From Zero to CTO – Jonathan Lister Parsons is in the Spotlight

Name: Jonathan Lister Parsons

Current position: Chief Technology Officer, PensionBee

Bio: Jonathan co-founded PensionBee with Romi Savova in 2014. In his role as the Chief Technology Officer, he is passionate about bringing customers’ pension experience into the 21st century, and using technology to transform pension transfer processes that typically take months to a five-minute process on a smartphone.

Jonathan champions a tech-forward culture within the business, aiming to raise the level of technology literacy among employees, and creating opportunities for people to develop technical skills as they move through different roles in their career at PensionBee.

Prior to co-founding PensionBee, Jonathan founded a digital consultancy, Penrose, and worked at British Telecom. Jonathan holds an MSci in Experimental and Theoretical Physics from the University of Cambridge.

As a diversion from fintech, Jonathan enjoys running, obsessing about coffee and attempting to learn Japanese.

Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?

I had my start in software engineering at BT Plc, a gigantic corporate I joined as a graduate on their management training scheme, and ended up in a very small part of, called Osmosoft. We were there to engage with open source projects and the technology community outside BT, and help build BT’s profile. It was an amazing learning experience, both technically, – since I mainly learned to be a professional JavaScript developer on the job – and philosophically, as I was immersed in the ethos of open source and in a brilliant, inspiring team. I worked mainly on an open source project called TiddlyWiki; after I left BT to pursue work as a freelance developer, I continued to work with that project and its community, whilst spreading out to work on early-stage web applications more generally.

How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?

I didn’t spend too long as an independent freelancer, as working with other people was just a lot more fun. I was fortunate to start working with a school-friend who is a very talented designer, and the combination worked really well, so we decided to make the collaboration permanent and started a business together – J&J. This grew over a few years into Penrose, a consultancy that specialised in digital product design and development, particularly for entrepreneurs at an early stage in their businesses. This consultancy was always a partnership, which means there was more than one leader, and that was a reassuring idea.

On the side of the consultancy, we started a co-working business called Shoreditch Works, which predated WeWork by several years and grew into a 100-person community near Old Street roundabout. Again, there were multiple people running the business.

How did you manage the transition? What came easily/what was difficult?

Because these early leadership experiences were as part of a group of peers, the transition felt quite natural and supported. I grew up in a household where my Dad worked for himself, so it didn’t feel intimidating to take the plunge into working for myself, or to want to be in a decision-making role shaping the future of a small business. That enthusiasm came naturally. What did not come naturally was the discipline to run a business like a business – I definitely pushed back strongly against anything that I felt was ‘corporate’ or that didn’t align with my sense of how I wanted a company to be run. I remember the first time I discussed creating “Roles & Responsibilities” for the business with my Dad, and I couldn’t shake the sense that it was a terrible idea designed to put people into creativity-squashing boxes.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

Oh, so many! I definitely failed to recognise that there is a difference between running a business and selling your time as a contractor. The latter can generally be managed with a minimum of administration, whereas the former requires a whole different way of thinking. I’d read The E-Myth Revisited more than once by the time I started a small business, and I believed in its core lesson – draw the org chart of the business when it is much bigger, recognise that you are personally already filling a lot of those boxes yourself, and build the business by putting other people in those boxes. But the imagination to see your business in the future is not something that comes easily to everyone – it certainly didn’t to me, and lots of conversations with my partners didn’t really create that clarity either. What we’d failed to do was what we eventually ended up telling our clients to do – find a problem that people have, understand it well and nail it.

What made you keep doing it?

There is a well-known tension between running a contracting business and running a product business. Lots of people who are selling their time believe that they will do a 37Signals and ‘sell their side effects’ – that they’ll spin out a successful online product. The problem with that idea is that the financial livelihood of your contracting business depends on you selling your time to build other people’s ideas. So I think that unless you have a very specific idea already, you’re always going to struggle to detach from that model and create a product business of your own. That’s definitely my experience.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

When I was 17, I was running a live music listings website in Leeds, with a friend who ended up being a partner at Penrose. We had decided to diversify into live music events, so we put all our money into organising and promoting a gig at a bar called The Wardrobe. Unfortunately, we put the gig on the same night that Leeds United was playing a major home game and only about three people came. We had to sneak out of the back as there was no money to pay for the venue or the bands. I haven’t been back to The Wardrobe since!

What are the three key skills you think every leader needs?

  1. Empathy – A leader needs to see the world through other people’s eyes: their team’s, their customers, their negotiating partners, their competitors etc.
  2. Clarity of vision – In my experience, people need clarity and purpose to motivate them, and whether you are leading a team or a company (or indeed, a population), if you don’t speak clearly about the change you want to see, you’re going to end up with chaos.
  3. Humility – I think it’s very hard to move from a leadership model where you are simply the most experienced person in the room, to one where you lead a team of people who are better at their jobs than you would be. The latter is the far more rewarding and impactful position to be in, and to do it well, you need awareness and acceptance of the limits of your expertise.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

I’ve learned that creating an emotional connection between an individual and the company they work for is very important. People are rewarded in many different ways, and as an employer, you need to be able to offer and follow through on the things that really matter to people, as well as allow those things to change as someone develops in their career. At PensionBee, we have a mission with a social impact, which is a hugely beneficial starting point.

How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is a phrase I hear in my head probably a dozen times a week. To me, this means that a job needs to be sustainable. But it means different things to different people, and when you understand what successful, sustainable working looks like for someone, that really helps you put them in a place where they are intrinsically motivated. At a broad level, I think it’s important to speak clearly about what you are trying to achieve and give everyone a clear role in that. It also helps to hold people to high standards and be honest and constructive in feedback, to help with the feeling of personal growth. 

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

A number of years ago I started learning Japanese (I’m still awful), because it was completely different from the two jobs I was doing in parallel, which were taking a toll on my mental health. I also started to get up an hour earlier to make space in the day for ‘personal time’. These were reactions to stress, but they pointed me towards things that help me to manage mental health, namely taking the time to pursue a diverse range of interests, and avoiding the feeling that my time is not my own. Managing my productivity is the flip side of this – I feel more productive when I am able to plan out my time effectively and when I have a diversity of things to work on.

How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?

I’m fortunate to work in an environment where the management team is very open to regular and transparent communication, and this flows down through the rest of the business. We hold daily all-company standups and weekly Show ‘n’ Tells; project teams also get together at least once a week, and the management team has a meeting every month. Add in Slack and there is really no shortage of communication designed to keep people in sync.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I am hopeful that PensionBee’s growth in the UK will give us a platform to promote positive society-wide changes. One of the goals I have as a technologist is that people recognise that a company like PensionBee can only exist as a profitable enterprise because we have the technology we do today, and for that to help change the dialogue around the effects technology has on an economy. All meaningful improvement in quality of life comes from improvements in technology; we have to figure out how to embrace and encourage rapid technological development, whilst carefully managing the negative effects such change can have. As an example, PensionBee prides itself on the exceptional level of personal service we provide to customers, which would typically not be available in a consumer financial services product. We are explicitly using technology to make our customer success team more and more efficient at their job, and our product more straightforward and intuitive to use, which allows us to grow the number of customers we can reach.

Finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

That’s a question we use in interviews as an ice breaker! Now I’m on the other side, I see how hard this is to answer. I think it would have been amazing to have been around in the 1950s and 1960s when computers were really getting going and people were basically inventing everything we have in modern computing – if you’ve never seen Doug Engelbart’s Mother of all Demos, I encourage you to watch it. Just wait for the part where he does real-time collaborative document editing as if it’s no big deal, in 1968. For a totally amazing tour through that era, I also recommend a recent book that Stripe published, The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop.

Thank you, Jonathan!


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