“The role of a CTO is sometimes that of a chameleon, you have to change your style and language to suit the audience”
Question 1: What did you want to be growing up?
A number of different things, at one point a chef which I’m very pleased that I’m able to start participating in again during lockdown. At other points, an architect and I’m sure I wanted to be a soldier at one point, but I think I’ve always had an interest in technology. From a young age I was sort of playing around with BBC electrons and Archimedes and a commodore 64 and spectrum 48k for those of you who remember. So I kind of grew up around computers.
Question 2: Describe your lockdown in one sentence.
Not as bad as I thought!
Question 3: What has been a challenge during lockdown?
It’s staying connected with our customers and our people making it still feel like we’re one joined-up company while we’re all sat at home or a number of us are sat at home on our kitchen tables in front of video screens like this.
Question 4: What aren’t you worrying about?
The commute and actually that’s the thing that probably is the biggest learning for me out of this was how much a commute takes out of someone. You know, I’ve suddenly got an extra 28 hours in my week and I think using that time productively, I always used to think I did but actually the stress and distraction of a train or car journey or the tube in london or jumping on a plane every couple of weeks. I underestimated how much that takes a physical and mental toll.
Question 5: What are you learning about yourself during lockdown?
I have a lot more patience with my children than I did and that probably has something to do with the commute and the sort of work load and being able to manage that and an appreciation for everyone who is home schooling at the moment.
Question 6: What are the key attributes a senior tech leader needs?
I think commercialism, a part of our job is to speak the language of the business and to be an advocate for the technology on the board where maybe not everyone else on the board is from a technology background. But technology has become as important as an understanding of finance or marketing or sales and not every CFO or CEO comes from that digital background. So it’s important that we speak the language of everyone else and champion technology at that level and make sure we do put technology at the heart of the business.
Question 7: How do you influence people around you?
Again ensuring that we speak the language, if it’s my peers hopefully they can respect the fact that you’ve been there and you can speak their language which is generally the language of a developer or scrum master or a Q/A. But then if you are speaking to an ops person you should be speaking in their terms so the role of the CTO is sometimes the one of a chameleon you’ve got to change your style and language slightly to kind of suit the audience.
Question 8: How do you make tough decisions?
Having the right people around you. I always hire people that are better than me at their job, and I may have done their job at some point, but my role is now different to that and so I think having an environment where it’s not hierarchical where there’s the freedom to be challenged and surrounding yourself with people who don’t always think, look exactly the same is very important, so you get that multi faceted view of any situation. Also just be willing to change your mind and when new data points come in, be willing to say “well actually I called that wrong and actually now we’re heading in this direction”.
Question 9: What‘s the biggest challenge tech teams will face post lockdown?
I actually think this is a real opportunity rather than a challenge, I think there will be more openness to remote working, I think the government themselves instead of putting all the money into hs2 should be investing it into broadband and things like that and I think that the opportunities for, in particular people like part time workers, people who don’t want to do the commute into london. I think it will open up far more opportunities for that sort of workforce that have become somewhat disenfranchised or distanced by the london hub. It will be our opportunity to bring those people back in, we will be talking about development teams that aren’t offshore but they certainly may be geographically dispersed across the UK and I think this will give us the opportunity to do that we’ve proven that we can do it. I think technology will lead the way in that and that the rest of the business world has kind of caught up with perhaps how some of the technologists work already
Question 10: What’s the best piece of career advice you ever received?
Make sure the person, your boss, the person you report into, make sure they’re the right person and that you’re learning from them and if you’re not then find someone else that you can learn from. It’s the classic people don’t leave companies they leave managers. So that for me, I’ve had a number of different bosses with wide range of skill sets but I think maybe at the time I didn’t realise it but I certainly took a lot away. Also I learnt some things that I didn’t want to be, so for me that’s probably the most important piece of advice.
Question 11: If you could travel back in time what would you tell yourself?
In between jobs take the 3 months off and don’t go straight into the next job. If I could take a gap year now with my children the ages they are which is 4 & under 10 then i’d take them and explore the world, particularly given the current situation. There’s an amazing world out their to explore and I hope it doesn’t go into a full lockdown state, you know with Trump’s recent announcement on immigration I hope that isn’t repeated in other countries and I hope we keep globalisation to a certain extent and we’re able to travel because there’s a lot to see out there.
Question 12: What’s one task lockdown enables you to complete, but you won’t?
All of my gardening, my garden is a never ending project and certainly I can’t go to the dump at the moment so there’s a growing pile of rubbish in the corner that I’m going to have to do something with once this all eases.
Question 13: Is there one thing you’d like our viewers to take away from this?
My advice for anyone considering a role in at the moment in technology is: find a company that sort of nurtures talent and find potentially if you can, a mentor within that company. I think there’s never been a better time to get into technology and data. Not just the sort of well known household names but I think every company now is putting technology and data at the forefront and so it’s only going to increase over the next sort of 5 to 10 years.
Question 14: What’s the first thing you plan to do after the lockdown?
I do actually miss seeing my team in person and my friends, so going into a traditional british pub and having a pint of ale will be very welcome.
Ben’s Recommended Book
“Measure what matters” – John Doerr
Thank you to Ben and all our wonderful guests.
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