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Seedcamp CTO Summit – October 2017

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On Friday 6th October we hosted the second Seedcamp CTO summit, bringing together technical leads from across our portfolio to share insights, learnings and ideas with their peers. We asked Huss EL-Sheikh, CTO and co-founder at 9Fin – using AI to capture high yield bond data – to share his key takeaways from the session. Over to you Huss!

 

The other week I attended the second ever Seedcamp CTO summit. It was a half day event, hosted at Amazon’s offices in the City of London, and a great chance to meet and exchange ideas with other tech leads, CTOs and VPs of Engineering from the many Seedcamp portfolio companies present.

Kyran from Seedcamp opened up the event with a few introductory words I think worth mentioning. Seedcamp is approaching its 10th year, over which time they have invested in over 250 companies and supported more than 700 founders. Alongside longtime partners such as AWS, the ‘Seedcamp nation’ is quite large!

Myself, being part of one of the more recent companies to receive investment from Seedcamp, it was great to feel part of this extensive network of startup founders and operators — and also to see up-close the depth of experience and knowledge there for us to tap into. This “Knowledge Recycling,” as Kyran put it, and community of founders experiencing many of the same issues we’re going through is a pretty unique asset which 9fin, the company I co-founded, has been able to leverage during our journey.

Here are my 5 top takeaways from the day’s events:

1) Culture Shifts – But stick to your core values

The first panel was on the ever-present topic of hiring and retention. Culture plays a big part in this but it’s actually really hard to define and articulate on paper. Plus, as you grow your company, the culture will inevitably change too. Jun from Poq, who has tripled his engineering team since starting his company, finds it best to think hard about your values and assess people against that, rather than trying to artificially ‘shape a culture’.

It was also mentioned that hiring for “culture fit” can cause you to inadvertently go down the route of hiring in your own image — whereas company values and/or mission can be shared and embodied by anyone.

 

2) Developer autonomy is important

An interesting split across the room emerged around the topic of engineers working on personal projects. Of course, the so-called “20% time” made famous by many Silicon Valley giants — where engineers work on something totally unrelated to what they are currently doing for 20% of the time — could be hard for a startup already running a lean operation to justify. But how can you maintain the free-thinking spirit and non-corporate environment that attracts people to startups in the first place?

Dan, Head of Engineering at CharlieHR, suggested that the key is actually autonomy. A product feature may be required but there is total freedom in how to implement it in his team. Another idea from Jun was to also encourage people to work on their own ideas on the “platform”, these being items which are not product features but which improve the underlying tech infrastructure/processes the company runs on.

 

3) Decisions are reversible

Between the two panels, we had a great talk from Asaf, Head of Innovation at AWS. Some cool insights into how innovation is turned into a repeatable process within Amazon and AWS. A crazy fact was that in AWS this year alone over 1,000 new products were added! The point I really liked from Asaf’s talk was about what he termed “one-way” and “two-way” door decisions. If you’re dealing with a reversible decision i.e. it is easy to undo/rollback then you should not wait for that bit of data to take you a 90%+ level of confidence. If you’re at 60-65%, then just go for it.

 

4) Outsource, offshore, contract…it depends

If you can get a very self-contained piece of work scoped and defined, then the services of a contractor or agency could be worthwhile. Otherwise, it can be hard to find the time required to give remote or external team members the context required to be good at the job. Also in the area of testing and QA, Jerry from fractal labs suggested, specialist testers will find bugs and issues that developers won’t. Simply because they are testing from an objective independent point of view, and may see bugs you don’t.

 

5) Pay back your technical debt!

As the panel chair, Jonno switched gears to this topic, a knowing laugh went out across the room. Technical debt is something that everyone deals with, but it doesn’t get anywhere near the same airtime as other newer shiny topics in software engineering!.There was universal agreement from the panel that we need to be working towards removing it, but the nuance came in how to best present it. In some cases, it works to present working on technical debt as an enabler to do the new work that advances the product forward.

 

 

So why do I think this is all important? The Seedcamp companies cover a wide variety of industries, geographies and demographics but the hallmark of this current wave of startups and entrepreneurship we’re in is that technology is the enabler and force multiplier at the centre of all of our businesses. So this was a great chance to pull ourselves away from our desks, to hear from our peers and ultimately learn from each other’s’ experiences and the fantastic community of founders and vertical experts within the Seedcamp portfolio. 

 

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