The woman, the myth, the legend. There is little that CTO of ThoughtWorks, Dr Rebecca Parsons hasn’t seen or done in her incredible career in engineering and computer science.

As one of the expert speakers at the forthcoming CTO Craft Conference on 1 – 3 December 2020, we sat down with her (remotely) to pick her brains about all things leadership in this ‘new normal’. Prepare to be inspired, very inspired.

Hi Rebecca, thanks for your time! We’ve got a quick-fire round for you today, so without further ado, what’s keeping you busy at the moment?

Well, we’re in the midst of refreshing our technology strategy, so I’m working on that. I’m also doing a fair number of presentations and one of the things I realised about doing them virtually, is that physical barriers no longer exist and so it’s easy to get oversubscribed. It’s interesting to see how people are experimenting with different models of engagement in this virtual world.

We’ve also just kicked off our internal leadership development programme and so are doing a lot of planning around what that will look like including coaching etc.

Tell me a leadership lesson you’ve learnt this year?

As everything has gone virtual, I’ve had to rethink how I engage with people. There are interaction modes that are transactional and business-focused and then there those that are less formal. Given my travel schedule, I’ve been working remotely for the last several years, so it’s not a huge change, but I don’t get those informal interactions any more. As such, I’ve had to consciously think about introducing a degree of informality – the ‘How are you doing?’ bit – into what is normally a much more formality driven session. I’ve been exploring ways for different kinds of meetings to get that interpersonal exchange; the one that happens when you take a break and go get coffee or go for something to eat afterwards. It’s about being very intentional, ensuring that you are present as a person with those you are trying to lead, because there is no other opportunity to get those little snippets any more. You don’t just stumble across someone on zoom!

What are the top two soft skills you believe engineering leaders need for 2021?

  1. First – and there is an expiration date on this – the ability for technology leaders to communicate the risks and opportunities of technology for their organisation, but in business terms. More and more organisations are being forced to do more of their business with technology – it’s playing a much more crucial role. For a long time, technologists have enjoyed being in their technology boxes and ‘talking geek’ and business people, who aren’t yet technologists, don’t know how to do that. It’s our responsibility to bring them on our journey and provide that safe space for them to ask the simple questions that might be obvious to a technologist, but aren’t to them.
  2. Second, because of the increasing role of technology in the digital present, engineering leaders need to create a safe space for experimentation. We don’t know where the next good idea is going to come from. You can’t bank on the ‘certain’ ones anymore because there is so much uncertainty in the world – how do you know it’s good until you try? The whole point of experimentation is to learn something. For many organisations to try something and have it fail, is catastrophic, but that is what experimentation is about! Create that safe environment for experimentation, some of which is going to be wildly successful and some of which will be mediocre and not work out well. You need to have the space to analyse what should have worked and didn’t, and to learn from that, and distinguish it from something that was just a bad idea to begin with. In this world, people don’t want to do the hard work of teasing apart and understanding, was it a silly idea or productive failure? We need to celebrate the productive failures because who knows when things are going to open up again or what will happen. 

Lastly, what’s your top tip for motivating remote employees? 

Part of it is about meeting them where they are and giving them that space to express what’s hurting their motivation. You also have to be willing to do what you can to address that. Let them vent, maybe there is something in their schedules that you can take away, but you have to be open enough to start the conversation and make it safe for them.

My role is to make it possible for others to do the best they can and so I need the feedback from them; to understand the blockers and what tools they need to be remotivated. As a leader, it’s also about making them see that I’m genuinely interested in who they are and where they’re at. While I obviously can’t change the lockdown, I want to do what I can to help them within the context, and I’m willing to listen.

Thank you so much, Rebecca!


Catch Dr Rebecca Parsons and some incredible other speakers at our forthcoming CTO Craft Con 2020: The People One on 1 – 3 December.

Find out more and get your tickets here!

If you or your CTO / technology lead would benefit from any of the services offered by the CTO Craft community, use the Contact Us button at the top or email us here and we’ll be in touch!

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