Name: Christophe Popov
Current position: Working on a startup project in the blockchain space, ex-CTO at Football Index
I was born in communist Bulgaria and I guess my parents who were engineers sparked the interest in engineering in me. I wrote my first lines of code in BASIC on a Bulgarian made copy of Apple 2 at the age of 8 – back in 1987. I wanted to be more of a hardware engineer but I later changed my preference to software. I felt it was more rewarding to be able to build something quickly, by myself. I moved to France at the age of 12 and this is where I studied Masters in computer science and engineering.
I have worked mainly as a Java Enterprise Developer in a few consultancies. In 2007 I moved to the UK, working for a french consultancy – Valtech. After that I have been working as a Java contractor, attracted by the higher rewards. Unfortunately for me, this felt like a career dead end. I have always liked to do many things, I am more of an all-rounder. Also at the time I was more and more fascinated by startups. How are these young people starting businesses and building new things? So I started reading business books and trying to work on some startup ideas on the side. I needed to learn a lot from the business side and I found it hard to find the right co-founder and funding. This pushed me to study more – a part time MBA degree. This felt like an achievement that nobody can take away from me. After a few other startup attempts, I joined one startup as a CTO and then another one. This is where I started really liking my job after 16 years in the industry!
My current interests are: Fintech, Blockchain / DLT, Sport betting, Trading, Property and Proptech, to name a few. It may sound crazy but my hobby is coding. I also like learning new things and travel, snorkeling and diving, exploring new places. I think when I make a few millions, I will spend some time on boats.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
I have been working as a Java Enterprise developer for years and years and then as a fullstack and devops engineer. I have been exposed to a variety of industries and projects, because I was either working in a consultancy or as an independent contractor.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
I actually did experience some leadership in a uni project where I led a team of 7 to build a project around mobile geolocation – there were no smartphones at the time so it was highly experimental. But, more seriously, after many years working as an external developer, I felt I am in a dead-end. Every new job was the same – Java developer. I knew that to go into leadership I needed to join a large corp and grow in the hierarchy there. But I had no more time left for that and a corporate environment was not my favourite one. I also found that my MBA did not help. I was proud to have it, but the only effect it produced was to raise eyebrows. So, the startup way was the best way for me, despite the low success rate, and financial challenges. My first official CTO position was as a co-founder at Lexoo, a legal tech startup. Where I really excelled as tech leader was as CTO at Football Index, due to the size of the team that I have built.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
Like many other startup CTOs, my role evolved with the team growth. But I was prepared theoretically from my readings, contacts with people, and my MBA studies. In all my experiences as a CTO, I have started from scratch. I have been hiring slowly, while the company grew organically, and initially I wore many hats and was helping with everything – actual coding, architecture, technical roadmap, agile delivery process, infrastructure and devops, hiring, technical leadership, mentoring and coaching. When the team started growing, I started delegating roles. Given my engineering background and experience with agile delivery, I haven’t faced any big challenges there, as I have learned from many mistakes in the past, and I tend to apply “what works”. What is always difficult is the limited resources, uncertainty about business priorities and managing non-technical stakeholders. It is a fact that we can’t build the same thing with three junior engineers as what our competitors can build with 150 senior engineers.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
I live through a series of small failures, but I consider them as learning opportunities, not failures. And I try to manage risk. Nothing should be “too big to fail”. I think one of my first leadership failures was poor hiring. I realised that in a fast paced, unstructured environment, typical for a startup, you need to hire product engineers, who are self starters, good communicators and fast learners and who can thrive in a less structured agile environment. In this environment product delivery is a priority and we can’t spare too much time for training programs.
What made you keep doing it?
I think I finally found the job that I really really like! Being involved in different domains and functions, participating in business and tech strategy and its implementation. I have this feeling that my efforts are multiplied by the team. I have been trying to build many projects alone in the past, but you only have 12 hours in a day! When you lead a team, you can build a product together, and this is very powerful and rewarding.
Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you
If I tell you, it won’t be a secret anymore. OK. I once owned a bar. I thought it could be run hands-off. Not really. It really needed hard work and dedication and I had to sell it back with a loss.
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
- “Learning to let go”. There are many solutions to the same problem and many ways to write code. The hardest thing is to accept that others will implement things differently from how we would have done it. We need to accept their work but also make sure it integrates well with code produced by the rest of the team. We need to create a collaborative software delivery environment where we will not author code, but we need to make sure the team produces coherent, well designed code.
- Empathy. This is important to work with people in general, but especially in tech we need to understand the challenges that the team faces. Empathy is very important if we want to motivate people. Or at least try not to demotivate them
- Converting business goals into a technical roadmap and sharing the vision and the “why” with the team. Conveying what we need to achieve but also why we are doing it.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
With very little hiring experience initially, I was referring to what I have learned from articles, books and my own experience as a candidate. One phone screen, one technical interview with a coding task, one general interview with a non technical team member. It worked mostly all right, but I realised that with limited time it is hard to really assess someone in depth. So I started developing some gut feel, to the point where I would almost avoid technical tests and focus on “fit”. I would explain what we do, how we do it, and who we are looking for. Then I would want to know the candidate better, his experience, his skills and his career aspiration and then we see if there is a match. In general that is good enough. In order to retain talent, I think it is simple: people need to like what they do and be paid correctly. The role of the leader is to know what drives team members and make sure the company can offer them the right environment. This is why it is important to be very upfront during job interviews, to avoid disappointments.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
Motivation. A complicated subject. A lot of research has been done in the domain. I would say it is hard to motivate people but it is very easy to demotivate them. So the priority for me is to make sure they are not demotivated by things like lack of direction and objectives, lack of criteria of what good looks like, poor office and work conditions, work life balance, toxic culture and politics. Then comes motivation. You really need to know what drives everyone and see if there is an aligned interest between their personal goals and the goals of the organisation. In tech it is usually around working with “cool stuff”, but it can also be work-life balance, flexible working, or career development.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
Stress usually comes when we fail to achieve what we wanted to achieve or from toxic environments. Therefore, productivity and time management help with the first cause of stress. I usually have my own personal TODO list, organised like a Kanban board and I prioritise things. I also try to use the pomodoro technique – work in intervals of 20 mins then rest for 5 minutes. This works Ok in “management” mode where there is a lot of context switching and many small tasks. I make sure to prioritise important tasks, activities and meetings in my agenda and I leave a lot of slack. I use the Pareto principle. I make sure that the 20% most important tasks that provide 80% of the value are done.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
By attending board and management meetings. But also through informal communication.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Probably starting a new venture.
What product do you wish you’d invented?
Thank you Christophe!