David Marks is the President and CEO of TEECOM, with offices in Oakland, California, the United Kingdom, Dallas, Texas and shortly Portland, Oregon. Believing that people are the key to a successful services business, David began early in his career surrounding himself with the best people, treating them like family, and giving them the tools necessary to do outstanding work for the firm’s clients. Today, those efforts have paid off. The San Francisco Business Times has ranked TEECOM as one of the top 100 fastest growing companies, as well as one of the top 20 best places to work. David has led by example to create a company where all employees work toward the same goal: integrating forward-thinking and innovative ideas and technology into architecture that is practical and aligns with the business objectives of the firm’s clients.
TEECOM is an integrated technology design company that forges the ultimate convergence of technology and experience. By creating the infrastructure solutions that make today’s buildings smart and social, the firm brings strategic thinking and innovative engineering to telecommunications, security, audiovisual, acoustics, virtual reality, wireless, network, VoIP, and other electronic systems. Modelo spent some time learning about David's current role and the evolution of TEECOM.
On becoming an engineer
In high school, I enjoyed math and science, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. A computer science teacher suggested I explore engineering. I didn’t know what an engineer did, but I figured if it was math and science it sounded good. I went to the University of California, Berkeley and majored in electrical engineering and computer science, and absolutely hated the program.
I decided to leave school to pursue an internship at an engineering firm and do the things that an engineer does. My first project was the Moscone Convention Center Expansion in San Francisco. I was amazed. I had no idea that engineers designed buildings and that they worked with architects. I always loved buildings and marveled at how they were built. I fell in love with the profession and ended up going back and finishing my degree in electrical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
On discovering his voice as an engineer
When you first start out in any profession, you’re not sure if your ideas and opinions are valid. Once you have more experiences where you have an idea and somebody else says it and everyone thinks it’s great, you start to trust yourself a little bit more.
One of the instrumental moments in my life was when I went to a senior engineer and asked why he designed something a certain way. His response was, ‘I don’t know I just copied it from someone else. I figured it was right.’ I was shocked because he was someone I respected and trusted for his knowledge. It taught me that not everyone in the industry who has an opinion about something knows why they believe it.
If you truly understand something, you understand all the properties and principles of it: the goals, why you’re designing it, how it works, and that fact overrides opinion. When you understand all of the fundamentals about your idea, you’re much more confident saying, ‘This is how it should be done. I know everyone does it this way but I’m doing it this way and it’s much better for these reasons.’ That is how we progress the industry.
On starting TEECOM
Ever since I was 16 and had my first job working at a Carl’s Jr. (a fast food restaurant) and then at a Best Products (a big box retailer), I believed that I could run a business. One of the things that I’m naturally good at is that I see a process or system and I know how to improve it. I started TEECOM because I saw what was being done in the industry by other professionals and I would ask them, why do you recommend that it be done that way? Or why are you recommending this solution over another? Usually they didn’t know. They repeated something that they had heard.
I took the time to ask why and learn the reasons and facts behind various design choices. I had a strong opinion and felt that I should share it. I knew I wanted to start my own company. I was growing the company that I was with, but not all of the owners saw a future in designing technology for buildings. I disagreed, so I left and started TEECOM in 1997. It was the perfect time to start a business because we had the whole Silicon Valley dot-com boom and the first round of Internet companies. There was so much work.
On the evolution of his approach
When you start out doing something, you’re exposed to one specific task, whether it’s to design a building or a system. As you do it over and over again, you start to see how it could be done better or how it relates to something else. TEECOM started out just doing IT infrastructure engineering. We looked at all the systems attached to that--the network, audiovisual systems, security systems, acoustics related to audiovisual performance, or project management. We found that the industry was lacking in good engineering and project management.
Over the years, we continue to add services where there was a need. That’s probably true of many different businesses. You have an initial idea of what you want to do and a service or product that you want to develop, but then you find that in order to control the end user’s experience with that product or service, you have to control more of the process. So you expand and do more things that deliver a more integrated and higher-level result.
When we talk to clients, we don’t really talk about IT infrastructure or displays or card access readers. We talk about what problems they’re having, how we can better connect their people internally to an office or organization, with the outside world, their clients, how to keep them safe from a physical security but also electronic security standpoint. We figure out how to deliver it. That’s what clients want. They don’t necessarily want the end product or service, they want the experience. They want someone to handle it, take over and deliver it whether they know to ask for it or not. Over the years we’ve grown to deliver experiences rather than services.
On specific principles he strives to adhere to
One of the things that bothers me is poor design. Poor design usually results from people not thinking about it in advance. That’s why you see pathways strapped to the outside of buildings or satellite antennas stuck to rooftops in plain view. It doesn’t need to be seen.
The best way to describe our design philosophy is that if it doesn’t need to be seen or heard, it shouldn’t be. Unless there’s a reason to see the cables, the pathways, the antennas or all the electronics that go into making something happen, it should be invisible to the user. The space should speak for itself.
On his role at TEECOM
Even though I’m the CEO, when I first started out I did engineering, interfaced with our clients, put together drawings, wrote specifications, spoke with contractors, walked jobsites, and did anything that needed doing. As the company grows, you have to learn to train other people to do what you do. My role became more about training people in engineering. Then as you start to pass 20-30 people, you find that you need people to lead specific aspects of the business.
You start to put a leadership team in place: someone who’s in charge of engineering, someone in charge of operations, someone in charge of business development and marketing and someone in charge of HR and finance. My job now is about making sure I have the right leadership in place. We’re about 85 people. We’ll probably be over 100 people by the end of the year. I haven’t walked a jobsite in a while. I don’t put together drawings anymore. In fact, the design tools that our staff uses have surpassed my abilities. I have never used Revit, which is a little uncomfortable for me because I was so hands-on.
My job now is about designing a business that’s scaled from $1 million a year in revenue to $10 million a year in revenue to over $20 million a year in revenue. In order to do that, you have to think about how to sustain a business that can deal with all of the challenges that come with having a lot of people with competing interests, ideas, goals, clients, and industries. How do you do what you did when you were small and it was easy on a much larger scale?
On recent projects that represent TEECOM’s unique approach
We probably have 200-300 different building projects going on at one time. The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is the first natural history museum, planetarium, aquarium, and research institute all housed in a single new building. We put every electronic system on a converged network. It was the first museum of its kind to operate that way, and probably one of the first buildings of its kind to operate anywhere that way.
The project won an award from InfoWorld for being one of the top 15 green IT projects in the world. That was the result of a great team, a great vision for the client and people who were willing to do things that hadn’t been done before.
The hospitals we work on are good examples. There’s somewhere between 120-150 different electronic systems in your typical hospital and the whole healthcare industry is in need of innovation. We’ve been fortunate enough to work on Palomar Hospital in San Diego, California; Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas; Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California; and UCSF Hospital in San Francisco, and we’ve been able to bring a different level of thought, envisioning, and integration that improves patient outcomes. I’m proud of that.
On the other spectrum, we build corporate offices for fortune 100 companies all over the world. We’re able to oversee and deliver design from San Francisco to New York to London to Tokyo to Melbourne. It’s nice to have the client come back to you and say ‘you’re delivering space and services better than we ever delivered ourselves internally. We never thought that an external partner could do that.’ It makes us feel good.
On the firm’s design toolkit
We use a lot of tools. AutoCAD and Revit are the two big ones from a design standpoint. Then there are all the collaboration tools like Slack for internal communications and Asana for project management. Office 365 because you still have to communicate with clients over email and put together Excel and Word documents. We also use Confluence, which is our internal knowledge management platform. We use Bluebeam for cloud markups of drawings and drawing management. Plangrid we use a lot out in the field.
When the latest software comes out we like to test it to determine if it improves the process. We’re always trying to stay on the cutting edge of what’s available. We even tend to develop our own software internally if we don’t like what’s out there. It takes all of that to deliver a better product.
On the state of software today
It could be a lot better. Twenty-five years ago while in school, my capstone project involved developing an interface for what was called ICADS, Intelligent Computer Aided Design Systems, which the architecture department at Cal Poly was developing. It already used 3D modeling and the concept of objects rather than drawing lines or symbology to represent a real world object.
It understood what a room was and what a window was, what electrical power was and heat loads were. It used these intelligent agents written in an artificial intelligence-based software called CLIPS that understood building codes, the UBC, the electrical code, local codes, and Title 24. It also understood cost. As you designed a building and chose materials, whether it was wood-framed or steel-framed or concrete, it would tell you that your window was too big or the cost was too high. It would resolve it for you and make suggestions on what you could do to meet code or a local ordinance or energy guideline.
If you wanted to reduce cost, it would give you the best ways to do it. We still don’t have anything like it in the industry. I follow Bret Victor and his pursuit in life is to better integrate the tools that we use to design things with the outcomes of those tools. The design process is too disjointed. You have to do a lot of iterative work and then look at the outcome and then go back and change it, and then look at the outcome again. You should be able to work in both domains. You should be able to look at the outcome and describe what you want to have happen in the outcome, and have the design tool make the necessary changes.
On the future of the AEC industry
The industry needs better design tools and better collaboration tools. I think the raw capability of the existing tools is fantastic, but they need to be easier to use so that people are comfortable using them. Regarding collaboration, it's still frustrating when you have to travel to an architect’s office and sit in a room of 30 engineers and designers for three to four hours every week to talk about a project and everyone gets two to five minutes to talk. The rest of the time you’re listening or the discussion has nothing to do with what you’re involved in.
The technology exists to allow people to collaborate on specific issues electronically or virtually. We have to get out of this mode of everyone having to sit in the same room and go through this long drawn-out process to resolve issues. There’s value in being in the same room and getting to know people when you have to work together. You’re much more likely to answer my question or help me if you know me as a person rather than just a name on an email or a website. Use the face-to-face meeting time for building relationships and then use better electronic tools for collaborating remotely.
As designers, we have to focus on the client's experience as we do on the product or the service that we deliver. If you think about any time that you go shopping or you have your car serviced or you eat at a restaurant, it’s more about the experience than about that product or service. You want people to demonstrate that they care about you. You want to feel good and enjoy the experience. People tend to get focused on the technical aspect of the design or the product and not the overall experience.
On advice he would give himself
I would tell myself to trust my instincts earlier. To speak up, rather than waiting, and to not be afraid to try new things. Early on, when you run an organization, you don’t want to make a mistake. You don’t want to do something that’s going to end your career and the business. You tend to play it safe. As you get older and wiser, you start to understand that your ideas, when based in fact and experience, are pretty good and it’s okay to buck the norm.
For example, offering unlimited personal time off or allowing people to work from home or wherever it is that they want. You can work from anywhere given today’s technology. Or putting a compensation plan in place that incentivizes behaviors like providing a great experience, generating repeat business, and delivering great design. All those things are possible. While it is highly uncommon to do a number of those things in the industry, it’s okay to be different. In fact, there are a lot of good things that come out of being different. When you have an idea or you’re trying to solve a problem and the solution may be unconventional, push yourself to take risks.