Name: Vlad Galu
Current position: Consulting CTO – 101 Ways & Consultant – Intuitus Advisory
Early after starting his career 20 years ago as a systems and network engineer, Vlad transitioned to software engineering and product development, calling all the stops on the way to CTO. He has built and led high performing product and technology organisations, building wide reaching services and products in content delivery (one of the first live video CDNs in the world), cybersecurity (a DDoS mitigation product for ISPs, carriers and data centers and an IoT digital identity platform), satellite telecoms (a satellite internet user terminal) and cloud computing and storage. More recently Vlad has been providing strategic and tactical advisory to publishing, proptech, fintech, legal tech, edtech, ecommerce and cybersecurity companies, helping them shape their product and technology strategy and organisations.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
I have been writing software since middle school and have always had a keen interest in how the Internet worked. So I applied for my first job at a large ISP in 2000, as a systems and network engineer. Back then all systems were built in house, so writing software was part of the job. I was part of a fantastic team of engineers who covered everything from day to day network and systems maintanance to DevOps to building full blown services and portals supporting millions of subscribers to contributing to the Linux and BSD kernels. The inspiration and mentoring they provided shaped the three pillars of my career – end to end product development, high scalability and cybersecurity/privacy.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
It was a natural transition from junior to senior to lead engineer that happened over a couple of years. As I gained more experience and solved increasingly complex problems I took ownership of larger parts of the system, as well as line management duties. My role and title changed, reflecting that evolution.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
As a technical lead and line manager, your focus widens from the initial technical direction to both that and the well being of the team. That means not only individual performance and relationships within the team, but also the performance, interactions and position of that team within the wider organisation. At first, letting go of some of the “what” and the “how” in favour of the “why” in order to provide a better interface between technology, product and business was somewhat difficult, but became more natural over the years.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
I tackled some of the finer technical challenges myself, for too long. Until I realised that by having more context into the business I had had a head start over my team in reasoning about the ideal solution. They needed time to iterate towards it on their own. I am now confident they would have designed an even better one in the end. In retrospect, I should have given them room to do that, focusing on other things myself – mapping business goals to desired outcomes, analysing product metrics, growing and building career progression paths for the team – acting as a true servant leader.
What made you keep doing it?
Building great technology is exciting, but ultimately a short term product differentiator. It is only a matter of time before the competition catches up. Making lasting products requires consistency that can only be achieved with a healthy team culture. Even before my first leadership role I had seen products with great potential fail because of dysfunctional work relationships. My takeaway from that was that you need to build great teams to build great products, unless you unrealistically plan to do everything yourself. I have not separated the two disciplines since.
Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you
I play guitar right handed and drums left handed.
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
I am going to answer this very broadly, to encompass all leadership levels: technical, business and interpersonal.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
High performing teams have the right blend of individual hard and soft skills, experience, ambition and motivation. These traits form a delicate balance that requires continuous effort to maintain, as every person joining or leaving the team changes its dynamic and culture. You cannot be too careful with who you bring on board, as they must fit well on day one as well as have room to grow professionally further down the line. High achievers outgrow their initial environment, so if your organisation cannot provide them with the necessary space you must recognise that early on and proactively hire before they leave.
Rapid team scaling and organisational culture preservation pull in opposite directions, so I have much respect for companies that achieve both simultaneously. The approach I have used to date with good results has been to seed new teams from existing ones, thus ensuring that the initial ethos was passed on.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
I try to give everyone something to look forward to and someone to look up to and learn from. For the former I prefer promoting from within over hiring externally, as the person being promoted already has a rapport with the team and some degree of product ownership. A career progression FIFO, as it were. T-shaped skills help with the latter by letting people on the same team connect around their common interests and cross-pollinate their respective specialties. In my experience, this works well with inquisitive and ambitious people, so providing motivation is a continuous process that starts with hiring. People who are genuinely interested in the mission and product are easier to motivate.
There are also ways to motivate a team that do not necessarily depend on line management duties. Sometimes you work on a shoestring budget, the product is very glamorous and its target environment is riddled with regulatory restrictions. But great engineering challenges can be found in the most adverse situations. Identifying and framing them accordingly is part of a leader’s job.
I monitor burnout with adequate tools and ceremonies, reserving 1:1s for managing stress levels and nourishing relationships with my reports. I aim to have these at least weekly, on the same day of the week and at the same time. If that is not possible due to travel or other unforeseen circumstances, a short informal health-check chat can suffice, setting up the context for the following regular slot, which is not to be skipped. The quality of these relationships is proportional with the intersection of two sets. One consists of people’s own aspirations, goals and anxieties. The other is comprised of your company objectives. If as a leader you do not understand and care for the former, how can you expect your team to understand and care for the latter?
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
I set aside some time for reflection each week, during which I do not take calls or attend meetings. Instead, I go through my notes, looking for strategic opportunities and tactical antipatterns across business, product, technology and operations. Work smart, not hard, they say. I periodically reach out to my mentors and communities such as this one. That is incredibly helpful in validating ideas and learning from others’ mistakes.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
I have regular catch-up and brainstorming time with my peers on the leadership team. I also make a point of looking at the wealth of data generated by the business support systems. The stories they tell help in the making of better business, product and engineering decisions.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Ideally, having launched another genuinely useful and wide reaching product. The consulting work I have been doing for the past couple of years has been very rewarding and diverse, opening up industries I had not explored before. So in theory I should now have more options for imagining, building and taking new products to market. That is my happy medium.
What product do you wish you’d invented?
Any of the life changing ubiquitous ones: GPS, barcodes, RFID tags, online banking. I also wish I had invented the Raspberry Pi. It puts tremendous experimentation power in the hands of anyone who is interested in technology, at a very affordable price.
Thanks very much, Vlad!