Skip to main content

Heading for the top of the world

Critical Systems By Alec Stewart, Partner, Critical Systems – 15 March 2024

Four people wearing walking clothes, a black and white dog climbing to Everest base camp


Alec stood leaning against a red work bench

Alec Stewart

View bio

Being with Cundall for almost 20 years has offered many challenges - and teamwork, determination and a clear head have been important in tackling them. Shortly I’ll be putting these things to the test in an entirely new context - trekking to Everest Base Camp.

Growing up, I was fascinated by the geographical wonders of the world, and Mount Everest often featured in the books I loved. Being there in person has therefore been on my bucket list for a very long time, so I feel very fortunate to be planning this trip, an experience I will be sharing with my son, Ben Stewart.

Of course, it’s not only a mental challenge, it is also a very strenuous physical one. To prepare, I have spent the last six months doing regular hikes and walks on weekends. This has been its own pleasure, as sometimes Ben or my wife, Liz would accompany me, and we took the opportunity to explore most parts of our home county of Warwickshire as well as places like the Peaks District and the Lake District.

Some of my colleagues have also been part of my training sessions, in particular Kim Gault, Belinda Morgan, and Martyn Wilkinson. I am grateful to them and appreciate the way spending time together just walking and chatting about things outside of work builds strong team relationships.

On many of my Saturday or Sunday walks, our family dog was my only company, which is its own pleasure. I have also discovered our dog REALLY loves to walk – to the extent that when she hears me getting up in the mornings on the weekends, she’s keen to get going.

In anticipating the physical and mental challenges, I recognised one of the most significant risks is altitude sickness, which can affect even experienced climbers. I consulted a doctor, who gave me excellent advice and prescribed an appropriate medication I can take if I start to get symptoms during the trek. Ben and I have also planned for a couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude before we begin the ascent trek to Base Camp.

There is also a degree of trepidation about the flight landing in and departing from the Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla – dubbed the world’s most dangerous airport. I have been getting excellent advice from Ian Cansfield and Dave Willis, which included them telling me where the best place to sit on the flight will be. Also, I know if I really feel concerned during the flight, I can close my eyes.

Preparation is the foundation for high performance

All this planning, preparation and anticipation has led me to reflect on Cundall’s high performance culture and what it means and how we have been creating it.

In our line of work, challenges are often unavoidable when working on complex data centre projects. So together we do what we can to manage the risks, make plans to mitigate them as much as possible, and when things do go awry, we work together to fix them. Just like my son Ben and I will be relying on each other and the other members of our trek, at Cundall we can rely on the support of those around us to encourage and inspire us each day.

As engineers we know that preparedness is important to achieve excellence, and this culture and mindset gives me confidence to face the unknown. My son and I have meticulously planned our route with the help of Dave Wills to maximise our chance of success, the same way the Critical Systems team and I invest time in preparations for designing and delivering a data centre. The training for a physical hike to the roof of the world and the intellectual effort of delivering a major project have some similarities in that regard, and both require discipline, resilience and ambition.

For all the risks and challenges, I realise this trip is an absolute privilege. It has also given me cause to reflect on what we mean at Cundall when we talk about a ‘high performance culture’. While setting challenging goals is definitely part of it, the aspect of collective endeavour is also fundamental. I wouldn’t attempt this trek alone, just as no one person designs a data centre. When working in a team, having a shared set of goals, and maintaining consistent performance levels while agreeing on the minimum acceptable standard is vital. I know in our team, we can rely on each other to lift one another when we need it, and I know that will also be the case as Ben and I trek to Base Camp.

What we learn from the unknown

In preparing for this climb, I’ve learned valuable lessons about high-performance culture and myself that apply to all aspects of life. I have learned that I not only enjoy but need specific challenges in my life to accomplish my goals. We transform through embracing challenges!

Over the last 20 years, I have witnessed Cundall's progress from a UK-based organisation with just three offices and 200 employees to a global business with 26 offices and nearly 1,200 employees.

I am sure that many of my colleagues at Cundall, especially those whose careers span twenty years or more like mine, have been inspired by the growth and progression of our global business. They will see and recognise the significant contributions that colleagues, teams, disciplines, and offices have made and see the possibilities for further growth and progress.

It has taken enormous effort, determination, diligence, and the willingness to step into the unknown. Nothing should ever be taken for granted; our culture has made this happen, and we can all feel proud about the parts we have played in this.

As I prepare to pack my gear for the trip ahead, I am reminded that whether it is work, sport, or a personal challenge, it is always about consistent performance and measuring your standard against what you set out to achieve. Training and preparation are essential, of course, but with a high-performance team around you, any summit is within reach.