How I Made It: He’s spent 18 years doing R&D for Sony — and it hasn’t gotten old
Richard Marks, 48, is the head of Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Magic Lab, a four-person research and development group that has worked on some of Sony’s most cutting-edge technology, such as the PlayStation Move controller and PlayStation’s virtual reality system. He has been with the company for more than 18 years.
Marks grew up in Michigan and Indiana, where his parents worked in education (his dad was a high school math teacher before becoming a vice principal, and his mom was a math and English teacher). Whenever he showed an interest in something, his parents encouraged it. “I was really good at math when I was young and could do some slightly weird things, like add a lot of numbers and multiply them in my head,” he said. “I could say the alphabet backwards, too.”
In high school, he was a year ahead in math, and when the school got its first computers, the teachers “didn’t know what to do with them, and they didn’t know what to do with us, so they put us in this room and we played with the computers.” During those computer classes, he taught himself the basics of coding.
MIT and an internship
Having developed a love for computers, Marks thought it was a no-brainer to go to MIT as a computer science major. But during the summer of his freshman year in 1986, he learned from an internship at an aerospace company that computer scientists mostly played a support role. “The engineers had the lead role and were doing the real-time programming,” he said. “I thought that was more exciting at the time.”
So he switched majors to the avionics specialization of aerospace engineering.
After four years at MIT, Marks arrived at a crossroads: He could move into the workforce as an aerospace engineer, or continue studying.
“I wanted to write my life into three segments, and I wanted to have a segment of learning, a segment of doing, and a segment of giving back, or teaching,” he said. “I was 16 or 17 at the time. And when I started thinking about it, I asked, what would be a normal life expectancy, assuming I was pretty lucky? Seventy-five years is pretty good. So 25 years of learning, 25 years of working and 25 years of teaching.”
In his mind, he thought he could get his doctorate by the time he turned 25. So he packed his bags and moved to California to attend Stanford University.
Seeing things through
At Stanford, he worked with other students on space robotics. Think: robot arms for space shuttles and remote controls for space rovers. It was fun, he said, “but you don’t get to send things into space all the time.”
During a summer internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, he helped build underwater robots that could be used to map the ocean floor and track moving objects. The work wasn’t as ambitious as sending rovers into space, but he found deep satisfaction in seeing his work deployed in the real world.
He ended up writing his thesis on underwater automatic robot control using visual sensing, and defended it when he was 25.
Consulting and walking away
After graduation, Marks worked for a small technology company where he helped build camera software that automatically tracked people. When that company was acquired a year and a half later, he became a consultant for Silicon Valley tech firms.
“I didn’t like consulting very much,” Marks said. “They’d hire us to come in and solve something that maybe they didn’t have the domain knowledge on. We’d come in and solve a problem, and once it was near-solved, they’d take it and you didn’t feel like you got to finish it.”
He left the consulting firm when it was about to get acquired — walking away from a potential windfall. Instead, he joined Sony’s research and development department.
Start with why
“It sounds kind of corny, but when you have moments like that, it’s like, why am I working?” Marks said of his decision to leave his lucrative consulting job.
If his goal was to make more money, he’d be better off going to Wall Street, he said. But “if my goal is to make something interesting, then I can probably do it better here, even if it makes a little less money.”
Choosing to stay
Marks never planned to stay at Sony for as long as he has. Despite periodically interviewing elsewhere, time and time again he chose to stay for two key reasons: First, the console cycle, which promises a new PlayStation every few years with more sophisticated hardware and software, keeps his job interesting.
Second, he believes that being part of a company as big as Sony has allowed him to make the things he wants to make.
One of his first projects at Sony was a PlayStation camera called the EyeToy, which used person-tracking tech he helped build.
“A lot of people said, ‘Why did you do it at Sony? Why didn’t you just go make a start-up, build the technology yourself, then you’d own everything and be super rich,’” Marks said. “That had never crossed my mind. The answer is it probably wouldn’t have worked out that way. To make something and put it on a store shelf by myself is a very different undertaking from being part of a giant company like this. The best leverage I have is to be part of this company and turn my ideas into reality.”
Marks believes it’s important to reevaluate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Working in Silicon Valley, he’s received offers to join some of the tech industry’s best-known companies, but “again, it’s like, what’s your motivation?” he said.
“Nobody is trying to avoid money, but what drives a company matters to me. Some companies, their goal is to make money or to dominate or crush everyone around them. That’s not at all who I am and I don’t want to be there if that’s the overriding drive of the company.”
Marks lives in the Bay Area with his family. He didn’t get his doctorate until he was 26, so now he is revising his life plan to be 26/26/26 instead. “That way I get to live to 78 for sure.”
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