What is your name and job role / position and company?
Dan Zambonini, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Bipsync
Could you give us a brief overview of what your role entails and what you love about it and/or your company?
Typically the CTO directs the technical strategy of a company, but we’re lucky to have a team with incredibly skilled technical people who know more than I do about most things, so I largely focus on product development. As a growing company that builds a suite of software products for the enterprise (hedge funds), I essentially have to make sure that we’re developing the right product for our customers and our business.
There are many things I genuinely love about what I do and our company. I love that we get to spend years – hopefully decades – developing and evolving the same core products, so that we can really focus on the tiny details and make a special experience. It’s one of the ultimate rewards when your users notice the little things that you’ve spent time refining, and how it positively impacts their day-to-day work. I also like that we’re building a product that provides real commercial value to our customers, and that we get to charge accordingly, which gives us the ability to attract the very best people and continue to get better and better.
Could you give us a brief overview of a typical day?
We’re growing quite quickly, so the there really is no typical day right now. When I first started and there were only a few of us, of course I had to spend time designing and developing features, because everyone had to do whatever it took to get the core product developed and launched. But now we’re growing from 9 people to 27 people in the next few months – across two offices, in Cardiff and New York – so that changes everything.
Right now, for example, I spend a lot of time on recruitment – writing job descriptions, networking and meeting people who we’re interested in, arranging interviews, and organising the logistics for new starters. But at the same time, my top priorities will always remain the same three things forever – the existing team, the product, and our customers – so I have to also manage the product roadmap, help to deliver features, fix any problems that the team might have, and communicate with existing and potential customers when needed.
What would you say are the key skills required to be effective in your role?
- A broad understanding of the technologies that your product is built on.
- A “product thinking” mind set. You’ve got to really care about every part of product design that can affect the customers experience of using your product, including the aesthetic design, interaction design, microcopy, onboarding, support, and so on.
- Good communication skills, especially when it comes to translating the language of your customers to the product team, and vice versa. You’ve also got to be able to read between the lines of what your customers say they want and need, so that you can develop the right product.
- Good team building and managerial skills. Without a good team, your product and company will never succeed, so you’ve got to make sure that your team can do great work and that each person is happy with what they’re doing.
Tell us a little bit about your career progression. Where did you start out and how you developed into your current role?
I started learning HTML during my Astrophysics degree at Cardiff University during the mid 1990s. Even though it was in its infancy, it amazed me that you could use code (something I enjoyed) to easily produce something visual and creative, which was available to so many people.
Then I started a PhD, which involved a lot of data analysis. I hated the traditional programming language that had been used in my department for decades (FORTRAN), so I rebelled by learning Perl, which seemed easier to write and run. It turned out that Perl was also the primary language at the time for writing dynamic parts of websites (CGI), so I started tinkering with that too.
Then in my second year, I met someone in the business department, who had been asked by a friend to build a dynamic website, but he didn’t know how. That snowballed, we got too much work to do in our spare time, and eventually I decided to quit my PhD to pursue the business full time.
I grew that business (Box UK) for about ten years, but eventually left because I think there was a difference in what I wanted to pursue (software) versus what the other directors wanted (agency/consultancy work).
My (soon to be) wife and I then travelled the world for a year. I wrote a book based on my 10 years experience organically growing a web company, and we set up a small content strategy agency, which was a nascent term at the time – at one point we ranked first in Google for “content strategists”.
Towards the end of our year, Facebook offered my wife a great content strategy role, so we moved first to Vancouver while visas were arranged, and then to San Francisco and Palo Alto (Silicon Valley) for a couple of years. In Palo Alto I met a couple of MBA students at Stanford Business School who had an idea for a software company but didn’t know the technology (familiar story!). I was in the US on a non-working visa, so my wife and I moved back to the UK so that I could legally pursue the startup, and we set up an office in Cardiff. And here we are!
What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?
I don’t think there’s one thing. I’ve done some of them, am currently doing others, and have a long list of things still to do. Life’s too short to only have one goal! Learn a second language fluently. See the countries I haven’t seen. Take a company to IPO. Make a lasting improvement on the world somehow. Spend more time with animals. Write a hit song. Complete my Dieter Rams-era Braun collection.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge?
Prioritisation. There’s always too much to do, and I’m always questioning if I’m spending time on the most valuable/impactful task at any time. I probably spent too much energy worrying about it.
If you weren’t doing this role, what would you love to be doing?
Given my answer to question 6, it looks like I should probably be writing a multi-lingual app that procedurally generates soothing music for dogs that are anxious travellers.
Which brands do you think are getting it right in the digital space?
Because of what I do, I like brands that use their product as their primary marketing strategy. Slack are good at grabbing attention through little details and humour, which is incredibly hard to pull off well. Tesla are excellent at using customer service to drive word of mouth, as are Amazon. Although not a brand, I think that Gov.uk “got more right in the digital space” in the face of almost-certain failure than any other web project in the last decade.
Do you have any recommended books that have had a big influence on your career / business?
I’d recommend not reading any. I went through a period, a long time ago, of trying to read those Seth Godin books, and others of that ilk. But they all felt the same.
Those books have to selectively choose their research and present a controversial, one-sided argument to support their thesis. Readers want to see decisive, interesting titles, and that’s what sells books. But unfortunately a true book on business wouldn’t sound interesting, because business is so incredibly complicated, full of grey-areas and unique contexts that can’t be generalised into pithy advice.
I used to work with someone who, almost every month, would suggest some new craze at a business meeting depending on what book he’d read that month (“We must add TODAY to our company slogan, that word generated an extra billion dollars for Toyota!”).
I don’t think there are shortcuts. Learn by doing, and then succeeding or failing. Read short, concise, up-to-date answers on the web for specific topics and questions. Read multiple sources. Get your core knowledge and tactics right, and don’t try to implement grand strategies, at least until you’ve been through a few wars.
If you were a superhero who would you be and what would be your superpower?
“SuperCher”, with the power to turn back time, so I could go back and convince you not to ask this question.
What advice would you give those starting out in business now?
- A business is the sum of the people. Spend time building and keeping a great team.
- Details matter. Find a way to tackle the small problems as well as the larger ones that always seem more important.
- Start in a niche. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Start by solving a specific set of problems for a specific set of people – preferably in an industry you’re already familiar with.