Video - Carl Sargunar on CTOs in Digital Agencies

podcast Jun 27, 2022

VIDEO: 20:35 mins
AUTHOR: Janusz Stabik and Carl Sargunar

In this GYDA Talks, Janusz talks to Carl Sargunar. Carl is a technical consultant with a wide range of experience in the field of web and application development. From being the CTO of a thriving agency to helping his clients grow their technology to meet their ambitions, he can also be found tinkering in his garage with IoT devices.

Janusz and Carl talk about the role and importance of the Chief Technology Officer in agencies:

  • What is a CTO?
  • What makes a good one or a poor one?
  • Do they need to be from a tech background?
  • Being a great leader and the main challenges
  • What should you look out for when recruiting a CTO?


Contact Carl on LinkedIn




Janusz Stabik  00:07

Welcome, Carl Sargunar.


Carl Sargunar  00:10



Janusz Stabik  00:11

 So we're old friends, we know each other well.


Carl Sargunar  00:14

Many years now.


Janusz Stabik  00:16

Many years, too many years. We were business partners, we set up our agency together, we go way back.


Carl Sargunar  00:22

It's first, my certainly first foray into doing stuff for myself as opposed to working for other people.


Janusz Stabik  00:30

And we're still talking. So we're here today to talk about CTOs. What makes a good Chief Technology Officer, you know, what are they? Before we go into that joining give our audience a little bit of background about who you are, what you do, why your opinion is relevant?


Carl Sargunar  00:56

Okay. I'm Carl, I have been working in the dotnet kind of space for gosh, pushing on for 17-18, nearly 20 years now. It's a long time, working predominantly in ecommerce websites, technologies, but a lot of back end stuff rather cloud stuff. For the past 10 years, I've been helping companies I suppose shape their technology as a consultant more than as an employee. So yeah, I've been consulting for about 10 years. So kind of a lot of ecommerce companies moving around, staying on top of things, I try and keep up to date with what's happening in the world out there.


Janusz Stabik  01:45

Good. So we I think we were kind of drawn to each other to set up our agency, many moons ago, because I think we had what I see in the kind of the, you know, the technical space, I'm going to cast aspersions here and throw some stereotypes out there is that technologists love technology, right. And as a consequence, a techno technologist view of the world is technology driven, right? And you and I think we're able to see technology from a wider commercial perspective, and we're able to communicate clearly, I think.


Carl Sargunar  02:21

 Very much so.


Janusz Stabik  02:22

And it's kind of what got our agency off the ground, I think in the early days was our ability to be able to do that. So I want to talk a little bit about why you know why that was? And as a consequence, I think or conversely, to that, perhaps what you know, what should we look out for recruiting a CTO? Before we dive in. What does CTO? What does it mean? What do they do?


Carl Sargunar  02:43

CTO, Chief Technology Officer is effectively where the buck stops with tech in companies, you know, you tend to get them at much larger sized companies, but you know, the name could be Chief Digital Officer, it could be head of tech, it could be at some places, does the senior developer depend on the size your place, the size of the company. But essentially, the main job of the CTO is to make sure that what the tech part of the business is actually serving the business predominantly and doing what the business needs to do is there to ensure that what the business direction which could change if people move creative business directions and react to things, sometimes the current global situation has first forced a lot of people to especially read kind of shops and things like that have had to be forced to go online. So you've got to be able to react to that change, you've got to be able to move with that. And that's where having someone in depth in that CTO role, makes this kind of either easy or very, very difficult if you don't have that position.


Janusz Stabik  04:09

Alright, so I'm gonna go straight in there, what makes a good one, what makes a good CTO? So you've just mentioned that they need to be, you know, they're there to represent the technology interests of the business and to kind of keep it keep the technology relevant and stable, but to support the business as well. What do you think makes a good CTO?


Carl Sargunar  04:25

I'll come back to what one of the things that you said, so one of the reasons that the two of us worked well together, and a lot of teams and a lot of companies, when they hire, they sometimes try and hire for what they see as a cultural fit. We want people to be like us and think like us who want to do the same thing that we do. And that's not necessarily always what you want as CTO, you know, everybody's different. Your development team are different, even within the team themselves. You know, you have some individuals in your team who are naturally introverted, who don't like to stand up in meetings and make a point. And even if they know that something is wrong, they weren't always you have other members of the team who are quite happy to stand up and give and go to regular meetups and do internal talks and write blogs and had spoken, who are naturally curious, and we'll go and look at what's new. And as a CTO, you've got to work with all these different individual types and make them work together to see the bigger picture, you know, some people's individual goals will bode very naturally because without trying to cast aspersions on other roles, you know, tech people tend to be natural thing to if they tend to be you know, that you're drawn to tech, if you are off reasonable intelligence, you tend to be you know, the people who are able to react quickly and learn stuff and deal with complicated situations hold huge amounts of information in your head and access it and draw on your experience. And that makes you sometimes pretty opinionated. And to be able to deal with all of that, to be able to understand that and know that, despite having all these different personalities available, you still have the delivery of where your business goals are. And that's what a CTO does. He basically could say, to translate those business goals and make the team work in that direction. That's not to say it's an easy thing to do. I mean, you know, we have that situation that I'm dealing with, and I'm sure everyone in their own business has the same situation to dealing with right now.


Janusz Stabik  06:57

Yeah, so it's leadership effectively. So it's the leadership of people. And our mind goes back to and I might have mentioned this in a previous episode. I don't know if you saw it, the Netflix documentary about the Chicago Bulls. Yeah, yeah. And how probably the coach's greatest ability was just to get those individuals to play as a team.


Carl Sargunar  07:15

Yeah, absolutely. And I'm sure you see that a lot with kind of football coaches who have my superstars and then the ranks for Barcelona, for example right now, but I'm doing hopefully, and you know, that just having a tech superstars, just having intelligent people does not make a good team, you know, it is teamwork. Today that gets you to where you want to go.


Janusz Stabik  07:39

And do they need to be from a technical background? So like you mentioned, I think you started off by saying that, typically, people that are drawn to tech will be a bit more introverted, etc, etc. Doesn't sound like the kind of traits and attributes of an awesome leader. So do CTOs. They need to come from a tech background? Is there? Is it possible to find somebody who's technically excellent, and with great natural leadership skills?


Carl Sargunar  08:06

Yeah, it's a tough one. Because a lot of CTOs tend to have risen through the ranks, you know, you tend to be an tech leadership, generally, you tend to be you know, I'm a good developer, I started by getting some management experience, I manage my dev team over there, lead dev, I then become digital lead, maybe, excuse me, and then keep going up until you get that position. So you do tend to get a lot of people who are from that background. And what those people don't necessarily always have is the other people's skills, the empathy, the understanding of that team, the ability to inspire a common goal and the team. So yeah, I argue will arguably, the tech can be taught, the tech can be learned. Whereas the other skills, the empathy, the understanding and the ability to find what is the best way to get your team to work together, that's not something which is as easy to learn. The tech, you know, one other thing, and there are many things that can help with tech leadership, you are never in the CTO position, or very, very rarely the CTO position, going to be the best at that tech job in the rare. You know, you want to hire for your team so that the people who you're working with, they're the guys that people sign up, not just guys that they're the people who are going to be the ones that protect at the coalface actually doing the work and they're the ones who will be dealing with it. You know, of course, you're gonna provide guidance and leadership and you know, the fundamental principles don't really alter that much, but as CTO you're very rarely going to be able to stay up to date with what the latest technology is what the latest way doing things out what the latest frameworks are, what the best guidance with and that changes, even in a two, three year period, you know, tech is moving so rapidly. So you are very much dependent on finding the right people and getting them to be able to communicate that not just within the team themselves, but upwards as well. Yeah, and listen to sort of entities and to listen to their ideas, you know, you don't make decisions, yourself, it's not a case of sending direction down with say, You must do it this way. Because this is the way I've decided that's could try that, but don't think it'll work out.


Janusz Stabik  10:34

Yoyu know, it takes a hell of a lot of confidence, vulnerability, experience self confidence too. So I say that in any kind of leadership position, if anybody's reporting to you. If you can be the dumbest person in your team, as a leader, you're in a great place, you know, the person with some brilliant people follow you.


Carl Sargunar  10:55

Absolutely. If you can get the best out of your team, because you're not the one doing the work, you're the one who's reporting to the board. At the end of the day, you're the one who's reporting to the directors to say, Yeah, we have this project in hand, or this project is now going to be six months late because of X Y Zed.


Janusz Stabik  11:10

So what I see as being a huge challenge, and not and this is in CTO roles and any kind of leadership position. And I see a lot of my clients with agencies that I work with, and they stole about 45 employees, somewhere between 40 and 50 employees, right, they get stuck. Because typically, you know, one person I think can effectively manage seven people and seven sevens, we then start needing this middle management layer. And like we said, this middle management layer, typically promoted or over promoted technicians. And this middle management is one of the hardest roles to fill. And if those roles aren't good, you'll get stuck, because that role needs to be like you've said, needs to be strategic executioner from the top down. But equally, trade union representatives from the bottom up.


Carl Sargunar  12:03

I'd say your greatest strength is the people who are doing the work level. So yeah, I don't know if you've seen the series, Silicon Valley HBO series many years ago, and there's a particular scene in it, where decisions came from the board that the estimate for when this particular project would be delivered. And then they went down level and said, but you haven't told the directors about this problem. That's going to be at least another six weeks, and then the next level down and said, Hang on, you didn't tell your boss about this problem, because this is another two weeks, but I'm not going to tell them about this. So yeah, that communication must absolutely be to a problems up and correction downwards.


Janusz Stabik  12:51

And what are they? So flipping this on its head? What are the traits of a poor CTO? What if you're in a business that has one? You know, what might we be seeing you got a bad CTO, what kind of things happen?


Carl Sargunar  13:07

You'll naturally find tech at churn of developers a lot, I think, you know, people who, unfortunately, well, not unfortunately, the job market being what it is right now. And with a huge demand of tech developers out there tech skills out there. If someone's in a company where they're not enjoying the role, and they're not able to grow, then you know, they're going to leave, people will go somewhere else and find something to do. And it's one of the hardest roles and responsibilities, especially in the hiring side of things, which a lot of people forget, when you're building a team. It's not just a one way interview, you're not finding people who have the right tech skills, because you might find someone who has great, fantastic tech skills. But you know, we'll stick around for six months and disappear. But you actually want to find an x and convince them that you're the right fit for them. You want to build and find a team that's going to come join us, stick around and grow with you on your journey. So half the interview and after responsibility is finding people who can and will stick around and go in the same direction as you. So in tech companies with a bad leader, you will get Chen because that's not how the teams are filled, you're filling with potentially people who are just in it for their own personal gain. And when you're in the tech industry, and if you don't like where you're working, and there's six other job offers, who are giving you the same or more money, then you're out the door, you know, that's certainly one thing. You know, the common usual suspects of micromanagement. Why is Dave for why Sally? Be on this person doing this particular thing this way. A CTO needs to be above that you can't, you can't get down at protec level, you know, come back to what we said earlier about. Once you get into management, once you get into middle and high management, you aren't a programmer. Day to day your primary responsibility isn't to write code yet, you might still be able to kind of dip in and out of it. And you should, I've certainly believed that a CTO, you can't just stop being involved with tech altogether, you'll just kind of lose touch over time. But your primary work day to day is not going to be writing code, you will not be at a compiler 10 hours a day, 5 hours a day, however long it is.


Janusz Stabik  15:45

I said, what I've seen, I say we've seen actually, in my mind, my mind harks back to when we had a day job, where we work somebody else. And we see, I'm not gonna mention their names, obviously, but the CTO is being defensive. You know, technology is kind of put this in its own silo, away from the rest of the business, deliberately kept at arm's length, difficult to deal with a general attitude among the team of being difficult and just separate, and finds the business.


Carl Sargunar  16:33

Frequently expensive, as well as tech, the tech department on a per salary basis is frequently the best paid in a lot of companies. That's just the way it is with them that work right now.


Janusz Stabik  16:48

So what's your advice? So our audience here, right, we're agencies typically, and it could be a PPC, or SEO agency, we have some kind of tech stack internally, or dev design at Build agency, something like that. If we're looking to recruit a CTO, or promote somebody upwards into CTO position, what's your advice, what should we do?


Carl Sargunar  17:10

And you want to make sure the person that you're thinking about putting in that role has good appreciation, not just at the tech side of things, but other people's side of the things, ultimately the CTOs role. And responsibility is going to sink or swim based on their people skills on their ability to understand the problems of the team and the empathy of the team, to be able to communicate that with the team, but also to bring, you know, listen to the team's issues and bring them up to board level and make decisions on that. You know, training is important, skills are important. People  can see CTOs and technology. Leaders can be sometimes reticent to kind of bring up and kind of let people have training. One of the things I hear about anecdotally a lot is that kind of thing of conversation between a CTO or the CEO and the CEO saying, you know, you want to have a budget for 70,000 hours to train your team. What happens if you spend all that money and we give them all these qualifications and they leave? And the response to that CTM as you think about the opposite situation, what happens if we don't spend that money? We don't get them all that training qualifications and they stay. You end up with a team who effectively stack them to you.


Janusz Stabik  18:48

So true. So true. Carl, it's been an absolute pleasure talking CTOs and tech.


Carl Sargunar  18:57

Took a lot longer. There's so much in this area.


Janusz Stabik  19:01

Yeah, I think one of the key things that you've highlighted is, you know, there's a lot of technicians out there, you know, but it makes CTOs. It's people skills, empathy, communication, leadership that makes a good CTO.


Carl Sargunar  19:18

The tech can be learned, the tech can be taught. And it's much easier to be a good CTO if you have those wider skills as opposed to the tech side of things.


Janusz Stabik  19:31

Yeah. It's been a pleasure. Thank you spend some time with me talking CTOs. I'm sure we'll speak again. Until next time, take care.


Carl Sargunar  19:40

Thanks a lot.