In the first ever CTO on our Doorstep, Information Age speaks to Johan den Haan, CTO of Mendix.
Mendix is a digital transformation enabler platform that helps businesses to build web and mobile applications without the need to code – what’s called low-code development. It has four locations around the world, with one based in London, just 15 minutes from our office.
In Information Age’s pursuit of understanding the great variety of chief technology officers that work for technology-led companies in and around our area, we have embarked on a mission to find out what type of CTOs are here, what it takes for them to succeed and what challenges they face.
‘A product strategy and product engineering CTO’
Despite having the same job title. The role of the CTO is quite different in different organisations.
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In Haan’s case, he is the CTO of what he called a fast growing company, which was “rather small a couple of years ago”.
“I’m responsible for both product strategy as well as product engineering. You could say I am a combination of an externally-oriented CTO and a VP of engineering.”
‘Team building’ is key
CTO’s need to have a technical background and the vision to drive the direction of the product, explained Haan. On top of this, they should have a feel for the market, “because it’s not just about what you have as a vision, but it should align with the needs of your customers”.
“In addition to that, it’s also important – in my view – for CTOs to drive product engineering, not just provide a vision.”
This comes down to the crucial skill of agile team building and driving an engineering culture, which is an important aspect of the job for the CTO.
“That’s an often overlooked quality, but in my mind, if you can only talk about vision and not execute it there’s not a lot you add. You should be able to execute your vision, and be able to build an agile team to help you with that. There should be an inherit appreciation for team building and culture within a successful CTO.”
A change in focus
The CTO’s role is evolving from being purely responsible for the technology in an organisation, to a position that is responsible for a business’ organisational structure.
“I think there has been a shift in my role, from focusing purely on technology to organisational structure and the execution of vision – the building out of the IT engineering structure.”
“We need to realise as CTOs that system architecture follows your social or organisational structure,” confirmed Haan. “I believe in that building the right architecture means designing your organisational structure in the right way.”
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“Having a network where you can influence the architecture by designing your organisation’s structure is now one of my focuses. Before, I was just focused on technology, but now a new focus or challenge for me is to build the right teams and design the right structure and architecture so that I have the right skills and processes for the needs of the organisation.”
This is an interesting observation in the changing role of the CTO that has happened in practice again and again at different, forward thinking and agile organisations.
In terms of big challenges or changes the CTO, it’s finding the right people to build out that organisation structure and to have autonomous teams to effectively execute on product strategy.
‘Pioneers, settlers and town planners’
More CTOs will face the challenge of quick experimentation in the current age.
“It’s now not about building a big vision and then having three years to execute it, it’s about thinking, validating and testing, all in a couple of weeks.”
It’s now much more about building quick, agile teams to experiment, identify a potential product for the market and move it to the next stage. This idea of experimentation is becoming the most the important thing, and it’s not just about adopting new technology and outlooks.
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“I believe a lot of this experimentation structure is based around ‘pioneers, settlers and town planners’,” said Haan.
The pioneering teams experiment, the settlers look at all these experiments and identify those that can be productised, put in the market and generate revenue, and the town planners are the teams that are really driving long-term maintainability, scalability and efficiency of an organisation.
“I see that change in pace, strategy and structure being an evolution of the CTO role from an organisation perspective.”
Information Age is on a journey to meet the different chief technology officers who have offices in and around our base in Old Street; what defines their role, what it takes for them to succeed, what challenges do they typically face and more