How I CTO - Gil Tene
The day kicked off with a presentation from Gil Tene of Azul
Systems in which he educated us on how he operates as a CTO.
The structure of Azul Systems allows Gil’s role to operate differently to many CTO roles. Gil generally doesn’t have
any direct reports and instead operates by supporting and advising staff throughout the organisation. He still gets
time on the tools. By operating with this different structure, he is able to maintain knowledge of the tech, the code
and the product. He spends time focussing on customers (especially problem customers or those who have had a poor
experience), and relays this to the engineering teams.
Although I see this role as extremely valuable and important, I am not convinced the title of CTO is correct for the
role. To me it appears that the Vice-President of Engineering is fulfilling the traditional CTO role while Gil takes
on a hybrid role involving product (in the Agile sense of the term) and tech. In my opinion, Gil has found a balance
of CTO, CPO and Tech Lead that works for him, and as one of the founders of Azul Systems he is more than welcome to
give this role any title he chooses, but I don’t think many other businesses would be able to create or maintain a
role such as this one as it seems to be crafted around Gil’s passions.
Gil’s presentation had some great points, many of which I have written about before, and some new ones. In a previous
article I wrote about Not Invented Here Syndrome, my thoughts on this topic were reinforced by Gil
suggesting that most of what we do is not new. Where possible we should reuse what we can and only build what we have
to build. This will allow us focus on what matters and develop our competitive advantages.
It was very interesting to hear Gil talk about the balance between innovation and efficiency. Most technical people
know there’s a lot of fun to be had when we get to do new stuff, but we’re also aware that it can be highly inefficient,
and in a business sense it can be dangerous and wasteful. If we want an innovative, exploratory environment then chaos
can be beneficial, we get the opportunity to follow thought bubbles, try new things and see what we can discover. If
we want to focus on delivery, we require more direction, less chaos and planning for efficient use of time. I tend to
agree with Gil on this, and I acknowledge that finding the right balance for any organisation, but also for each
individual within an organisation is extremely challenging.
Following on from the balance of innovation and efficiency Gil talked about how we define problems and find solutions.
I really liked his opinion that a problem doesn’t exist until we believe there is a solution. If we don’t believe a
solution exists then we tend to accept things as “that’s just the way it is”, but if we think a solution exists then
we perceive that same thing as a problem that needs to be solved.
Sometimes we have a solution to a problem but believe it can be improved. Gil relayed a story of how a team had
identified that a process required 3 steps to complete it, they believed this was a limitation of the systems they were
using, and so they set about proving that there were no further optimisations. Shortly after the team had proven there
were no further optimisations available, the team found a different method that only required two steps. They did this
by identifying and then breaking their assumptions and questioning the fundamentals of their existing solution.
There was one aspect of Gil’s presentation that I didn’t completely agree with, and that was his statement that we
must be prepared to recruit experience. As I wrote in my Unicorn Factory article, I believe
we should always seek to train existing staff over recruiting. I admit that there are times we simply must recruit
new staff to fill a knowledge gap that can’t be filled in another way, or can’t be filled rapidly enough; but
recruiting for experience when capacity exists within the team to fill the gap in another way seems wasteful and doesn’t
may have a negative impact on existing staff who are interested or passionate about a topic.
Standards: Always Room for One More - Nicola Nye
The presentation by Nicola Nye from FastMail was
amazing and in-depth about the challenges of taking a standard from conception to RFC and finally to IETF approval. I’m
not sure if this talk is 15 years too late for me, or 5 years too early, but at the particular stage of my career that I
am at, I am not likely to become heavily involved in the creation of a standard.
In the early days of my career, when I ran an Internet service provider, knowing the process for the creation of a
standard would have been of significant interest and may have encouraged me to either create some standards or to become
involved in the working groups. As my career progressed and I got deeper into the development aspects of the Internet I
would love to have known more about the process so I could get involved in the working groups and community to help
fellow developers with their standards. In the future, as I progress further in my career, I can see that I may have an
opportunity to help create a standard or have more time to become involved in the approval process. At my current point
in my career I have found I have to focus on other tasks, so my availability to get involved in the creation of a
standard is limited.
Having said this, I would highly encourage anyone who is passionate about the Internet and the underlying technologies
to get involved in standards and the IETF. If you’re interested in this I believe that Nicola would be more than
willing to help you get involved and share some of her learnings with you.
One of the things that really stood out to me in Nicola’s presentation is her passion for transparency, openness and
honesty. Although she described this in terms of the selection of the IETF standards process, it was readily apparent
that she is passionate about transparency and honesty and that she walks the walk as well as talking the talk. Having
worked in a range of companies and seen the difference between companies that embrace openness and those that hide key
decisions behind closed doors I am fully aware of the benefits of being transparent and honest with staff and customers.
As with the other occasions I’ve met Nicola, he passion was a breath of fresh air and I know it impacted a number of
people in the room in a really positive way. I hope that when I am in a similar position of responsibility I can live
up to the standard she sets.
Kickstarting Investing The Future - Allen Wirfs-Brock
Allen Wirfs-Brock, the editor of the ECMAScript6 specification presented on the
topic of inventing the future.
Allen helped to define how other leaders see the CTO, something I hadn’t really given much consideration to. He said
that other leaders look to the CTO as a technical expert; although the CTO may not write code and may not support
the computer systems and software in use, they are expected to be the most knowledgeable about the entire technical
eco-system within the organisation. They are also expected to know the long-term strategic direction of tech within
As part of his presentation Allen helped to define that inventing the future isn’t just about science-fiction, ideas
have to be actionable. He presented an example of the Dynabook from 1971. This is basically the predecessor to current
tablets, but was conceived at time when computers took up entire rooms.
Using this example Allen walked us through the process of using exponential development in related technologies to focus
on what can be done now and to set the stage for the future development. By doing this then many of the problems that
will be encountered in the future can be resolved now and set the stage for the later, rapid development.
We were also reminded that trying to invent the future is hugely expensive. From pushing current technology to act like
future technology is expected to, to the visions that don’t come to realisation, a huge amount of time and effort is
required to develop a plan, and then even more expense is encountered when implementing it.
If your organisation is unable to invent the future, it must at least be looking to the future. Many examples exist of
organisations that haven’t looked ahead, from Xerox sharing the Dynabook information with Apple as they didn’t think
there was a future for it, to Microsoft being unable to compete with the iPhone. Organisations that aren’t looking
forward will be blindsided and it could spell the demise of the entire company.
As much as I understand Allen’s views on inventing the future, I have a fear that most Australian companies are too
busy trying to stay afloat against international competition to seriously invest in future innovation. Further to this,
I think the companies that can afford to look to the future are unlikely to do so and I see them as being blindsided in
the next few decades (yes, I’m thinking of the big banks and mining companies). Unfortunately, I don’t have any
solutions that could change this situation, and with the current Federal Government rolling back their R&D/innovation
incentives, I think the chance of any significant future investments is constantly reducing.
Decision Making and Heuristics - Rebecca Wirfs-Brock
Rebecca Wirfs-Brock educated us on decision making and the heuristics we use.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term heuristics, a heuristic is an approach or process that does not guarantee an
optimal or rational outcome. Knowing that we are prone to using heuristic techniques when making decisions is an
important trait, as it helps us to be willing to change our decision and improve or iterate on it over time.
Often when making a decision we are bound by a lack of detail or a lack of time. There are many formal decision-making
frameworks available to us, but as they all focus on making a correct decision, they are time consuming. This leads us
as individuals to make certain assumptions, use pattern recognition and to make a best guess attempt, rather than
investing in gathering all the facts and context to make a perfect choice.
As our career progresses, we gain experience and rely more heavily on our pattern recognition skills to rapidly make a
decision; we also recognise that as long as the decision is approximately correct, we can fine tune it as and when
required. If we compare the decision-making process for an expert and a novice, we will find that the expert will
examine the situation and make a choice rapidly based on their prior experience, while a novice will spend more time
examining the options before selecting one. This difference in decision making processes leads to the expert having
less confidence in their decision than the novice, but in many cases the outcomes are either the same or similar.
One of the methods that can be used to improve a decision is to work as a group. In general, when a group is tasked
with making a decision there will be a greater diversity of thought and assessment, more alternatives will be raised,
the collective understanding of the problem and the chosen decision is increased and there is a greater level of
commitment from those involved in the decision making process. There are also a number of negatives from this method
though, group decision making can be much slower, there is a risk of groupthink (when the desire for conformity results
in a dysfunctional decision), louder voices can suppress dissent, and individuals that feel they were not given enough
input or were not listened to can become more detached from the decision.
As leaders, part of our role is to understand when different decision making processes should be applied. When we are
called on, we should always have an answer, but with an awareness of the heuristic techniques we use to arrive at an
answer we need to ensure our decisions are small enough to reverse. We need to be open to adjusting them as we gain
information or context and as we see changes or outcomes that may prove the decision to be incorrect.
I found this presentation by Rebecca to be extremely valuable. It helped me to recognise that I am often required to
make almost instantaneous decisions, and that in most cases these are a best guess. Thankfully I have no often been
faced with situations where my decision has been completely wrong; I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked to make
decisions that I have enough understanding of and context around to make a decision that is approximately right. I’ve
also been lucky enough to have a mindset that is constantly striving to improve things, and altering or fine-tuning my
decisions has not presented me with any significant challenges.
Knowing that our decisions are often a best guess, we must actively seek to have our decisions challenged, we must be
open to feedback from those who may have more context but less experience, we must be able to justify our decisions and
how we can to them, but most importantly we must be willing to admit that sometimes we are wrong.
As I wrote this article I realised some of the topics were worthy of their own post. Here are the links to these posts: