can’t work together. I’ve learned a lot about background checking and doing the due diligence, but I feel you pretty much know instantly you meet someone if they’re extraordinary.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief technology positions?
What’s set GT apart is that because of the business model we have — we take services and technology and merge both of those — the company has always been exploratory. We’re satisfied and always hungry to do something new. I think that is reflected not just in the technologies we offer, but in the business model as well.
What would be a great idea based on what has been done before and what’s emerging, and you have to set that against is that a reasonable business proposition and can we get there with the resources we have. It’s the next thing that is percolating, what is being nurtured.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
I don’t really. I sort of decompress at night, but I’m usually just processing.
10. If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
I’m an associate professor at MIT and I just love the academy. It’s a great crucible of brilliant people. The problem with business is that you get caught up in your own space and the great thing about an academic institution like MIT is there is the flip side of what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about the business proposition and going to market. So I guess I would probably be in academe or in another company doing exactly what I’m doing. I really enjoy having the business side and the non-business side.
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