• Houman Asefi

10 Untold Secrets of a SaaS CTO; How to Become a Chief Technology Officer

I had the privilege of an hour interview with a reputable SaaS Chief Technology Officer in Telecom / Service Provider space. As the interview starts around his background and history, the conversation shifted towards the skill sets and must-have abilities to run for the job title. The result is the following 10 important lessons that you can apply instantly and get results almost immediately.

To all my readers that are aiming to become a SaaS Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and lead the technology strategy for the SaaS business, there are some specific skills required to make them unique in the market place. Here is the script of 1-hour interview I had with a CTO in Telecom / Service Provider space which he talks about his background and history and then explains what it takes to make yourself prepared for the position.

1. Tell my readers about your background and what you do and your responsibilities now.

As an immigrant, when I moved to Australia 7 years ago, I should have shown a solid track record of history around what I have done, and then as the result, I could get back to the same level as I was back in my country.The only thing I learned at university is how to bring different pieces together in the right way and how to solve a problem and get results.When I moved here to Australia, I found a job in 3–4 months in engineering because it was the only thing I knew. My first job was for 1 day per week for a month. Then after the second week, I’ve been asked for 3 days per week and after that, I’ve been offered the job on a permanent basis. I believe the only reason that I got to that point was that I was delivering results and could solve problems that were outstanding for a while for their customers. They were actually looking for a temp worker, but I turned it around and became permanent. After a year, I became a Senior Network Engineer. Almost a year and a half later, there was nothing that I could do in the network to make it more resilient and robust and I literally did not have much to do. I kept doing BAU activities for another year but I felt that there is no future and potential for me there and I could not imagine growing here. I moved to another company and worked for another 6 months as a Senior Network Engineer on a contract and the original company, went through some unforeseen positive changes. But this time they offered me a job and they need me. At that time, I said I need more senior position and more responsibilities and again, because I was proven, they agreed. So I re-join as Head of Engineering. As we grow, I became CTO and I have more people and team reporting to me. So after 7 years, I can say that I’m back to my original managerial position that I used to be in my own country. The way ahead is long and hard. My background is engineering and my major is not even close to what I do but one thing I’ve learned from studying at university and it helped me a lot in my career path. It was how to think logically and how to bring different pieces together in the right way. How to solve a problem and get a result. This is the most important piece of advice on what to expect from university and education.

2. How did you gauge the success of the SaaS organization before you join them?

Was it pure luck?

No, it was not. I did my homework and study on the SaaS company and the people in the leadership team. I knew them as I was working with them and I had their history in the Australian market. Then I asked them to convince me on why I should join. The CEO is in the business for 30 years. Our Legal, carrier relations, and billing leaders have at least 25 years of background each in the Telecom industry. Plus, some of these managers were part of teams who grew different companies and sold them and this is their 3rd time to grow another SaaS business. I also knew some of the shareholders and as a factor, it is very important to see who is happy to invest in this company. Because these sorts of people will not invest without reason in such companies. So I did my homework before choosing the right company. In addition, I have sacrificed a lot on trusting the leadership team. Just as an example I got paid way less than my current job when I joined. So, I accepted the fact that I get paid less, but I have a better position now and it may be a better potential future and more experience for me. These are valuable to me. I am becoming more mature to use what I have gained now. I am still learning and there is a lot to learn.

3. Why do you think leadership role is for you?

In my view, a person who is working in IT technology has a big problem in front and it is the fast-evolving of this industry. The IT industry is so agile and changing fast and a lot in a short period of time. To keep up with this speedy changes and have updated knowledge will be very difficult. It may be good and interesting for a person in his/her twenties or thirties but generally speaking, it won’t be an option for a person who becomes older. So, to avoid this problem, I believe there is two way of career path to be chosen. One is to become a super expert in a specific field of IT technology. The risk is that the market is very limited, but the gain is the technology of that field may change less frequently. The other way is to go for a managerial role. I believe between these two, the second one is more appropriate but challenging for me, so I took it.

4. How you choose what to learn about each technology and how to learn different topics?

When I say I need to learn about technology, I mean I should know the overall concept and a bit of detail where it can help to understand engineers who are talking about this technology and be able to communicate with them.It is critical to be able to translate the technology into business language for business stakeholders.For example, If I should know about VoIP (Voice Over IP), I should know what VoIP means, basic concepts of connectivity and language, so I can communicate with engineers. But there is no need to know all the details on the deep technical level. As I said, the technology is changing very fasting and I should update myself in general, however, there is no need to go very deep. I believe that will be enough for a successful engineer. Plus, in management, you should be careful that not everybody may be honest enough and they want to test you and challenge you. So I need to know enough so the other side can trust you and rely on you. In addition, you should be able to translate the technology into business language for business stakeholders.

5. How you make sure that all the coming projects are aligned with the business strategy? What tactics you/your team use to achieve this?

I give you an example. Now SD-WAN is very shiny and making a lot of noise and many say it is the future of networking. I should be able to explain and convince the business that this is the future and this is the solution on how to get there. You should consider what drives the business and the management.Business focus drives technology.For example, the management is concern about the cost savings, increasing revenue and dealing with challenges in Operations. These are 3 points where the business is focusing on. If I can find and bold the solution for all or any of these issues when I introducing this new technology to them there would be a really good chance to get an agreement to develop such a technology in-house and move towards it which means I’ve achieved my goal. The most important part will be, what is my solution and how I am taking the business there as well. People are different and have different personalities and style in management. You should know their language and find a way to simplify and translate a very advanced technology concept to their language so they can understand you and the concept.

6. Three things that keep you up at night?

One is the stability of the network and keeping the lights on. Not only the devices but also the people. It is important to maintain the balance of workload who are working under your management. It is important to know what are the people’s priorities and why there are working for you. What are their weaknesses and strong points?The stability of the network and keeping the lights on is my main concern. Not only the devices but also the people.How you can plan to bring people together so they complete each other and not being against each other. Customers also are very important. The heart of each business is its customers. So, to keep customers happy by delivering the deliverable based on agreed SLA is another key point for me and keeps me awake.

7. What books do you recommend for our readers to read to help them along the way to become CTO/CIO?

Well, I’m not really a book reader, but I’m trying to read frequently to update myself about the industry I’m working on. Also, I feel some lack of knowledge in either of engineering or management side of my job. So, I always seek for the best and reliable source of knowledge to cover that gap.

8. What is the strategy around business applications and how you decide on which applications are legacy, and which ones are mission-critical?

I believe there are several factors that will affect the business application. Each one of them will play an essential role in it. Market demand, market trend, and the business strategy plan will have an essential effect on which application or product you decommission or develop. Just look at this example, in Australia, we will going to have NBN everywhere which introduces better access speed. That means users will be able to use an application that needs more bandwidth. You can see that a small change in access bandwidth can make a big shift in where the market goes to. This shift will have a direct effect on what application or service we will provide to the market as a telecommunication company.

9. Except being good at Technology, what other skills one should have to become an effective CTO?

Obviously, the management skills are crucial. However, I believe that having a technology background will boost the effectiveness of good management. For fresh grads, I suggest they go and learn about IT management frameworks. Because you will lead engineers at some point and you should be able to understand them to succeed at your job. You may become a manager without having a technical background, but you may not become a successful one. One of the feedback that I get from the engineers who are working in my group is that “You understand us”. It means that as a head of engineering, I understand the challenges which my engineer will face to.

10. What is the role of coaching, when one wants to transition to leadership roles from a technology background?

There is no doubt that I have had mistakes. I rather use my mistakes and learn from them and do not repeat them. I have coach as the business leaders around me in the business is helping me out in different situations. It is absolutely important to have a coach along the way and I could not make it if it was not for their help


©2020 by Houman Asefi. 

Sydney, Australia