Those first steps into the boardroom as a new CTO are a career-defining moment for any IT Leader. But how do you get there, and what are the potential pitfalls?
La Fosse's Adam Kinder caught up with Matthew Batchelor, Founder and Interim CTO at Integrity Partners. With previous engagements as CTO of Bookatable, Bauer Xcel Media and momondo Group, it’s fair to say that Matthew is extremely well-positioned to offer advice to aspiring CTO’s.
All systems go
Matthew took his first CTO position at Bookatable in 2010, at a pivotal time for the company. Bookatable were struggling with scalability and he inherited a series of legacy problems. 'When it was busy in the restaurant, the site would go down, and when it was busy on the site, the tools the restaurants relied on would fall down,’ he recalls.
Luckily, Matthew was on hand, and the Board believed in his vision of company transformation. Over the next 18 months, and, with £3M investment in technology, he rebuilt both the infrastructure and remodelled the teams. He cites the subsequent sale of Bookatable to Michelin – at a reported price of €108m - as one of his ‘proudest achievement as CTO.'
Take your time
Looking back, Matthew believes it was the right moment to enter the CTO world, because he earnt credibility by ‘doing’ before embracing the title.
'I probably could have had the title about five years prior, but I waited until I really felt I added enough value to the business before making that step.’
To clarify, by ‘adding the right value’, Matthew doesn’t just mean in a technical sense. In his last role before stepping into his first CTO position, he helped his then company, online business journal Breakingviews, sell to Thomson Reuters in 'a tricky financial year.'
It was contributing to the business at this strategic level that helped Matthew to see that he was ready for the step-up.
If he could give any advice to aspiring CTOs looking to enter the profession, it would be to follow a similar route, and take the requisite time, rather than jumping at the first opportunity.
'Don't rush. It's your life, not just a career. Take the time to get a wide range of experience, rather than a narrow set, which makes you only applicable to a particular industry or business type.'
Gaining broad experience is relevant, as for Matthew, there isn't just one route to becoming a CTO.
Matthew made the decision to switch industries, a route increasingly popular with CTOs, who now come from areas such as UX, Design, and Infrastructure, rather than the more traditional engineering path. Matthew views this as a positive. 'If they all came down the same route, it would be boring.'
Face to face
So, what are Matthew's priorities? Like many people at his level, the role requires a delicate balancing act. ‘Excelling as an IT leader means excelling at managing teams and business stakeholders alike.’
Indeed, Matthew doesn't sell a vision to a team – he asks them to co-create it. And this is the exact approach he adopts to all problem-solving. At Bookatable, he sat down with every single person in the business within two months of being appointed CTO, flying to Sweden, Germany and China in the process.
'I spoke specifically about the pain points, what they tried, what worked, what didn't, because typically the answer to any given problem is in the business already.'
This desire for greater collaboration and involvement means he didn't take those first steps into the boardroom alone – he bought his development team with him. He sees encouraging direct interaction between Board members and developers as a key motivator, given the right context, and is proud of the fact that he has done most of the jobs of the individuals he manages.
'Lead by example, don't lecture.' He advises. 'And don't be afraid to get involved in the detail.'
And how about the Board itself? The word of the day is transparency. 'Break bad news quickly. Never let someone walk into a meeting where news comes as a surprise.'
Finally, when balancing different demands, give yourself space to breathe. 'Make every meeting 20 or 45 minutes. You need gaps in your day to reflect on the meeting you’ve just had and the actions that came from it, it makes sure you focus on the next meeting, rather than thinking about the last.'
So, what does Matthew see as the most exciting innovations within technology in the next five years? As an AI graduate, he identifies that a lot of the technology being developed is far from new, but recognises that the scale at which they are developing is.
He's most excited by projects where innovation intersects with sustainability, citing HoloLens, a Virtual Meetings headset for organisations seeking to accumulate less air miles, and Winnow Solutions, a company which uses AI to reduce food waste.
With regards to the planet, he is under no illusions. 'There is now a realisation forming that we need to do something very significant, very quickly, if we are not going to kill it.'
For businesses disconcerted about how quickly things are changing, Matthew advises to be prepared for attacks from all angles, and be flexible when it comes to changing your course.
Recent history demonstrates that some of the biggest threats come from different sectors entirely (see UberEats), and companies that don't adapt, get left behind.
After CTO…the step to the NED
Aside from his substantial CTO record, Matthew also is a NED to a variety of businesses. What qualities does he think are important for this office?
Matthew emphasises the need to adapt your thinking when coming from running a business yourself, to being a non-executive. 'You are not looking to do, you are looking to influence based on your experience.' NEDs need to be light touch, and trust the management Board, even if that means letting others make a mistake or two along the way.
The main thing is being able to put your ego aside. 'Be approachable. Be someone who listens first, and talks only when they have enough information to make a difference.’
As a parting word of advice, Matthew encourages successful people to help those around them who are on their own journey.
Matthew offers free advice and mentoring wherever he can, including students at the University of Birmingham, and believes you have a duty of care for those around you. ‘Do not forget the people that got you where you are, and make sure you pay it forward’.