patkua@work

The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Leadership

6 Lessons Learned in my year as CTO at N26

Life has been a bit of a whirlwind trip in the last year. I moved cities (London to Berlin). I started a new role as a CTO. I transitioned from 14 years of consulting into a management role. I joined the hyper-growth startup, N26 – the mobile bank the world loves to use.   It’s been exciting to particularly see the company growth. Our customer base has grown from 500K+ users to more than 1 million. Our users transact more than €1B in currency. We’ve expanded our offices from Berlin to New York. We also announced moving to Barcelona and this is only the beginning. 

In this blog entry, I will share my personal lessons learned on the rollercoaster ride from this year. 

1. Management overlaps with leadership, but is different

Over the almost 14 years of consulting, I spoke all the time about leadership. I still believe that anyone can be a leader. Leading is less about a title, and more about how you act. In my role, I also better appreciate the important role of effective manager. Google even proved that effective management matters.

I still think great managers are also great leaders. We try to test for this at N26 during our interviewing process. We hold our managers accountable for having difficult conversations. We want them to be kind, not only nice.  We want managers to nurture an environment of candid feedback. Great managers manage things and lead people. Managers, unlike coaches or consultants are also held accountable for this. 

2. Hypergrowth stretches everyone

I’ve definitely grown over this year. Our company has also grown rapidly (both with users and people). Hypergrowth means people have opportunities for new tasks. We are also not the first company to experience this. The community has been very generous with sharing their knowledge. I will contribute more to this in the future too, as I build on lessons learned.

I have found myself repeating, “The company will grow much faster than people.” 

With this in mind, I have tried to support, develop and grow as many people as possible. At the same time, I’ve focused on bringing in new skills and experiences that we need. Combining a learning workforce with experienced people is tremendously powerful.

3. Really underscore the Why, not just the What

I believe very much in Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” A group of brilliant, collaborative problem solvers will end up with a better idea if they understand why.  You can, of course, still give your input. Your role as a leader it to explain the context. Or to clarify the goal or problem. Not just the solution.

I’ve seen too many technical debates fail because they first didn’t agree on the problem. Agree on why, then move on to what. 

In a fast moving startup, I found people underrate listening. Listening and asking questions are my most powerful tools as a leader.

4. Investing in people has exponential returns

I always try to be generous with my knowledge and experience. I’ve particularly enjoyed helping people grow. Sometimes it’s required tough, candid conversations. Effective feedback helps people grow. Coaching and training helps people see potential they don’t see. It’s been wonderful to help people discover, test and practice tools that make them more successful. 

I’m proud of N26’s technical leaders (both formal and informal). I’m impressed with how people have rapidly grown. I’m also impressed with what they do to pass it on.

5. What got you here, won’t get you there

I read the book, “What got you here, won’t get you there” many years ago. It’s message resonated with me during this year. Startups often go through several phases, “Start Up, Scale up, and Optimise” is how I like to think of it. We are definitely in the Scale Up phase. This phase demands different thinking. 

Acting as if we were in the Start Up phase no longer scales. It’s an educational journey for many people. At scale, you can no longer manage every single situation. At scale, you can no longer make all the decisions. At scale, you have to decide on where you will have the greatest impact. At scale (as a manager), you make less, and need to focus on multiplying more. 

6. Focus on Capabilities, not just People

In Hypergrowth, it’s too easy to hire lots of people. I am wary of this after reading the Mythical Man Month many many years ago. As a manager, I first focus on understanding what capabilities we need. I also think about how those capabilities are best met. Be clear on what you need before hiring people. 

Focusing on what you need helps you find the right people. It also helps those people be clear about how they will be successful. 

Conclusion

I have learned many other lessons in this year as a CTO. The six lessons above reflect some of the major themes for this past year that I hope you many learn from.

I’m super proud of the people I work with. I’m super proud of the product we produce. It’s been a great ride so far, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.


Thanks Jerry Weinberg

If you have worked in IT for some time, you will have come across the name Jerry Weinberg (Gerald M Weinberg). I first came across Jerry when I first read his book, “The Secrets of Consulting.” Jerry impacts great wisdom through his use of stories. He shared his knowledge generously with our industry and set a great example.

He was a prolific writer and I was lucky to inherit many of his books when a contact moved house. I devoured them rapidly, learning much in the process. As a proud Systems Thinker, I enjoyed “An Introduction to General Systems Thinking.” As someone passionate Technical Leadership, I inhaled, “Becoming a Technical Leader.” I refer and recommend many of his books time and time again.

I never had the opportunity to meet Jerry but I met many people who he had personally influenced. I heard amazing things about the “Amplify Your Effective (AYE)” conference. I felt people who frequented the AYE conference came away with more drive to have a greater impact. I regret not taking the one opportunity I had to take part, given the wrong timing and place in my life.

As someone who believes in agile values, I was lucky to meet Norm Kerth. I forgot he co-authored the “Project Retrospectives” book with Jerry Weinberg. Continuous improvement is the basis for better organisations, teams and processes. Call it retrospectives, kaizen or some other name. I count myself lucky for reading this early on in my career.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Jerry was definitely a giant among giants. In the world of software we often have a negative association with the word, “legacy.” We forget that sometimes that legacy can be a good thing. I am particularly grateful for the legacy Jerry left behind. 

Book Review: Accelerate

I first heard about this book when I saw Jez Humble (@jezhumble) keynote at OOP earlier this year. You will get significant value from this book. Jez has already made many contributions to our industry. He introduced Continuous Delivery (CD) and the Lean Enterprise. He also helped shape the field of DevOps, as we know it today.

The Science of DevOps: Accelerate Book

Think about this book as a very readable academic paper, based on the long-running State of DevOps report.

Rigour in its research method

The book describes how the authors gathered vast data and their research methods. They discuss their observations and lead you to their conclusions, with concrete examples. The author shared how some of their assumptions turned out false. An example is the study showing how there is a positive correlation with Trunk-Based Development (TBD) and quality. This technical book is a rare gem based on rigorous research methods. Nicole Forsgren obviously had a large impact on the book

I’m amazed at how rich their raw dataset is. The authors draw on four years of data from many responses around the world. Their sample size towers over many academic studies. Many academics rely on student control groups instead of real industry data. Rarely academics also get to study a few companies or teams within a single company. The wealth of the raw data gives more weight to the report’s authenticity and credibility.

Martin Fowler highlights one point in the Foreword which I agree with. Even though the survey raw data comes from many sources, it is still self-assessed. Self-assessments are naturally biased by Dunning-Kruger effects.

Strong guidance and good advice

Our industry struggles with useful performance measures in IT. Metrics are either irrelevant or drive poor behaviours. This book debunks false prophets like Gartner’s Bi-Modal IT. Spoiler: You can got fast AND have quality, unlike normal assumptions. The book, Accelerate, gives strong suggestions for useful KPI measures. The authors present convincing conclusions that any modern technology firm should take on. This book gives many ideas to improve software and organisational architectures, and processes.

Many studies such as this focus only on the technical practices (such as CD or TBD). Many experience people realise a focus on technical practices is not enough. They realise organisational processes or structures constrain the value technical practices bring. To make the most of technical practices, management must look at their processes and structures. (Disclaimer: We address this topic in our book about Building Evolutionary Architectures). Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but the chapter on Transformational Leadership is super important.

Here’s an simple example why. Imagine you have an organisation with a Head of Development and Head of Operations. Each have hundreds of people with different reporting structures and processes. If the Heads do not support new initiative like DevOps, collaboration won’t move very far.

Conclusion

I found this book extremely easy to digest. I wanted to read more about their research methods. The authors convinced me of their conclusions and made them come to life with concrete examples. I highly recommend this book for any technology executive in the modern world. Accelerate sets the standards for measuring the performance of technology firms in 2018.

Three Common Mistakes of the First Time Tech Lead

The first time a developer steps into the role of a Tech Lead can be difficult. The skills and experience of a seasoned developer do not automatically translate into the skills necessary for the Tech Lead role. In fact, some of the habits of a developer can do more harm than good, when not applied well and with more authority in this new role.

3 mistakes

In this article, we explore three common traps a first time Tech Lead experiences, and what they can do to avoid them.

1. Coding Full-Time

A first time Tech Lead will miss writing code. In fact, it is easy for them to assume that they need to demonstrate their leadership by writing code all the time. Although effective Tech Leads need to spend some time writing, reading and reviewing code, other responsibilities are left unfulfilled when they spend too much time writing code, – such as creating a technical vision and ensuring that the team understands key system quality attributes.

A lack of technical vision might lead to three different implementations, as developers make decisions individually about what they feel is best, or a deployment might fail because developers are not aware of operational constraints or environmental differences in production. Worse yet is when the code must constantly be reworked because a developer chooses to do something differently without considering maintenance, or how the system may evolve over time.

The more experienced Tech Lead understands that they must balance their time to code with other responsibilities. They split their time daily, or at the very least weekly, to ensure that they spend time addressing other responsibilities including building a shared architectural vision, identifying and addressing technical risks, being involved in planning sessions and focusing on team and code cohesiveness and consistency.

2. Making all the Technical Decisions

A first time Tech Lead may sometimes be the most experienced developer on the team, or feel the pressure to make all the technical decisions to demonstrate their authority or influence. When a Tech Lead is making all the technical decisions, they become a bottleneck in the team and the team cannot progress when the Tech Lead is not around. Other team members might feel demotivated when the Tech Lead makes all the important decisions, because their contributions are overruled and this could lead to resentment.

The more experienced Tech Lead realizes there are different ways of making decisions, and often, the best decision comes from using the breadth of experience and knowledge from the entire team. They might draw upon the following techniques, depending on how critical a decision is, how quick a decision must be made and how much commitment they want from team members:

  • Only delegating – A Tech Lead gives the decision to someone else without any other interaction
  • Offering advice – A Tech Lead delegates the decision to someone else, but offers their input and opinions for consideration
  • Inquiring – A Tech Lead delegates the decision to someone else, but inquires about the outcome and factors that led to the decision afterwards
  • Building consensus – They bring all team members together to find a solution that everyone is happy with
  • Consulting with the team – They invite opinions from team members, synthesise the information, but ultimately make the final decision
  • Being autocratic – They use the information they have to make a decision, choosing to involve or not involve team members, but inform everyone about the outcome.

3. Forgetting about Cultivating Team Culture

A team is a group of people working together towards the same goal. The first time Tech Lead might mistakenly see their role leading on all the technical aspects and forget about how the team works together. Although this responsibility may be shared with other roles such as the Team Lead or Project Manager, a Tech Lead must also shepherd the team to move in the same technical direction.

It is all too easy for the first time Tech Lead to ignore heated discussions between two developers, or to ignore how technical team members interact poorly with or disrespect non-technical team members.

The more experienced Tech Lead realizes that the lead part of their role is just as important as the tech, and constantly looks for ways to build trust and relationships between people in the team. They use practices like white-boarding architectural diagrams as a team, establishing coding or architectural principles with the team to guide individual decisions or running regular improvement katas or retrospectives.

Conclusion

The first time Tech Lead can easily fall for a number of traps, often caused by habits developed from their time as a developer. To overcome these traps, they must find ways to strike a balance between their technical and leadership responsibilities.

5 Tips for Being an Effective Tech Lead

Becoming a Tech Lead is a tough transition for any developer, because only part of the skills and experience you had as a developer prepares you for the expectations of a new role. Instead of simply designing and writing code, a Tech Lead is suddenly responsible for an entire development team – and this means dealing with people, both technical and non-technical.

The time a developer spent focusing on writing well-designed code does not translate into the skills necessary for understanding people, resolving conflict, or suddenly having to juggle more tasks than they can possibly achieve by themselves.

Tech Lead Dilemma

I present 5 tips for being an effective Tech Lead.

1. Learn to Delegate

As a developer, you get a kick from working out what the hard, technical problem is to solve. You research different ways to solve the problem, seek the most simple solution and celebrate a victory when you want that red, failing test going green.

As a Tech Lead, you cannot take on all the coding tasks, and cannot take on all the hard or interesting problems, regardless of your experience. You have many more responsibilities that need time and attention, and if you are focused solely on a single task, those other responsibilities will fail to be fulfilled. When you take on the harder problems, it also misses opportunities for other developers to grow and problem solve, which will lead to frustration and potentially people leaving your team!

Of course, there are some problems when your experience and knowledge are important, but you do not want to be a bottleneck in solving problems, so you want to find a way to delegate and still be involved. Solutions might include kicking off a design session with developers to talk about general approaches, and reviewing progress with the developer on a regular basis to see if things are on track.

As you and the developer build trust with each other, you can be less involved and fully delegate an activity to let you focus on more important tasks.

2. Find Time to Code

The role is called “Tech Lead” for a reason, and it is essential that you find some time to spend in the codebase. Being involved in the code helps you build respect with the rest of the team, but it also helps keep your knowledge up to date and current with constraints, problems and the “shape” of the current codebase.

If you do not spend time with the code, you run the risk of invoking the “Ivory Tower Architect” anti-pattern, leading technical decisions without understanding their real implications for implementation or maintenance. This anti-pattern has numerous side effects including destroying trust with developers, increasing the development time of new features, and increasing the accidental complexity of your software systems.

There are many different ways a Tech Lead can find time to code, but it is essential that you make it a priority. This often means making difficult choices about where you spend your time. Tip #1 should help increase the amount of available time you have. I know some Tech Leads who will block out time in their calendar to ensure that there is always time during the week to write or review code with the other developers. I know of other Tech Leads who review commit logs, and provide feedback to developers – similar to a loose pair-programming style.

3. Visualise Your Architecture

I have worked in several teams where developers had no idea how their task fit into a bigger picture. A small technical decision made by a developer might have a wider architectural impact, but is impossible to prevent if developers do not understand the broader picture.

An effective Tech Lead often has a visual representation of their system architecture on-hand and uses it to have discussions with developers. There will often be different views of the architecture (logical, deployment, etc) and each diagram helps developers see how their task fits into a broader system architecture.

A whole-team whiteboard session is often a useful exercise for reviewing the overall architecture, as it evolves over time to meet differing requirements and the discussion during the session is even more important than the diagram. Focus on key quality attributes that drive out your architectural vision (scalability, performance, usability concerns, etc) and how they have shaped your architecture. Call out assumptions and the historical context to help developers guide their everyday decisions.

4. Spend Time 1-on-1 With Team Members

An effective Tech Lead will not be measured with how many coding tasks they complete. They are measured by how effective their software team is. Anything that a Tech Lead can do to make each person on their team better, makes the overall team better. Sit down with members on your team to understand their backgrounds, their strengths, their interests and their goals to understand how the people in your team fit together as a group. Connect developers with opportunities for them to grow. This means allowing them to take risks so they can learn and grow, but also contribute to the team. Encourage people sharing knowledge across the team and find ways to help each team member connect with each other.

5. Learn to Speak the Language of the Business

To be an effective Tech Lead, you will need a great relationship with people outside of the development team including people like Product Managers, Marketing, Sales and CxOs. They will not understand the vocabulary you accumulated as a developer, and talking to them in terms of frameworks, technical tools and platforms will only confuse them.

An effective Tech Lead finds ways for non-technical people to understand technical concepts, and the best way to do that is to find the terms that business people use and find ways to explain tasks in those terms. Use visual models, whiteboard sessions and metaphors to help business people understand technical concepts and their implications. You might rehearse on friends or relatives who don’t work in technology to see if you can succinctly explain an idea.

Minimize the translation layer as much as possible by bringing business terms into the development team and encouraging their use as much as possible. The better the developer team uses these domain terms, the better their understanding and empathy with business stakeholders will be.

This is a repost of an old blog post I published while I worked at ThoughtWorks and wanted to recapture it here. See the original here.

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