Last month marked the end of my first year as CTO at adello.com. Time to reflect on the good, the bad and the surprising.
Let’s back up for a minute to where I came from before joining Adello. One year ago I left my role as Group CTO at Haufe Group (a Freiburg-based company with revenues of around 350 Million EUR). I was responsible for setting and implementing the technology strategy from the backend systems via various platforms all the way to products. In addition, I closely worked with and mentored a team of CTO’s from our subsidiaries and engineering sites. The tools of my trade were whiteboards (I had lots of them in my office) and presentations. My day started with meetings, continued with meeting and ended with meetings. And I will openly admit, that I got envious when folks from the business side talked about their customers and product ideas and all those incredible opportunities out there. And when sitting with my engineering teams, I got envious about the stuff they were building, which in theory I all knew but have not had the chance to actually touch and try out myself.
Do you remember the scene from the film Social Network where they talk about being so submersed in writing code, that ‘one is in the flow’ or ‘plugged in’? Yes, I am happy to report, I have been back to this deeply intense place of ‘being in the flow’ quite a few times over the last year. For me ‘being in the flow’ is the happy place as developer. Everything opens up and is possible - and I feel like having super powers and that I can create and shape an entire universe which previously had only existed in my head. By the way, the concept of flow is fascinating and I highly recommend watching the TED talk (starting at around 3:30min) or reading the book.
So all good then and no regrets? Definitely no regrets. Like a serial founder who has to keep founding companies to prove to himself that the last one was not just successful by some stroke of luck but that he had truly ‘made it’, I need to prove to myself that I could still do ‘startup’. And ‘prove’ I did and do. But in addition to the technical skills, there other aspects which make working in a startup extremely rewarding.
When someone asked me if they would be happy working in a startup, I tell them to imagine walking down a beautiful path and passing a piece of trash thrown on the side. Quite a few would not see it. Some, maybe even most folks would be upset and get angry at whoever threw it on the path. But only a very few would actually pick it up and throw it in the garbage. In my experience it is exactly those few who will thrive in a startup. If you see something wrong or missing or just plain broken, and you do not just complain about it but actually DO something about it, a startup might be for you. And if you try to fix it because it needs fixing irrespective if it was in your responsibility or someone else’s - then I think you are prime startup material. A healthy and thriving startup has a culture of ‘not talking about change, but being the change you want to see’. Granted, my ‘C’ gives me permission to get involved in almost everything - but it can be quite lonely if it is just me. But in the right kind of environment, you do not need a ‘C’ to feel empowered to drive change.
Which brings me to a second observation: In every corporate environment there is work which drains personal energy and work which adds personal energy. Irrespective of your personal preferences, if your workplace is such that it drains more energy than you get back, you will burn out - both figuratively and physical. And so the secret for me being able to work hard and intense over longer periods of time is to create such a balance, that I do more work which adds energy rather than work which drains energy. In my experience working at a place where my creativity is challenged, the need to learn is constant, and with equally empowered and driven individuals who challenge me, I get so much more energy than is drained. And Adello is this kind of place for me. And if anything, my ‘C’ gives me not just the permission but even more the responsibility to create and shape such a culture in Adello for everyone to feel this way.
Which leads me to a third point - in every company but especially in a startup salary is only one part of the package. While it might be ok to join a bigger company just for the salary, if you join a startup just for a salary, you will be setting yourself up for failure. A startup is way too unpredictable and opportunistic with constant change to ‘just be a job’. Instead, I suggest thinking about a larger goal you would like to achieve, something beyond salary. This could be a skill you would like to learn, a role you would like to try out, responsibility you want to take on. It should be abstract and broad enough mission for you to take advantage of changes within a startup, but concrete enough that you can accomplish it within 2 or 3 years. If you have such a mission, then changes will become a source of opportunity, not a source of frustration. And if you work with such mindset, you will be surprised to find out in how many different and unexpected ways you will be able to reach it. For me that mission was and is about getting back into building successful products and a real-life (sorry, ‘ppt’ just doesn’t cut it) understanding of Machine Learning
But where there is light, there is also shadow. What did not go so well? Well - they say hindsight is 20:20 but knowing that you can not sell a product with a different business model through the same sales channels as your existing business still did not prevent us from falling into that trap. I know, I know .. classic mistake. So after the initial version of the product was done, we had to face the ugly truth that we did not have the right path to market. So we had to go back to square one and rebuild product marketing and sales from the ground up. Remember that disruptive products require disruptive channels (By the way, I can highly recommend Derek Siver’s own book Anything You Want).
What was surprising to me though was that there are aspects of my previous role as Group CTO which I do miss. Whereas in a startup most if not all daily work is highly transactional and immediate and opportunistic, I do miss the inspiration and time to sit down and read and think about more abstract topics like ‘culture’ and ‘architecture’ and ‘organization’. There are sometimes nuggets in some of my exchanges in our Adello Slack, which I wish I could capture and polish and elaborate more on the background and intent. Currently I save them to a notebook, but I would love to work more on them.
The other aspect is the possibility of creating a community of like-minded peers within a larger corporate entity. Being able to create a shared identify and purpose between a very diverse group of CTO’s in the Haufe Group subsidiaries and engineering sites was very rewarding both intellectual and on a personal level. I learned a lot about creating ‘loosely coupled but closely aligned’ organizations. Especially the deeply rewarding mentoring and learning from my C-level peers is something I miss. I find that there is a big need to share more of the kowledge and best practices of being an effective CTO on the intersection between business (process), technology and culture.
So going into my second year, I would like to use our blog to take some of those nuggets from discussions within Adello and expand on them as blog articles on a more regular basis.
And if you are a CTO in Germany and beyond, and some of what I wrote above resonates with you, ping me on linkedin.com. Maybe there is a community out there which waits to be built.
Onwards, to infinity and beyond.