Corporate Culture: The Baseline of CTO Success
In addition to keeping up with rapidly changing technology trends, there are many challenges that a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in the FinTech industry must face on an almost-daily basis. In order to stay ahead of the curve, they have to understand the business in which they operate and be able to communicate solutions to both their development team and their CxO peers. Business leadership is the nature of a CTO role. That’s why engineering culture in the workplace is often one of their major CTO concerns.
A toxic corporate culture drives a toxic engineering culture. That’s why one of the most important jobs of any CTO is to develop a corporate culture that facilitates a great engineering culture. They must establish harmony within the company’s strategic vision, focus on business problems as they arise, and leverage healthy team organization into growth and wellbeing for all.
But how can a CTO influence the corporate culture in which they work? This article will present some case studies based on our members’ personal experiences taking on this unique challenge.
Attracting people with similar views
In business and in life, there will always be people who entertain your views and those who don’t. Instead of trying to alter the latter, you’re better off finding allies and sticking with them. Perry Moutzouros, CTO at Oranj, a wealth-management platform for RIAs, says that hiring the right engineers to carry on the Oranj traditions and company culture is a challenge:
“For us, it’s probably no different than any other young company that’s growing. [The challenge] is the ability to get the right engineers to be able to join the organization.” –Perry Moutzouros
“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many” – Oranj Chicago office
Oranj’s corporate culture is upbeat, creative, and electric. Their main meeting area is a hidden room accessible only through a built-in bookcase that swings open, which whisks visitors into the imaginative and exciting world of Indiana Jones.
Their work is also characterized by creativity and a nonstandard perception of the world. Oranj goes the extra mile in innovation and building trust. People are the baseline of this culture.
Consistency with global values
It’s impossible to create a great FinTech product without understanding the core problem that it’s going to solve. The CTO enacts and instills the global values and purposes of the company in every team member and makes sure its message transmits into every feature and action.
FinTech is about transparency, automation, and innovation. It transforms a complex, boring, and extremely regulated industry into enjoyable and easy to use services. That’s why the corporate culture of a FinTech company must cultivate the same values across its teams, architecture, processes, and rituals.
Sergey Matikainen, Head of Software Delivery at INSART, a FinTech engineering company, outlined five values that crosscut each of their projects: the customer, the team, professionalism, learning, and engagement.
“We help customers to meet their long-term needs by making cost-effective choices (customer). We promote a synergy where the sum is greater than the parts (team). We don’t make excuses but focus on finding solutions (professionalism), encourage our team to improve their skills to be able to innovate (learning), and know that the only way to do great work is to love what you do (engagement).” – Sergey Matikainen
Moving beyond rhetoric, Matikainen admits that a significant knowledge base was created under his leadership. Also, he says that INSART promotes knowledge-sharing not only within the company but within the community at large. For instance, their SmartClub initiative joins professionals who want to discuss coding and architecture issues, and their WealthTech Club is aimed to deliver the latest news and insights from the wealth-technology world.
Both leader and propagator
The CTO is often the primary source of values, innovation, and direction across an engineering team. Alex Sukhenko, CTO at Salsa Labs, a fundraising platform and nonprofit supporter-engagement platform, sets an example of how to transmit his values and devotion to his team and company:
“Sooner or later, any SaaS [software-as-a-service] company is going to have a service problem, a major service outage. When those things happen, depending on the severity of them, I’ll jump in on the firefights, in the video calls. Sometimes, I’ve gone 24-plus hours on some of these things. […] You typically don’t look forward to doing something like that, but I’ll stay with the guys until it’s fixed and help sort out [and] prioritize, arguing and making [the] right focus. I think the guys appreciate that, as opposed to asking, ‘When is it fixed, when is it fixed?’ That’s one example of leadership.”–Alex Sukhenko
If a CTO asks their team to do something, they must be up to go the extra mile to help them get it done, not just squander commands. By showing the devotion to the work they do, CTOs motivate other team members as well as show them what’s really important.
“When I need to push hard for time balance and get aggressive with people who are doing things that have some leaks in the quality, I think—I built the credit with those guys so that I can push hard and get them to work harder and longer and to make timelines when we need to. I help them understand where the priorities are. Developers tend to have a lot of hindsight. ‘Why didn’t we just do this?’ [they ask.] ‘Why didn’t we just have the requirements better?’ They have a tough job because they’re always backed up against [the wall, and] they can’t go fast enough.” –Alex Sukhenko
Organizing open and collaborative workspaces
To build trust and a healthy corporate culture, it’s important to create an environment that encourages transparency, equality, efficiency, and whatever else you strive to foster in your team. Matthew Rennie, CTO at Jemstep, a wealth-services platform, says that they have a geographically distributed development model. For this model to work, there has to be a free flow of information and operational transparency (even transparency in decision-making). Rennie says that this is engrained in the company culture, and that all teams use shared workspaces and Slack for internal messaging.
“There are other shared workspaces, for example, Atlassian Jira. Anyone can see the status of the stories and where they are in the workflow. From an engineering perspective, we use GitHub quite extensively as well. All the code conversations, peer reviews, etc. also [appear] across the various locations.” – Matthew Rennie
To keep all of their teams on the same page, Jemstep significantly invests in educating and equipping its engineers with necessary domain knowledge. Rennie says that they run domain-knowledge workshops on a weekly basis, where experts present to the group on certain subjects. These workshops are recorded and later distributed to new employees as part of the onboarding process. Jemstep also maintains an extensive knowledge base, and many of their operating procedures are documented in Confluence.