Name: Daniel Bartholomae

Current position: Managing Director and CTO at optilyz

Bio: Daniel is a Berlin-based founder, manager, and developer. After writing his first program at the age of six, he built his interest in technology, data, and self-management. He started his career helping big corporations to innovate as a consultant at McKinsey and Company and now builds SaaS startups.

Outside of work, he is a meetup and conference organiser with a focus on Software Craft, mentors early-stage startup founders via The Mentoring Club and VCs in his network, and likes to play board games.

Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?

I’ve got a bit of an uncommon background, as I was never in a non-leadership tech role. Most of my early tech knowledge comes from my interest in the topic as a child and what I learned from my father, who taught me about the topic very early on. I studied maths and physics, which gave me a bit of background in software development, but I had almost no formal training on that topic.

After university, I worked as a strategy consultant at McKinsey, mainly focusing on innovation and technology. This included everything from understanding future trends together with experts over defining company strategies to benefit from innovation to concrete work rolling out ideas with spin-offs.

After my time at McKinsey, I first tried to start my own startup alone, which failed mainly because I tried to do everything on my own and still needed a lot of time to actually catch up on the current software development landscape. Once I realised that this wasn’t going to work out, I started looking out for opportunities to work with an established startup team, but still with enough freedom to learn on my own.

How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?

I had already been in a team lead position at McKinsey, so my first leadership position wasn’t actually in tech. After my first failed startup, I joined an existing founding team, and this became my first leadership role in tech. 

Initially, it wasn’t even meant to be a tech-focused position, but a few months after I had joined, we realised that we would need someone to take over the CTO position, and since I had the deepest knowledge of software development from the founding team, I jumped into the role. 

So, while jumping into a leadership position was intentional, it wasn’t intentional that this would be a tech leadership position and that my first job in tech would immediately be as “CTO”.

How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?

This answer might be a bit different from what most others in this series said; as for me, the big change wasn’t leadership but tech. One challenge that I imagine to be similar to others is that I had to bring together a manager’s schedule with a maker’s schedule: Instead of jumping from topic to topic more freely, I also needed to find time to spend a full day or two per week diving into the codebase and understanding its problems.

One of the biggest benefits I could bring also made some things difficult: I wasn’t used yet to a certain way to develop software, so I spent a lot of time researching best practices, unburdened by previous experiences or old learned patterns. While this allowed me to focus specifically on what worked for that team, it also made me reluctant sometimes to really challenge the way of working as I was afraid that I just “didn’t get” yet why it had to be done a certain way. Fortunately, I got bolder over time and found a good way to challenge processes based on first principles and just experiment together with the team on what did and didn’t work for us.

What was your biggest failure in early leadership?

I mainly hired very junior developers in the beginning as I didn’t have a good way to identify more senior developers and tried to keep costs low. This meant that we made many mistakes early on in the patterns we used for the code we wrote, and we had to correct this over time. I also had to let go of people who would have had great learning opportunities elsewhere, but we just didn’t have enough senior folk to coach and develop them appropriately.

Over my career, I identified the main thing that brings me joy in my job: building systems that run effectively without me. This is true for writing code, but it is even more true for building teams. It’s still what I enjoy most, and it’s something that I can’t imagine a better place for than as a startup CTO.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you.

I’ve developed my own real-time competitive board game based on hourglasses as game pieces and got it almost to a place where it could get published – until I realised that the hourglasses would be too expensive for mass production.

What are the three key skills you think every leader needs?

Prioritisation – there is always more that we want to do than what we actually can cover, and focusing a team on the right topic is a core role of any leader.
Communication – as soon as any other people are involved, you need to communicate effectively with them.
Problem understanding – you don’t need to be able to solve every problem, but you need to be able to help your team understand it well enough so that they can solve it.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

Surprisingly, many companies forget that interviewing is a two-way street. While you are trying to figure out whether the candidate fits you, the candidate also will use the process to decide whether they think that you fit them. So, if your process is only optimised for one side, you will lose all candidates that have alternatives to pick from, which are mostly the candidates you actually want.

The same is true for retaining talent. If you don’t spend time to actually understand what holds everyone individually at your company, then you will have some unforeseen leavers. I’m quite open when discussing this with my employees: I’d rather have an open conversation with someone that we might not be able to give them the career that they want and then lose them on our joint terms than ignore the wishes of an employee and losing them as a surprise.

How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?

As Managing Director, I’m involved in almost everything happening at my company, though for some topics, it is more on a higher or indirect level. I proactively reach out to people in other areas, read basically every message in our Slack workspace regardless of team, and have regular 1-on-1s across the full company to make it easy for people to know me and reach out.

I also push a lot for transparent communication. We have a company-wide biweekly demo where each product team shows what they did over the last two weeks, which allows me to stay up-to-date on everything and ensures that other departments can speak up in case we are running in the wrong direction. Whenever I get DM in Slack, I don’t answer there but instead, point the person to a public channel to ask there so that as much relevant info as possible ends up in the light.

And finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

The Google search engine. It’s a different way to think about information and is the base for most of the way we work nowadays. It’s really simple from a user perspective, and it combines technological (Page Rank), UX (just one search bar on the homepage) and business (Google Ads bidding for ad space) innovation.


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