Name: Ralph Stenzel
Current position: CTO, co-founder, advisor and mentor for various startups
I started being interested in electronics (taking apart and building things) in the early 80s, got a Commodore C16 computer and then an Atari ST, building computer games in my spare time and also making early 8-bit computer music attempts. I then continued to develop software and hardware in university, and found that IT development was much bigger than trying to do anything with hardware when looking for my first job in the mid 90s, so I started in an “analyst/software engineer” role at Lexis-Nexis (Reed-Elsevier), but soon became interested in the management aspects as well, becoming a team lead and participating in recruitment.
After a big new platform development I was afraid of falling back into a maintenance role and left for a more promising consulting job, which was quite a journey that ranged from building early “WAP” mobile internet demonstrators (Nokia 7110 time !!!) to e-commerce platforms and system integration projects of the scary kind (SAP, Oracle, Remedy, Siebel, i2…), actually ending up as project manager for these at Siemens. After that I was looking for something that felt more like “mine” and had the opportunity to build a team for financial benchmarking solutions at Deloitte, where in addition to data warehouses and a wild mix of technologies over the years I went through the depths of corporate management and diplomacy, trying to operate in a relatively entrepreneurial way, and navigating through PRINCE2, risk management, cost calculations, service level agreements, performance management and recruitment law, plus a bit of psychology with HBDI and Myers-Briggs personality analysis.
The department was then merged into a joint venture with substantial changes and I suddenly realised that it wasn’t “my” team or platform, and I started to look for ways to use my experience in a more dynamic and flexible environment after disillusionment with the corporate world. I discovered the London startup scene through relentless networking activities, and joined several startups (“to see what happens”) and soon realised that I would be better placed in an organisation that works with startups, where I could get exposure to the entire scene, choose interesting things to work on, while helping a broader range of people. I realised this opportunity by joining Dreamstake as in-house CTO, where I worked on its startup online platform, gaining exciting insights into the startup ecosystem from an analytics perspective, and over the years participated in many events for the 15000 members. By analysing the startups I learned a lot about their typical problems, challenges and failure reasons, team dynamics and skills, and tried to bring some enlightenment with my “project management for startups” and “cost calculations for startups” workshops, and the famous “startup failure” presentation, and some blog posts trying to answer recurring questions like “Should non-technical founders learn how to code” and “I need a CTO – Do I need a CTO ?”. Another recurring theme was outsourcing, which is now one of my special focus areas.
As a result I advised and co-founded even more startups, which keep me very busy up to the present day, in addition to the occasional corporate consulting assignment, typically around technical strategy and resources.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
It definitely wasn’t a linear path with clear progression and promotions; I started with something that was a mix of programming and data analysis, and then gained a team leader component including participation in recruitment due to growing team size, and opportunity to co-architect a new platform and roll it out from UK to US; overall still rather low on leadership and management. Looking for more variety, I then joined a consultancy where the first half of my time there I would call research and development (learning about early mobile web technology and building prototypes with it, and learning about an enterprise e-commerce platform), and then enterprise system integration as consultant, and then some kind of implicit promotion to project manager, which had a big level of responsibility as I was suddenly the centerpiece between multiple teams trying to integrate complex systems on expensive servers; so that was the first time when I thought “Oohh sh*t – how am I going to do this ?!?”, but I had to learn quickly and survive… It still didn’t feel like “leadership” though, as I was thrown into a big corporate environment which I didn’t really understand, and I didn’t choose any of the resources or objectives or timelines – it was really the purest form of project management.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
After an initial fact-finding mission (which had to be very hands-on), this then really turned into quite a corporate management role, where I still had some hands-on areas I kept for myself, but of course I delegated most tasks to a team of permanent and contract people.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
What came easily was the money and the nice office – very much everything else was difficult… Having to figure out tons of undocumented code, lack of deployment procedures, insufficient infrastructure, “#WTF is OLAP and MDX”, only having a skeleton team but serving paying customers in 84 countries, needing all kinds of stuff from different departments but being a weird niche department yourself. This definitely took time. But basically this was also a good preparation for doing startups – where you have chaos, uncertainty, lack of resource, and need to scale up quickly…
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
One thing I wished I had done more was networking within the organisation – there must have been so many interesting people across technology, strategy, analytics, consulting – but it’s easier said than done with over 300000 people globally, which are surprisingly disconnected. Having been to endless networking events and conferences now, I know that I could have been more pro-active and determined in those corporate days when it comes to connection-building.
What made you keep doing it?
Well, compared with startup life there were certain advantages – like paid holidays, training courses, and knowing you would receive a payment every month ?
Also, the ability to attract really good team members. It’s quite hard to recruit in London if you are not a top-name company, or a well-funded startup paying inflated salaries. This is a major challenge for smaller companies with less funding and clout.
Tell us a fun fact that (nearly) nobody knows about you
I create electronic music remixes and have won prizes for them; that includes electronica and Japanese hip hop ? I also create film music, and had a DJ gig on one of these river Thames party ships with 200 drunk students for a couple of years… ?
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
- Leading by example
- Ability to connect business and technology
- Life-long learning
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
This greatly varies by environment; size of company or department, company culture, funding level, sector you are in. A major company paying competitive salaries with a nice office but probably tons of “red tape” will attract (and need !) a different type of employee than an early stage startup that can only offer minimal pay (or none!) in turn for big promises, equity, flexible working, and possibly a huge impact on the startup’s future. You have to be very aware of the kind of environment you are in, and what kind of person will be a good match (and who won’t). Getting someone super ambitious and energetic and keen on the latest tech to work on something that is basically maintenance work on a super boring outdated system is not going to be a good idea. Getting someone who did maintenance work on a super boring outdated system for ten years is probably not the right technical co-founder for your cutting edge solar-powered crypto-mining startup. A single parent might get disillusioned by the inflexibility of traditional office environments, but will probably appreciate working from home and flexible hours offered by a startup. Someone who worked as C++ contractor for an investment firm’s trading platform for £1200 a day might not want to swap that against free yoga lessons and companionship of an office dog in your five-people vegan food reward scheme startup in a garage in Haggerston.
Retention is similarly complex – you have to understand what it takes for people to stay around, and that will be different from person to person. Pay rises, stock options, more holidays, flexible working hours, time off to work on own projects, training / opportunity to learn new things, honest feedback, more responsibility, promotion, team activities. Ask if they just want to “code” for the rest of their lives or if they are looking for career progression; do they want to manage and mentor people, do they want to manage projects, or change to sales ? And not everyone promoted into a more managerial position is necessarily good at managing people or building complex cost calculators to model international expansion. Some technically super competent people actually do NOT want to be managers, so don’t force them. You will see that some companies take this very serious now, and they know the pain of finding and retaining the right candidate, so they do team trips to Hawaii, awards for 1, 3, 5 years of service, active participation in decision making, or maybe it’s just a unique workplace with office dog, pizza Fridays and built-in techno disco room… Having seen the workplaces some younger companies now have I am absolutely puzzled how older companies even manage to retain their staff – huge boring offices with strict working hours, unwritten dress codes and expectation of unpaid overtime hours on a daily basis… I think it’s only because staff are unaware of what’s out there, how different their life could be…
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
At least in the environments I am in at the moment, everyone has to be on the journey. Passionate about the cause. Understanding that everyone in a small team is very important. Every contribution counts. Everyone wears many hats. The vision stays the same, but how to get there changes frequently, so it’s important that everyone knows what the latest strategy is, what the progress is, where the challenges are and what they are supposed to do. And what everyone thinks about it and which improvements they can suggest. That are really the basic building blocks of making this work. I would be lying if I said there is no pressure, there is no stress. I think if you want to be successful then there will be stress, you have to work hard, and this is not for everyone. Some people absolutely thrive in such an environment, and some struggle. Just like what I said about recruitment and retention, this is part of it – fitting into the environment. Important are communication and using the right tools, having processes in place, avoiding unnecessary duplication, using automation, and a lot of common sense. Throw in the occasional day out, but don’t decide from the top – get consensus what the team actually wants to do.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
To be honest – I completely fail at this. Being involved with early stage startups means there is often a lot of work and not enough money to go around, so I am juggling too many different things, and as you know, every time you switch between completely different tasks it takes time to get focus again (especially if we talk brainy stuff like data / analytics / troubleshooting / financial models) – while endless emails, WhatsApp / Slack / Skype / Confluence notifications arrive, with distributed teams on several continents meaning someone is always awake, sending yet another message. Small teams, lack of resource and communication challenges then mean there can be quite a negative impact if you do not respond quickly – someone will make a wrong assumption and take five others with them on a journey to an idiotic code change or the accidental spamming of 20000 users with nonsensical test messages, all waiting for you to be discovered when you get up in the morning…
Nevertheless I am trying to be as productive as possible, switching between general multitasking and focus time on one thing. Obviously I can allocate as much time in any 24-hour day as I like, seven days a week, but it certainly has an impact on stress levels…
My control centre is really a massive colour-coded email inbox where all info from all projects is coming together; I find that this works much better than moving around between twenty different Trello cards, Asana boards, Basecamp sites and Google calendars. Of course I have very detailed tools as well like Jira.
Solution to this would obviously be not to work with startups (I hope nobody is reading this now…) ?
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
I have always seen myself as “the interface between business and technology”, it would be impossible for me to deliver technical solutions in line with business objectives without understanding the business and its needs; being aligned with the overall business roadmap is obviously key. And I am quite keen on sense-checking, seeing numbers and telling non-technical people off as well if I think they are doing something silly. Being busy though means that I cannot know the details about everything, which is fine when someone competent is running things – I am mainly interested in the touchpoints with existing systems – so if someone wants to build some prototype and it doesn’t touch existing systems and data then it’s not a big issue – I am only getting involved again if one day it needs integrating into the existing production system, where it has to run smoothly, fast, secure, monitored and with good user experience ?
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Hey, I just want to travel, and play Japanese hip hop tunes to an international audience ! ?
Or at least I definitely want to see myself still with the startups I am with today – but properly funded, they would really deserve it, and it would also reduce my stress levels ! I can see myself taking a step back from some of them into non-executive director type roles. I also anticipate that advisory opportunities will continue to come up from time to time, which can be quite interesting if I can learn something new while also helping to deal with the usual tech management problems…
Continuing with the occasional panel discussion could also be fun…
What product do you wish you’d invented?
I always wanted to work with music and technology, so it would be something like the Cubase or Ableton Live music production software – these tools have become incredibly complex and powerful, and I could spend all my time on them… ?
Or if nobody knows what these are – I should just say “pizza and energy drinks” ? ?
Thanks very much, Ralph!