CTO Q&A: Interviewing 400 Engineering Leaders, Building Inclusive Teams, Collecting Sneakers and More

October 7, 2020

We’re excited to have Joe Pettersson as our featured guest on Lohika Re:think. 

Lohika Re:think is a virtual event series of thought-provoking conversations with visionary leaders, with a goal to uncover and develop actionable ways to help transform teams, products, organizations and culture to build the next new Big Thing.

Register on our event page, then join us on October 14, 2020 at 11am PT. Watch a short video from Joe about the virtual event:

I interviewed Joe to learn more about his background, his company and a particular hobby he has. The following interview was conducted via email.

Tell us about Banked?

Banked is building a brand new payment network; one that isn’t based on little bits of plastic you carry round in your pocket. We’re doing it by enabling people to directly pay with their digital bank account. We initially launched in the UK and have quickly expanded our coverage across Europe.

We want to enable anyone in the world to pay this way — for example, we just started working on a new partnership in Africa. 

It’s a great deal for merchants, who are our primary customers. Banked can reduce a merchant’s payment processing costs by nearly 90% and they get access to their money in minutes (rather than 3-30 days, with card payments). 

Also, because our payments are built on your bank’s existing strong authentication (face or fingerprint scans, for example), we reduce fraud by ~96%, compared to cards.

Our main focus is on enhancing the end-consumer experience, helping merchants reduce the friction of taking payments for their businesses. 

We offer a really compelling set of rewards for consumers (we recently signed an exclusive deal to distribute Avios and offer direct cash-back on purchases, for example) and there’s a lot more coming down the pipeline that we’ll be launching with the end-consumer in mind. 

I’m the CTO at Banked, so I lead our technology and product. It’s an amazing team that I’m super proud to be working with.

How has your team adapted to shelter-in-place and remote work?

Banked’s in a fortunate position with remote working. Before COVID struck, we were already partially remote, only being in the office one or two days a week. Our plan was always to enable fully distributed working for anyone in the team and COVID has accelerated that journey for us.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing however. 

Building a team culture in a rapidly growing business is always challenging and when you mix in having to do it remotely (and the pretty extreme stresses and environment we’re all operating in) it becomes really hard. I can say confidently the major factor in our success up to this point has been our people, they’ve been consistently extraordinary over the last 6 months.

How have you worked with Lohika?

I’ve worked with Lohika on a number of occasions, during my time at McKinsey & Company and QuantumBlack, both helping us supplement our teams when we were growing quickly and working directly with our clients. I’ve built some great trusting relationships with the folks at Lohika, and I’ve never been let down.

Lohika has always delivered.

I always worry about the impact an external organization might have when working alongside internal engineering teams, but my experience is that it’s never been a problem with Lohika.

There’s always been a great relationship when working together.

My high bar for external engineering is them telling me (or my team) when we’re wrong. You want a real partner who will stand up and help you deliver, not one who will nod and go along with bad decisions when you (inevitably) make them.

You want to take advantage of the team’s experience.

Tell us about the book you’re writing?

I’m a voracious reader of technical and management books, particularly those that help and coach engineering leaders. Almost by their very nature, they tend to lean towards the personal narrative, (e.g., “This is what’s worked for me”) which is incredibly valuable, but I’ve always wanted something that gave a broader view.

So over the last twelve months I’ve surveyed and interviewed 400 engineering leaders (from team leads to CTOs and VPs) at a wide variety of different organizations (e.g., from tiny startups to household name tech companies). 

I’m using this data to write the book I’ve wanted to read for years. To extract data and lessons learned from a huge variety of different people and problems.

There are some fascinating insights emerging, from ones you might expect (e.g., more diverse and inclusive teams consistently outperform those that are less diverse and inclusive) to ones that might surprise (e.g., outside changes to how engineers perceive their own productivity is one of the main reasons why they leave fast growing startups).

I’m hoping to have the final draft complete in Q2 2021, but COVID and the world feeling like it’s on fire might interfere with my deadlines!

How do you ensure you’re being inclusive with your team?

It starts with openly recognizing the privileges and advantages that exist in society and taking the time to examine our own structural biases and prejudices. Society conditions us to treat people of color differently, to internalize misogyny and gender or sexual identity. Without giving people the tools and support to work through this internalized prejudice, we won’t begin to see structural change.

We also need to invest in communities, actively giving them equity and not just levelling the playing field. That means proactively hiring people from underrepresented groups and not hoping the problem will fix itself. 

It also means mentoring and promoting people, while also making sure that any processes you put in place (e.g., from CV screening to 360 reviews) are built to address structural disadvantage. 

We can’t simply place the burden on those from underrepresented or excluded groups, expecting them to educate the rest of us in order to drive change. We have to make the conscious decision as organizations, teams and individuals to invest in driving that change.

No one is perfect, but we can strive one day at a time towards being better and more inclusive leaders.

What’s the difference between an effective and ineffective engineering leader?

There’s a wide array of what leadership looks like in our industry, from an engineering lead on a single team, to a CTO leading a 5,000 person engineering organization. What makes each one of them effective as individuals obviously varies, but there are some commonalities across all ‘leaders’ that apply specifically to engineering:

  1. The ability to identify great people and nurture their talent. This is an empathetic skill that comes up again and again in the data
  2. The experience to know when to delegate (and how to do that effectively) and when to take ownership
  3. A drive and desire to see progress and push things forward. This is an innate ‘hunger’ that great leaders have, but it presents itself in lots of different ways

This isn’t everything a great engineering leader needs, or even the majority, but if you’ve strongly developed these capabilities it’ll make everything easier.

You’re an active angel and seed investor. Tell us about that?

There are people who can talk much more eloquently about tech in Europe than I can, but one thing that’s caught my eye recently is the impact COVID has had on the investor community.

At the beginning of lockdown when things were at their most volatile, investing all but dried up globally, not just in Europe. Investors kept their checkbooks closed for the first time in a long time. 

As the situation has clarified and investors have regained their confidence in markets, we’ve seen that change with a lot of checks being written at the moment; funds need to meet their ‘cash deployment’ targets! 

The interesting thing I’ve seen is with the return of investments, they have become even more concentrated in the areas where the cash is being deployed.

For example, fintech in Europe was always a huge gravitational pull for VC dollars, which has only increased and become more acute in the last few months. I’ve seen fewer deals being done in the consumer space in Europe than before. It hasn’t yet bounced back in the same way as some other sectors.

There’s also a lot of bullishness in Europe at the moment. I primarily invest at pre-seed or seed rounds and there’s a lot more people in the market willing to invest than there was twelve months ago. In particular, I’m seeing large (previously only growth stage funds) coming ‘down the rounds’ into seed. 

If you’re in fintech, it’s a great time to be raising money!

Tell us about your sneaker collection? Do you see any parallels between collecting sneakers and leading engineering teams?

I wish there were parallels, then I’d have a shot at expensing some sneakers! 

I thought about using sneakers as an analogy in my book, but after writing a few passages I realized there’s maybe six people on the planet who’d appreciate or get any value from the crossover.

I’ve been a pretty obsessive sneakerhead for as long as I can remember. 

A portion of Joe’s sneaker collection.

I have just over 100 pairs at the moment. When you cross into triple digits of shoes, a healthy, functional person takes a long hard look at themselves and addresses their life choices. I, uh, haven’t done that?

My favorites are a near-mint condition pair of Jordan 1 Chicago’s from 1985. 

They were the sneakers I remember most fondly as a kid, and I finally got to own a pair much later in life. Apart from my wife and my cat, they’re the one thing I think I’d take out of my burning house.