We're joined by the amazing Meri Williams, previously CTO of Monzo, MOO, and M&S, as well as host and co-curator of the incredible LeadDev conferences. Meri's an experienced technical leader, one who's really technical - check out her story of soldering satellites!
In this episode, we chat about creating fantastic conference line-ups who also happen to be diverse, pressures of being a high-profile CTO, ways to build and maintain an incredible network as well as all the usual book recommendations.
Scroll down to read the full transcript of our chat with Meri
Meri's quick fire answers
- Meri recommends the book Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
- She follows Alice Goldfuss to keep up with important things in the Tech industry
- Meri is inspired by other great leaders including Lara Hogan, Camille Fournier, Jeanette Trapani, Jesse Link, Maria Gutierrez, Marta Jasinska, and Eileen Burbage
We also cover
- LeadDev Conference [00:01:13]
- LeadDev and addressing the need to work on soft skills [00:02:46]
- Nick Means and his amazing storytelling talks [00:06:04]
- Creating diverse line ups [00:06:46]
- The Medium post explaining how LeadDev broadens the funnel to encourage diversity [00:09:49]
- Working with organisation such as Black Girls Tech and Women Who Code [00:10:08]
- Leading during a time of crisis [00:14:01]
- How to manage remotely [00:17:33]
- Katie Womersley's LeadDev talk on Building and Scaling Distributed Teams [00:17:47]
- How to successfully join teams and build relationships when you're remote [00:21:47]
- The pressures that come with being a visible CTO [00:28:25]
- On not looking like a typical CTO [00:31:19]
- Mentoring CTOs and the patterns of help they need [00:37:20]
- The different flavours of CTO skillsets [00:37:37]
- Tech promotions are often job changes [00:41:03]
- On building and maintaining people networks [00:42:42]
- The quickfire questions [00:51:28]
Find out more, and follow Meri
Follow Meri on Twitter
Aaron - Welcome to the Humans+Tech podcast. I'm Aaron Randall and this is Amy Phillips.
Amy - Hi
Aaron - and today we are so excited to be talking to the one and only Meri Williams, Meri's an experienced technology leader Previously, Monzo, MOO, M&S, and others, as well as being chair and co-curator of the wonderful Lead Developer Conference. Meri, welcome to the show.
Meri - Thanks for having me.
Aaron - Uh now one of the things we like to do with all our Humans+Tech guests is, I draw a doodle of them and I'd like to show you yours and get your thoughts to kick off the show. So I put up on the screen. Now
Meri - I like it. Curly hair. Lego. That's pretty much my brand. So very
Aaron - I'm not sure what's on the T-shirt, but I wanted to capture the essence of your kind of playful tees as well hope that worked,
Amy - I felt that I should probably be some lasers or something. Like usually the cats have lasers, right?
Meri - I'm wearing a [inaudible] at the moment that have got like, dinosaurs going today is gonna be a good day with, like, a comet in the background. Very pandemic
Aaron - Um so as I mentioned in the intro, you're the co-curator and host of the Lead Developer conference. Which, by the way, is hands down my favourite tech conference out there. How did you become involved an what attracted you to this conference?
Meri - So I got involved, really before it existed, which was quite cool. So I I met Ruth Yarnit, who is the CEO of White October events That owns and runs the Lead Dev, U'm and I met her in like they really like the weirdest. It was like a dodgy pub in Reading's basement where some meet up was being held. I could remember who had talked me into going and speaking of this like, weird meet up in Reading, but somebody had and she came over and introduced herself afterwards. And then when she's like the hands down the best events person I've ever worked with, she's absolutely amazing uh so when she had the idea for the Lead Dev, which didn't have a name even at that point, it was just like we think there's some, there's something in, the missing thing in the market for people who like are leading and being technologists like we don't know what to call it. We don't know if it's a CEO's thing or what it would be because she's a really great events person. She was doing proper, like market research. And so she came to me and asked if she could, like, just get some time to show me some mock-ups of different possible schedules and I was like, yeah, I can do that but I can also get you, like, 20 tech leads in a room. Would you like me to sort that out? So. I got her a whole bunch of people who were kind of lead developers or senior engineers and eng managers and just got them all to meet with her and give her feedback back on. And she she had mock-ups of these different possible schedules with real people and real talks but different mixes. It was actually it was fascinating because the the one everyone really liked the best, was the one that was all kind of erroneously referred to a soft skills, right? Like because then they're not very pretty hard. But everybody loved that line up. But every also failed on the fundamental question that she asked at the end which was Would you buy a ticket or ask your boss to to fund you going? And everybody said no to the one that was all soft skills or leading team stuff, um and so yeah, so, so from from the beginning, there was the realisation that people in tech in particular are really wary of admitting that they need help or need to keep learning this kind of stuff. I find it really frustrating that a set of people who believe anybody can learn to code also believe that, like the soft skills fairy taps you with want at birth. And that's it. That's all the people you'll be able to handle for, like the rest of your life that you got a you know, a fixed amount of skills that you get. And so, yeah, from the from the very beginning, we kind of ended up. It was collaborating a lot on How do you how you get people to attend, who most need to attend who maybe the people who least realise they have to work on these things or are least willing to to admit that they need help on them. It's been fun, so yeah, she asked me after that to host the first one and then I've kind of gotten increasingly involved since then over the last six years.
Aaron - That's awesome. That point about getting people to attend who are least willing to admit they need to be there. How do you solve that?
Meri - So there's definitely some people who attend the LeadDev because they are sent to the LeadDev. They have their arms crossed at the beginning of the day. Go on, umm they you know, they tend to object to the code of conduct and object to you know, say things like it's unrealistic to see so many women and people of colour speaking which is a great, great attitude to bring to a conference. Makes people feel really welcome and valued, doesn't it? But then I think that they, you know, when you're surrounded by what these days like London was 1500 people last year. Like when you're surrounded by literally over 1000 people who do get it and who are talking about how yeah technology can be hard. But people are harder and maybe our biggest problems are not in, you know, whether it's this language or that language, but in whether people are collaborating effectively or teams understand each other and, you know, pointed in the same direction. And, I think a lot people kind of look around and kind of go like, Oh, right. It's not just my boss who thinks that I should get better at this, like there's a lot of people who are getting better at this maybe I should catch up. I think there's also people who, like sit with their arms folded sulking for the whole day and then never come back or, like, sit in the pub the next day you know, you can't you can't. This is the The corollary to the customer is always right. Is if somebody's really wrong. They probably shouldn't be a customer an I think that tends to be true. Um. And I think also the thing I love about LeadDev though is the other reaction that you get. And I, the person who says it the most and I love it the most from his Nick Means who does these fantastic talks. He does these amazing storytelling talks, which I imagine you've both seen. And I remember him speaking the first time he ever spoke at, LeadDev and he came off the stage and I gave him a hug and he went, these are my people. I found my tribe and he had not been around people who care about people as much as he had, even though he'd been a technology leader for a number of years. And he just felt embraced by the sense of oh, a whole bunch of people care about the people side of things too this is awesome and so that's the that's the much nicer side of things, I suppose.
Amy - I think it's really true. Like, I mean, I go to quite a lot of tech conferences and there's so many so much of the focus is on technology on just only technology, not technology. Plus people just technology. So, yeah, LeadDev definitely felt like a completely different style of conference um and yeah, I think the number of people you get each year just goes to show like, you know, everybody kind of agrees, like these are really valuable things to be to be talking about and learning about. One thing you mention was about the line up and people being kind of surprised, like the number of women and people of colour you get, and I think, you know, unfortunately, that's still surprising in a tech conference like so many tech organisers, are sort of saying, You know, it's really hard we can't find more diverse lineups. So what's the second how do you find the diverse lineups without you know and still have fantastic conferences?
Meri - Umm, we've actually not found it difficult at all. So the first year we, we the very first year we viewed it completely as a kind of statement of what we were going to be about so we curated that initial line up very, very carefully, both in terms of like the mix of speakers, the mix of types of organisations they came from, the demographics of those speakers. But an like the topics like we wanted a really representative lineup because that's that's what it is. It's about representing the world, because if we're building technology and products and services for the world, we should probably try to reflect the world right. And that's I think that's um and there's obviously a whole bunch of good research and science to show that teams that do are representative are just much more successful. They tend to be higher performing. They tend to be more profitable, they tend to do much better. And so I think the What we did in the very first year was to curate that very, very carefully. And I think in a first year of a conference, it's really tough to just throw a CFP up and hope that a bunch of people like submit talks, right? They don't know who you are. They don't know what you're about. Your very unlikely to do well with that approach. And so I think that first year we curated it really carefully. We did do a small CFP just for the 10 minute long like Tech Lightning talks. But so we had the opportunity in that first day to kind of really show what we were gonna be about and that included having a representative lineup and Ruth, Ruth and I both feel pretty strongly about that element of visibility that it really matters. It's been fantastic. Actually, I've never I've never had to convince her on any of these topics. She has been right there with me or ahead of me every every step of the way. I think sometimes people give me far too much credit for how LeadDev has gone and on uh., misunderstand that I'm like the tiny bit of the iceberg that's visible above the water and she and her team, I think they do all the hard work with the organising over the out and then from the from the second year onwards, we we filled almost every talk slot with somebody who submitted to the call for proposals, and what we've done is a lot of, we've invested a lot in getting the top of the funnel for that um for proposals to be as representative as possible we've actually published some stuff about this a few years ago and we can we can share the link up to that article. But we really focused not on the point of selection but further up the funnel. So, we from early on have actively approached various different kind of organisations like Black Girl Tech and Women Who Code and a whole bunch of those kind of kind of organisations because I think people assume that if you say nothing, everybody knows they're welcome. But if you say nothing, a lot of people are going to assume that you're like some of the other conferences that people hear about where this harassment happening and like not to tar every conference with the same brush. But just you know that it's not a universally pleasant experience or welcome experience on average. And so, I think people kind of wrongly assume that there's neutrality and there isn't. So you have to kind of overcome the lack of neutrality. So So we went out and said, like You are welcome here to a whole bunch of different groups and different folks. We also know this is some just to sort of re-cap some stuff that we're very upfront about what we offer, and so we will cover people's expenses ahead of time like we'll book the flights and cover the hotel. And you don't have to go into debt and wait to be repaid by the conference. And that broadens participation quite a lot because not everybody can afford to put a flight on a credit card or any of the any of those things. So we're very up front that we cover everybody's accommodation, travel and what and some expenses, and we're clear about what what proportion thatis. It's It's on every CFP that goes out and that, I think helps people just to A) know that people are gonna be treated fairly like not just the people who ask or who are, you know, pluck up the courage to question why a combination isn't being covered or something like that. I think it's terrible when people are expected to pay to speak at a conference of its It's just skews everything to be so much about the big companies that can afford the big travel and expense budgets to send people out. So yeah being being really clear that people will welcome having a really clear code of conduct, that it's updated regularly that we do proper training for the conference staff on how to react to anything that does happen. So it's not just there for show its, It's properly enforced. Um, and that things will be very genuinely will be dealt with properly if needed. Ah, and then to yeah, I suppose try to treat people as fairly as we and be very clear what we what we offer an offer to everybody. So we offer everybody an honorarium, you gotta be a little careful. I think all conferences do with the concept of payment. If somebody is seen to be working across borders that can cause all sorts of problems for folks, it's an honorarium. It's like a gift rather than a a fee, because because it's it's an attempt to help make sure that it doesn't cause anybody any immigration or tax problems, but it's well, OK, so we do still have a couple of invited speakers. But those folks, we always we always pay them the same. Now, whether it's the same year on year depends a little bit. But if there's ever ever somebody who we really want them to speak, but they're going to charge a particular fee um, we make the decision on the basis of giving every invited keynote speaker the same fee even if other people haven't asked for it. Way don't fall into that trap of very bluntly. It's usually guys who ask um and there's plenty of conferences that they'll pay what the one superstar speaker, but then they won't pay the others in the same kind of bracket. And so we always make that choice on a kind of okay, yeah, but if we do, then we have to pay that to all two or three or four invited keynotes which I think is also just fair, but also strangely unusual.
Amy - Really fair. Um, so the recent LeadDev live conference, which was just last week, actually, it focused on how to be an effective leader during uncertain times. Do you have any tips for how people who are leading teams or companies can do a good job during a crisis?
Meri - I think, Um. I mean, there were some great tips at the conference everybody should should go and check out those videos. when, when they're when they're fully published. Um, but I'm, I'm the I'm the best and worst person to ask I grew up in a very tumultuous time in South Africa. I grew up in apartheid South Africa. So a lot of what's happened in recent years is not umm, even what's happened. I mean, nobody's lived to a global pandemic in our kind of lifetime, right? But But I did live through a 40% HIV infection rate as a kid and that it felt pretty apocalyptic. You know, there is a whole generation that's been lost really in South Africa, and so I think, like, say, it kind of makes me the best of the worst person to ask. I think that anything that people have been coming round to over the last couple of decades is that you know somebody can't leave their personal life of the door. They can't just be their, work self at work. None of us even get to leave the house anymore. So, you know, maybe it's easier, but it's also possibly a little just over shadowing everything that we're all at home all the time on, I think the main thing that leaders can do is remember that people, are whole people and that we're all different. But we're all weirdly we're going through the same thing. And Katie Walmsley, who's VP of Eng at Buffer she said, It's the one really strange thing for her team, is it's the first time they are genuinely all experiencing the same thing. She's got a completely a fully distributed team, always different time zones, different weather, different seasons. This is the first time they're actually all having the same experience like they're all they're all in lockdown. They're all facing the same danger and that's been a weirdly kind of unifying but also very strange experience for for her and for her team. So I think, remembering that people are people and remembering that people might be different in how open they want to be, or are willing to be with the broader team about what's going on in their lives, like whether there's kid's or whether there's anything else happening, um, sick pet or, you know, there's all sorts of things that could be going on. Um, but those things are real and finding some way for someone to tell you that something is getting bad before it gets critical is really important. But I think there's not a universal way to do that. There's no one size fits all way to know. Some people are super, super private and some people are gonna tell you what they ate for breakfast, and like in extraverts are really missing the office at the moment, right? So even my wife, who is massively introverted. She turned to me a couple of weeks ago and just went, I've never felt this way before, but I'm missing people that was not what I thought it was going to be but wow yeah, so yeah, finding a way to, for it, to be okay, to talk about some of those things, but it not to be just a new oppressive topic, to have to talk about everything everyone or pretend that it's OK when it's not.
Aaron - Yeah, that makes sense. Do you think that, that question, but for leaders, do you think there are specific things that we need to change or adapt as a leader leading a team remotely, now?
Meri - I think the the one really great thing again. I probably got from Katie. She did a fantastic talk a few years ago, at LeadDev in Austin about about leading a fully distributed team. I think I think this is from her, and she basically said, like, You should leave loudly every day, you shouldn't just like disappear off Slack or IRC or whatever you're you're team way of communicating is you should say goodbye to everybody. And it be obvious that that's you leaving at a reasonable time in your time zone because the way that you role model in when you just a you know green dot or a red dot on it is a bit different. If people see you leave on time or not leave on time um, you know, come in earlier or come in later or whatever else. And I think just being much more explicit in comms on, it reminds me of something Cate Houton said, which was, You know, the the big thing that's different about distributed teams is the same things go wrong as go wrong in the office, you just don't have all the same coping mechanisms available to you so things break faster because you can't just overcome. And the thing that thing that's wrong by like those people who were doing glue work to steal Tanya Riley's phrase like calming the people who are angry at each other down over coffee later in the day. Or, you know, grabbing some ice creams and taking the round to that team that's annoyed with your team. Or, you know, some of those things aren't available. And so things escalate faster and become more like real. I think that's what was born out in Google, did some research at one point where they genuinely thought that maybe these, you know, remote first teams were not a good idea, and they should be getting rid of them. And then the research they did found that it was that they were all much more effective. But It is because, in order to survive at all as a distributed team, you have to fix some of these ways of working ways of leading like you can't be a silent leader of a team that doesn't see you in the office. What? What are they going to get there, um, direction from, or their understanding of what's going on from if if they don't ever hear from you? Like if they see you walk past than they might be able to infer something about your face or your stance or whatever else. But like that green or red dot on slack really doesn't tell you very much.
Aaron - I love I love that idea of leaving loudly. It's all that's so great. It's similar. It makes you think of that, that concept of like getting changed to start work, like getting into, like, getting dressed into work clothes to start work, even though your home and then getting change out them at 6 PM like signified that you're now like in your personal life. Yeah, that leaving loudly bit is.
Amy - I don't think anyone does that
Aaron - I've definitely done it. I think the leaving loudly bit is great because you do so you you you fade into personal time at that point, but you're still accessing your emails because it's kind of convenient. It's not like you've left the office and everyone's seen you go. So yeah, it's pretty cool.
Meri - One of the one of the questions on the LeadDev Live Slack afterwards was somebody doing a sweepstake on whether all of speakers had been dressed like, properly dressed just above the waist or not. And I was like, I put shoes on I live in a part we're like a no shoes in the flat household but because it was like it was such a work day for me, I couldn't like I couldn't host a conference without my shoes on. I was just I sat down the whole day. It wasn't even like I was standing so like, something in my head that just went No, no, you have to put shoes on.
Aaron - And there was a, there was a point you mentioned around like being in the office and, like handing out ice creams and generally just stuff that you can do very physically and think about things like the conversations at the water cooler. Now I'm thinking about as people. Some people are unfortunately, losing their jobs. Some people are changing jobs and joining new teams and companies there's people that are joining new companies that currently in a new, fully remote world that wasn't that way four weeks ago. How do you join a company and build a rapport with your new team when you don't have those tools you're used to? When you worked, you know, physically in the same location?
Meri - I just think it's always just been such a luxury to be in the same location as people anyway. I spent the 1st 10 years of my career. P&G and I had teams that were in India and the Philippines and Costa Rica like there were multiple people who I was close with them and I was on a leadership team with them. Or, you know, they were, they were my partner in crime on my project or whatever but I didn't meet in person for, like the first 3 years that we worked together. So I So I always find it funny when people see it is such a huge barrier. I did have somebody who was and who took over my role when I, when I when I moved assignment once, who just she was not that much older than me, actually, maybe 10 years older than me max and she found it really uncomfortable to try and build build relationships when, and this is a point when video wasn't really a thing yet, like that's how old I am. Um, so you literally just like on a conference call trying to have a have a conversation, you never saw somebody's face you maybe had, had instant messenger, but it was MSN Messenger back when that was the thing again, showing my age. But yeah, I think that I think you could totally build great relationships with people, but I come from a generation that kind of what I mean. I got email, and then it was years to between getting email and Internet. But like some of my best friends, I made who I never met. I was part of like online forums and all and all that kind of stuff, like when when you're when you're a young lesbian growing up under apartheid South Africa, it's like not a lot of gay culture that you can avail yourselves with, right? So, like all I had was Xena, if you want to find lesbians on the Internet in the nineties like Xena Internet forum like Web forums, were the correct place, to go, some of my oldest friends are web people I knew only as kind of like their favourite character from this, like, frankly, wonderfully terrible TV show like camp as anything right? an It's so wonderfully terrible as well that like the GTA Workshop where they did all the Lord of the Rings stuff, their first project was doing all of the swords and costumes and things for Hercules and Xena. They're kind of raised that from the company history. Now that they've been Lord of the Rings and District District nine, right? Like, you know, you know, they're not really admitting to that so much. Yeah, I think you can form brilliant relationships with people. I think that I think the thing you don't get is exactly said You don't run into somebody making a cup of tea or like accidentally meet people. So you have to find ways, to, like, get that virtual watercooler effect. And so I think it's I think it's a good thing that you've got a load more companies that are having to be fully distributed because people started putting in there kind of like, you know, morning coffee break everybody makes a coffee and comes and is in a hangouts or is in Zoom or whatever else um one organisation that I'm working with at the minute one of the really senior people there is Ah, like a meditation instruction. So he's he's running meditations every week for the whole company and they're recorded. And you, can, listen back to them and do them again. It's like it's like like self created Headspace. It's amazing and there's uh, there's another couple of teams I know that I'm doing fika every day, this kind of Swedish tradition of coffee and cake, you know, three o'clock in the afternoon, every day and they're and they're starting to do that. I mean, I'm working with a couple of different organisations at the moment, so sometimes they overlap. I'm like, it's lovely to see you are just gonna rush to my other online fika. At some point, it could happen. Figure out how to like have have them all dialled in on my screen and just activate the mic for different ones and not know ever accidentally like it's just it's just the comedy disaster waiting to happen right? If you're part of different social groups trying to hang out with them all, but I think I think you do that on um. I think the other thing is to encourage people who are already at the company if they either like, know something that could be useful or if they don't like. They're just in a completely different part of the business, and they probably wouldn't normally be on someone's onboarding plan to just go reach out and have a 1 to 1 like just you're not going to be on their official list. People that they must meet is they join. But it would be a good idea idea, to. And I think making it easier for the person who's joining to be like I will just throw a dart at a list of names and I will do a 1 to 1 this week with whoever that dart hits, but also the people who are already in the company to realise that, like they were totally have chatted to you very happily and like, realised that your choice of tea was worth having a conversation about or something. If they've been in the office with you, so why wouldn't they find half an hour? And in some ways you know this the thing that's interesting about about Covid about this situation is there's some people who were just boredom is the main thing they're dealing with right there. Just I wish they could get out the house and do the things that they normally do. But then there's also a whole bunch of people who have gone from having two jobs, you know, often like parent or carer and professional to having like six jobs. They're trying to be a teacher. and a nurse and a cleaner and a you know, personal shopper because their next door neighbour can't, um, can't get out to safely, get grocery. You know, there's this weird thing going on with, although we're all experiencing the same thing. Some of us are just way busier than we've ever been. And then some people have got, like hours more in the day because they're not commuting anymore. And I think that's the other thing that's worth thinking about is how do you load balance, understanding that the total reality for people, How do you load balance across the team? And so maybe those people who are not gonna have the most chilled out relaxed 1 to 1 with someone because they're, you know, running between doing seven loads of laundry and trying to look after the baby and, you know, and and and all of these things like, how did the other folks in the team step up and help with that? But then you're making it easy from both sides. There's also these things, like the Donut app in Slack, that will just kind of roulette you a person to meet with every week or those kind of things as well, which I think people could do more of. But we're also defaulting to having a lot more meetings than we normally would. We're gonna find a way to get on top of that. Everything is a meeting now and before you might have just interrupted someone for a couple minutes. We have to find a way of doing that, which is probably a slack DM or a text message or something. But this kind of default to being everything is now a one hour meeting that must be scheduled in is just, eating away everybody's time to do anything else, right?
Amy - So in your intro, Aaron mentioned um that Meri you've been CTO at loads of different places. You're pretty much known, well, certainly across London. There's nobody in London who doesn't know you probably across the world. What are the pressures of being such a visible CTO within the industry?
Meri - Mm, I think sometimes people expect miracles. It affects things in a couple of ways. I think people have expectations, whether they're good or bad. There's definitely a bunch people who believe that anybody who's well known is like, automatically shit at what they do. And you must be a you know, all image or marketing, no substance person, which, you know, I sure hope I'm not, But there's definitely a whole load of people who that's they're kind of ingrained assumption is that you're kind of riding on your reputation and that that that's all there is to you, and there are definitely people who the opposite happens. Like, you know, everybody I know had heard of this person. They must be a miracle worker. I'm like, No, or certainly not daily right. Like like I'm good at some things. I'm like I'm really shit at some things. Like like any other normal human, um, the other the other side effect I suppose is just just a lot of a lot, a lot, a lot of inbound like people asking for things.
Amy - Like podcasts...
Meri - And a lot of variation in how.. You two are my friends I'm very happy to do this, but like you know there's a lot of people out, and there's a lot of people who, um, are very demanding without without it being clear to me that they're gonna pay it forward. I'm not super transactional in how I interact with folks. I don't expect that if I do something someone, they will pay me back. But I do want them to pay it forward I want them to help somebody else in future. There's definitely some people who are very, like demanding and come across as very entitled that you owe them time like I have no idea who you are, and I know like a lot of people, So if there's zero, people who could like could possibly connect us in a way that this would not be a cold approach. We really don't run in the same like industry, let alone, so that's right on, because there's not, you know, in a sort of Kevin Bacon way. There's not that many technologies around, like two degrees of separation from so the people who I have zero connection too often not just like very salesy like salespeople are like, yeah, this many connections on LinkedIn and you have no routes to get to me other than an inbound. Maybe that's a sign that, you should pay somebody.
Aaron - You mentioned their about expectations of you, obviously, being so visible, one of things that you've said to me before, and I hope it's okay for me to repeat this. But you'd said something along the lines of I don't look like an average CTO and I think you, at the time you were referring to things like, you're wearing a T shirt with cats with laser beams firing out of their eyes and that kind of stuff. Can you tell me more about that and like what it means for you?
Meri - I think I just don't look like people expect a CTO to look. I think people expect a CTO to be like there's a joke, my mum's an accountant there's a joke she tells about how you know you're, she's actually quite extraverted, but her joke is that you know your accountant is extroverted if they look at your shoes when they're talking to you, and I CTOs have some of that same kind of like assumptions made about them, I think I think people expect CTOs to be like nerdy boys who have no social skills, who would rather be playing with the computer than talking to any people. Right? And like I am that in all but one dimension, which is gender. I grew up as a hardware hacker. I definitely was a lot better at computers than I was at people for, you know, most of my existence, but I think I'm more, well, I'm a woman and that's unusual um. yeah, the people who approach me and go, what's it like being a female and like you're not a don't use any female as a noun. It's not the right way to start a conversation with people. Yeah, I think I think I'm you know, I'm, uh, cheerful and loud. And a woman and yeah, not not dressed in a boring suit, which is more the CIO think I think I think CIOs are expected to be kind of grey and everything they wear and also and also their manner. But yeah, I think that's this sort of assumption that, yeah, I've had people assume I must be the chief people officer because I care about the people that things like No, no, like being good at the technology requires being good at the people. They're not separable things you can't There's not a world where, like, magically the right coding like just dissolves into existence or appears out of the ether, right, like there's more people involved. The fact that we as a society or particularly an industry we like. We align ourselves around which language we use to talk to the computers. How ridiculous is that? How? that is like the plot of a dystopian sci fi novel. But we think it's completely normal that there's like the Ruby people and the Python people and the Swift people like we literally have organised ourselves by which language we're choosing to use to communicate with the silicon and that that's normal. But I think there's a whole bunch. There's a whole bunch of it. I think what people are surprised by depends on what their own like background is, and there's definitely a set of people that I'm far younger and less formal looking than they expect. There's a whole bunch of them are like, I've literally had somebody asked me on an event What do you do here? And I went on the CTO on they literally went. But you're a girl. And I looked down an went Yes. Their reaction wasn't to be like that was a stupid thing to say I should reel myself in it was to try to test me on whether I understood technical things well enough to be the CTO. So they went. so how big's the server that this a major retailers with website runs on, I was like it's not one server, it's an entire data centre. It's 10 million quid's worth of kit. And they didn't even like they were not themselves technical enough to really understand some of the answers I was giving them. So they kept trying to, like, catch me out. But they just weren't actually technical enough to understand the questions they were asking, let alone the answers are like, why these were not smart questions to ask. It was a very entertaining. It was very entertaining, So yeah, I think what people. It's a long way of saying like I think I've surprised different people in different ways. It depends on what their background and expectations are.
Amy - I mean, I think I'm most impressed that you're still laughing about that story. I'm not sure, I'm not sure I'd be able to laugh at that one.
Meri - I think I tweeted about it as it was happening because it was so funny to me, I think like I just again it's the sort of best and worst thing I've had such worse things happen to me than that because of where I grew up. And, you know, I joke about being the one the Daily Mail warned you about, right? I'm like a woman with working and I'm an immigrant on top, which I think is worse than living off the state. But I've got to check the headlines regularly, to be sure, and I'm, you know, I've got a disability. And I'm neurodiverse and I'm queer and my wife is British. I'm literally over here stealing your women and your jobs, right? So, like in all of those things, there's a whole bunch of other shit. People hate me for a lot more than the fact that I'm the CTO who happens to be a woman, right? Like I've been attacked in the street before, I've had a lot worse than somebody just like making a shit assumption. And so anything that's that mild, I tend to just laugh it off like I get really angry if it happens to somebody else and I realised, especially with a friend of mine who's a person of colour who he got a lot more enraged about, hearing that I'd had homophobic slurs used against me at work. And I got a lot more angry about hearing that he somebody had used the n word to him at work and, like we were both furious on each other's behalf and, like, properly willing to go to war really, ready for fisticuffs kind of thing on each others behalf. But actually for ourselves, we're just like, yeah, actually, you know, it wasn't physical violence, so it doesn't really meet the bar to be worried about, which is a sad state of affairs, I suppose. But it's kind of interesting how, like your your your bar for what you will personally tolerate and your bar for what you will accept happening to somebody else is sometimes very very different.
Amy - Yeah, well, so it's like, no you know that's amazing it's just we've got lots more to get through. So one thing we really want to talk about is you mentor so many CTOs and other people as well, but particularly like a number of CTOs in the industry. What are the common themes that people need mentoring on?
Meri - Um, for CTOs, there's, um I've ended up coming up with a kind of model of what there's like different flavours of CTOs um or there's different skill sets CTOs need to have in different kind of variations. And so pretty much everybody It's one of these things so if there's if there's broadly kind of four flavours of skillset that they're deep technical. And there's not many people who get to CTO in any kind of reasonable size place that is still hands on keyboard like Keeper of the Algorithm, they tend to end up in a kind of chief architect or chief science officer is what some places call it, whatever that is but like that, there's some folks who're just having that depth of technical expertise, but there's there's not many folks who get to a CTO job without without having had that at some point in their in their career. And then the other three are basically like, ah, technical strategy, figuring out what the plan is, which things to build, which things to buy, how to take whatever probably messy, monolithy-looking thing that you've got today and move it to something that's more maintainable and more and, you know, possible to keep running in the future. Uhh bunch different like leading the organisation or the strategy, people management, leveling up as people manager The point where you get to having 10 reports is different to the point that you have 20. Different to the point. you first manage a manager, different to the point you first manage a director like there's just some differences along those parts on then the final strand is kind of, I tend to call it commerciality, but it's all the other stuff. It's all the general executive leader type stuff, and there's definitely a set of CTOs who got the sort of the more showing my hands, not sure that'll be useful, but like there's definitely people who are super comfortable in the deep tech. They are getting comfortable with strategy and their big problem is around leading a bigger organisation. They need help on how to do comms effectively how to convey a vision how to even have a vision like there's a whole bunch of that kind of stuff and that there's a set of CTOs who never do any of the commercial side. They're never an equal partner at the executive table, like helping come up with the company strategy or helping the total company to perform well. They're like they're the tech person and they only contribute to the tech stuff, I think that's, a career-limiting move. But for some folks, it's the thing that they want and so what people need the most help on kind of depends on where they are, if that's a kind of, rather than it's not like a continuum right they're different skill sets. It's more like a graphic equaliser like a bar chart and so, where what people need help on tends to be one of those categories. So either, like how to modernise because usually if it's deep tech, it's that they've fallen behind in what, like modern looks like and they've ended up in a world that's a bit too far behind for a bit too long or how to do technical strategy, or how to get people bought into doing often the hard or expensive thing that is essential to do but nobody wants to admit is really going to need to be done, or organisational strategy, including, like hiring, firing, developing people how to how to grow the team without breaking it. Or that kind of more commercial side of things, there there's some folks who just like they go to their first exec meeting, having been promoted to CTO and they're like they were going through a P&L. I don't really know what that is like, so and it's fair, like a lot of a lot of what's a bit weird about the tech career path is that we a lot of our a lot of what feel like promotions are actually career changes. Like if you're a senior engineer and you become a manager, you are now a very junior manager. You know none of your past experience has really prepared you for the management role that you're now in, right. You're almost kind of moving sideways them down a little bit, and starting over with a new skill set and the same thing can happen with that commercial skill set. Or if you've come from, like a Project Manager type background, you can suddenly get to a point where you're doing tech strategy, but you haven't ever actually done any of the deep tech stuff. And so you start to worry about whether you're able to set the right strategy without having been hands on keyboard, which you totally can. But you need a strong partnership with a really good senior engineer, or principal architect or somebody who's going to be like, Yes, your mental model is correct and therefore this is a perfectly sound idea or you keep saying that word, I don't think it means what you think it means and we should talk about that before you take this down for the board. You need to have that relationship with someone in order to be comfortable.
Aaron - I love the fact that you called out the career change bit as well because, well, because for me, you know, I mean and many other people have gone to that experience moving, even moving from like a developer to tech lead and engineering manager like it's a completely different job, but no one tells you it's a different job until it's too late. Until you're there, you're doing it and you say you're trying to learn rapidly and your at the beginning of a brand new career
Meri - and something about you that you can't admit that you need help, Which doesn't fucking help either. Yeah,
Aaron - exactly. you've got to pretend you actually know what you're doing when you 100% don't. I want to get back to this we spoke about the fact that you're a very visible CTO in industry. I think it's something that comes along with that I've noticed from knowing you for quite a while now is that you're also incredibly well connected. As part of that, you have this incredible network of people you presumably can lean on as like peers for advice and guidance and often give guidance to as well, I imagine I'm really interested in two things. One, how you built that network over time, but two, the other bit is how do you maintain it now it's so big as well and you know so many incredible people.
Meri - So the worst named training course I ever went on which this does answer your question, I promise, was called Sex at Work, and literally somebody rolled that out to a company that I had 100,000 employees. They rolled out a training course called sex at work. They later renamed it to, like, I don't know what was it called, like gender essentials on something like this anyway. But it was It was eventually a course, about like, how how men and women operated differently and like that, it was that this was relevant in the workplace. This is this is a while ago now. Okay? So 20 years ago, I still wouldn't forgive it for what it was called originally, but but yeah, and one of the one of the and a lot of it was terrible, and a lot of it was, like very binary about gender. There were only two genders and all, and it was very stereotyping. A whole bunch of it was bullshit but there were a couple of useful things. One of them was like one of the things that I said was, unless men hear something as an order, they think it's optional. But if you want, it is not okay to give women orders, particularly if you are a woman asking another woman to do something you have to ask and you have to, It has to be okay for them to say no um and that that led to a lot of frustration, but the other part was that basically a thing that said a lot of a lot of women feel like they have to constantly maintain a relationship in order to, ever be able to ask for anything or or even provide help. So, you know, if they feel like the moment they've missed that monthly catch up, the relationship is dead. You know they either have to make a big deal and fix it and then never miss that monthly catch up again or they can, you know it's done now they can never ask for help again. Where as like the sort of stereotype of the guy's behaviour is like the person that they haven't seen since freshman, You know, the first week of university. They'll ring up 15 years later and be like, Hey, buddy, I just need a quick favour and just ask anyway, right? And I I think because I had had the expensive of coming over to this country 20 years ago now, time is a weird and strange thing, but I go home and my best friends. If it's been five years, it feels like it's been five minutes and we are just like the minute we're back in the room together or back on a video call together or whatever. It's like no, like we've got a lot to talk about because time has passed, but it's like nothing is different. And I suppose I realised that if I if I have that relationship with friends from back home and I've moved a lot in my life, I kind of I left home at 13 and I I went to a state boarding school, which is a thing that I don't think exists here. It's ah, it's a little bit of a weird concept people and uh I left the country at 18 and then I left again and moved to a different part of the UK and then again, and it's like I've kind of started over again a number of times, and but I have have a bunch of people who are okay that we don't talk every week or every month, or whatever. But I'm back in the country and I'm like, Hey, I'm gonna be there in a month. You want to hang out and it's great when we do. And so I suppose I have taken an approach of just going.I don't have to have a hugely actively maintained relationship with everybody. It could be fine to not see someone for five years, and I'm gonna be totally okay if they then reach up me like I got a big career decision to make can I just get your advice about it on? I'm always fine if they do that. I'd never react badly to someone doing that. And I'm I'm not perfect at it yet. But I then try to convince myself that if I have a question like that, if I wouldn't react badly to it, maybe they won't either. So there's a couple of folks who I would, you know, if you made me write down my list of mentors there's people on that list who I might not have talked to in four or five years now, but the minute we talk again, it will be like no time has passed and they totally wouldn't mind if I do reach out. And I'm just like, hey, so I'm deciding between this job and this job, and I just I feel like you're gonna have a great bit of perspective for me. Can we talk about it and if they call me up are like, people keep saying Blockchain and I don't know if it's bullshit or not, Can I just Can you explain it to me? It's usually bullshit. Almost every database it doesn't need to be Blockchain like. Stop pitching VCs on your blockchain thing that doesn't need to fucking blockchain I'm sorry you can edit that out
It's staying in.
Meri - blockchain is just a solution looking for a problem 95% of the time. The answer to the second part of which, like, how do I maintain it, which is kind of I don't. But I'm OK with not doing that and very kind of I'll catch up with people when I see them, and it's cool when I do, and it's fine if we're not in touch regularly and like I mean very bluntly, both of you have called me up, having not seen me in a bit and gone like I'm facing up to, like choosing what new job to do can we chat? Like, yeah, that's it every time, right and sometimes convince you to come work for me, sometimes don't. it's a Lara Hogan talks about that a bit like about being someone's forever manager like they, sometimes you can be a better mentor to somebody when you're not their line manager. Like when you used to be their line manager. You know them quite well. You can probably give good advice even without gaining lots of new context, because you have had a sufficiently strong understanding of them that you're like, not starting from zero. But sometimes being a bit more distant makes you more useful as a mentor than you would be otherwise. And then I try to be good about also knowing when I'm, like, not gonna be a useful mentor. I'm not, I'm not gonna have good advice because I don't have the right experience or would have to learn so much about the situation. And so, like I think I think I try to do. But I'm not always great at is like switching into coaching, right, so that when I think somebody's got the best answer within them to switch into asking questions rather than giving advice, in terms of like the making the network in the first place. Some of it's just about this thing of having moved around a lot. I think I just I'm quite friendly and so I do get to know lots of people in whatever company I join or city I move to or whatever else. And so I'm quite good at that. I'm quite bad at faces. I'm fairly face blind. And so I'm a bit better than like I will write notes down or when people still used business cards a lot. I'd like somebody to move this gun. I'd be immediately scribbling on the back the back of it, so I'd have some way of remembering who they were when I'd met 50 more people that day. And so, like, I quite I know nobody likes LinkedIn, and it's terribly like passe of me to say that I do. But I quite like that there's someone's face and name and usually Twitter account. I'm like, Ah, the three bits of information I need to triangulate who the fuck somebody is in one place so that's the other side of it I suppose, like happened with people. I'm also now much happier, like admitting that I'm terrible, at facial recognition and so, like you've probably see like before LeadDev now I'm just like everybody. please, just forgive me if I look blank when you say hi I probably do remember who you are. I'm just not good at connecting that information with your face like that is what and so, it's great cos a load of people have now. I mean, it's hilarious when somebody who I do know really well and would not like mistake in a crowd like that goes, You might not remember me we worked together for like eleven years and I'm like, no, I remember you. I mean, neither of you ever has to be like, Hi, You probably don't remember my face, but this is who I am But now but now people who are kind of like on the border of that they'll somehow be like Hi. So we did work together for three years. But you may not remember who I am and, like, tried and I'm like thank you. I really appreciate that you read my thing about face blindness and you're acting this, but it's kind of weird. It's cool. We're hugging now. Although in a post-Covid reality I don't think that I can be hugging people anymore feels like that's like it's like it's a personal attack. If you If you hug people by default now, right, it's endangering people. It's not cool,
Amy - it's not cool. You can't even get near them like yeah, no hugging.
Meri - I'm trying to popularise like jazz hands from two metres away. Like as a greeting.
Amy - Unfortunately, we're running out of time before we go. We just have four quickfire questions for you. Meri. So we ask all of our humans plus tech podcast guests, these questions. So no pressure. What is your top book recommendation?
Meri - Um, Talent Is Overrated. Is a really, really, really worthwhile book to read. It's a little dry, but it changed how I managed people in a really significant way.
mm Good recommendation. Did you read that one Aaron?
Aaron - Yeah, I loved it. I gave a, conference talk. Where that really inspired a bunch of content, yeah, incredible. Definitely read it.
Amy - Um, And what or who is your number one tip for keeping up with the industry?
Meri - Um, Alice Goldfuss is who I probably learned the most from both about, like, sourdough and pot plants. And she has plants that eat things like carnivorous plants, but also like whatever Alice cares about in terms of the, um, like operations of databases or anything like that. Like I she's usually six or seven months ahead of where I need to care. But that's why she's great to follow because the things that she's concerning yourself with. I'm like, Yes, I'm gonna have to care about this soon. I should pay attention.
Amy - Uh, that's great. So who inspires you?
Meri - I think a lot of people inspire me that that's that whole thing about, like having lots of mentors in in particular, like people, I draw a lot of inspiration from Lara Hogan, Camille Fournier, Jeanette Trapani, Jesse Link, ho leads Twitter in London, um, Maria Gutierrez over at Intercom these days. Marta Jasinska, who we've both worked with before Amy at MOO and then there's a, they all tend to be the sort of manager side of things. There are a bunch of ICs as well, who I do follow to be more kind of in their particular area. Oh, and Eileen Burbage as well this Passion Capital VC and like the original investor for Monzo who ironically like, she's one of the people who I often, she's who I ring up and go,hey like I think I'm moving jobs and I just want to sanity check that the choice I might be making with you. And she's always fantastic about just being like it's cool, like we don't have to hang out. We're both super busy. She's the busiest person I know. She I'm pretty sure I've seen her with a BlackBerry in one hand and an iPhone in the other, actually texting on both of the same type like she's that level of busy I do not know how she handles the life that she got she's got like an entire football team's worth of children as well, it's it's absolutely ridiculous, I don't know what sport they're gonna be great at it, but she doesn't have 11, it's 5 but anyway it's way more children than most sports require is what I'm saying on, but yeah she's busiest person I know, but she's fantastic of being like if what you need is half an hour to go like I don't know whether I should take this job on that job, but I'm freaking out a little bit. She'll always find that half an hour, our for me and I really appreciate it. And in the same way, there's there's been times when I've gotten to pay that back or pay that forward by helping her with other people she needs helping. So she's she's someone I really, really, really rate.
Amy - Amazing. And so then Meri, what's the most ridiculous thing about you?
Meri - Um, I don't know. There's plenty of things other people think are ridiculous about me that I don't think a particularly weird. The one, the one that you know already because I tell it is a joke sometimes is I am, I soldered it something that went into space when I was a teenager. I built part of a satellite. So basically, I peeked at 16. I could never be as cool as like the nerdy 16 year old was and it's all been fucking downhill since then is probably one of the most ridiculous things about me.
Meri - I feel like a lot of me is ridiculous. I don't know what the right answer is. What would, you two know me? What would you have said the most ridiculous thing about me is.
Aaron - Should we be asking, What's the most unridiculous? The most normal thing about you?
Meri - The most normal things about me? I don't know. I'm seriously asking that. What would you have said is the most ridiculous thing about me. I want to know.
Amy - I think I'm gonna go for your T shirts because I think I've been genuinely quite surprised by more than one of them.
Aaron - Yeah, 100%. Same for me t-shirt collection as, when I went to Google Image Search to find a picture of you to draw the doodle it's just like amazing t-shirt after amazing T-shirt
Meri - That is that the thing that surprises a lot of people about me is the whole T shirt thing is totally a recent thing. So when I worked at P&G, which was like 10 years, I don't even own jeans because I was just in business casual the whole time. And so I was in, like, shirts and ties sometimes, but usually just like a collered shirt and slacks. And I literally didn't own jeans for about 10 years because I just didn't ever get to wear them. and then when I went to work at the Government Digital Service, which is the first job I had after and before nobody in London knew me, I didn't I'd had been up in Newcastle. I'd been to like, a couple of BarCamp London's. Maybe so, but I really, really was not well known in London at all. Back in 2012 I've only been around for eight years. Um, yeah, that was like I could, like, actually choose what clothes I wear, but I'm like autistic enough that I basically wear uniforms. I'm not good, with lots of different textures and stuff so I usually have, like a whole set, a whole cupboard full of the same colour jeans and then a whole bunch of very different T shirts it fools people into thinking that I like wear different things actually just the same thing every day. It's just different. It's just different instances. It's the same car, right? It's like, object oriented programming. It's just that the, for instance, with the different colour and a different thing on it. But like a whole bunch of people were really like they see photos of me from in the before time and they're like, But that doesn't even look like you. Yeah, I know somebody once did a mood board for the Government Digital Service, and there was a guy called Mark Stanley who's fantastic but like was a qualified lawyer and wore like a three piece suit and an actual bowler hat and his version of like dress down Friday was he would wear actual blue suede shoes. They were very cool. He, also once went to a meeting with a particular minister, he was not a fan of wearing cock and balls cufflinks, which I always admired him for he was not very pro LGBT Rights so I thought it was a very fair minor protest on his part. But somebody wants to the mood board which actually had him in his full like, three piece suit and me wearing a T shirt that said intellectual hooligan on it and apparently the summary of these two things that was what GDS culture was like.
Amy - Ah brilliant, and finally then Meri, where can people find out more about you?
Meri - @geek_manager on Twitter is the gateway to all of the various locations on the Internet and I think I'm the same on Instagram. And I have ah, separated Instagram specifically for meat which is at meat leader on the on instagram.
Amy - Fantastic. So we'll be sharing all of the links and books and things you've referenced in the show notes, of course, along with the all-important doodle as well
Meri - I want a t shirt with cats and lasers on it. I feel like this is the missing element of my collection that...
can also make it with your brand new doodle, right, Which is obviously what we've all been waiting for as well,
I was going to say Meri, you know, like, I'm not saying that it should be your new Twitter profile picture. I'm just saying it could be
Amy - Meri, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It's been amazing.
Aaron - Thanks so much. Meri.
Meri - Thanks for having me.
Amy - We'll be sharing all the links and show notes, plus the all important doodle over on our website. HumansPlus.Tech. I'm Amy Phillips. This is Aaron Randall and you've been listening to the Humans+Tech podcast.
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