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Bringing people into the equation as a CTO

"Engagement and motivation of the team is a fundamental part of the remit."

In another life, I’d like to have been a psychologist. A team’s interactions, thoughts and engagement can be the difference between success and failure; understanding the human dimension has become ever more important in tech, and one of the fundamental CTO challenges especially, adding layers of complexity, writes Malcolm Leach, Chief Technology Officer at Funding Options.

Historically, CTO challenges focused solely on technology, marrying the functional with pushing the boundaries of innovation. Yet there has been a perceptible shift, and technology leaders are required to wear a number of different hats. CTOs are still expected to be pioneers, applying rapidly evolving practices to ever-changing situations while also looking towards the future of the business and building out a tech stack with long-term goals in mind.

Beyond this though, the focus has shifted to more of a people-first approach, where the engagement and motivation of the team is a fundamental part of the remit. It has led to what I feel are the three main challenges for modern CTOs to negotiate, where the human aspect is enmeshed with the technical.

CTO Challenge 1: Hiring Fast and Effectively

Malcolm Leach

The greater reach of, and reliance on, technology has placed increased demand on tech teams with many businesses fighting over a finite pool of talent. The issue of recruitment is high on the agenda for every CTO and developing an efficient hiring process is a vital aspect of that.

First off, great candidates won’t consider you if the first part of the process is a long technical test - instead see the process as a speedy, incremental lead-in. So, for example, you could make the first step a 15 minute “speed meet” where candidates can have a quick Q&A session with key team members and, hopefully, start to build rapport. At every step you should be looking to sell the “why” of the company and the role.

Looking for technical assurance in your hiring is now a luxury, in a market offering all-time-high compensation for skilled tech professionals, and where the necessity of hiring and onboarding candidates at warp speed has become an integral part of the job. If you’re not going from first contact to offer within a week then it’s likely you’ll miss out. It’s about selling the dream of the company, culture and what they’ll be doing. In 2020, hiring was deemed the greatest CTO challenge, according to the Global CTO Survey.

The real foundation for building a storming tech team is to actively design the context in which people work, through systems thinking, to maximise their chances of success. I like the concept of cross-functional teams with different skill sets working towards common goals. Articulating a clear and coherent vision to potential new hires is the basis of this.

CTO Challenge 2: Communicating with the Board and Key Stakeholders

As technology is so fundamental to most companies’ success, CTOs need to not just blend business and technology strategy, but actively drive it to show real value to shareholders and board members. Also, as the subject matter is highly specialised, and can prove opaque for many, understanding what resonates with your audience is paramount.

See also: These are the top Board priorities in 2022 (labour’s starting to catch “digital”)

Getting to know the backgrounds of your board members is a good start, and looking for opportunities to engage with them outside of the regular board meetings to help with developing the strategy and to introduce people from their network that can help too. Many board members are underutilised, as executives tend to look down, not up for help.

In terms of concrete metrics for demonstrating success, many are now using the SPACE (satisfaction, performance, activity, communication, and efficiency) measures as they incorporate all of the principles of rapid, incremental delivery of value. How frequently you deliver working software to customers and how quickly you discover problems and recover from them is key to moving fast. Anecdotally, Amazon and Apple make a change to the production environment every second.

CTO Challenge 3: Fixing Problems with Limited Resources

Perhaps the biggest CTO challenge is landing big fish on light tackle. We’re generally not short of ideas but we do have a commercial business to run so have to make choices and be smart with resources.

Probably the most fundamental thing that CTOs can do to help their teams do more fulfilling work and move quickly is to do fewer things concurrently. Many organisations start working on too many initiatives at once, resulting in a lot of context switching for their teams, which is stressful and unsatisfying. In the worst case, more time is spent switching than actually doing deep/flow work. People feeling like they get nothing important done during the working day is a primary indicator of this kind of problem.

See also: Security teams still face finger-pointing. Blame culture must end

Ultimately, the more “flow time” you can give your team, the happier and more productive they’ll be, but it’s hard with so many competing priorities within organisations.

In terms of fixing problems, cross-skilling people and nurturing a “you wrote it, you run it” ethos is a great way to solve and systematically minimise problems that also gives every team member end-to-end ownership, and therefore pride, in the systems they deliver.

The Human Approach

So while designing and innovating around product is obviously signifcant for the modern CTO, it’s the human aspect that has come to the fore - whether understanding the mindset of those you want to hire, the senior stakeholders, or even those who want to bring you down.

Successful CTOs understand the businesses they support, the evolving technologies and the broader risk landscape, as well as how to connect the pieces. Technology investments are driving greater team collaboration, increased effectiveness, and modernising ways of working beyond the traditional boundaries - but the vital added ingredient of the human CTO ultimately offers the framework for success.

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