Interview with Ken Baxter — Advice for Aspiring CTOs

I recently interviewed experienced CTO Ken Baxter to find out what advice he would give to others looking to get into a CTO role. Ken’s first CTO role was with Rivo Software over nine years ago and he’s since been involved in many other similar positions. Here’s what he had to say:

- What was your route to CTO?

Geologist! — Developer — Development Project Manager — Head of Software Development — CTO

- Can you talk about how you stepped into your first CTO role?

Having led development teams as a development PM and being a strong advocate for Agile development, I moved into a head of development role in a larger organisation for around six years which had involved scaling that group considerably to a headcount >100. That gave me a broad set of business skills from financial management through to Agile transformations, people and team management and importantly building technology strategies and plans. Approached for my first CTO role through a recruiter who I’d been working with on development roles and went through the standard recruitment process. First CTO role was in a scale-up SAAS software business, already established, profitable with around 20 people with aspirations to scale considerably over the next three years. Successfully scaled that business and led it through a private equity exit three years later.

- What was the first thing that you remember hitting you when you became CTO?

Firstly, you may come from a bigger business that is used to business planning. In your first CTO role, particularly in smaller businesses, don’t expect that anyone will have answers or in some cases even a coherent plan! You are moving from a tech role into a leadership team so it’s your responsibility as much as anyone’s in that team to ensure the business has appropriate vision, strategy, plans, KPIs etc. You are not in a leadership team simply to report on technology, you are there to help the whole team to succeed. So, if there is no vision, strategy, plan — get involved and help drive one!

Secondly, you will meet resistance. You will find people who have always done things the same way often for years, and who will see you as a threat, not a help. Your people skills will be tested!

Finally, you may have been brought in to move from a start-up mentality to a more formal business approach while helping that business grow fast. You may inherit some chaos, poor performance in systems, long-standing issues covered with sticky plaster… with it!

- What advice would you give an aspiring CTO in a senior developer role now who is hoping to step into a CTO role in coming years?

Great CTOs have the ability to communicate the business vision to technical people, and the technical vision to business people. Understand the business reasons for technical projects and learn how to communicate these in a non-technical way. If you are not sure how to do this, get mentors etc who will help you with this. Understand the business vision and how you will fit into it, don’t try to drive the vision through technology! You may also be moving from a hands-on technical role to a leadership one. Try to build a technical team around you who can operate without you there, rather than being a key decision maker on everything. Make yourself more of a facilitator and guide for the team. Be open that you won’t have every answer, don’t be afraid to admit that and get opinions, even from outside your organisation. Most importantly, don’t make technology an ivory tower in the business, make it an open engaging part of the organisation.

- Can you share any top tips for junior or first time CTOs that want to get ahead

- Be humble — learn as much as you can about the business as fast as you can. Step away from your technical role, go out on sales calls, sit in on finance meetings, sit on the support phones for a day. I learnt so much in one day in a CTO role by sitting on a sales phone line and having to set up new user accounts with customers on the other end of the phone, more than I would have learnt by just watching or asking questions. You will also build a lot of trust and respect in other parts of the business by doing it.

- Be brave. You will have to make some tough decisions quickly that may involve people. In a couple of roles, I put up with some people for too long at the detriment of others. Understand your strategy and objectives, design the organisational structure to meet that, THEN put names in the frame. You may have to lose people who feel like they are critical, sometimes they are not they have simply built their own empires. Don’t panic, there are great people out there who you just haven’t met yet. You must build a strong motivated team who get it, want it and can do it. If people don’t fit into that definition, move them on!

- Be disciplined. Use your time effectively and in a structured way. This will get you out of fire-fighting so find an operating model that is simple and that works. I’m a big advocate of EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) which gives a really simple set of tools for building vision strategy and structure as well as some great tools for running effective leadership meetings. You can use this at an organisational level, or to help structure your area of the business.

- Be focussed. It’s as important to work out what you need to stop doing as it is what you need to start doing. A good alignment with the business strategy will help with this. Don’t get distracted; it’s very easy to work on technology for the sake of it. Having an experienced product owner will help with this.

- Build a great culture and live by it. If you have values, be an advocate for them. What you do, gives others permission to do as well, so create a culture that means your teams will thrive, and be sure to ask them what they need! Develop your team — technical teams love to learn new stuff so make it a place they can grow in.

- Finally, the most important — Communicate. Share what the plans and what the issues are with your team, update them regularly, talk to them daily, run workshops to find out what their pain points are, lead sessions for the whole business and importantly make it fun!

Bonus question — what would you do differently?

There are now some great CTO forums, groups etc that provide a huge amount of knowledge, networking, and mentoring. Most of those weren’t around when I went into my first roles. Get involved, find mentors, ask questions — none of them will be stupid and you can bet someone has struggled with what you are going through so save yourself some pain!

As Ken says networking and mentoring can be a great way to help enhance your career. We run an Aspiring CTOs group, in which we provide the opportunity to network with others in a similar position or to find mentorship. You can find out more about us here.

Founder of RecWorks (Tech Recruitment), Tech Career Hacker, Java User Group Founder (LJC), London CTOs Organiser, Mentor Match-Maker