From Zero to CTO: Pat Kua is in the spotlight

Patrick Kua

Name: Patrick Kua
Current position: Advisor, Mentor supporting CTOs and VPs Engineering at


Pat is a seasoned technology leader with almost 20 years of experience. His personal passion is accelerating the growth and success of tech organisations and technical leaders. He has had many years of hands-on experience, leading, managing and improving complex organisations and software systems as the CTO and Chief Scientist of N26 (Berlin, Germany) and as a Technical Principal Consultant at ThoughtWorks. He is a frequent keynote and conference speaker and author of three books.

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

I’ve worked as a developer most of my life. At the start of the 2000s, I joined an Oracle R&D team in Australia experimenting with XP. I could see all of the problems around me it was trying to solve – long meetings about “requirements”, painful integration and stabilisation phases. I was sold. I joined ThoughtWorks to help other companies evolve their strategic software systems and to build the team who could continue to evolve it. I moved to the UK in the 2005 and I’ve been in Europe ever since.

I’ve done everything from thick client, desktop applications, web, large distributed backend services, some mobile work ion all types of industries including retail, government, finance, energy, travel and more. I loved and still love the art of turning abstract ideas into working software that has positive impact on people’s lives and work. 

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

I’ll talk about two instances.

The first time was more informal: one of my first clients in the UK had a small breakaway team working on an “Email Refactoring” project (I would call it a redesign today). Although I was one of the youngest on the team, I was the one who had the most experience doing TDD, using agile practices and was hugely motivated to create a good team atmosphere. Our client had a number of developers who were happy to simply go along and were curious about how we were going to test drive a desktop (thick client). I didn’t think about what I was doing explicitly or very intentionally.

The second was more official. I was at the airport on my way home from a weekend abroad when I got a call from Staffing (the people/function who send you to different projects). They said, “Patrick, we don’t want you to go back to the project you were on. Instead we want you to lead this other project.” I was a bit shocked, surprised and also felt like I had no clue what I was doing. Here I was a bit more intentional, thinking about what outcomes that I wanted to have.

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

The less official instance was much easier because it was a small team, without too much time pressure. 

The more official instance was a lot more stressful as I was leading a team of maybe 8 engineers, with a tight deadline and it was a very complex project. What came easily was knowing what sort of team I wanted to build. What was difficult was not knowing how and if I was doing a good job.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

In my first official role, it was definitely managing my stress. Being constantly interrupted meant I started being snappy if I was in the middle of deep thought. The team definitely started to notice. Fortunately I had good relationships with everyone and with 1-1s and retrospectives, I got feedback and we agreed as a team time when I would have focus (non interrupt time) and when I would be interruptible.

Tell us a fun fact that (nearly) nobody knows about you

I speak German fluently and a bit of Japanese.

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

Only three? Ha. Firstly, self-awareness. This is something I work a lot on with engineers as they first transition into a leadership role. They don’t understand their emotions/reactions amplify. Secondly, strong listening skills. Coaching, mentoring, navigating conflict build on your ability to listen for what someone is saying, and often what someone is not saying. The final one I’ll borrow from the XP value of courage to make mistakes. Leaders have to make hard decisions. Sometimes give hard feedback. These are not an exact science so you sometimes get it wrong.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

Mostly from listening to what engineers are looking for. My goal is not to create an “ideal world” (it never exists). Instead, what I can do is be clear about what opportunities my current team/environment can offer and try to align this as much as what engineers look for and continue to look for.

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

Ensuring there is a delicate balance of enough impactful work but not too much.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

I try to keep myself active as much as possible. I’m more of an early riser, so normally hit the gym before starting work. Even when I’m feeling tired, after a workout I definitely try to enjoy the positive after-effects of sport. I also try to get enough rest, preferring to deal with complex problems in the morning than late at night when my brain is already tired.

In terms of productivity, I’m pretty relentless at observing other people’s habits and try to incorporate their own productivity habits into my own. I’m very very structured in my list-making, calendaring and (near) inbox zero to make sure I work on the most impactful items. I chuckle when my first Executive Assistant asked exactly why I needed their help when first working with them. And then I showed them a long list of tasks I needed to delegate.

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

Today I’m doing more advising/mentoring so it’s more 1-1 time in different contexts. 

When I was playing the CTO role, there were the official weekly/fortnightly meetings (maybe 1-1s, or team update meetings) with various channels but I also think it’s important to spend time with different people at different levels across the business. Coffee and lunch times are good for this.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I don’t tend to have long term plans as I think I tend to be more opportunistic, reviewing what my current priorities are and finding ways to fulfill them over a 1-2 year period. I know that my priorities will change over time, so I want to be adapative here.

At the moment I’m really enjoying training engineers as they step into their first technical leadership role and mentoring and advising CTOs and VP Engineerings at scale ups.

What product do you wish you’d invented?

In 2000 I won a Bell Labs scholarship where a number of us (then students) from around the world came together to brainstorm product ideas. Our group talked about the miniaturization of computing power, networked devices and figured it was only a matter of time until computers, mobile phones connected to the internet would be combined. Therefore it would have been very interesting to have invented (or at least been part of the team) working on the very first iPhone that came out in 2007!

Thanks very much, Pat!