Name: Jon Topper
Current position: CTO/CEO at The Scale Factory
I lead a team of AWS and DevOps specialists providing consultancy, engineering, and support to other businesses.
Before starting the consultancy business in 2009, I worked for a mobile startup called Trutap, running the systems behind a mobile messaging platform for Java (J2ME) feature phones. I worked closely with the development team, instigating practices that the industry would later refer to as DevOps. Prior to that, I worked in the ISP industry, initially on the support desk, then writing software, then ultimately being responsible for running the systems.
My tech interests are cloud architecture, and automation. Outside the office my main passion is food. I’m a very competent cook, and I enjoy experimenting with new recipes, techniques, and ingredients.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
Most of my most notable pre-leadership projects were infrastructure and operations related in some way. At Trutap I did a lot of work on our source control and ticketing systems, building a lot of automation into our release engineering approach. I built self-service development environments to our engineers using a set of Linux kernel patches that ultimately informed the cgroups approach that underpins Docker today, so I guess you could say I was using Linux containers way, way before they were cool.
Once I got into consultancy and contracting, I mainly looked for opportunities to get in platform build projects. My first customer at The Scale Factory was Songkick. I built out a new platform for them into a datacentre, making extensive use of vSphere and the relatively new Puppet. My first production AWS deployment was in 2013 for an ecommerce brand.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
I’ve pretty much always ended up with some level of leadership responsibility, even from early on in my career. I was put in charge of running the support desk at the ISP I worked at straight out of uni, but looking back I wouldn’t really say I was practicing leadership back then. I was making decisions on behalf of a team, and I was accountable for the work getting done, but I didn’t really engage in the more… human part of the role.
I’ve only felt properly like a leader since I started to grow The Scale Factory. We were originally a loosely affiliated group of solo contractors in the early days, but since around 2016 we’ve had much more focus on building a team.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
Some parts of leadership have always come easily to me: I’ve always been a “big picture” thinker, and I’m generally a good communicator. Setting a direction and motivating others to follow me towards it tends not to be too challenging.
The main thing I found difficult in the transition was how the feedback loop changes compared with being an individual contributor. As an engineer, the distance between change and outcome is extremely short: you adjust some code, the tests turn green, you deploy into production, and move on to the next thing. This is great dopamine-generating behaviour. In a leadership position, the things you change today might not pay off obviously for weeks or months so you don’t get that feeling of accomplishment quite so readily. I really struggled with that initially, and until I properly understood what was happening, I felt listless and incompetent a lot of the time.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
My biggest failure early in this leadership role was in assuming that everyone else is just like me.
I’m a generalist, and I’m comfortable switching between engineering, management, sales, marketing, and other tasks regularly. I also learn new things pretty quickly, so if I have something unfamiliar to do, I’ll seek out an efficient way to learn enough of that to get by for the task in hand. It turns out that most people aren’t like this.
I assumed I could scale up the consultancy by taking a few of the more leadership capable members of the team, and dividing out my workload between them. This really didn’t work at all well, and we had to rethink this entirely. Regretfully it cost me some good colleagues.
What made you keep doing it?
I own the business, so the buck will always stop with me. I enjoy working for myself because personal agency is really important to me, and I can’t achieve the things I want to achieve with this business on my own, and so I’ll always have some level of leadership responsibility one way or another. Luckily I’m still enjoying it – and enjoying learning how to be better at it. As and when that stops being true, I’ll hopefully be in a position where taking a step back from it won’t be a problem.
Tell us a fun fact that (nearly) nobody knows about you
Over the last two decades I’ve featured in two relationships columns in The Guardian, and in one episode of Channel 4’s Sex Tips For Girls.
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
Empathy. Patience. Decisiveness.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
Providing a flexible working environment is a key success factor for us here. Allowing people to choose when and where they work sets them up to be as productive as they can be – and it works as a driver for inclusivity.
In my experience, attracting talent is a function of visibility. Many people I’ve interviewed over the years have said they first heard about The Scale Factory because they’ve seen me speak at a conference. I’ve never had to resort to using recruiters for our hiring.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
In our company values, “we put people first” is at the top of the list, and team wellbeing is our main priority.
Flexible working really helps with motivation and stress levels – it’s fine for someone to step away for a few hours if they need to get some headspace or exercise.
Everyone has a one to one relationship with a manager who isn’t also leading their delivery team, and I run an “open door policy” as far as my Slack DMs are concerned so that there’s always someone available to discuss their worries. We also provide an EAP through Bupa which provides phone counselling if required.
Because we’re a remote-first organisation, we run fortnightly co-working days (alternating between London and Manchester) for people to get together in person if they want, and this helps with motivation.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
I see a therapist on Tuesday mornings to keep my head in check. I keep the rest of that day free of meetings, and usually work from home with Slack disabled for most of the day. As an introvert, flying solo for a whole day balances for the more people-centric work I do for the rest of the week. It also gives me the opportunity to get into a flow state and do productive work that more readily pushes my dopamine buttons.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
We’re not a large organisation, so keeping in sync is reasonably straightforward. Everyone lives in Slack day to day, and we use Zoom heavily for our voice and video chats.
There are two or three high level meetings each week that I participate in so that I know what’s happening in sales, delivery, and finance, and I can get at data for everything in the various SaaS platforms we use for coordination.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
In 5 years I see myself as still self-employed in some fashion. I’d love for my current business to be self-sufficient with its own management team by that point. If I can get there, then getting back into some high level consultancy would be enjoyable (running the business is a better use of my time at the moment). I’d also be interested in trying a b2c product business of some sort, since the challenges there are clearly very different from the b2b services business I currently run.
What product do you wish you’d invented?
I’m consistently envious of what Hashicorp have been able to achieve. I’d love to have invented Terraform – it’s been so transformative across the infrastructure automation landscape.
On my first AWS project I wrote a tool for deploying infrastructure components, because I really didn’t get on with CloudFormation. I had a longer term product vision for that tool which would have taken it in a very Terraform direction – and this predated Hashicorp’s release by a good couple of years. I regret not having found the opportunity to iterate further on that tool.
Thanks very much, Jon!