Name: Tom Watson
Current position: Co-Founder & former CTO of Hubble
Bio: Tom is the Co-founder and ex-CTO of Hubble, the hybrid workplace platform. He’s done everything from building the initial platform to managing and leading the engineering, product and design teams.
After studying Computer Science at University, Tom joined Entrepreneur First and soon after founded Hubble. As his first job post-graduation, Tom had to quickly learn everything on the job. Although nominally CTO, Tom spent much of his time leading the product side of the business.
Tom’s main interest lies in the intersection of product and software engineering; ensuring they work seamlessly together, understanding the trade-offs and managing conflicting priorities in order to build the best thing for the customer and the business.
Hi Tom! Thanks for joining us today. Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
I started Hubble straight out of University so didn’t have much of a working life before leadership. During my degree, I spent a year at IBM which, if anything, pushed me onto the leadership path. I was frustrated by a lot of things while working there – nothing specific to IBM – but the typical large company bureaucracy and inertia. When I returned for my final year, I did everything I could to learn about entrepreneurship and leadership. I contracted as a web developer, managed a student discount card and organised a startup careers fair. All of these things further solidified that I wanted to start and lead my own company.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
In 2014, we raised our first round of funding and started to hire a team. Becoming a leader was both intentional and accidental at the same time. What I mean is that when I started the company, I just thought: ‘I’m going to build this cool product’. It was not until later that I realised I couldn’t do it all by myself! Eventually, you fill the roles necessary in order to get the job done.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily/what was difficult?
Having never [started a company] before, I didn’t know what I was doing. However, as a first-time founder and leader, I’ve tried to operate based on two principles throughout Hubble: Most people don’t know what they’re doing and are just learning as they go. And if I can be a quick learner, then my experience matters less. I also felt it was my strength that I was learning a lot from first principles and wasn’t biased by previous roles.
Having said that, there were a couple of things that I found harder than others. First, the transition from coding to leading made it hard to measure my impact and whether I had had a productive day. It took me a while to get my head around it and not feel guilty or unproductive i.e. if I’d just spent the day ‘communicating’ rather than ‘doing’. On the flip side, I found leadership came quite easily to me. For a techie, I’m not a bad communicator and can empathise and understand people.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
At the start, I was too much of a people pleaser. I thought that the way to improve my team’s happiness and productivity was by just being the ‘nice guy’. However, this is a short term view. It took me a while to understand that critical feedback is necessary for long-term fulfilment and that you can do it in a way that is still empathetic.
What made you keep doing it?
I really enjoy moving between the micro and macro of being a leader. The constant zooming in and out keeps things new and enjoyable for me. I also get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the impact I have on others and what I can do to improve people’s careers.
Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you.
To be honest, I’m quite an open person, so there probably isn’t something that nobody knows. Although, one thing I don’t tell many people – as it’s very nerdy – is that I learned a lot of my leadership skills when I was 16, playing World of Warcraft! I used to lead groups of 20-40 people in ‘raids’ which required a lot of tactics and people management. I mentioned this to investors once and it didn’t go down well…!
What are the three key skills you think every leader needs?
Empathy, systems thinking and decisiveness.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
Everyone asks what the secret is, but there is no silver bullet. In terms of acquiring talent, I’ve learnt that it’s just about being everywhere, using your networks (especially early on) and also reaching out to specific communities rather than just the big jobs boards.
I believe the best way to retain talent is to be empathetic and flexible. Everybody is unique in their personality or life situation and so require different things in order to be successful in their role. As long as you listen to that constantly then you can keep the good people.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
I try to provide as much autonomy and trust as possible. When new joiners start, this can often be shocking as they are suddenly able to do things that were previously gate-kept at their last company. To do this properly however, you need to have good processes and clear goals, otherwise, people will be frustrated by changing priorities or duplicating work.
Autonomy can be stressful as well, with so much control over your direction and decision-making. As much as I can implement strategies or advise the team to de-stress, it’ll only work if I lead by example. As such, I don’t send emails or Slack messages at weekends or default to de-scoping rather than overworking, if a deadline is coming up.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
I try my best to switch off when the workday is finished. I don’t have email on my phone and have all Slack notifications turned off. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get pulled back into work mode when you’re trying to relax.
I also try to stick to a routine, both at work and outside. By blocking in time to check email, meditate or eat lunch then it’s easier for me to get into good habits around stress and productivity.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
I try to have regular catch-ups with different parts of the business as well as over-communicate as much as possible. This could be with weekly presentations summarising the work we’ve done or a written changelog (or both!). Tech and product are often so intrinsic to the company’s success that if people see it as a black box of high paid people, it can build negative tensions.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I’ve recently left Hubble and am trying to figure out what I want to do next. In the short term, I’m mentoring product/ engineering leaders as well as early-stage founders. However, in five years’ time, I hope to be running another business.
Finally, other than Hubble, what product do you wish you’d invented?
Probably the electric car. I want to use my technical skills to be more involved in improving our planet.
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