In April 2020, in the midst of this global lockdown of ours, we decided to reach out to our network of global tech leaders and to conduct a series of interviews to find out how they were coping with lockdown, where they saw future challenges and some reflections on their careers to date.
The series has since snowballed.
At the time of writing we’ve chatted with 10 tech leaders and many more are in the pipeline indeed, the series is going to extended.
What’s been consistently positive is their willingness to talk openly about the personal as well as the professional. The challenges, changes, successes and failures.
You can watch highlights of all the interviews here but in the meantime, this article plucks out some of the key ‘learnings’ from our opening batch of chats.
What are some of the challenges you’re facing during lockdown?
“Getting information that isn’t through official, structured channels, but just finding things out almost by accident, through just interacting with people. And that’s both what’s going on, but also how people are doing” – Marcin
“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 in front of video screens” – Ben
“Finding creative ways of getting in front of customers and making those meetings meaningful” – Tim
What are you learning about yourself?
“that office distractions are actually how I do my job, that in all those little moments of conversations, asking questions here and there, giving people small challenges, suggestions. That’s how a lot of the work that I do ends up getting done” – Marcin
“Look after my health. Not taking things for granted life before” – Colin
“How much a commute takes out of someone. I’ve suddenly got an extra 28 hours in my week and using that time productively. I 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” – Ben
“that you get a lot done remotely. It’s going to lead to a lot of changes about how we work” – Jerome
“learning that learning a new language (german) is not as daunting as i thought” – Tim
“I’m finding it hard to switch off but I’ve had some valuable tips not to spend all day on back-to-back video calls, not getting enough exercise, staying hydrated, moving around” – Shilpa
What are the key attributes of a successful tech leader?
“Authenticity, humanity and empathy” – Marcin
“Empathy, an eye for talent, interest & an aptitude for technology and how, when it’s applied with flair and creativity it almost always acts as a force for good. Anyone can read books but you need genuine empathy for the people around you. The ability to build teams is also critical. The cult of personality that builds up around some people is ultimately in the medium or long term quite destructive.” – Colin
“Part of our job is to speak the language of the business and be an advocate for the technology on the board where maybe not everyone else 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” – Ben
“I’m careful to make sure that I’m working with all the different team members at the different levels of engagement that they require and that I’m demonstrating through my actions that I have their best interests at heart while I do my best to marry their interests with the interests of the business. And if I do those 3 things, as well as I can, in relation to how I work with my team, that makes me a successful leader from the point of view of my team. Then from the point of view of my leaders it’s really just about transparency and visibility as well as accuracy and detail” – Jerome
“I think these have changed. If it used to be; having a strong vision, hiring the right team, picking the right toolset. Nowadays it’s more about; building the right ecosystem of partners, having the right platform to enable innovation. Those are the two things that senior tech leaders really need to focus on these days” – Tim
“I’d say the key are human characteristics of creativity, risk taking, innovation and putting people first” – Shilpa
How do you try to influence people?
“I’m a big believer that doing the right thing will always trump short term expediency and I think throughout my career there’s been loads of examples of where the easy thing to do would be to compromise rather than to continue and fight on for what the right thing is” – Colin
“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” – Ben
“In the end, it’s all about demonstrating that you’ve really got control of the situation, you know what course you’re charting, you know more or less how long it’s going to take you to get there. When your leadership and yourself are confident in that, that’s where the influence derives because having demonstrated that they can place trust in you” – Jerome
“To do a lot of research, look at both sides of the argument and try to nudge people in the right direction” – Tim
“Always about inspiring people to make the benefits and value thay their customers will experience and enjoy” – Shilpa
How do you make tough decisions?
“Getting those few people who I know are experienced and knowledgeable in those domains and say, you know, here is the decision. “What would you suggest?” and then using all that knowledge to build out a good picture of where to go” – Marcin
“Take on board a wide range of views. I’m interested in listening to the super detail orientated individuals and I’m interested in listening to people who are driven by intuition. I like to look at data, I’m not obsessed by it as too often decisions have been taken purely on data that have been completely wrong. I like to look at experience in past events, my own experience, the institutional experience, experience of others around me, how things have worked in the past and sometimes I rely solely on intuition and gut feel. I mean the idea is not to get every decision bang on, the idea for me is to get most decisions right, be right a lot and then be prepared to roll back and change tact if the data changes or outcome change or what ever” – Colin
“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” – Ben
“Any of those one-way door decisions, the ones that are the hardest to make, in that situation really what I found is, making sure you’ve turned over every rock that there is to be turned over, because under the gaze of scrutiny you can’t be seen not to do that, and then when you’ve done that you know the right thing to do is to make the best case and see if that works with everybody. I think in the end you have to all agree with those situations, that you’re making a decision collectively as a group” – Jerome
“I use a mixture of some formal analysis. I use weighted factor analysis quite a lot as a formal method but I also have a bit of gut feeling and try to marry the two things together” –Tim
“I like to use data for most decisions. Where I have a lack of time it’s gut and instinct. Also the power of the crowd so I consult with family, other leaders etc.” – Shilpa
What’s the biggest challenge faced by tech teams after lockdown?
“How are we going to use the experience going forward? Are we able to learn something from what has happened around how we communicate, how we share information, how we plan together, how we interact? Maybe there are some processes that we could tweak here and there, that weren’t obviously broken before but can be improved. So I think that the challenge is really to use this opportunity that we had of learning about the world around us” – Marcin
“How you get your momentum back, get your productivity back to where it needs to be . Also the pastoral care of our teams, because I think there will be a lot of people working away feeling quite isolated, quite alone and I think we to think about that” – Colin
“This is a real opportunity rather than a challenge, There will be more openness to remote working. I think it will open up far more opportunities for that sort of workforce. It will be our opportunity to bring those people in, we will be talking about development teams that aren’t offshore but they certainly may be geographically dispersed 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” – Ben
“The absence of that social component will persist, I think, or at least it will be completely altered for a time. I think that will be very hard because people are going to want to let life carry on as normal but it’s not going to be possible for it to play out quite that way” – Jerome
“I think that innovation is so important right now and innovation often happens in those informal moments between meetings, at the tea point, over dinner, over coffee and obviously we’re not doing any of those things now so my fear is that those sparks of innovation that happen informally with people in teams or colleagues, just won’t happen as much” – Tim
“I look at it as an opportunity. We have been forced to change the way we work very quickly so we need to take forward the good learnings and practices that have come out of this situation” – Shilpa
What’s the first thing you plan to do after lockdown?
“It feels like it’s gonna be a huge party where we can really you know, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to go on a hug a few colleagues that, I haven’t been in touch with, but really getting back into that more direct interactions and making the most of being able to be around with more people again” – Marcin
“I’m going to walk half a mile up the road and see my son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren” – Colin
“I miss seeing my team and my friends. Going down the pub” – Ben
“Just want normal life to return” – Jerome
“I’ve a very strong urge to go to a football match, I don’t really know why it is because I don’t go to football more than a couple times a year but I’ve got a very strong urge to go and see Arsenal, probably get beaten” – Tim
“Hug all the people I haven’t been able to hug” – Shilpa