The Balderton Collective CTO Summit: Bringing 100 CTOs together online

CTOs are one of the most crucial cogs in any successful technological company.

The role varies significantly along a company's journey - from writing down the first lines of code of a V0 product, through to hiring the best engineers and to becoming the manager and global leader of the technical organisation. While we do as much as we can to support them and help them to find answers to technical or management challenges, there is no better advisor to a CTO than another CTO — particularly a CTO slightly further along in a company’s growth journey.

For that reason, here at Balderton, we maintain a number of forums where our portfolio functional leads (CEOs, marketing, legal, finance, talent, product, sales) can engage in open discussion with their peers and share experiences.

Earlier this year, one topic bubbled quickly to the top of the CTO forum— the merits of different engineering team structures at different startup stages. This lively thread motivated us to gather all our portfolio CTOs together, in one place - and the Balderton Collective CTO Summit was born.

With the COVID crisis locking everyone down at home, we decided to switch to a virtual event on Hopin, a videoconferencing platform which recreates the real-life talks and interactions which happen in a physical event: attending a talk on the main stage, joining a workshop with a small group or even recreating the serendipity of random meetings with a fun Chatroulette-like feature.

On May 5th, 99 CTOs from across 15 countries and 6 time zones virtually met up. They are technical executives at portfolio companies including GoCardless and Contentful but also major technology successes like Datadog and Eventbrite.

Fireside Chat with Alexis Lê-Quôc, co-founder and CTO at Datadog

We opened up the summit with a fireside chat between our general partner Suranga Chandratillake (himself a former CTO at Autonomy and co-founder at Blinkx) and Alexis Lê-Quôc, co-founder and CTO at Datadog, one of the biggest 2019 IPO on NASDAQ.

Today, Datadog is the global leader of cloud monitoring of infrastructures and applications. It counts 1700+ employees spread over 34 offices and had a market capitalization of $21b in May 2020, up 92% from the beginning of 2020 despite the COVID crisis.

Alexis Lê-Quôc, co-founder & CTO at Datadog

Datadog’s Strategic Differentiation

Alexis opened by telling us about the 3 strategic and technical bets which transformed Datadog's destiny:

  1. An early bet on cloud computing’s uptake. Timing can make or break a company’s path to success. Launch too early, you might not get customer’ adoption and you miss the product-market fit. Too late and you already have more advanced competitors ready to crush you. In Datadog’s case, timing was perfect. In 2010, cloud computing was still in its infancy, and was still mainly used by fairly technical startups. Datadog boldly designed the entire product stack on the Cloud, and on the promise that the shift from on-premise to cloud would require a complete change of infrastructure monitoring. It’s also worth pointing out that, Alexis’s prediction back then was that the abstraction of the DevOps work would only take a few years to happen. However, 10 years later, we are only just getting to that point with the progressive uptake of serverless.
  2. Going head-to-head with monitoring incumbents: IT infrastructure Monitoring was already a crowded market in 2010 with incumbents like IBM and many Open Source solutions. During the first years of business, Datadog avoided going head-to-head with those massive incumbents, by using different mission taglines and trying to be more of a “passive” real-time unified data platform. It was when the Datadog founders realized Datadog was actually the ‘fireman’ who wakes CTOs up in the middle of the night, helping him to actively solve critical technical issues, that customers became more sticky and the business really took off.
  3. Aligning developers and IT operators together on one unique platform: back to 2010, you still had developers shipping code locally on their machines on one side, and IT operators adapting that code to run it in production on the other side. These two worlds were essentially in an antagonistic relationship and did not always understand one other. Datadog set out to reconcile both worlds by aligning everyone on the same machine performance and availability metrics. The company clearly established ownership perimeters between developers and DevOps. And with that new collaborative relationships, developers began to better understand how IT worked, and vice versa.

CTO Breakout Discussion Groups

We then had multiple breakout sessions of small CTO groups, designed to provide forums for discussing common challenges faced by technical leaders.

A few of the sessions available at the Balderton Collective CTO Summit

Topics discussed included:

  • Learnings from 5 years of true continuous deployment by Per Mellqvist, CTO at Funnel
  • How to educate engineers on management by Vicky Wills, Director of Engineering at Zego
  • How to build a strong developer brand for attracting talents by Jane Silber, ex-CEO at Canonical
  • How to manage a distributed teams by Rian Liebenberg, CTO at Kobalt
  • OKRs implemented for engineering teams by Robert Salesas, CTO at Aircall
  • How to build and manage an open-source project with a strong community by Emile Vauge, CEO at Containo.us
  • How to think about cybersecurity from the early days by Dave Palmer, Director of Technology at Darktrace
  • Best practices to create, build and scale your API by Paolo Negri, CTO at Contentful
  • Building a remote team from Day 1 by Frédéric Plais, CEO at Platform.sh
  • Building and fostering product-focused engineering teams by Ed Bishop, CTO at Tessian
  • Scaling your engineering organization from 3 to 300 by Neil Turner, CTO at GoCardless.

I had the chance to attend the session led by Neil Turner, CTO at GoCardless. Neil has scaled the GoCardless engineering organisation to over 300 people. He gave us very practical tips on how to identify when it’s the right time to change the organisational structure as startups scaled:

  • When your lead engineers start having too many people reporting to them and are forced to spend 80% of their time in management, it is generally a good sign it is time to change. Ideally, a lead engineer should not directly manage more than 5-6 people.
  • When an engineer can represent a single point of failure. If you remove anyone from the organisation overnight, without a soft transitioning, your company should be standing up without encountering critical issues. It if is not the case, then it means you should establish more redundancy across the organisation. Nobody should be irreplaceable.
  • In a similar way, if onboarding a new developer on the code repository takes over 6 months, it means it has become too complex and needs to be reorganised in a more simple and documented way.
  • Up to 80 engineers, everyone should recall every name. Otherwise, there is a communication problem and you need a new format.

Online events — a few key learnings

Finally, we thought it would be helpful to share a few learnings from organising a remote event. Remote events might not suit every use case but I predict they could represent a great alternative for a number of physical events.

  • As you remove the travelling burden, it’s easier to convince great people to attend and speak. You can hope to attract very high profiles as they won’t need to spend as much time as for a physical event and will get an even bigger audience.
  • People can join easily but they will churn almost immediately if the content does not fit their purpose. For one-to-many interactions like talks or panels, you need to keep the format short (<45 minutes) and very concrete. Save time for a Q&A in the end, and use the chat and polls features to keep the sessions very interactive.
  • Most interactions should happen in small group sessions (<10 people) where everyone can actively get involved with video on. In remote events, you don’t have physical and logistics constraints, so don’t hesitate to organise a lot of breakout sessions with specific topics.
  • Save some time for networking and serendipity. Creating conditions where people can bond is probably the hardest challenge in a remote event. Arguably this is the same problem as for any video conference interactions. So it’s important to create opportunities for people to meet randomly. Hopin’s Networking feature (a ‘chat roulette’ style feature which randomly pairs with other attendees) is a good example of how to do this.

Thank you again to all of our guests and speakers. We were delighted to host the event and we hope it provided our CTOs with some actionable tips and some long-standing relationships. We will try to keep the CTO collective running every year. We promise next year it will happen in person 😉

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