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The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Management (page 1 of 7)

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.

Quotes on metrics and numbers

I published an article a few years ago, called “An Appropriate Use of Metrics.Martin Fowler, who hosts the article, tells me that it receives good regular readership. As someone who has been working as a consultant, I’m aware of how an inappropriate use of metrics can really incentivise the wrong behaviour, destroy company and team cultures and drive incongruent behaviours between teams and people.


Source: From Flickr under the Creative Commons licence.

In this post, I thought it’d be worth sharing a few quotes around numbers and metrics. I’ll leave you to decide where they may or may not be useful for you.

Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave.

Source: Eliyahu M. Goldratt (Father of the Theory of Constraints) from “The Haystack Syndrome” (1980).

What can be counted doesn’t always count, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Source: Often attributed to Einstein but the Quote Investigator suggests crediting William Bruce Cameron (1963).

Not all that matters can be measured.

Commentary: An alternative form to that above often attributed to Einstein.

What gets measured gets done, or What gets measured gets managed.

Source: According to this blog, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive source.

It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.

Source: W. Edwards Deming from “The New Economics.”

(One of the Seven Deadly Diseases of Western Management) Management by use only of visible figures, with little or no consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable.

Source: From W. Edwards Deming’s Seven Deadly Diseases of Western Management.

Data (measuring a system) can be improved by 1) distorting the system 2) distorting the data or 3) improving the system (which tends to be more difficult though likely what is desired).

Source: Brian Joiner via the article, “Dangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of Data.

The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.

Source: Lloyd Nelson (Director of statistical methods for the Nashua corporation) via Deming’s book, “Out of the Crisis.”

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Source: Also known as Goodhart’s Law phrased by Marilyn Strathern.

If you can’t measure it, you’d better manage it.

Source: Management consultant, Henry Mintzberg

People with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.

Source: W. Edwards Deming. No concrete source found except for Brainyquote.

Starting as CTO at N26

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be taking on the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role for N26 (formerly Number26), Europe’s first mobile bank with a full European banking license, and who is setting new standards in banking.

I’m joining an exciting and talented team based in Berlin, Germany – one of the favourite start-up cities in Europe. In my new role, I’ll draw upon more than a decade of my consulting experiences with the well-respected and industry-changing technology firm, ThoughtWorks – best known for leading the adoption of agile ways of working (particularly its technical practices), publishing open-source software like CruiseControl (the first widely used Continuous Integration servers) and Selenium (well-known automated web-testing tools), and sharing ideas through books like Continuous Delivery and the Lean Enterprise. I’m really looking forward to applying my experiences guiding organisational design, building evolutionary architectures, developing technical leaders all while sustainably delivering value for our customers.

What will be different?

After many years as a consultant, I realise that working with a product organisation is a different beast. I look forward to having some responsibility to instigate and guide changes throughout the organisation and living out the long-term consequences (both good and bad!) of my actions. I know that this is often a missing feedback loop for consulting. In my role, I’ll be able to invest more in challenging and growing people and building out new technical and organisational capabilities.

I also look forward to spending a bit more time “at home”. I still expect to travel for my new role, still speak at some conferences but I hope I will have a bit more say as to when and where I’ll travel to, based on our business needs rather than where clients happen to be based. Did I mention that I’ll also be based in Berlin, and it’s a great city with a very good balanced lifestyle? I might even get a chance to further develop my German again.

Why FinTech and N26?

As a consultant, I was always skeptical about having significant long-term impact on established financial companies. With teams, or parts or the organisations, yes. With a 10,000+ person company, less so. The exciting part about working with N26 is that I will work with a strong management team to prevent unnecessary bureaucracy and to let people focus on adding value to the product and organisation. We benefit from not supporting certain types of legacy, and building software with Continuous Delivery and modern technologies first. I’ll be helping guide us away from the traps and pitfalls I have seen many customers suffer from in the last decade.

The N26 Black Card

I also like the fact that N26 is growing fast, and has already proven to meet customer needs, where all growth has been organic so far with very little advertising. Did you know that we recently hit 500,000 customers (PDF)? It’s also one of the first mobile-first startup banks with a European banking licence, which opens up a world of opportunity that a lot of other FinTech banking products do not yet have.

Here’s what TechCrunch wrote two years ago:

N26 (Number26) could be the best banking experience in europe – Tech Crunch

Bank of the future

In case you can’t tell, I’m really delighted to be leading the technology organisation behind the bank of the future. The team has already accomplished a lot so far, and I look forward to working with the team to do even more. We’re going to build an exciting place to work in the FinTech sector and have a huge impact on our ever-growing customer base across Europe. If you’d like to be a part of the N26 team and join me on this journey, did I mention that we are hiring?

Drop me a line on twitter @patkua (DM’s open), or on my email address if you’re even curious. Berlin’s a great city to live and N26 is a great place to work while you’re there.

The Technology Landscape in Singapore

Earlier this year, I held my Tech Lead Skills for Developers workshop in Singapore and Thailand. It was a short and busy week including some customer visits and a talk on Building Evolutionary Architectures for the local community.

As a consultant, I’m lucky to travel to different parts of the world where I have been able to compare technology industries and cultures around the world. Please note that the following observations are simply my observations and not necessarily backed by research.

Extreme Shortage of Developers

Talking to a number of managers, it’s apparently very difficult to find experienced and very good developers. There seem to be a number of reasons for this including how Singapore Universities aren’t producing enough software developers, a country limit that ensures a consistent ratio of foreign and local talent and a culture that values higher status over getting things done.

Dense and active community

Singapore reminds me a lot like London. The financial sector has a big impact on the technology market. London is much more diverse from that perspective. Singapore, like London, is a small dense population with a very good public transportation network. The public infrastructure enables many community meetups as people don’t have to worry about driving, traffic or how long the commute might take and thus enables a lot of learning to be done.

One of people I met during my time at Singapore, Michael Cheng (or @coderkungfu), organises the Engineers.SG website, where they go around to meet ups, film the talks and put them online.

Above is a picture of Michael and I during the course I was running. What he organises is no small time-commitment, and is a huge service to the community and makes the content available to a much wider group.

High Power Distance Index (PDI) matters

Accroding to Hofsted, a researcher on the cultural dimensions of countries, Singapore has one of the highest PDI ratings. This means that ranking, titles and the relationship between titles matter more to people in Singapore than in countries with a lower PDI (such as the US or the UK).

Translated into the local market – almost everyone wants to be a manager.

One person was telling me about one team where they had two developers building software and eight managers managing! It wasn’t of any surprise to me that this team worked in a finance industry. It also didn’t surprise me that not a lot of work got done!

Singapore is following, not yet leading in technology

Singapore is known for its passion and drive to make a big difference for its size. I see many great things changing on the island state, however I see many other challenges in their market that simply investing in programmes as a nation won’t necessarily change.

If you want any other perspectives on this market, I’d recommend reading a couple of this articles:

Book Review: Scaling Teams

This weekend I finished reading Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness.

I know Grosse personally and was looking forward to reading the book, knowing his own personal take on dealing with organisations and the structure.

tl;dr Summary

A concise book offering plenty of practical tips and ideas of what to watch out for and do when an organisation grows.

Detailed summary

The authors of the book have done a lot of extensive reading, research and talking to lots of other people in different organisations understanding their take on how they have grown their organisations. They have taken their findings and opinions and grouped them into five different areas:

  • Hiring
  • People Management
  • Organisational Structure
  • Culture
  • Communication

In each of these different areas, they describe the different challenges that organisations experience when growing, sharing a number of war stories, warning signs to look out for and different approaches of dealing with them.

I like the pragmatic approach to their “there’s no single answer” to a lot of their advice, as they acknoweldge in each section the different factors about why you might favour one option over another and there are always trade-offs you want to think about. In doing so, they make some of these trade-offs a lot more explict, and equip new managers with different examples of how companies have handled some of these situations.

There are a lot of links to reading materials (which, in my opinion, were heavily web-centric content). The articles were definitely relevant and up to date in the context of the topics being discussed but I would have expected that for a freshly published book. A small improvement would have been a way to have them all grouped together at the end in a referenced section, or perhaps, (hint hint), they might publish all the links on their website.

What I really liked about this book its wide reaching, practical advice. Although the book is aimed at rapidly growing start-ups, I find the advice useful for many of the companies we consult for, who are often already considered very succesful business.

I’ll be adding it to my list of recommended reading for leaders looking to improve their technology organisations. I suggest you get a copy too.

The Gift of Feedback (in a Booklet)

Receiving timely relevant feedback is an important element of how people grow. Sports coaches do not wait until the new year starts to start giving feedback to sportspeople, so why should people working in organisations wait until their annual review to receive feedback? Leaders are responsible for creating the right atmosphere for feedback, and to ensure that individuals receive useful feedback that helps them amplify their effectiveness.

I have given many talks on the topic and written a number of articles on this topic to help you.

However today, I want to share some brilliant work from some colleagues of mine, Karen Willis and Sara Michelazzo (@saramichelazzo) who have put together a printable guide to help people collect feedback and to help structure witting effective feedback for others.

Feedback Booklet

The booklet is intended to be printed in an A4 format, and I personally love the hand-drawn style. You can download the current version of the booklet here. Use this booklet to collect effective feedback more often, and share this booklet to help others benefit too.

5 tips for using Retrospectives as a tool for dissent

I recently shared this article on twitter from HBR, True Leaders Believe Dissent is an Obligation – the spirit of which I wholeheartedly agree. Effective leaders should not be surrounding themselves with yes-people because you need a diverse set of opinions, perspectives, skills and experiences to effectively problem solve. You can read more about How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, Research on how a Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks and Kellogs’ perspectives on Better Decisions Through Diversity.

Celebrate Dissent Photo

Photo from Vipez’s Flickr photostream

A challenge with many leaders is creating the right environment to allow dissent. I draw upon Retrospectives as a useful tool and here are some tips if you are a leader looking to use it effectively.

  1. Be clear about your motives – I can see some types of leaders who want to use retrospectives as a way to get to blame (which is definitely not the point). It helps to be explicit upfront about what you expect from people and to let people know if there will be consequences. If people feel like retrospectives are being used to “find dirt” or for blame, people will refuse to actively participate in future sessions or simply lie.
  2. Find an independent facilitator – I address a number of the trade-offs of an independent facilitator in The Retrospective Handbook and when you’re a leader running a session, there will be times you will want to participate. Playing dual roles (participant + facilitator) can be really confusing for those simply participating, so I recommend at least starting retrospectives with an independent facilitator.
  3. Allows others to talk first – Leaders often come with a level of explicit or implicit level of authority. Different cultures treat authority differently and it pays for a leader to be aware of the significance that is automatically added to your words by holding back and allowing others to speak. Focus on listening first and foremost, and ask clarifying questions rather than being the first to put your opinion on the table.
  4. Pick a topic that affects all participants – When choosing participants, make sure that the topic is relevant and that everyone can contribute different perspectives for. Although outside opinions about a particular topic are often welcomed, retrospectives are best when people can share their experiences. If, as a leader, you are gathering a group of people who don’t regularly work together around a common topic, reconsider if a focused retrospective is a good solution.
  5. Keep an open mind – There is no point in gathering a group of people if the leader is going to follow through on an action they thought of previously to a retrospective. Consider scheduling a retrospective early on, very focused on information gathering and generating insights as a first part, and then a second part with a smaller, focused group on the next steps. By having time to digest the new information, you may find you end up with very different solutions than what you first had in mind.

When used well, retrospectives can create a safe space to invite people to dissent and create an ongoing culture of challenging the status quo.

Reviewing the latest blinks August 28

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School by John Medina – A description of rules with how our brain works and how we learn. Our visual senses tend to trump our sense of smell. We need sleep to restore our energy and to help us concentrate. Spaced repetition is important, but assigning meaning to new words and concepts are also important to learning. Since I’m fascinated with learning and how the brain works, I’ll add this to my reading list.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by
David Allen
– Although I never read the book, I felt like I follow a similarly described organisation system. The GTD method is almost like a cult, but requires a lot of discipline for it. Unlike keeping a single list of things to do, they have a systemised variant for keeping long-lived projects and ways of managing tasks to help you focus on getting through actions. Probably a good book if you want to focus more on breaking things done into smaller steps.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande – With lots of examples from the healthcare industry, a reminder that useful checklists can help us avoid making simple mistakes. For me, the idea of standardised work (a lean concept) already covers this. I agree with this idea in principle, but I’m not so sure the book covers the negative side effects of checklists as well (people getting lazy) or alternatives to checklist (automation and designing against error/failure demand to be begin with).

Connect: The Secret LinkedIn Playbook to Generate Leads, Build Relationships, and Dramatically Increase Your Sales by Josh Turner – Either a terrible summary or a terrible book, this blink gave advice about how to use LinkedIn to build a community. Although the advice isn’t terrible, it’s not terribly new, and I didn’t really find any insights. I definitely won’t be getting a copy of this book.

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action by Simon Sinek – A nice summary of leadership styles and rather than focusing on how something should be done, and the what, is starting with the why. I liked the explanation of the Golden Circle with three concentric circles draw within each other, with the Why being the starting point that leads to the How that ends in the What. It’s a good reminder about effective delegation and how powerful the Why motivator can be. I’ve added this book to my reading list to.

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