David Lush, Chief Technology Officer, Mindgym, has also been Head of Engineering at Onzo and Visa. At our CTO Craft Conference, he’ll be part of the panel discussion: Power to your People – Building a Team to Succeed. He joins us to discuss talent pipelines, psychological safety and smelting copper and aluminium.
Hi David, welcome to the CTO Craft Spotlight Q & A. You’re a day 1-panel speaker at the CTO Craft Con and the Chief Technology Officer at Mindgym. Can you give us a teaser about what you might share with our audience at the conference?
It’s going to be interesting to see where the panel conversation heads. Earlier in my career, I inherited and built upon the teams I worked with. In my last two roles, I’ve been lucky enough to build engineering and data teams from scratch and across multiple years.
We’ve experienced most of the growing pains out there, and both times have arrived at high-performing teams. Both of them are quite different from one another, though.
The conference theme is The Strategic CTO. What methods do you use to ensure that your team’s strategy is aligned with your company’s mission and values?
This starts with my choice of company. By choosing a company with a mission I believe in, it is much easier to bring others along on the journey.
I then simply ask myself, ‘What’ do we need to do in the next 18 months to achieve the company vision and ‘Why’ (laid out in a pithy strategy document with leading/lagging measures of success)? As a group, we then use OKRs to keep departments and teams aligned to the larger company goals.
What methods do you think currently work for building and maintaining a talent pipeline?
This is a question of scale.
If you have a lot of hiring to do, just cheat! Get a really good internal talent partner and let them build a talent pipeline for you. This still means setting them up for success with solid role profiles, packs of links to be shared with candidates and a compelling narrative
If you have only a small number of roles, the same rules apply to profiles, links and narratives. The question then is where to source candidates. Referrals are always cost-effective and have a good strike rate.
Find one or two good agencies to work with. Then try direct outreach on platforms like Cord, where you can lean on your job title to attract tech talent directly.
What approaches do you use to create a long-term roadmap for your team’s projects?
This topic is close to my heart and a journey we have recently been on. As I mentioned above, I think most of this flows from having a clear product strategy so that everyone knows what our products are trying to achieve and why.
From there, you need to place a number of strategic bets as a business that gives an idea of how and when you might achieve these objectives. Structuring like this keeps most of the leadership discussion high-level and strategic
The other side of this coin is delivery management with product, engineering and data people. Here we try to strike a balance between empowering teams to set their own delivery direction by measuring outcomes / key results and keeping a clear view of collaboration/dependencies across teams.
What methods do you use to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of your team’s strategy?
I’d love to be able to say I’m entirely data-driven about this, but it’s not that clear-cut, unfortunately. The approach I’ve described definitely allows us to be clear on whether we achieve our key results and hit the right outcomes for the business.
What happens if we achieve all of the short-term outcomes, though, and our DORA metrics collapse? This probably means we’re not in a good position to sustain the right pace and deliver on outcomes for the coming quarters and years.
What happens if your staff engagement and retention have dropped off? Again, this would leave us in a hole as we improve culture and fix the root causes that have led to losing people. In turn, our delivery against strategy could suffer for months and years to come.
I guess I’m more data-driven than I’m giving myself credit for here. What doesn’t feel data-driven is the need to use experience to understand how these different metrics sit in tension with and affect one another.
As a leader, what approaches do you use to create a culture of experimentation and innovation within your team?
There are two key things here for me.
The first is to focus on value-driven delivery. We sometimes treat Gantt charts as if they’re evil. They’re not. They’re a valuable tool as long as they’re kept high level and we adapt the plan based on new information. We should encourage our teams to learn constantly and focus on delivering value with short lead times.
The second is to foster a psychologically safe environment with an appropriate tolerance for failure. Our Chief Behavioural Science Officer, Janet Ahn, recently pointed me to an article highlighting the challenges of balancing tolerance for failure vs intolerance for incompetence and psychological safety vs brutal candour.
As leaders, we need to walk the tightrope of supporting experimentation while also keeping everyone headed toward the same vision.
Changing the subject completely, please tell us an interesting fact we don’t know about you.
Hah… This is a completely different route. I’m currently stockpiling copper and aluminium. I’m going to have a go at smelting it and casting some things in the back garden with my 9-year-old son (using a homemade cope and drag). If I don’t make it to the conference in May, it’s probably my own fault!
What tips do you have for other leaders to ensure their team members experience ongoing learning and development (rather than it getting lost in busy daily work!)?
We give everyone in the team 2 hours of dedicated learning and development time every week. This isn’t enough, though, because everyone is busy, and L&D is often the first thing to go.
We have a Slackbot reminder every week that asks people, ‘Reminder: What did you learn with your 2 hours this week? Share in a thread here’. This still isn’t enough, because it’s all too easy for that to be more noise in Slack that blends into the background.
I, therefore, try to initiate conversation in the thread by sharing what I learned through the week, then tagging everyone in the engineering and data teams to ask what they learned.
Only this week, I also had to add in, ‘I don’t do this to make you feel bad for not finding the time. I’m trying to remind you that you have the time, and it is important.’
We have been doing this for a little over a year, and the conversation gets longer bit by bit
How do you prioritise and balance competing business objectives and stakeholder needs?
I don’t know! I think I’ve been doing it so long that it’s become muscle memory. I think it always comes down to ‘Do I think this is the right decision for the future direction of the company?’
If I don’t, I will take an active interest and ask more questions. There is a good chance I am lacking context or operating in an area that I am ignorant of. Therefore I need to understand the drivers so that I can get on board properly.
Once I’m onboard, then I need a sense of the effort vs return (and any associated risks). On the return side, there is also a question of ‘Will this create a step change in what we’re trying to achieve?’. From here, I have a decent rubric to try and slot in with all of the other competing demands on our time and resources.
Finally, can you recommend a book or a podcast that every technology leader should read or listen to either in the space of strategy, development or leadership in general?
I find that The Pragmatic Engineer newsletter content is generally very high quality. It’s behind a paywall, but it’s pretty cheap in terms of the amount I’ve had back from it.
On the book front, there are so many classics. If I think of the books that have shaped my career, though, there are only four (Continuous Delivery, The Goal, Site Reliability Engineering and Accelerate).
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