Role Call | David Lindsay, SVP of Technology

David Lindsay, senior vice president of technology at Farfetch, says as a business grows, the lead tech role becomes as much about marketing, business understanding and product management as it is about pure technology.

David Lindsay of Farfetch | Photo: Aly Wight

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. In a new series to coincide with the launch of BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent, we highlight some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them.

EDINBURGH, United Kingdom — Edinburgh-born David Lindsay is the senior vice president of technology at Farfetch, an online marketplace for fashion that connects consumers with carefully selected product from a global network of independent boutiques. He initially worked at a variety of Scottish technology companies before heading to London at the end of the first “dot com” boom. He spent time architecting web solutions for online sports sites before finding his niche in 2004 with the nascent Net-a-Porter.com where, as head of technology, he was responsible for the in-house technology architecture and systems. In 2010, David left Net-a-Porter and joined Wednesday, a digital agency. Craving a return to more of a start-up atmosphere, David joined Farfetch in early 2013 where he oversees the product, digital design, UX and technology aspects of the rapidly expanding business.

BoF: Please describe your current role.

DL: My role at Farfetch is senior vice president technology. That means I run a team of around 90 (and growing) split across development, product management, user experience and digital design. I get to set the overall strategy of the technology team and then try to help the chief technology officer, head of UX and product team deliver on that.

The majority of my tech team are based in Portugal, with the UX and design team in London and I live in Scotland’s fashionable Edinburgh, so I tend to spend most of my life flying and Skyping.

BoF: What attracted you to the role?

DL: The initial attraction was (and remains) the people: I love working with José [Neves, founder and chief executive officer of Farfetch] and my team and colleagues really are superb. The truly omni-channel nature of the business helped too. It’s unique in the luxury fashion world and brings a whole new set of challenges I’ve never faced before.

I was originally asked to consult with Farfetch in Portugal for a few days in 2012 and I realised during that short period that I wanted to do a lot more than just ‘advise and run.’ As it turned out, José had the same thoughts and I’ve been full-time since early 2013 as a result. The role is obviously not without its little ‘problemettes’ but the sense of ownership is continuously rewarding.

BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?

DL: I’ve been involved in a load of very cool projects (cool from my perspective at least!) but I’m an engineer by training so I get the most enjoyment when I feel that I’ve helped to create something original from nothing.

I’m really proud of xTracker, an in-house ERP [enterprise resource planning software] we built at Net-a-Porter. As far as I’m aware, it’s still in use (although five years later hopefully in a somewhat altered state!) I don’t think any of the original team there (myself included) actually knew what an ERP was, or that that was what we were creating. If we had, I’m not sure we’d have dared to build one from scratch. But we did, and I’ve still never seen anything else quite like it!

More recently, when I came to Farfetch, I was on a ‘responsive web design’ high and I happened to mention this to our head of UX, who showed me a few things he and his team had already been working on. I got ridiculously excited and kicked off the project formally. Since then it’s been amazing to see the team respond to the enormous variety of challenges, particularly now, with the launch date accelerating towards us.

In that particular case, the end results are (in my honest opinion) amazing but I get just as excited seeing a team simply gel together around a particular project and produce something of which we’re all proud.

BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?

DL: I think my role changes constantly with the size and demands of the business and I thrive on that variety. I’m aware I generally work with companies that suit my ‘sweet spot,’ which is fast-growth, tech-focused, small to medium e-commerce businesses. I’ve worked in much bigger corporates but I think my fragile ego survives on being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As the business grows, the lead tech role does become as much about marketing (yourself, your team, your company), business understanding and product management as it is about pure technology. This is driven by the growth needs of the company — for example, speaking to investors to give them the confidence in the technology department required to get them to part with huge sums of money or working to raise the profile of the business in the local employment markets to ensure a steady stream of great talent, as well as just being able to represent Farfetch publicly in a way that’s appropriate to our brand and company values.

I still get to input on the low-level technology, though, which is very important to me.

BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it.

DL: I’ve worked in Agile [an iterative project management method] or nearly-agile environments for years now and the inherent “fail fast” ethos means it’s actually quite difficult to screw up spectacularly nowadays, thank god. This means that you end up being shaped by lots of small lessons, rather than major catastrophes, which is much easier to deal with.

My biggest personal failing is that I can be exceedingly dogmatic and forceful when I’m convinced that I’m right about something. Without gory details, in a previous role I effectively forced the adoption of what, to me, was clearly the right technology solution. As it transpired, the solution was a very good one, but the ill feeling towards me and my team from those people impacted by the change was a total eye-opener. Since then, I’ve tried to market solutions to users and involve them much more in the process. Nowadays, for larger scale projects, I’ve generally got a cool name, a slick logo and 50 t-shirts printed even before the specification process has finished.

Also, I work from home quite often and there have been times when my wife will overhear my phone conversations and kindly point out what an asshole I’ve been and then make me call back and apologise. My CTO is also excellent at pointing out my deficiencies in that regard too!

BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?

DL: Unless you’re one of those strange people who’ve always known what they want to do from an early age, I think it’s vital to keep an open mind, career-wise. I was effectively still having ‘what I’m going to do for a living when I grow up’ debates with myself when I turned 40 and, if I’m being honest, I still dream of being a paleontologist (like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park but with nicer shoes). However, I happened to meet people who truly inspired me in an industry I now love and I was able to carve a semblance of a career from that.

A key thing I’m aware of, particularly as my own kids get older, is that this entire industry was completely non-existent when I was at university (I graduated in 1992, Amazon launched in 1995) and neither I nor my careers advisors could ever have imagined that I’d be able to use my engineering training in such a ridiculously enjoyable way. However, it took me quite a while to find the fashion industry, so my tips for becoming SVP technology (should you want the job) are:

1. If you’re not passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, or the people you’re working for are not passionate about what you’re doing, try something else or somewhere else
2. Treat everybody equally
3. Learn to code (my biggest regret is that I can’t actually code anything other than extremely basic C++)
4. Keep an open mind about everything and never stop learning

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To explore exciting fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent.