i am as proud of what we do as of what we don't do - steve jobs quote

Jobs what we dont do quote Understanding Company Strategy   New Tech Leader Series(Note: This post is part of a series for new technical leaders that are joining a new company, or taking over a new organization or team; and while written for new CTOs, VPs of Engineering, or Software Managers, could be applied to other technical positions.  This is also written largely for smaller to mid-size teams with a bend towards startups.)

The very first thing you need to do in a leadership role is understand the goals of the company and the way your organization fits into that strategy.

Here are some steps to get you started:

  •  Review past board decks, or other company strategy material (including fund-raising decks, etc).  These are all great clues to the higher-level vision and the evolution.  Understand the current plan is important, but hearing or learning about past ideas (including paths not taken) can be insightful and help steer you in the right direction.
  • Understand the company metrics.  How is the company measuring progress against the goals?  Is it revenue, number of customers, volume of transactions, etc.?  How are these measurements collected and reported?  Are they shared with the rest of the company (if not, making them more visible is a great way to add value early on aligning the team on the right goals and areas of focus)?  Once you understand the overall company’s metrics, now look within your team, how are you tracking the performance of the technology?  At a minimum you should have some basic metrics around uptime and site performance (I like to include peak or worst case, in addition to average when it comes to performance).
  • Product.  In order to meet the company goals it is important to understand how the product has been built and what plans exist for advancing it in the future.  Hopefully there is a product roadmap or plan you can review (if not, then that is a great place to start to add value).  How was the product roadmap created?  What is the process in place for incorporating and adding new ideas? Is the product driven by one or few member(s) in the organization, or does the team feel heard and the plan determined by consensus, or is it completely ad hoc?  In order to effectively led any technology organization getting a firm grasp on what you are building is key to successful execution.  Also it is likely you will have opinions or adjustments to the plan, so understanding or establishing a process for review is prudent so that forum will exist when you need it.
  • Understand the past.  Take time to really understand what new features and functionality have been released and how those updates went.  Is there any supported software that isn’t working as expected in production (generating customer pain or operational issues)?  Have there been ideas that were tried and then failed for one reason or another (and are they worth revisiting or avoiding)?  How long did features take, is it longer or shorter than you would have expected?
  • Understand the market and competition.  If there is a competitive analysis somewhere then you can start by reviewing the research that has already been done.  If one doesn’t exist, try asking around to the team – who are the competitors, are any of them worth being concerned over?  Then take the time to look at the competing products, what do they do well and different from your product?  Make sure you do some research on the developments and advancements in the space.  Set google alerts for competitors and other relevant terms so you can keep an eye on the landscape.
  • How are customers treated?  No matter what business you are in, at some level of the organization you have customers to which you are providing a service.  When a customer has an issue how are their requests and feedback collected and reported?  It is critical you understand the customer experience, and not just by using the product yourself, but through listening to your customers.  This means you have to shorten the feedback loop so you have real insights into customer issues and opinions on a regular basis
  • What is the company culture? Are there any established corporate values? Do the people on the team know the values and embody them in their work? It is important to understand the way people work and how they conduct themselves. If the values and attitudes of the work force don’t align then that is an important conversation to have with your management and peers. I am sure you have some ideas on what culture you want to set for your team, ask yourself is it in line with the company values or different? Once you have a handle on the current culture, and where you want it to be, then it is a matter of how to execute it.

During your first few weeks it helps to establish a game plan to understand and make progress towards each of these objectives. Some of these you can even tackle before your first day (like competitive analysis and familiarity with past press and launches).  This should give you a high level overview of the state of things and help align your first steps with the overall corporate objectives.

Other ideas?  Have you done something differently that worked well? Please leave them in the comments – I am always looking for ways to improve.

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