Archive for December, 2009

Advice for a new CTO in 2010

December 23, 2009 1 comment

Three weeks ago, I was very happy to provide a professional reference for my former colleague.    “N” called me last night and shared the good news.   He accepted an offer to join as a CTO in a software company that just crossed a very important milestone: for the first time, the annual revenues will exceed $10M.

Although “N” has been clearly the best candidate for the position, a lingering concern remained in his mind.  “What if I don’t succeed?”

“N” is one of the smartest people I know.   But being smart is just one essential ingredient of success.  “N” asked for my advice and I was very happy to offer my thoughts.   This blog entry is much more than just a recollection of our conversation. I want “N” to succeed as well as every other CTO who will be asked to create market-leading products and fuel revenue growth in 2010.

First – take a deep breath and commit to ‘observe only’ plan for the first 30 days:

1.  Where are the products vs competition:  behind, competitive, or ahead?

– If behind:  you will most likely deal with a backlog of delayed functionality, sales team wanting to see more frequent product releases, and potentially growing backlog of defects.  Your team will be under stress.

Items to consider:

– Build good working relationships with leaders of Sales, Marketing, Customer Support, and Professionals Services organizations.  Acknowledge the problem.   They will understand – that’s why you have been hired.   Prioritize most important functionality / releases and develop a plan – with dates cast in stone – to deliver.  Your team will be under even more stress but do not be concerned.  This is your chance to learn what every team member is capable of under the pressure.  Many will disagree with you.  Ignore the noise.

– If competitive:  in the community of equal products, how products are positioned and sold is the key to success.   Learn the products.  When there is a chance – get on the road.  Sell, sell, sell – and learn first hand what the market and customers want.

– If ahead:  what a great position to be in …

Second – evaluate your team and how everyone works:

– Within the first week, sit down with every direct report and clearly describe your expectations.  Do not leave anything to chance.  This includes “I expect every meeting to start on time.   10:00am means you are in the room, ready to talk, with all supporting materials and presentations ready to be shared.  It does not mean arriving at 10:00am and then proceeding to get a cup of coffee”.

– Schedule one-on-one meetings with every team member.   Show your personal side.

– Assess talent, skills, promotional potential.

– Evaluate how the team conducts design activities, prepares engineering estimates, runs release management activities.   This is obviously not an exhaustive list.  Look for absence of rigor and quality.  Also look for evidence of “just enough to get the job done”.  These are danger signs that will very quickly lead you to the root cause.

Third – ask a question, “can I deliver what’s needed with what I have”

– Confirm quarterly and any other, additional product development goals

– Evaluate engineering capacity and historical product development velocity

– Get a good handle on the budget, open requisitions, recruiting process

– If you need a different budget to succeed, this is the time to ask for it

Finally – make changes:

– It’s important for you to be respected as a leader of the product development organization.  Everyone knows new leadership will bring changes.

– This is your chance to make the necessary changes based on what you learned.  Some changes may not be popular.  Other changes may mean more work.  Again – ignore the noise.

– Carefully monitor how the organization responds.  This will always be true: many people will see you and your leadership as a breath of fresh air.  Others will see you as a threat.   Give them a chance to adjust.  But at the same time, allow everyone to have a voice, even if they don’t agree.  The decision may still be yours to make.  After the arguments have been heard and a balanced decision has been made, everyone – and I mean everyone – should be working hard to support the decision.    Do not allow the few to derail hard work of many.   Prepare a transition plan and gracefully ask them to leave.   Your trusted recruiter should already be already working for you.

Best wishes for success in 2010!

Categories: Uncategorized

The best predictor of success in a new hire is not industry knowledge

December 12, 2009 6 comments

Great recruiters are even more rare than great candidates.

Even before beginning the search for talent, a great recruiter will learn everything about your business:  mission, stage of growth, competition, culture, organization (how it looks today, how it may look tomorrow), and then will spare no effort to find superb talent that will play a critical role in creating the next generation of software products.

I have been fortunate to know a truly great recruiter for a long time.  “J” consistently found senior software engineers, software design engineers in test, product managers, and product marketing managers who proved to be very successful.

Is there a single, best predictor of success in a new hire?  That’s the question “J” asked me last week.

It is not industry domain knowledge, although it’s important in many cases.

It is not experience, although – again – experience provides good insight about candidate’s past performance.

The single, best predictor of future success is a relentless desire to learn.   This desire has to be overwhelming, overflowing – “always on” – and humble enough to share knowledge with others without even thinking about it.

So why is this true?

Some time ago, I was asked to lead a new product development effort and deliver an enterprise software product  …

– which never existed before

– was intended for a new market (in essence – this product was intended to create a market)

One of the immediate goals was to recruit a software engineering team, capable of solving very complex problems while building a software product without known competitive references or prior experience.

First – let’s examine a typical job posting:

“Financial services company is looking for a superstar Java software engineer [technology keywords and acronyms follow].  Superb communication skills are mandatory.  Local candidates only.  Financial services experience is a must”.

The above job posting would not produce even one candidate.  The market is new.  No one else built a similar product.   Every candidate – if hired – will be placed in a difficult and stressful situation:  learn new industry, learn what the customers want, and apply creative energy to solve complex problems in an environment where failure is not an option.

Different recruiting approach had to be used.  “J” and I crafted job postings which – by design – attracted candidates with skills, experience, and – most importantly – that relentless desire to learn.  Without this desire, skills and experience – no matter how deep – would not be of any help.

In summary, great talent does not always come from the same industry domain, just like great talent may not be next door.

For those who are interested in more information:

– The company:

– The market:  integrated digital evidence management software for law enforcement agencies (secure acquisition, management, and delivery of audio, video, images, and documents)

– Why: as of September 2009, 17 states and District of Columbia require electronic recordings of interrogations

– Market potential:  big – others certainly think so:  read about TASERentering the data business” with

You just arrived as a new CTO; step one – get on the road

December 8, 2009 2 comments

After a long and diligent recruiting cycle, you just arrived as a new CTO in an enterprise software company to lead both product management and software engineering activities.   What you will do in the first 2 weeks will be critical to your success.

Not all is well.  Revenues are flat.  Some large customers are at risk of not renewing their maintenance (or subscription) contracts.   The latest and long-awaited major release has been delayed.   The sales team also lost some sales superstars to competitors.

Try to make the first day a Friday.   You will need the entire next and your first week for a very specific purpose.


– In the morning, meet with your direct reports, take them out to lunch, and apologize for not having any time for anyone during the first 2 weeks

– In the afternoon, meet with VP of Sales & Marketing and learn everything about revenues and customers

– Identify critical customers and ask VP of Sales & Marketing to make phone introductions.  Resist every attempt to have the sales person accompany you.  You want to send a polite message that your purpose is to listen, not sell.


– Get on the plane and travel to the first customer on your list

Monday – Friday, while meeting with selected customers:

– Learn everything about how the customers use the company’s products in their environment

– Get a list of critical bugs and defects

– Measure the flight risk – whether the customer may defect to a competitor

– Ask how the entire company – not just engineering team – serves the customer:   sales, professional services, customer support, training.  That’s the reason why you want to be alone while listening.    As a CTO you may build a great product but the professional services organization may not deploy the software correctly, creating an opportunity for competition.   Start collecting insights and real, unabridged feedback from the customer.

Monday (your second week):

– Meet with VP of Sales & Marketing to review the sales pipeline.   Get ahead of the business and critical ‘must close’ deals.


– Meet with the owner of customer support organization.  This organization should have the same sense of urgency that you gained when meeting with customers last week.


– Meet with the owner of professional services organization.   Again – the product deployment process should delight the customer.  Anything less?  Take notes.


– Meet with the CFO.   Learn the budget history and current budget metrics.


– You are now well equipped to meet with your direct reports.

There is a reason why the new CTO should meet with his / her organization last.   You want to know as soon as possible if the organization is capable of meeting the demands of the business.   That’s why you spent the first 2 weeks:

– Getting the unabridged version of state of the business from real customers

– Learning how other organizations (customer support, professional services) serve the customer;  you cannot succeed alone

– Learning how much financial flexibility you have to address any problem

Finally, you are ready to learn if your organization can embark on the journey together with you.

Categories: Uncategorized

It turns out great talent is not always next door

December 3, 2009 3 comments

Recruiting, attracting, and retaining great talent continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing a software executive.

It’s truly a privilege to work with great people.   They are the reason why in a competitive market one software product can be easily seen as one that sells itself – with assistance from a terrific sales team, of course.

But even great people can leave the organization for many reasons, creating a continuous need to recruit and retain.

While growing several world-class engineering organizations, I learned several truths about recruiting great talent:

– The way one recruits says a lot about how one retains

– Never stop recruiting, despite no openings being available;  it takes at least 3 months to find someone exceptional

– Forget gold; treat every candidate like platinum;  make the decision not to extend the offer so incredibly graceful that the candidate will still recommend his / her friends (“I feel bad about not getting the offer, but my friend who is looking for work will feel right at home in this fantastic company”)

– Make the recruiting process very rigorous (yet very respectful);  candidates may feel exhausted but the right ones will respect it (“I want to be a part of this great team”)

– 100 good resumes will typically yield 4-7 great candidates;  to have the luxury of 100 good resumes, the talent sourcing process needs to be flexible and sufficiently broad

That’s where the final truth could not be more appropriate.

– Great talent is not always next door

Many companies are very reluctant to consider candidates that live outside the immediate geography.  In fact, many companies simply ignore resumes from out-of-town candidates and clearly state ‘local candidates preferred’ policy.

I was very fortunate to find exceptional software engineers (with help from equally exceptional recruiters) who wanted to relocate to a specific city due to personal reasons, for example moving closer to parents who could help with child care needs.   In multiple instances, a reasonable sign on bonus to cover basic moving expenses served as a very inexpensive method to attract an exceptional person to the team.   Sadly, a standard recruiting process would normally ignore these candidates.

My recruiting team worked very hard.  It was not easy to find these candidates but the outcome produced a candidate who was both eager to contribute and appreciated the investment made by the organization to attract and retain him / her.

Great talent does not live next door.   Never settle and keep searching.  Geography should never be a barrier to finding and attracting great talent.