Interview with a… Chief Technology Officer

This month, our series of behind-the-scenes job interviews looks at the technical side of digital communications. James Weir’s career has taken him from junior software engineer to software architect with Sun Microsystems, and now to CTO of UShareSoft, a software delivery and management company.

Find out the best/worst of what a CTO job involves and why developing your soft skills is as important as being a technical ace. You can also read more job Q&As in our ongoing Interview with a… series.

James Weir

What is your job title?

Chief technology officer and co-founder of UShareSoft.

Our mission is to build the best software platform to help other companies to deliver business-ready solutions and software stacks for the increasing number of cloud computing IaaS (infrastructure as a service) platforms, including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Microsoft Azure, VMware and OpenStack to name a few.

What does being a CTO involve?

The role of a CTO is pretty ill-defined in the industry. We’ll normally be described at best as “beard scratchers” or, at worst, “the technical founder who really can’t manage anyone”. Even though I have a beard, I try not to get sucked into this stereotype.

What does your daily work involve?

In a nutshell I own the company’s technology vision. Just like my CEO is responsible for coming up with a compelling business vision, I do the same but around technological goals that serve this business vision.

Removing all the fluff, the technical vision forms the company product portfolio and roadmap for all the engineering staff to use as a guide in their day-to-day work.

I also have a very outward-facing role, working closely with the field (sales and business development). I’m there to help explain complicated technology to people who are not necessarily technical. I also take important customer feedback and requirements – this serves as an interesting feedback loop back into our company roadmap.

What background/skills do you need?

A CTO really needs to have a technical background. However, you also need to be well rounded, with good soft skills being part of your artillery. This means being able to articulate well; have organisation and project management skills; and, to a lesser extent, managerial skills.

One of the most important things to remember is that a CTO is not necessarily the best engineer in the team.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

Seeing the big picture – but in graphic detail. I need to be able to know everything our technology can and can’t do. This includes things such as what the architecture can and can’t support; whether a particular customer use-case would work during a meeting with the customer; how long a new feature would take and what are the ramifications.

I’m also working in the cloud computing space, where the market is moving at a ferocious pace. I need to keep up with other technologies and how this affects our own technology. Is it competing? Is it something we could leverage or integrate with? And so on.

I heard once “…being able to see the macro and micro simultaneously is the hallmark of all the great technologists”. That’s something I am still working towards.

What is the best bit about being a CTO?

In recruiting some of the engineering staff, I get a chance to choose who to work with; choosing people who can also inspire you is extremely satisfying.

I consider myself as not being an excellent software engineer, just a decent one. I once heard the saying: “When leading a team, best to be the sheep among the lions, than the lion among the sheep.” This hits home to me on how you should try and build a team (unless lamb chops are on the menu). Being able to work with smart people and being inspired by their ideas is such a great experience. Helping others grow in their technical careers – becoming technical leaders and architects – is also very rewarding.

What is the rate of pay?

It’s a senior role so you can expect €70K-130K + bonus, but this is dependent on geography and business sector, as well as the number of years’ experience you have in the position.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into your area?

Having fantastic technical skills is great, but you will also need to ensure that you have good communication skills as you are going to be the guy/girl in the field.

Being able to explain a complex problem or technology in a simple way for other non-technical people is essential to being a CTO. So ensure that you grow these soft skills as well as your technical expertise.

James Weir has more than 18 years’ experience in the software industry. He started his career as junior software engineer in the UK before moving to France to work for Sun Microsystems “where I got to rub shoulders and work with some of the smartest guys in the industry”. From software architect with Sun, he left in 2008 to start his own company, UShareSoft. He can be found on Twitter @jamesgweir and LinkedIn:

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