• Name: Mark Wood
  • Age: 43
  • Current position: CTO at Graze
  • Bio: Father, husband, CTO, keen sportsman and a lover of the outdoors. I’ve been involved in the Internet and startups (of various sizes) since leaving university in the late 90’s — catching the first wave of the internet boom and riding whatever has come along since.

Career-wise, I really grew up whilst at Betfair in the mid 2000’s and have had the privilege of working in e-commerce across a whole range of industries. I didn’t really plan to be a CTO and I’m still not sure where I’ll end up, but I I’m sure it will be fun finding out.

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

My working life began in telesales (definitely not the high point) after which I set up my own fledgling coldfusion development consultancy in 1998/99. This didn’t quite go as planned and so it closed and I joined a startup called Sportal, as a ‘Wireless Producer’ — probably the equivalent of today’s product / project manager.

I loved the role; it was a real combination of working with suppliers, sponsors and developers, managing the direction and the delivery of the product (anyone remember WAP and WML?). For someone in only their second role the level of autonomy, responsibility and variety was great. We were building a WAP site driven by our Vignette CMS platform for the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. This was in partnership with their sponsor at the time Siemens, who were trying to carve out a niche as a mobile phone manufacturer. It was a lot of fun, great subject matter, an amazing team and many trips to the local pub.

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

Due to the nature of the startups I was working in, and the boom in the late 1990’s, my first leadership position came about more through me just picking stuff up and running with it rather than waiting to be asked. It’s an approach that I’ve continued to take; if something needs to be done, help get it done and see what doors this opens / directions it takes you in. I think subconsciously, I always liked looking after people and I saw managing them as the way to progress my career, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a proactive move.

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

When I was younger, I probably didn’t overthink it and just dived in. I’m sure I made lots of mistakes, that I wasn’t anywhere near as self-aware as I should have been, and that I ruffled a few feathers, but I loved what I was doing and hopefully that enthusiasm was infectious. It enabled me to overcome obstacles.

I never had any formal training in my role and so it was about learning on the job — especially learning from failures and mistakes. An area I found difficult was expectation management and saying no to new scope. This would result in me leaving it too late to let stakeholders know if a project was getting into trouble as I was still pushing to deliver it on time.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure it probably had something to do with not listening enough…!

What made you keep doing it?

Quite simply, I loved it. The internet was growing in so many different directions, I was working with some incredibly clever people and above all, having fun.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

I have been piranha fishing and taken ayahuasca (a traditional spiritual medicine made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine) with a Shaman in the Peruvian Jungle — thankfully not at the same time!

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

  • The ability to listen;
  • The ability to have hard conversations; and
  • The capability to understand what is right for the organisation as well as for the people.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

I believe people love to work in places where they feel valued and are contributing to the success of the company. The more frequently they feel this the better and it helps to ensure your team is involved in cracking interesting puzzles and let them create the solutions.

When acquiring talent, it’s crucial to understand why someone would want to join your team and having this story clear in your own mind really helps. I think with the current competition to hire good people, selling the role is just as important as finding a candidate with the right skills and attitude.

The challenge of retaining talent is easier when it is all going well, although you’ll still get churn, and I think this is just something any tech leader has to get used to. It’s harder to hold on to people through difficult times or when the work is not as ‘sexy’ or as interesting as we’d all like, but this is when we as managers need to communicate with our teams the most and ensure they understand that it’s the right thing for the organisation. To this end, it helps to:

  • Have a definitive idea of the strategy;
  • Make sure the individual understands where they fit in the plan; and
  • Support them to deliver against it.

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

The key for me here is to instil trust in your team, ask them to sign up to a plan they have created and then help them deliver against it. Having spent lots of my earlier career trying to deliver projects that felt like death marches, I firmly believe this is not the best way for anyone involved, especially the organisation.

The process you use (I’m a huge fan of agile, especially Scrum) is also a major factor. Create self-organising teams with good leaders, give them the freedom to attack problems, create solutions and be flexible and adaptable. There will always be times of stress and sometimes as CTOs we have to push to get things delivered, but if people understand the importance of what is required and their role in making it happen then management of this is slightly ‘easier’. Keep people focused on the end goal and celebrate when it is done.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

I tend to make lists and I’m a visual person so clear, diagrammatic plans / approaches help me understand all the moving parts, interdependencies, technology decisions etc. that are required. It is also about having a good relationship with people at work; some people like to keep home and work separate, but I think we all spend so long in the office that not being yourself can’t be a good thing. If it’s not fun and enjoyable, why do it?

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

The social network in any organisation is crucial for me and something that I invest in heavily when I join somewhere new.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I honestly have no idea, the focus for me changed when I had children, so as long as they are in a good place I’ll be a happy man.

And finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

I think it would have been great to have invented the compass; where would we be without it…?