How to avoid pitfalls and make scaling a success

The burning question on every CTO’s lips: How do you scale successfully?

And who better to answer that question than an expert panel? So at our November CTOZone event we did just that. Leading the charge was Ed Conolly, Group CTO at Ovo Energy, Jon Mullen, Associate Director, Product Engineering Director at Comparethemarket.com and our very own CEO, Kelly Waters.

With a room full of experienced CTOs and tech leads ready to discuss their challenges, host Jamie North asked each attendee what they really wanted to know about scaling. Unsurprisingly,  questions about values, culture and talent acquisition came up time and again. As there wasn’t time to answer them all, we chose the top three and let the panel do what they do best; advise. 

Q1 – How can you stay true to company values as you scale?

Kelly – It starts at the beginning. With a startup you need to be deliberate about the values you want to have and then hire people who share them. If you don’t do this when you start small, and later try to put a culture on them, when you scale you run into problems when people and their views fragment. Leadership needs to embody the values it professes to hold.

Ed – Values need to be consistent, concise and visible; there’s no point in having 100 values and talking about them once a year. You should allow interpretation but still have some boundaries around them so people don’t stray too far from the initial intent.

Jon – If you have several sites, respect the values and position of each. Look at the values that are transferable from the main office and which ones aren’t. One size doesn’t fit all and sometimes it works better to embrace differences.

E – Co-located teams can be an advantage because they can understand the local market and attract previously untapped talent. Sometimes you strike gold with a certain ethos and the torch can be carried forward as you grow. But rather than inhibit people’s freedom to move between locations, you should be encouraging (and have a budget for) travel and allow shared deliverables so the teams have something to work on together. But independence is still important – if you fail to achieve it then you will fail velocity.

Q2 – How do you attract and retain talent during periods of growth?

E – You need to spend time on internal processes and focus on what you are trying to achieve when scaling. If you scale faster than the resilience of your hiring process, you’ll take a long-term hit. Investing at the start will lead to a higher acceptance rate.

J – It’s important not to hang around so your interview process should be a slick, impressive experience and if possible, offer the opportunity for people to see the environment in which they’ll be working. Crucially, don’t waste time; have an engineer profile and make it clear why you’re interviewing that person and once it’s over, be quick with your ‘yes’ / ‘no’. Delay will result in losing good people, and people in the same industry talk so it may be damaging to your company in respect of future hires.

K – Once you’ve hired new people, add them to existing teams rather than creating new ones. While the teams may be bigger than you’d like, the new hires can tag along and learn. From experience, they pick things up more quickly this way. You can then split the bigger teams and then repeat as you grow.

Also, there is an assumption that everyone wants to climb the career ladder and become a manager, but this isn’t always the case. Good leadership recognises this. Find other ways for someone to contribute that doesn’t involve management if they want to stay an engineer.,

E – It can help to remove superfluous job titles and introduce internal levels that proffer increased responsibility and pay benefits for those that aren’t interested in the ‘traditional’ route.

Q3 – If you could only give one tip to those ready to scale, what would it be?

J – There is a tendency to create an empire and lots of layers when you scale. I always say grow when you have to and build something great, not just because you want to. Give authority and autonomy to your teams and you will reap the rewards. It’s all about trust.

E – When companies scale, responsibility is often taken away from engineers. As such, ownership is also taken away. Remember central teams are there to support you.

K – Maintain your recruitment standards. Don’t lower the bar because it will come back to haunt you!

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If you’re a CTO or tech lead and interested in hearing more about CTOZone events or want to join the community, please email Jamie North or Sanneke Ringeling who will be happy to help. 

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