Name: Glyn Roberts
Current position: CTO of Digital Solutions at iTechArt
Short bio (work, background, interests): Glyn has over 18 years experience in delivering software projects and leading technology teams in the UK and Europe. He brings deep knowledge of a range of technology stacks, cloud solutions, and distributed team performance strategies to the clients he supports. He is an active member in CTO communities involved with moderating and speaking events and host of the Podcast TechKitchen Talks. Glyn spends his free time reading, exercising, playing the piano and walking his dog Ronda.
Hi Glyn, thank you for joining us! Can you tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
I was lucky enough to start my working career in technology as a programmer immediately after graduating from University. During my first 5 years I was solely focused as a developer delivering web solutions for a range of well known companies.
These first few years allowed me to get a real understanding not only about building technology, but also the client facing side and the importance of communication and building relationships.
Even coming from a Computer Science background, the jump into real deliverable work felt large so I worked a lot of hours, easily 60+ hours each week to try and catch up with the programmers around me. Looking back, this was likely more a result of imposter syndrome.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
After 5 years of working, I decided that I needed a break to reassess my career and my future direction. I felt I was just churning out solutions that were all the same and was starting to not enjoy the journey. I managed to agree a 3 month sabbatical from ‘official’ work (though I still coded some things for fun during this time) with my employer to focus my energy on something completely different (see answer to “Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you”).
After these 3 months I felt that staying as an IC had limits on growth so it gave me a push to focus my energy on moving forward in my career faster. So, I started looking for opportunities to be a founder of a business where I could throw myself into the deep end. Bring it on.
I ended up founding a business with someone who was sales focused. I spent 2 months building the core platform in my evenings and weekends to get to market, we onboarded some big named clients, received angel investment and then I went full time as Lead Developer. This journey was not as easy as it appears from a single sentence.
We slowly hired 1 developer, then 2, then 3 which then required me to understand I was in a leadership position. I eventually gave myself the CTO title when I needed to promote one of the developers to a higher title to keep him.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
As it was a small company initially that grew relatively slowly and I had built all the technology, the transition came naturally to me.
I find going into existing businesses in a leadership position is much harder than building the team, culture and process from scratch slowly over time.
What I found easy was delegating the work I didn’t want to do (a lot of the more complex front-end work at that time).
Delegating the work I felt comfortable with was much more difficult. I could build feature X in 1 or 2 days where someone else (no matter how good they were) would take them over a week as I had built the system. No learning curve. This took a while for me to understand that I need to let go of some things and take a more supporting role and reduce the amount of coding I produced.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
I would say pushing back and managing up.
Looking back I was too accepting of difficult deadlines without scrutinising the business value of the features requested. This of course leads to working a lot of additional hours to help the team meet the deadlines and not following a more strategic development roadmap.
So what made you keep doing it?
Most of the CTO role doesn’t feel like work to me. There is always something new you have never done before to tackle. There are things that you don’t want to be doing now and again, but I much prefer this over being an IC.
Can you tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you?
My 3 month sabbatical was spent at a cage fighting club in Thailand.
I had been training in Muay Thai and BJJ for several years and the opportunity to do something completely different from a desk job for a couple of months was exactly what I needed. Training twice a day for 2-3 hours each session with people trying to hit you in the face really shows what you can achieve when properly motivated.
That is so interesting! So, what are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
- Agreeing with a technical approach, stopping efforts not aligned to the business and other decisions in around technology is vital.
- The last thing you want is having to support a technology only selected as the developer wanted to improve his CV before moving on. (this happens more often than you think).
- The ability to relate to engineering challenges is another important part. Being able to understand why a deadline needs to move allows you to build trust with your team.
- It is amazing how a platform can scale without needing to rebuild core parts of the codebase. Caching and auto scaling is all much easier than ever before.
- You have great top level security controls available.
- Understanding what services exist can help you direct the team towards existing solutions instead of wasting time building from scratch.
- And cloud cost management is a major one that all CTOs need to understand and be able to tackle before the business wastes large sums of money.
- The engineering teams need to feel protected from the rest of the business and they are working on the right things.
- The CEO needs to feel that you have everything under control and understands the progress of the team.
- Clients need to feel that they are receiving what they require (Security, features, support etc).
- This doesn’t mean you are perfect, just that you know (or can direct) how to solve whatever problems arise.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
Acquiring talent is difficult no matter the business you are in. Recruiters can help in some way, but a lot of effort is required to identify the right individuals for your organisation.
You must clarify what roles the business needs (and supplementary skills), clearly describe the role, responsibilities and growth opportunities (it sounds easier than it is) and throughout the recruitment process, you should not only interview but sell the business and opportunities of working there to candidates.
Retention for me is all about ensuring employees have what they need to succeed:
- Autonomy: Allow the team members to autonomous and self-directed as much as possible
- Mastery: Allowing the team members to grow their skills
- Compensation: They are paid within the market rates. Changing companies would not likely give them a pay rise.
This last one is always overlooked. A 10% pay increase where a company over the road is hiring with a 25% increase would be hard for employees to not interview for.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
This is a big question to answer, so here is my summary.
1-1s are important to understand how your direct reports are doing. Often your team members can identify what the cause is but may not know the solution. This could be isolation from the rest of the team, uninteresting work, challenging deadlines with large amounts of overtime or even something that home. Listening and identifying what you can help fix is the first step.
Motivation needs to be considered at both the individual and team level. Ensuring the company vision is shared and understood, benefits of their work and appreciation of their efforts goes a long way to supporting the team’s motivation.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
For me, it is important to identify when stress is hitting me. I use a FitBit which is a great way to give me some indications that I am becoming stressed. Low sleep score, raised resting heart rate etc. This normally happens when I feel I don’t have time to take care of myself. In addition, regular exercise, eating well(ish), down time to read or something else are all factors that really help me keep my focus when at work and improve productivity.
If I am doing the above and I feel my productivity is still low, this normally suggests my approach needs to change and I consider:
- Am I attending too many meetings, what can I reduce for the next month or two?
- Am I context switching a lot, can I block out time to get certain tasks completed without distractions?
- Are things on fire too often, take a step back to see what longer term solution should be focused on?
And finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?
Blockchain. The technology is amazing and to those that came up with the approach and created it, I have the utmost respect.
I believe the implementation we see today will be vastly different over the next 10 years, so I have not lost hope of how this changes the world.
Thank you, Glyn!
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