Upstream Tech

Technology is a wondrous thing. We type on our keyboards and create things that impact people’s lives. A handful of talented engineers can move mountains. That’s precisely why I can’t help but cringe whenever I see another company where technology is too downstream. When the tech team and its leaders are not “brought into the fold,” you miss out on your ability to fully capitalize on tech’s promise. Life’s too short for that. You can and should turn it around. Let’s put tech upstream.

Here’s a story you’re not going to believe. I swear it’s true, though I was asked not to disclose names. The senior executive team at a successful and growing startup had a profound misconception. They viewed their tech team merely as an implementation detail. The CTO was not regularly taking part in strategic discussions. One day, the CTO was told that the company had formalized an agreement to acquire a smaller startup for its technology—without ever having been consulted!

I guess you can imagine how well that went. It turned out that the tech, while good, was significantly different than the company’s existing solutions and in a tech stack that would require considerable effort to integrate. The understanding that things were not going to work out easily freaked the acquired tech team, and many ended up leaving. The startup has spent the money, got virtually no new engineers, and, months later, has yet to incorporate the latest technology into its product. While this is obviously a rather extreme example, it is not that far off from how many other companies do themselves a disservice by placing tech too downstream.

Tech’s potential energy, like any potential energy really, depends on how upstream it is. To maximize its potential for positive impact on the company, technology cannot be an afterthought. If you allow yourself to be viewed as an executor and not an integral part of the company, everyone will lose out. You have to start pushing up.

Educate the Exec Team

First and foremost, the job of any tech executive is to ensure that the rest of the tech team views them as equal peers. That might be easier said than done, but when helping companies triple impact-per-engineer, I always start with the assumption that all the senior leaders are capable and open to changes. They simply need our help to envision how much better things could be and how to get there.

Establishing healthy relationships with the other executives in the company is key to your organization’s success. They have to view you as a peer as opposed to the person in charge of the geeks. Coaching CTOs, we frequently find that asking to meet regularly is the easiest way to kick-start these relationships. When you do talk, do not talk in jargon, but explain what your team is doing in a way that’s inclusive and adjusted to the other party’s technical knowledge. When we allow ourselves to speak too technically, we come off as aloof or merely incomprehensible.

Second, listen and try to understand what their priorities and worries are. You’d be surprised how often you might stumble upon interests that align, thus gaining an ally in pushing for changes that you want in the next senior leadership session. Further, sometimes you will be able to solve problems for others easily and strengthen the relationship between your organization and the rest of the company. Many people are still unable to imagine what a capable coder can do in an hour or two, and those have the possibility of eliminating hours of grunt work every day for others. We are very attuned to reducing boilerplate code but tend to be myopic and miss similar opportunities that benefit others in the company.

Move Yourself Up

I’ve been discussing moving upstream personally as tech executives for years (e.g., in chapter 4 of The Tech Executive Operating System). It is another precept in moving technology as a whole upstream in the company. The more you push yourself to manifest the “executive” part of your role, the more leverage you gain for impact.

After all, it doesn’t matter how well you collaborate with your fellow executives. If you are not in the room when the new roadmap is being formed, you will not be able to inject your input at the point where it is still easiest to shape the plan. Moreover, by making sure that you participate in these high-level discussions, you will also be privy to what’s coming ahead. That means you can make your team best prepared for what the company might need in a few months instead of being blindsided.

I know this sometimes feels awkward or uncomfortable for those who have grown from engineering management roles. They feel as if elbowing their way into these meetings is “politics” or that they do not belong there. In all sincerity, I believe these viewpoints are doing a disservice to your group and harming your self-actualization. You should never aim to move upstream solely for personal gain but because you can honestly see how it will benefit your team specifically and the company in general. That is not politics; it is doing your job.

Increase Your Team’s Surface Area

One last part in maneuvering tech to a higher position in the company is to find a way to duplicate your small-scale success across your entire team. For teams larger than a handful of engineers, you cannot expect to be the only connection of R&D with the outside world and still cover everything. Your talented engineers’ cooperation is crucial to avoid having silos erected around the tech team.

The more healthy “friction” they have with their colleagues, the better it is. For example, if they regularly see what customer success are up to and what the customers tend to complain about, they are more likely to spot similar issues before they get to production. When they listen to sales calls and customer interviews, they slowly train themselves to notice opportunities to shape features differently to deliver more value faster. This is what product mastery is all about, and it is not something the team can gain by merely reading weekly status reports from the rest of the organization.

Collaboration with other departments and people of various professions is priceless. After all, that’s part of why diversity is great. You want to create a culture where this cooperation is a given and expected, not something people put off or shy away from.

By progressing on these three fronts, you can quickly move technology upstream in your company. You will then start reaping the rewards quite fast. That is how you will capitalize on your technology (which happens to be the subject of my work-in-progress book, subscribe below to stay updated and get a free sample chapter soon!).