CTO Summit SF: 5 Practical Lessons from Top Engineering Leaders title image

CTO Summit SF: 5 Practical Lessons from Top Engineering Leaders

At the latest CTO Summit, hosted by Peter Bell of CTO Connection, more than 120 technical executives and industry leaders gathered together in San Francisco to share tips and tricks on how they’re building and running successful engineering teams.

Although by no means exhaustive, here are a few takeaways from this year’s CTO Summit SF.

To Achieve More, Do Less

Drew Batshaw, CTO and cofounder of Waggl, opened the summit with an talk about what one must do to lead a successful team: “do” less to achieve more. To figure out how his time could be best spent, he asked himself three simple questions:

  • What can only I do?
  • What could my current team do?
  • What is left?

With an understanding of where he provides the most value for his team, he pinpoints other responsibilities that should be transferred over to the team -- resulting in a culture of ownership and accountability. By pairing projects with individuals and their strengths, he’s mobilized his time and energy to yield the most lucrative outcome for himself, his team and the business.

Is QA to Blame for Poor Product Quality?

Russ Smith (@rhs), CTO of Rainforest QA, explored the fundamental difference between quality and QA. The premise of his talk was around one central question: is QA to blame for poor quality? The short answer is no.

Quality, or the lack thereof, is the result of how well teams within an organization can work together to deliver a product that achieves an intended purpose.
Russ shared that in most organizations, there’s a deficit of feedback between product, engineering, and QA teams, as well as other stakeholders involved in making decisions throughout the development process. Each team struggles with a different set of issues -- e.g. product teams with unclear requirements and missing specs, engineering teams with poor technical design and implementation. However, it’s imperative to come together as a group and hold post-mortems to discuss what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how failures can be avoided moving forward.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to maintain quality in a high-velocity environment, check out Russ’ webinar with Rob Zuber (@z00b), CTO of CircleCI, titled, “Continuous Testing, Striking a Balance Between Quality and Speed.

Overcommunication is Effective Communication

Johnny Ray Austin (@recursivefunk), Head of Navigation Data at Mapbox, shared a critical message about building an effective, globally distributed team: good habits need to be established early on. By listening and engaging in regular dialogue with his remote team, he’s identified one major component that contributes to the success and productivity of his team: overcommunication.

With a team of 13 direct reports that spread across 5 different time zones, it could be a challenge to operate under one mission. By practicing overcommunication -- not just repetition, but context -- achieving company goals as a team becomes significantly more manageable. Johnny also touched on the importance of regular 1:1s, documentation of goals and outcomes, and investments in technology that better connect people (e.g. video conferencing, timezone reminder widgets).

If you’re interested in learning more about how to build and run a geographically distributed engineering team, check out this interview with Rainforest QA co-founder and CEO, Fred Stevens-Smith and Russ Smith, co-founder and CTO.

Good Leadership is a Long, Long Game

Julia Grace (@jewelia), Sr. Director of Infrastructure Engineering at Slack, uncovered a few lessons she’s learned from building engineering teams under pressure. The key insight? Lead confidently through influence. She explained that a necessary precursor before stepping into any leadership role is knowing how, and when, to take a step back. Understanding how to respect and manage talent is ultimately what sets apart a good leader from a great one.

Grace also highlights the importance of recruiting talent based on the team’s long-term goals; she calls this approach, “recruiting for the long, long game.” By documenting the requirements and expectations for all hires, she holds herself accountable to making the right hiring decisions rather than relying on the “I’ll know it when I see it” gut feeling when it comes to finding new talent.

Use Data to Drive Your Product Roadmap

Before Ellen Chisa (@ellenchisa), CEO and Co-founder of Dark, dove into her talk about product validation strategies, she asked the audience this question: Who here has worked for someone unreasonable? The response was unanimous -- a sea of hands rose, leading her to ask the next question: Was that person visionary or reactionary?

The significance of these questions became clear as soon as she began explaining the necessity of validating a product idea before diving into production headfirst. Chisa explained that in order to drive a vision forward in a meaningful way for the business, leaders must build a strategy around metrics, users and their unique insights.

Without a product roadmap driven by relevant data, it’s difficult for leaders to lead their teams to success, regardless of how good the original idea is.
Chisa concluded her talk with the following tips:
  • Use contextualized metrics to determine what projects are worth pursuing
  • Conduct rigorous user research to understand the whys
  • Prioritize speed and prototyping to build a tool box for later


Did you attend CTO Summit this year? What were your major takeaways? We’d love to hear from you!