So, it's been a while since you've been able to get your arms round your whole team. In fact, it takes a few plane trips to get your whole team in one country. You're growing at pace, and with this comes opportunities – and risks.
It's your job, as the CTO, to maintain quality at this pivotal time – of hires, product and process. If you can do this, then you will keep your customers happy, your team happy, and your shareholders happy.
However, you also don't want to compromise on any other areas, from keeping the business's deadlines, ensuring your communication networks can withstand remote working and of course, making sure your business culture is responsive to change whilst not losing what makes you, you.
For the second in the ‘CTOs Anonymous’ roundtable series, we sat down with leading C-suite tech executives from businesses old and new, across a variety of sectors, from fashion to media, and of all sizes, from recently-acquired start-up to major corporate. We asked them to discuss what challenges they've faced to maintain quality whilst scaling, and share insights around the solutions they found (or the failures experienced) along the way. The discussion was facilitated by Jonathan Midgley from Trainline.
Here are the five biggest battles a CTO needs to fight to maintain quality in a high-growth business:
1. Fighting the silos
"Good process is everyone in the organisation owning quality."
In larger teams, it becomes increasingly tempting to take responsibility for your part in a process; so if something goes wrong at deployment, it's the fault of 'they'.' The 'they' could be analysts, developers or QA – the important thing is, it's not me. Tribes form – particularly in the hazy post- M&A world - and individuals focus on their own tasks, losing sight of the bigger picture.
This mentality isn't how exceptional products are built. The whole team needs to take pride in building an amazing product and own the code from dev to production. If everyone feels accountable for quality 24 hours a day, you stop your team playing the blame game, and quality will go up overnight as a result.
2. Fighting the watercooler
"If you're building a global business, you can't keep looking for talent within a 35-mile radius of your head office. The talent pool is a lot bigger when you're using the whole world."
High up on the list is of concerns is how to build a business with increasingly far-flung employees. With the much-talked-of skills deficit making offshoring and distributed models increasingly common, the question resounds -- how can you maintain a great culture if you need four different flights to arrange a trip to the pub?
The resounding answer, is that you book the flights, and still all go to the pub – whether it's in Krakow, Berlin or India. Distributed working isn't a silver bullet and necessitates changing your culture and methodology to optimise for it. One key element of this is ensuring that you enable your team to meet face-to-face. The ROI on bringing everyone together is huge not just from a relationship-building perspective, but also in terms of product innovation, with the ideas that emerge from sitting round a table and throwing ideas around.
However, clearly face-to-face interactions aren't scalable for the day to day. This means codifying communication for other times – working on a platform (likely Slack or similar) which means the other side of the world can see what's been happening when they wake up. The more you can do to reinforce this habit, the better, particularly if you have a major base in one country – watercooler chats are likely to leave Nomadic Dave out of the loop.
The key thing is solving these problems when you're small. Getting the right house rules and processes in place before you scale is crucial for a smoother ride when you're hiring 100 developers down the line.
3. Fighting the talent shortage
"Hiring in a competitive market is hard. Hiring high-quality candidates in that market is even harder. So how do you widen the talent pool?"
With Google coaching people into their interviews, it's clear that tech isn't just looking for unadulterated technical skill, but, at associate level, are often screening for potential.
This is not just true of emerging graduate talent, but many are now looking to hire 'switchers' – those who come from other industries. In fact, these individuals often have a foundation of expertise in other areas – like account or stakeholder management – which prove immensely useful.
Some larger organisations will enrol such individuals in a bootcamp on their entry into the organisation, while smaller businesses are more likely to depend on team culture and mentorship to support an inexperienced engineer's growth.
4. Fighting brilliant jerks: the culture question
"Attitude or aptitude…do you compromise on quality if you like someone?"
The challenge for many CTOs is identifying which pockets of culture merit expanding – and how to do this without breeding resentment. This might mean facilitating knowledge share or teambuilding activities – from blogging to Lego scrum days, to day trips out of the office– or putting those who champion the craft of software engineering into positions of authority.
The other task is identifying the people who aren't going to fit, and pushing them away before they stifle your culture, sometimes in despite of technical skill. You're probably familiar with the argument – if you're rejecting 80% of the CVs which come your way on the basis of technical expertise, how much can you really screen for culture? But as one attendee observed "One good person will raise the morale of the whole team – one bad person brings the whole team down. It's the dead-sea effect."
Plus, in terms of the talent-attraction long-game, a good brand is attractive, sometimes more than a top-dollar salary. The holy-grail is getting to the point where you get the right candidates applying because they've heard you have a great culture – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
5. Fighting the deadlines
"There are businesses which deliver but don't care, and those which care but don't deliver. Our job as leaders is to deliver and care, to be mindful of deadlines and defend quality."
This is an age-old one – and is more of a balancing act than a battle. You don't want to meet arbitrary deadlines while putting out poor quality work, but also need to deliver to time.
Process is one part of this; quarterly releases make for risk-averse teams and slower working. If you have the processes in place to release every couple of days, you can get the product into the hands of people who can establish whether it's providing value and iterate quickly. Demonstrating value to the business quickly builds trust for the future.
However, its crucial to not lose sight of educating the business about what's feasible – an MVP held together with twine and gaffer tape isn't a finished product. Ultimately quality will be remembered long after deadlines are forgotten - so timelines should take into account tests and the quality assessment pipeline, new features, with risks/confidence in different parts expressed to stakeholders.
At heart, communication is key; if a deadline is at risk, the business needs to know about it. This goes both ways; engineering teams who understand the business's objectives are likely to solve problems more quickly, as they'll be focused on delivering outcomes, not just output.
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