Diary of an Accidental CTO: The Art of Context Switching

We welcome back Mostafa Khattab, CTO at WakeCap Technologies, with part 6 of his experiences as an Accidental CTO aka someone arriving in the top role ahead of schedule.

To those of you arriving for the first time to this blog, we have a full list below for you to catch up but in the meantime, here is Mostafa describing The Art of Context Switching ....

"I hope you've been enjoying this series of blog posts, written from the heart of my journey as an early stage CTO and not someone with much leadership experience beforehand.

I have tried to capture the key challenges I faced and mistakes made but slowly, surely I started to get a handle on these things and started to develop my own process and expectations of how to manage this role.

In my previous blogs I talked about stepping up from team member to team manager and some of the challenges related to that role transition - which I know many technologists like me struggle with.

In this post, I'm looking at a skill that any effective tech leader needs to master and that is the of context switching.

As a CTO there's usually multiple projects we have to juggle with on a day-to-day basis.

In computer programming, context switching refers to storing a running process in its current state so that CPU can shift its resources to other tasks and processes. A user can then tell the CPU at any time to resume the process from the latest state.

Context switches consume a lot of resources, and system engineers try to reduce the need for them.

But technology leaders are not operating systems. When you think you’re simultaneously working on two projects you are context switching between them. And for humans, context switching is a productivity killer.

Here are some ideas on how to effectively manage context switching, or at least make it less harmful to productivity.

1. Document what you do.

In order to start handling context switching, I always need to document what I do in order to make context switching easier for others.

Documenting my work for others not only makes their context switching easier, it also makes me more focused without getting interrupted by others asking for everything.

Now things are well documented and people can go for the documentation anytime they need it.

2. Stay away from your inbox

Really this is a productivity killer and we all suffer from it.

Try to avoid checking your email all the time. Avoid replying to emails instantly and try to specify time(s) each day where you check your email, reply to important emails and clean your inbox.

We all need to reduce our email overload.

3. Disable phone and slack alerts

I always specify at least 2 hours each day without any phone or slack notification in order to have a full focus on what you really matters that day.

Also, scheduling focused time on your calendar will help your colleagues understand that you are busy during certain times of the day and not reachable.

Create some space for the real focus you often need as a CTO.

4. Recognize and prioritize the important vs. urgent

As a tech leader in startups, you will always get confused about the urgency and importance of your stuff.

As a technical person, you need to work hard to understand the business needs in order to recognise and prioritise things before working on them and by understanding the business as well as the technical, you are aiming to find the right balance between the two.

This will enable you to set priorities for what you have to work on and help you achieve more valuable milestones, both within your team but also for the wider company.

5. Let your team understand the context

Onboarding your team into the business context and business use cases will make your team focus more on what really matters and decrease the amount of context switching.

Letting your team understand the business use case will allow them to think deeply about what they are working on and brings more transparency and understanding about the business need, decreasing the risk of your team misunderstanding, misalignment and/or over engineering.

I recommended that you attach the business use case for your team in order to let them focus on the value delivered.

Adding these five steps to my day to day work routine has helped me create more order from the potential chaos you can suffer otherwise. It also helps me master the art of context switching.

Previous instalments of the Accidental CTO;

Part 5: Team Member to Team Leader
Part 4: Identify your Daily Radar
Part 3: Leadership Mistakes
Part 2: The Learning Curve
Part 1: An Introduction

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