“My approach in life is that if something interesting comes along, you should grab it. It’s a much more interesting way to live than simply sticking to a plan.”
For a man who has built a career helping governments, ministries, and international organisations prepare for the unknown, Marco Gercke’s career has been remarkably unplanned. In a life he describes as “a happy combination of accidents”, he has followed a rich and varied path, emerging as an industry leader in cybercrime and cyber-security.
After years of jet setting from meeting to meeting, today Marco has his feet firmly on the ground in his native Germany. We speak about him finding joy in doing the school run - literally, running while pram-pushing - and how he is creating a richer life from the inside-out.
On starting out
While Marco describes his life as “a combination of accidents”, make no mistake, reaching the top of his game - helping governments and business leaders in over 100 countries develop strategies to control cybercrime - has not happened simply by chance.
He started and then sold his first company while still in high school in the 80s. Even back then, he was ahead of the curve - his company used machine learning and early stage AI to develop software solutions for medical diagnostics. Born into a family of doctors, Marco tells me he always had a keen interest in medicine, only later deciding to study criminal law, a subject in which he gained a PhD.
“I finished my PhD at the end of the 90s, just when things were picking up speed in cyber-security, but when there were still very few subject matter experts. Increasing international interest in the topic led me to work with the European Counsel, the European Union and for the UN and it really just kicked off from there.”
On ‘unplanning’ for the future
When I ask about his plans for the future, Marco says that while he wants to continue to write and “invent things”, he doesn’t know where he’s going.
What he does know with absolute certainty is that while he’s not planning on “working until I die”, the Cybercrime Research Institute certainly won’t be his last venture. “Over the years I have been fortunate enough to do so many different, interesting things and this didn’t come about by sticking to a rigid plan.”
In focusing too firmly on one thing, he tells me there is a danger of missing out on exciting and unplanned opportunities. “I liken it to shopping in an outlet centre; if you’re focused on finding one specific thing, chances are you’ll end up disappointed. Whereas if you’re open-minded you might find something unexpected that you hadn’t even considered. My approach in life is that if something interesting comes along, you should grab it. It’s a much more interesting way to live.”
Finding joy at a slower pace
After spending the last decade travelling week-in-week-out, taking hundreds of flights a year to attend meetings and lead cyber attack simulations with government ministers and the boards of Fortune 500 companies, Marco describes a jet set lifestyle that has gone from “100 to 0” after the birth of his daughter eighteen months ago and more recently as a result of international lockdown.
Before now he would fly to the Pacific Islands and back in a 24-hour window all for a thirty minute meeting. He admits that while meeting face-to-face has its place, the pandemic has shown us that it is possible to work in an entirely different way. “There’s now an acceptance that technology can replace the need for travel. I just wish I was able to rewind and start working this way 10 years ago!”
While working from home, he has taken the opportunity to shut himself away in his guesthouse to allow space and time to think differently. “Working with fewer distractions has allowed me to get into a new creative space.”
The result? He has developed an innovative, portable tool that will be used to “enrich the cyber attack simulation experience”. Running cyber attack simulations as a table desk exercise where attendees are comfortable with coffee and cookie in hand, doesn’t adequately prepare them for the reality of a cyber attack. By manipulating user experience and increasing stress levels through augmented reality and simulation (think high frequency lights and temperature control) he makes the situation as realistic as possible.
No matter where he is in the world, a daily run is non-negotiable. “My body needs it, demands it”. When travelling, lacing up and heading out (“at least 10k”) opens his eyes to different perspectives on a place and its people. When at home he takes his daughter with him, running while pushing her along in her pram. It's motivating and meditative in equal measure for him and a high-speed nap time for her.
Defining a richer life
Marco explains the key to feeling fulfilled and finding purpose is, reaching beyond “average” and going beyond what society has conditioned us to want.
“Start filling your life with things that are not foreseen in the “plan”. Immerse yourself in new experiences, travel, hobbies, anything that you find joy in, because it’s these smaller things, that turn out to be the big things.”
Marco concludes, “if I were to die today, I wouldn’t feel regret. I live my life to the fullest every day. Feeling fulfilled isn’t just an aim for the future. My life already feels very rich from the inside”.