One of the greatest challenges for leaders in tech is keeping up to date with tech. I consume a lot of information these days. As a result, I want to share what I think is very useful for other leaders in tech through a newsletter, Level Up (http://levelup.thekua.com).
I will share articles and trends around technology, architecture, leadership and management. I love learning and I hope you learn something from it too. I aim to share relevant content for people playing roles such as Tech Leads, Engineering Managers, VPs Engineering and CTOs.
The XPand Conference (Amman, Jordan) invited me to speak on one of my favourite subjects. It’s the first big tech conference for Amman, organised by Propeller, a local investing and accelerator company.
About the conference
The organisers wanted to accelerate building a strong tech community. They accomplished that as well! Amman seemed to have many startups and smaller tech companies. Expedia has an office of about 100 people there as well as some tech giants like Microsoft, Oracle and IBM.
About the attendees
I detected a heightened energy with the audience. Everyone was young and engaged. People interacted with each other throughout. They had a great gender diversity as well. From what I could tell it was almost a 50-50 split. Speaking to someone from Expedia, they also have a similar gender split in their office. Impressive!
I spoke early on the first day. After that, I found myself inundated with many questions. Many people said the talk resonated with their own personal experiences. Others shared how they were transitioning through this mindset shift. Moving from Maker to Multiplier. Many other non-engineers told me my talk resonated with their own leadership paths.
When I stepped outside, people approached me with questions or comments. People were very engaged and wanted to interact. People found no question too small or awkward. I found it very humbling and a testament to the local culture. I was very pleased I could offer some target questions to reflect or coach. I was happy I could offer advice or share my own experiences.
About the tech scene in Amman
Although I didn’t see too much of Amman, I was very impressed by the city, its people and growing tech scene. I was also grateful for the invite to help share my knowledge and contribute to Amman’s tech scene. I am especially grateful the organisers arranged for me to visit the ancient site of Petra.
It’s a moving and amazing experience, one I am unlikely to forget. Thanks to Tambi for the invite and Mohammad for the amazing logistics.
Hypergrowth land is fun. Things change all the time. My challenge as a CTO was to shake-up the early-stage startup “snowglobe.” It was to transform “start-up” habits into a “scale-up” culture. It was to prepare and launch into hypergrowth. I took on this challenge because I saw the kernel of engineering talent that I could nurture and support.
Looking back at the time I’ve been there (it feels like ages in startup time!), so many things have improved. It’s hard to count all changes as the company constantly evolves. Here are some of the changes I’m proud to have influenced:
Clear priorities – It’s easy to fall into reactionary mode and want to switch gears all the time. As the old saying goes, “If everyone is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” Engineering is always the bottleneck. Ideas are cheap. Ideas are easy. You have 5 ideas. I have 5 ideas. Engineers have 5 ideas. To maximise our opportunity, we needed to be clearer about where to focus attention. We now have a better planning process that enables clearer trade-offs and decisions.
Almost 4x tech growth – When I first started, I looked around asking, “Where are all the engineers?” Our ratio of tech to non-tech was way off! We worked hard with the People team to change our recruiting strategy. We improved our onboarding process. I spent a lot of personal time writing articles and speaking on our engineering culture. The result? Tech is almost 4x the people compared to when I started. We also managed this while continually delivering value to customers too.
A clear Target Operating Model – Change is hard. What helps is a shared picture of how we wanted to scale Product & Tech. You can’t have more people working on the same problem. You need to create a clear focus. You need to encourage high cohesion and low coupling across people and teams. We established a shared Product & Tech Target Operating Model. This model visualises and explains new structures, processes and how they fit together. Each iteration aims to addresses organisational smells and maximise Autonomy and Alignment. We’re working on our 3rd iteration of this now.
Product versus Portfolio Management – We have individual product area priorities. We also have cross-cutting projects. We now can focus on ensuring the bottleneck or critical path has full support and attention. We can manage both product and portfolio priorities well.
Fuller life cycle ownership in teams – When I arrived, we already had cross-functional teams. Not all teams were responsible for the full “life cycle” of a product. Sometimes back-office or operational processes belonged to a different team. The separation lead to queues and bottlenecks. Our teams are on a journey of integrating more responsibilities. They continue to extend the definition of done to remove hand-overs. We build security and quality in from the start. Teams can better respond to customer issues, incidents and build new or on existing products.
Technical governance practices that scale – As we grow, we also focus on alignment where it makes sense. Organisations can only support a certain amount of variation or entropy. Alignment helps. We adopted a lightweight RFC process and iterated on our internal Tech Radar. We built decentralised support structures like Technical Working Groups and an Architecture guild. These work without relying on the same individuals to make decisions.
Three Product and Technology Hubs around the world – We’ve moved from being completely centralised in Berlin to operating three successful P&T hubs in Barcelona, New York City and Berlin. We transitioned major product ownership to one office as it grew. The team evolved and released completely new features and services in record time. We’ve maintained speed and throughput, and quality remains high.
Rapid growth of individuals – As a I leader I invest in people I work with. I’ve mentored, coached and trained many individually personally. It’s wonderful to see how it’s accelerated people’s growth. People have better ways to deal with imposter syndrome. Engineers have more impact and influence through stronger leadership skills. Better yet, I know they have done this with an explicit support.
Diversity, inclusion and culture – I remember one big change I first made was removing a degree requirement for engineers. I created the #diversity slack channel. I sponsored the celebrations for International Women’s Day. This lead to a wonderful support of CSD in Berlin. Watch this amazing video! I know we’re not perfect but we are improving. Our gender ratio in tech can still improve. We have, however, built an inclusive culture where everyone in Product & Tech can express ideas in safety.
As a leader, I found myself asking others (and myself), “How does this scale?” I’m constantly looking at ways to scale myself too. To scale with the growing set of responsibilities, we are splitting this role.
The CTO for our company, in our stage, demands a more operational, management and inward focus. I will step into a new role called, “Chief Scientist.” This new role takes a more outward focus and still guides the technical direction and growth of the tech team.
Our “Chief Scientist” role focuses on three areas:
Representing the external face of technology
Supporting and enriching technical decisions
Accelerating the growth of people in our technical team
I’m look forward to refocusing my attention and energy. These areas not only bring significant value to the company, but also play to my strengths. Here’s to embracing constant change, evolution and experimentation!
PS. If you’re interested in joining me on building the bank the world loves to use, check out our open opportunities.
Careers ladders are all the rage in software firms. They create structure and shared expectations around different levels. Like any model, career ladders have pros and cons. Career ladders are a starting point for shared expectations across an organisation. However career ladders cannot be comprehensive, as people are unique, like snowflakes. People bring their different strengths and experiences to what they do. Everyone will do this differently. As a result, I like to explain that levels in a career ladder do not represent a checklist. Rather, levels reflect how people can have a different impact in an organisation in different ways.
In my most recent talk, “Talking with Tech Leads,” I explain how, some companies have a two-track career model. Two tracks are great, as they allow for more development and growth in different areas. Most of the research I did seemed to focus on two main tracks. In Silicon Valley they refer to these as Individual Contributor (IC) and Management tracks. I actually don’t think a two-track ladder is enough. This is why I present you the Trident Career Model below.
The Trident Career Model has three tracks. Each track represents where people spend most of their time or energy.
The Management Track
In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) on management activities. This still includes leading people, supporting people, managing structures & processes and organising. People in this track must still have some background in the topic they are managing.
Most importantly, their main value add is not necessarily through making decisions related to the specialist field (e.g. system architecture). Instead, they manage the surrounding system & structure to ensure people closest to the work have the best context and information to make better decisions. They provide enough support, time and/or budget to enable others to do what they do best.
Example roles in this track: Engineering Manager, VP Engineering, IT Manager
The Technical Leadership Track
In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) leading people on a technical topic. People in this track must have relevant hands-on technical skills and experience. They should have good but not necessarily the best skills in the team they are leading. People in this track draw heavily on refined leadership skills to be successful. Classic activities for this role (in the field of software) include:
Establishing a Technical Vision
Managing technical risks
Clarifying/uncovering technical requirements
Ensuring non-technical stakeholders understand technical constraints, trade-offs or important decisions
Growing technical knowledge and cultivating knowledge sharing in and across teams
Example roles in this track: Lead Developer, Tech Lead, Principal Engineer, Software Architect
The True Individual Contributor (IC) Track
In this track, people spend a majority of they time (70-80%) focused on “Executing/Doing”. Software engineers early in their career reflect this very well. This track still requires people to have excellent communication and collaboration skills. People in this track have impact through the deep/detailed knowledge or skills they offer. Most small companies do not need a deep IC track, as there is no need for specialisation. As an organisation grows, they may need more of these roles. The number of these roles will always be smaller than the other two tracks in a well-functioning organisation.
Example roles in this track: DB Specialist, Performing Tuning Specialist, Domain Specialist.
This model is indeed a simplification. In real life, the Management and the Technical Leadership tracks are not always so clearly separate. I know some companies where Engineering Managers also take Technical Leadership responsibilities, or where Tech Leads or Lead Developers are also expected to take on Management responsibilities. This is not necessarily wrong.
I have personally found that, at scale, it is often hard to find people who have deep skills and experiences at both of these areas, and that it can be useful to have a discussion around where someone’s focus, passion or development progression lies.
As the famous quote goes:
All models are wrong, some are useful.
George EP Box
I have found this Trident Model a useful starting point to contrast differences in roles or expectations. Considering using this model:
To develop skills in an area you may want to work
When building out your own company’s Career Ladder
To explain differences/focuses on existing roles and responsibilities
I hope you found this post interesting. Please leave a comment about your thoughts of the Trident Model of Career Development.
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.
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.
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.