Christian Wong, VP of Engineering, Accurx, has also been Director Of Engineering at Bumble Dating and Head of Core Services at Zopa. At our CTO Craft Conference, he’ll be part of the panel discussion: Panel Discussion: Self Care as Technology Leaders – Building Resilience to Stress and Improving Wellbeing. He joins us to discuss how to manage a high-pressure environment and the career path he almost followed.
Hi Christian, welcome to the CTO Craft Spotlight Q & A. You’re a day 2-panel speaker at the CTO Craft Con and the VP of Engineering, Accurx. Can you give us a teaser about what you might share with our audience at the conference?
I index quite highly on building and nurturing great behaviours, and so most of my approaches focus on understanding how to think about different behavioural muscles people can build – in service of developing good techniques and, ultimately, good outcomes.
The conference theme is The Strategic CTO. What methods do you use to ensure that your team’s strategy is aligned with your company’s mission and values?
As a collective of people, an organisation needs reinforcing feedback to know their choices and realise the spirit of the company mission.
So, regular and focused dialogue with teams must happen where you focus just on alignment – don’t shoehorn it into other syncs or meetings. It’s good practice for people – exec, senior management, any level really – to call out good examples regularly. Use syncs, all hands, and town halls to do this (and, of course, if you call out a bad example, do so kindly and without blame.)
Alignment to values is really about behaviour. In interview assessment scorecards, include a section to flag if evidence of your values was present or not (or have a dedicated stage).
Make the values an explicit part of your progression frameworks and performance reviews for people, celebrate people when they are exemplars of your values, and be strict not to reward bad actors who don’t behave as your values expect – no matter how much they excel in their craft.
What do you do personally to maintain physical and mental well-being in a high-pressure work environment?
My experience in most start-ups and scale-ups is that there’s too much to be on top of as a baseline, so you can tend to interpret every deviation as an acute moment of high pressure.
I try to check in regularly to remind myself what situation I’m in. Unless we’re genuinely in one of those acute moments, then I make sure time that is dedicated to looking after myself and my partner – being responsible for cooking dinner, and time for practice (music or exercise) – doesn’t get sacrificed.
What matters more to me is building consistent behaviour of protecting the time, rather than what I’ve actually used the time for. Also, I try to take a moment every morning on my commute to reflect on the day as a gift, and how I’m going to treat it as such.
And how do you review and manage the well-being of team members in the workplace?
Regular check-ins of both what individuals and teams have been dealing with and not being afraid to give them some cover. In particular, if teams have been under a lot, make sure there is some breathing space for them to recover.
With my managers, I try and make a point to ask them regularly about the health of their teams, as it’s easy for them in busy periods to deprioritise this conversation.
How do you approach your personal development in a busy and demanding role?
I work on building a ‘bench’ – a set of mentors or people I trust with whom I can hold challenging conversations about my experiences, which helps to guide me on where I need to develop. Because they are ‘social’ engagements, I am more likely to make time for them and reflect on the learnings I can apply.
What methods do you use to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of your team’s strategy?
I like to review behaviours in depth: how they go about forming, executing and evolving their strategy. Outcomes cannot always be achieved, but if teams show maturity and conviction in how they conduct themselves and manage their risk-taking, then it gives confidence they’ll achieve success over time.
Engineering is always a partner to others, so it’s also important for our closest partners to have a mutual agreement on the team behaviours expected.
As a leader, what approaches do you use to create a culture of experimentation and innovation within your team?
This has to be a collaborative effort with cross-functional partners in setting the right expectations throughout the whole of the product discovery lifecycle.
However, it’s important to have different expectations depending on the stage the team is at (new discovery, optimisation) and levels of maturity – some engineers don’t know how to be constructive in certain ideation exercises, so there’s no point overwhelming them with expectations they’re not equipped to meet.
Changing the subject completely, please tell us an interesting fact we don’t know about you.
I spent some time considering a career in music psychology – a subject I’m still in love with, but an academic’s life is not for me!
Finally, can you recommend a book or a podcast that every technology leader should read or listen to either in the space of strategy, development or leadership in general?
I continue to be a fan of Team Topologies by Manuel Pais and Matthew Skelton. You can’t take it all at face value, but it expounds on some great principles on organisational strategy.
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