Zero to CTO – Matthew Smith is in the Spotlight

Matthew Smith

Name: Matthew Smith

Current position: Head of DevOps & Cloud Consulting

Bio: Matthew has spent almost two decades doing “DevOps”, even before configuration management tools were a real option. Over the last ten years he has focused a lot of his efforts into consulting and helping others get better at Cloud, DevOps and digital transformations. 

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

Before leadership, I was focused on a lot of blended roles; I started in infrastructure architecture and operating systems, building PCI:DSS secure environments. This role required a good understanding of networking and how to manage large amounts of operating systems, both Windows and Linux. I always enjoyed this blended role and being able to jump into any part of the stack be it setting up a Cisco ASA, router or switches or even just building out the cabinets in the data centre.

This role also gave me the opportunity to dive deep into my Linux knowledge and allowed me to build automated immutable services with physical servers.

From here I moved into what is now more commonly known as DevOps where it was a blend of development work, networking, application deployment and management. This was an opportunity to take some of those key skills I had developed earlier and apply them to a new organisation as one of two IT people it was a great way to learn and develop.

I was very fortunate that my colleague (Adrian Bridgett) was much more experienced than me and I finally had someone I could learn more about development and operations. This helped me gain confidence in my abilities and I took the first steps towards leadership here where I was starting to run the sprint teams when we moved our ECM application into AWS and turned it into a SaaS platform for our clients.

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

So before this role I was doing lead type work, I wasn’t accountable but I was responsible for the planning and I deeply cared about how solutions were solved, a very typical engineering mindset.

While I was at Hive (British Gas’s IoT platform), I was just keeping my head down and getting their product launched for them, but it was clear we needed more leadership and governance to achieve what we were doing, and I was asked by the CTO, Seb Chakraborty, at the time if I’d consider doing the whole of the operations management and being accountable for the team I had just hired, all 25 of them.

It’s fair to say I was incredibly torn. I really wanted to keep doing the technology, and I was worried I just wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. But I always liked the challenge, so I jumped in and was fortunate enough to have a good coach in Grant Smith to help me understand the business’s needs.

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

The hardest thing for me, by far, was accepting that not everyone works at the same quality or pace I do and appreciating that I only see them for a few minutes a day. So, I had to constantly remind myself of a few things. 

1. Because they are good people trying to do good work, they’re not trying to slack off or cut corners; they’re doing what they can.

2. Not everyone has the same experiences, and they can’t understand a technical solution; they don’t understand what it does or the benefits it provides.

I was surprised at how easily I picked up the people side. There are just things I believe should be done, like 1-2-1s, so I did them. Not everyone had the same amount of time or as frequently, but they were done. Regarding prioritisation of tasks and work, I also just stumbled into a way that worked for me, which was to be very clear about what was and was not possible.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

I was too hands-off. I was so worried about being overly critical of the work and the people that I let them just get on and took it as it was. This is how I would prefer to be managed after all, but this doesn’t work for everybody, and some projects or deliverables just need more attention. 

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you.

At school, I performed for several years in front of public audiences of 500~ people 2-3 times a year… 

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

Compassion, you need to be able to understand those around you who need more help and to appreciate that they are on their own journey and developing at their own pace.

Decisiveness, paralysis around decisions is possible the worse thing you can do, it’s fine to not know the answer, and it’s fine to change you mind if that decision was wrong. It’s not okay to delay a decision indefinitely or not to provide direction.

Communication: It is not possible to overcommunicate. Most people don’t share enough of what is happening, the reasons behind it, and how that impacts the delivery of A or B. To make things worse, they sometimes dehumanise the communication, which leads to others not appreciating that project A is late because Frank spent 12 hours last night frantically fixing the platform, so we had customers today.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

Find a good resourcing partner that understands who you are and how you like to work, they help filter then the majority of the candidates so they are all acceptable to varying degrees and you stop wasting time interviewing people who just were never going to make it past the first round. 

Listen to your head and heart. I’ve been in interviews where I hired someone who answered all of the questions wrong in the technical interview, and he was brilliant. I have also been in a situation where someone answered all of the questions correctly, had the right job roles on the CV, and then failed massively in the role because it was either too much of a jump up from where they were or they had exaggerated their capabilities on their CV. 

If you are stuck between someone who is technically brilliant or someone who is mostly there but much more social and easy to work with or fits in with the team, always go for the one that is easier to work with. People can learn new technical skills, it’s hard for them to learn to be nice people, or to change their attitude.

How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?

With consultancy, you are often in very difficult situations where you are seen as an expert and you should always have answers to questions, and this can be quite stressful if you are trying to please people. So, I always tell the consultants that they just need to be open and honest with the customer. It’s far harder to be angry at someone for not being able to do something when they have been clear up front. This is a new thing for them, so finding that balance between expectations management and customer service is quite important.

In terms of stress management, I’m very focused on outcomes rather than time in a seat. So if someone is having a challenging time at home or their child is in hospital, I am very clear that I expect them to deal with that. All I ask for is a couple of words so I know that it’s critical or important, and I can then manage the expectations. 

Everyone gets stressed about different things and talking about what’s happening and articulating why a situation is the way it is can help mitigate this. Transparency and honesty go a long way with customers and with staff as you can then discuss solving the problems together.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

I used to be incredibly bad at managing my own stress levels and I take a number of measures to help myself, most come from the first, and only time, I was signed off work with stress before I got into management.

I live my life by sayings and the one that gets me through the most of it is ‘a business get’s what it deserves, not what it wants.’

Our job as individuals at any level is to present the best decisions and solutions we can based on the information at hand. If we have presented the best solution and the business doesn’t adopt it, or they ask for a cheaper version. Our job is to articulate what will and will not be done and what situation that leaves us in. It is then very hard to get stressed about a solution or a situation when you know you have given the best possible outcome given the available resources and understanding.

As long as you have articulated this up, there’s no point worrying about it, the business is getting what it deserves. It may not want it, but it still chose to have it. Obviously, there are compromises, like cost, but the best businesses will put these back to the employees to come back with renewed solutions, and you’ll jointly agree on the least worst option.

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

We have a unique business with half of the business being new into IT and the other half very senior consultants. So I like to spend time with them and we run additional training and workshops with the Academy to get a feel at the lower end of the seniority.

With the more senior people we all meet up regularly and are connected quite well. One of the joys of an organisation that isn’t 650k people and is closer to the 500 mark is that it’s possible to stay well connected with the individuals.

What product do you wish you’d invented?

I think the smartphone, being of an age where I got to see mobile phones from being just phones with snake to portable computers. I think it’s really easy for younger people not to appreciate how much easier things are now when we are fully connected and easily able to get hold of someone. 

What learnings or benefits have you gained from being part of the CTO Craft Community?

One of the unexpected benefits I’ve seen is how friendly people are, I’ve connected with several members on LinkedIn and had some really good conversations and been able to share some insights and experiences and vice versa. I think the Community part of the name is key. I’ve not had to jump in yet and ask too much, but I like reading through how other people have dealt with challenges and providing me with different views.


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