What I've Learnt: Phill Midwinter, CTO at Third Foundation

Charlie Spargo's picture

Phill is Chief Technology Officer at Third Foundation, the AI and ML company which works with marketing departments to improve online performance, understand data and forecast customer behaviours.

Third Foundation was set up by Phill in 2019 alongside two other former figures from HOME, the strategic marketing agency - Michael Ward and Paul Roberts. Based in Leeds city centre, it quickly became West Yorkshire's only machine learning provider with Google Partner status.

At the time, Phill pledged to "uncover what clients don’t know, such as patterns in missed opportunities or lost revenue." In the meantime, Third Foundation has thrived, most recently appointing a new COO, former YouGov Director of Client Management, Shirelle Grant.

We sat down with Phill to learn more about the lessons he's learnt.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Sitting and thinking - thought needs to be more valued. As a huge advocate for AI, I would factor all kinds of thought into that. But human thought is the best resource we have available, and more needs to be done to support it.

What's been your luckiest break?

As a statistically minded engineer I’m not that into ‘luck’ but I would say that you should try and improve your odds. So, if you put your message out there - and you work hard to create a product - then you’re improving your chances that you’ll make a connection of value.

What's your best failure?

Every failure. I genuinely love learning, and nothing helps you learn faster than screwing something up! The trick is to only break things that aren’t important until you learn enough not to break anything too fundamental.

What is the best investment you've ever made, either financial or time?

Learning to program. I started when I was about five years old. I program in tens of languages now - I’m not even sure how many anymore. It’s a great creative outlet and is pivotal to the way the world now works.

How would you describe your work/life balance?

It’s very healthy most of the time! There are always crunches and times when you need to put more into one facet of work or life, but you’ve got to have fuel for those times. It’s hard as a business owner - especially in technology - to switch off because you’re always doing something for work. I can’t see anything without thinking how that might apply to something we’re doing in the office.

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

In business, I would recommend Ricardo Semler’s 1988 book, 'Maverick'. It’s an eye-opening view of how to conduct business in a way that works for everyone.

I also would pick out 'Scale' by Geoffrey West for the more mathematically-minded, and then Peter Thiel’s 'Zero to One' if you want something punchier. My favourite book is probably Nick Harkaway’s 'The Gone-Away World'.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

He’s totally unreasonable - I wouldn’t bother! After a few more failures he’ll be more communicative...

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

That’s a tough one. Esteemed scholar and writer Isaac Asimov played a major part in the formation of our company - Third Foundation - which takes its name from his epic space opera. Science generally has had such a huge influence on my life and it’s so much bigger than just one author or scientist.

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s descriptive powers are fantastic, to pick another example, and I very much admire computer pioneer and naval officer Grace Hopper’s tenacity and clarity of purpose.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

Reading the rest of this you probably, rightly, think I’m a ‘super nerd’. I also really like long distance open water swimming though, and free-diving. I think the ability to be alone with my thoughts is probably the thing that makes me good at both to some degree. I can hold my breath for four minutes - that’s perhaps not very ‘normal’.

What does success look like to you?

Success to me is when we get off Earth and start to live in space and on other worlds - I’m not a short-term thinker.