Sunday 20 May 2018

Tech boss choosing to define his life by optimism not illness

Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer one of Dublin's most popular and successful technology executives is entering his final campaign. Qualtrics boss Dermot Costello knows he doesn't have long left. But in whatever time remains, he wants to help kickstart a new fight against an illness. He spoke to technology editor Adrian Weckler

European head of Qualtrics Dermot Costello. Photo: Adrian Weckler
European head of Qualtrics Dermot Costello. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'Google Photos or Flickr?" Dermot Costello is asking how to organise his photos online. Like many of us, the 49-year-old tech boss has pictures buried in old PCs, laptops and phones.

Normally, this is a challenge for another day. But Costello can't put it off. He has stage-four cancer. Having recently made the decision to come off treatment, he now has weeks, if not days, to live.

Ideally, he says, he wants an online photo back-up service without a subscription.

"That way, it doesn't matter if my wife forgets to pay for it afterwards."

Google is the preferable service, I say, as it is unlimited. Costello takes a note, before asking about a good, easy-to-use photo-editing app. Snapseed, I reply. He takes another note.

There are many reactions that people have when you tell them you have terminal cancer, he says.

"One of the things about cancer is that once people find out you have it, everybody wants to tell you cancer stories. It'll often be an uncle who died of it.

"They want to tell you all about him and the cancer. I say, 'Look, I'm not my cancer. I'm still Dermot Costello.'"

In Dublin, that has been a good name to have.

Costello is one of the more popular figures on the local tech scene and one of the most successful.

As European head of the US tech firm Qualtrics, he has grown a formidable operation from nothing to 250 people in just four years.

Utah-based Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith, in a previous interview with this reporter, spoke about how "awesome" he is as a colleague.

Despite his illness, Costello is pushing on with one last project. He wants to oversee the setting up of a cancer-immunology research programme.

In Ireland, this will cost an estimated €500,000 over three years. His company has promised to match the first €100,000 raised, with the rest targeted from a campaign called '5 For The Fight' (see panel).

Other than being with family and friends, this is what he intends to spend his remaining time on.

"There is no bucket list, no world trip missed," he says. "I really don't need to sit on a pyramid and watch the sun rise. I've lived well.

"I made lots of good friends and had a great marriage and great kids. And I've partied. The balance feels right."

Nor is there any fear of death.

"Why would I have? Death is a natural, inevitable part of life. And you love your life as best you can. All parties come to an end."

But having no regrets about a life lived doesn't mean an absence of sorrow in missing what is to come.

"My children are young," he says. "Now I'm going to leave them. I would have liked to have seen my daughter's wedding or my son's wedding.

"I feel I would have been at my best when they were young adults. And then my wife is going to lose a husband. We're almost 20 years married, we're a very tight family."

Qualtrics has a special relationship with cancer. The father of the survey software company's co-founders was suffering from throat cancer in 2002. Future chief executive Ryan dropped out of college to care for him.

Together, they worked on what would become the modern company that now has 8,000 corporate customers. Scott Smith recovered, but his sons did not forget about what had affected him.

"They've been incredible to me," says Costello. "Ryan rings me up, asks how things are going, offers me anything.

"They don't have to do that but that's the kind of company it is."

When it comes to tackling cancer, Smith means business. He has set a $50m (€41.5m) goal for the company's global '5 For The Fight' campaign.

In Ireland, Costello and his colleagues chose a Cork-based organisation, called Breakthrough Cancer Research, as its partner in its own €500,000 campaign.

"We like them a lot because they are scrappy, like us, as a company," says Costello. "They have already had 250 novel discoveries, with six new treatments delivered and over 750 patients treated.

"They work with Cork University Hospital and try to put together clinicians with researchers, so that they can get the research out into the field as quickly as possible and into the hands of the people that need it."

If successful, the €500,000 will fund a PhD student, a post-doctoral researcher and a research assistant for three years.

"The aim is for them to look at some of the most difficult cancers, like pancreatic cancer, which Steve Jobs died of."

Costello's current efforts have raised almost €40,000 toward the campaign, he says. He'd like to see it go a bit higher, even if time is short.

"I really want to make this a success," he says. "If we can get to a situation where no other family has to go through what my family has been through, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing?

"The thing is that I genuinely think cancer is beatable. We just have to really get after it."

Whatever comes of the '5 For The Fight Campaign', however, it won't help Costello.

"My time is up," he says. "It's my liver that's letting me down now. I've got tumours all over my lungs, my liver, my abdomen. They have also gone to my back. So there is no more treatment now, I'm off all of it. Now it is just time."

There was an option, he says, of continuing with treatment. But it came at too great a cost.

"It was a joint decision," he says. "We sat down and talked about it. I had to put quality back into my life because the treatment was just absolutely destroying me. It was making me feel terrible.

"I asked whether there was anything else. But there's nothing else.

"We have literally taken all the conventional stuff and there's no more trial stuff for my type of cancer right now.

"So we made a decision together, one I'm very comfortable with. I want to keep whatever I have left as normal as possible. And I want to help with 5 For The Fight."

Keeping things normal includes a desire to continue helping with things at work.

This is tough for Costello. He has over 20 years of institutional optimism and exuberance, the trademarks of modern tech companies.

"It's hard, stepping back. I've always been very action-oriented and love to be involved in the thick of things.

"I was managing director for Europe, I'm now chairman for Europe. I'm still involved in the business but I'm taking a further step back. But we've got an amazing management team who have totally stepped up. I'll work for as long as I can."

Overall, cancer has been rough on Costello's wider family. His mother died in 2016 from the same colorectal cancer that he has now.

"She was diagnosed after me and she died before me, because it was a very late-stage diagnosis and wasn't caught in time."

He thinks that anyone over the age of 40 should get themselves checked.

"It's a very simple procedure. It's a little uncomfortable. But it's not painful in any shape or form. How old are you?"

Forty-four.

"There you go. You're certainly at an age where you'd want to be thinking about it. Especially if you've a history in your family of any form of cancer."

Religion doesn't play a big part in Costello's life, despite having friends among the clergy. So he is not placing too much faith in an afterlife. "I feel that if there is a judgement day, I've done my best," he says.

He still looks to objects for strength, though. Costello carries a rock around with him in a pocket, which was given to him by his daughter.

"She gave it to me last year as a symbol of love and strength," he says. "I carry that round with me for courage."

But Costello wants his friends, colleagues and family to know that he has no regrets. "A friend of mine recently put it well. He said you can live to be 100 years old and not have achieved what you want. Or you can live to 49 and have lived life.

"I have enjoyed myself. I feel I had the right balance in life. I tried to do it the right way. I made lots of great friends on the way. And most importantly, I have a great family.

"I'd rather 49 years of that than 100 years of not that."

Editor's note: Since this interview was completed, Dermot Costello passed away. Independent.ie would like to express our condolences to his family and friends

To donate to '5 For The Fight', visit  5forthefight.everydayhero.do. Companies who wish to get involved can access resources, advice and logos by emailing 5ftf-emea@qualtrics.com with their request.

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