Thursday, 28 October 2021

Simplifying complex projects using visuals

In my previous work experience as a program director, I led very large programs consisting of hundreds of people distributed across geographies. I had multiple stakeholders to manage, mostly C-Suite folks that depended on me to simplify the details and present the essence of program to them, so that they could make effective decisions in a timely manner. Whilst I managed the detailed project plans and task breakdowns with my team of project, program & engineering managers, I adopted varying styles of communications to suit my audience level.

To this day, even though I've left program and project leadership behind for some years now, I myself served as a SteerCo member, sponsoring projects and programs to deliver KPIs. I still prefer the art of simple visuals as a means of communication. A picture, presented in a way that directs a conversation can be so much more efficient and powerful than reading lines and lines of verbose text, IMHO.

Sort of a #throwbackthursday post, I came across these old visuals I used on a project Steerco going back six years ago. This particular program was pretty tight, very little buffer contingency, executed in under six months, a major upgrade and launch of feature end-to-end, with hundreds of people contributing. The steerco group consisted of a dozen executives. The detailed project plan cut across 20 workstreams, the launch release updated 55 countries in Africa.

Paths to Launch



Launch Go/No-Go Checklist & Plan


Some program and project managers can over complicate messaging and communications. I've learnt over time that whilst detail rigour is still necessary for tracking project deliveries, there is actually an art to managing projects - there is also a style to stakeholder engagement - the methods of communication plays a major role. Whilst some might argue that pictures remove much of the thinking and thought process behind, I believe in the power of visuals...after all, a picture is worth a thousand words!



Thursday, 21 October 2021

About me - One slide intro with my new leadership team in Amazon

 A #thismightnotwork post

Earlier this year, as part of breaking the ice with the new senior management team, our leader asked each one of us to share a bit of background about ourselves on one slide. Sharing my story here. It was an interesting learning experience as it opens up the team for inclusion & diversity - getting to know more than just the work-side of your colleague. A great way to get to know one another!


FYI: Check out Amazon's Leadership Principles here - we live and breathe these every day, with every interaction. It's not just lip service or posters on a wall. 

P.S. We're always hiring - do get in touch with me if interested!

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

On Cloud Transformation, CTO reflections on scaling tech & people - Part 1 - Intro

In a series of posts this year, I plan to write on how I led a transformation of a technology platform and engineering team - and delivered results in scaling to 10X+ growth on KPIs such as user-and-device growth, user engagement, enhanced personalisation & content discovery, reduced platform instability by increasing availability from 97 to 99%; created a 20X+ reduction in core operating costs (saving R100m+) and simultaneously built a scalable leadership team to take over. All in 3.5 years.  

This draws on my professional work experience from March 2017 - October 2020, when I spent my time as CTO (Chief Technology Officer) of an OVP (Online Video Platform) for Africa's largest VE (Video Entertainment) provider. In this short period my team delivered end-to-end transformation (not just software development) that set up the IT/Engineering to scale for future growth. I also left a scalable leadership pipeline in place which allowed me to comfortably transition to my next role outside of video systems by leaving a technology roadmap delivery plan & sustainable processes in place for at least another 2 years. Since my departure, I remain in contact with the team who continue not only to thank me for the roadmap but also for the opportunities I helped create to grow their own careers as leaders, who are themselves on track to become CTOs & CIOs as well.

Context

The business grew increasingly concerned about their online video platform's ability to scale to increased forecasted demand anticipated as more customers switched from traditional broadcast satellite-TV viewing to on-demand, on-the-go-viewing through streaming video over the internet. With incumbents like Netflix & Amazon Prime Video and others entering the African territory, we also needed a reliable internet-ready TV product that customers have come to take for granted. Until then, the video platform which was built largely in-house by a local engineering team, had an active user base that consisted mainly of early adopters, an internal start-up project, fledgling at best. 

This platform and product was still in its infancy, not-yet-ready for exponential internet growth, which could happen at any time. As such, this team operated on a shoestring budget of a constrained start-up for a number of years. The engineering team was also spread quite thin, working on multiple, incoherent projects, product and services not specifically focused on internet video. Rather, we were the "online people" that did everything from hosting websites, various content management systems, wrote media apps and ran operations for digital marketing sites across African continent. In short, I owned a digital IT shop that was a multi-armed, multi-headed hydra that needed taming.  Such constraints whilst bred out of necessity, unfortunately ignored the bigger picture, long-term strategic investments needed in the platform to scale for future growth were largely ignored because of budget constraints. The platform barely supported its early adopters in so far as providing consistent availability was never guaranteed or reliable. Customer satisfaction scores were very low, below 4 (<40%). Net Promoter Scores (NPS) almost non-existent. Outages due to platform stability was the norm, with on-call load on support engineers increasing as number of users began to increase. 

The business, unawares of the true state of the platform, had nonetheless planned increased marketing and awareness campaigns for its internet streaming product. Large events like the FIFA Soccer World Cup (2018), Olympics (2018) Cricket World Cup (2019), Rugby World Cup (2019) sparked much concern about the platform's ability to scale for increased load. Other events like UEFA, Premiere League, Game of Thrones and other popular video content expected to bring increased traffic to the platform. Apart from primary content drivers, the fear of not making a noise on the streaming side was high - we needed to take this fledgling product & platform and make it mainstream. Marketing increased. Along came a decent technology budget assigned to me to help turnaround & deliver a recovery. I could not pass up this opportunity to test my skills in technology, engineering, strategy, delivery and leadership...what a journey it was!

The ask: build and scale an video streaming (live broadcast and video-on-demand like Amazon Prime Video or Hulu) platform to work across 50+ countries on the African continent, with localisation. Build, stabilize, replace, buy, partner - do what is necessary, but we don't have time-to-wait a year for new R&D or migration, as we're going to make a noise in marketing, so the platform better be available. At the same time, build complementary services for "internet connected set top boxes" in addition to pure online play.

The current reality, i.e. existing state-of-affairs in April 2017 when I took over, did not bode well for the team or technical platform. In addition to this, the organisation was half-way through implementing a business-wide transformation program "Future Fit", radically changing its operating model end-to-end. This led to changes in structure, organizational operating models: competency and functional area "consolidation" that led to layoffs due to optimisations. Managing big people changes whilst planning to turnaround and deliver a technical strategy was no easy feat. Eighteen months later into the operating model transformation, our team was again reorganised and reconsolidated as the business decided to IPO, rearranging its operating model yet again. Not to mention wade through 4X changes in executive leadership, retain stability in people and still deliver results. Changing executive leaders four times meant I had to deal with 4 new bosses, each CEO having their own view of technology strategy (more on this later)...
Our Tech Stack that we evolved to

....and a sneak peek of under-the-hood, infrastructure/platform services:

Technical & Leadership Challenges

So the challenges & obstacles I had to overcome as CTO:
  • How do I bring structure into a chaotic engineering team, stabilise the platform and simultaneously scale to 10X++ MAUs, double user engagement, with a small team and still deliver a comparable experience like Netflix? 
  • How do I do this without micromanaging my team and build self-confidence in their engineering ability, despite being considered not “world-class” by sceptics (underdogs - I hate it when (international) folks doubt local African engineering talent - rant for another day)? 
  • How to change a slow corporate processes to innovating fast and taking chances to migrate to cloud - without having all the answers yet and tick all the due-diligence questions? 
  • How to maintain customer excellence when the stakes are high, and when chips are down, how to gracefully deal with a crisis (almost every weekend)? 
  • How do I build credibility back when the team’s reputation has taken a hit? 
  • How to maintain some level of platform stability where known bottlenecks exist that will cause an outage under high load or peak demand like a Black Friday event? 
  • How to decide whether the existing platform needs a full rewrite or be replaced by COTS or whether it is safe to continue existing platform through technical-debt re-engineering? 
  • How do you transform a "POC" prototype into an industrial-strength video platform that can stand the likes of the giants? 
  • How do I transform a mindset of an engineering team and change the culture to a high  performing, consciously customer-focused operations/security devsecops focus?
  • How do I transition the org to a devops model by changing mindsets, introducing habits and behaviours, then tooling and ultimately transforming team process and composition?
  • How do I create a technology vision & long term view that's credible & a practical roadmap for delivery?
  • How do I repair dysfunctional relationships between product-and-engineering teams where trust is low, cynicism high, unhealthy partnership?
  • How do manage business and marketing operations, building sincere relations to work around constraints and limits of the platform (shared context)?
  • How do I communicate the true state-of-the-platform to stakeholders without causing panic and have a credible action plan that instils confidence?
  • How do I build a leadership team when headcount is frozen and we still need to deliver? How do I remove doubt from senior stakeholders about engineering skillset and competency of managers?
  • How do I convince people about taking a chance on diverse individuals who may not be experienced or "qualified enough"?
  • How to handle political conflict, fears and uncertainty when merging two tech platforms, create a vision for the future and manage communications with non-technical platform why "it won't work" scenarios.
  • How do I leave a leadership succession pipeline in place seeing my goal was to leave after 3 years anyway?

Topics Covered

In a series of posts starting August 2021, my goal is to share my strategy, tactics and lessons learnt on leading this turnaround as well as core topics on cloud transformation. As I post each article, I will update these bullet points with links:
  • Take time to understand current reality & publish to-be aspirations - get an independent opinion by way of a system audit & architecture review
  • How I designed the technical org with a view for future organic transformations in mind. There's the ideal and then there's the "play the cards you're dealt", but never lose sight of the bigger picture.
  • Being bold with data centre optimisations - down with data centres, embrace peering!
  • First things first, stabilise your infrastructure and networking, build in redundant routing
  • Sometimes you need to take a step backwards to move two steps forwards - enhance platform software for multiple datacentres. First principles matter, a lot.
  • Stabilize hosting infrastructure and step change your virtualisation model - move to containers
  • Embrace cloud content delivery networking (CDNs) - don't build your own, partner. Introduce multi-CDN strategy, experiment, iterate.
  • Have the leadership will to experiment, fail and re-invent - leverage experimentation with partners. Change the paradigm (cache-at-edge, build safe modes, borrow from metaphors from other domains).
  • Choose your cloud partners wisely but don't over analyse to death. Move fast, choose an appropriate cloud platform that aligns to your culture.
  • Factors I consider important for partnerships
  • Going cloud native - out with the old, in with the new, skip lift-and-shift altogether - content discovery & personalisation
  • Keeping the bean counters happy - Introduce econometrics - how I introduced a platform economics model for Total Cost of Ownership, cost per user, cost of networking per user to prove the logic of transformation. Speak the language of finance to finance people. A CTO without financial intelligence is limiting.
  • How to improve technical operations, introducing habits, discipline, accountability & ownership.
  • Nurturing a culture of automated testing, continuous testing on production, load & performance testing, chaos testing, failover & disaster recovery testing. Testing is a job not just for QA department.
  • Managing large-scale events, scaling for peak usage & crisis management when things go wrong
  • Leveraging off-the-shelf capabilities - don't reinvent the wheel unless you have no other option.
  • Willingness to learn from mistakes, taking responsibility for outages & setting direction on way forward - leadership.
  • Know your metrics - how to go from zero to 100+ (and perhaps overkill) in creating a command centre for monitoring issues in real-time. Why every technology platform needs its own Platform Intelligence Portal outside of Business Intelligence reports or a Data Warehouse team. Engineering teams must own their platform metrics, don't pass responsibility over-the-wall.
  • How to build a succession pipeline in place such that exiting CTO position behind is ready to be filled by your number one?

Results Delivered

Here's a dump of the results I delivered in my tenure as CTO - that I use as talking points in my CV, interview loops & coaching other IT managers:
  • Inherited technology stack with weak foundational architecture, massive technical debt causing instability
  • Successfully turned around a previously distressed, dysfunctional group, bringing clarity of focus & team cohesion
  • Redesigned the organisational structure & technical platform strategy aligned to future business growth
  • Introduced new leadership roles, set the vision, mission & objectives for the division thus bringing order to chaos
  • Improved relationships and working agreements with core customers by agreeing SLAs & metrics for performance
  • Improved platform availability from 97-98% (7-10 days yearly outage) to 99.8-99.9% (8.76-17 hours)
  • Scaled the platform to 10X+ on monthly active users, total active users/devices
  • Increased engagement at least 2X year-on-year
  • Increased network throughput 10X breaking internet streaming records for Africa, up to 800Gbps on one event
  • Expanded application device footprint 4X (introduced smart TVs, game consoles, new set top boxes, IP-only STB)
  • Enhanced project and release management processes, ways-of-working improved resulting in on-time completion of projects
  • Transitioned teams from textbook agile scrum methods to more fluid, generalised project execution tracks improving flexibility
  • Introduced Google’s Software Engineer in Testing capability, driving automation & completely removed manual testing
  • Instilled a sense-of-ownership and accountability for monitoring operations by upskilling & training programs
  • Celebrated people by winning group-worldwide recognition awards: Innovation in AI/ML, Test automation & App development
  • Improved overall people engagement of division scoring highest management metric as measured by OfficeVibe tool
  • Created architectural platform vision for the new technology stack thus managing expectations of journey timelines
  • Delivered on key project & product roadmap items meeting business objectives for all fiscal years to date
  • Introduced new operational behaviours & mindset changes, dress rehearsals, large event preparation management processes
  • Introduced new SOPs albeit manual, that resulted in improving platform stability & uptime, reduction in incidents raised
  • Transformed software engineering processes to full stack, paving the way for DevSecOps, removing silos across teams
  • Enabled development of in-house platform monitoring and intelligent dashboard tools improving NOC, 24/7 & command centre
  • Enhanced testing coverage driving load, performance & scalability testing, automated on production during off-peak times
  • Closed security gaps in architecture/implementation that reduced risk of revenue leakage & subscription management
  • Catalysed change in thinking in managing total cost of ownership: buy versus build, partner more, improving focus
  • Steered group's transformation to cloud services, improving stability & uptime e.g. Microsoft Azure Media Services delivery, AWS S3/CloudFront, Lambda, AWS Shield, R53, etc.
  • Reduced costs by up to 70% on core infrastructure, saving group in the order of R100m over three years
  • Resolved legacy technology components and services by offloading, de-supporting and transferring to other divisions
  • Demonstrated cloud innovation in streaming by enabling Africa’s first 4K/UHD streams over Azure media services for FIFA’18
  • Scaled platform capability doubling YoY to 10X+ MAUs with 50%+ increased engagement meeting KPIs
  • Introduced cloud transformation journey roadmap of at least 3 years: multi-DC app hosting, microservices, containers to AWS 
  • Managed a large budget excess of $30m, operating largely within budget as well as delivering cost savings KPIs
  • Created technical & financial model for forecasting platform costs, introducing cost per user economics never seen before
  • Introduced multi-CDN partnering capabilities for redundancy, cost & improving risk management for disaster recovery scenarios
  • Reduced total cost of ownership by moving away from in-house built purpose systems to partnerships & leveraging cloud
  • Instigated enterprise technology transformation by optimising and transferring people/skills to other departments
  • Made difficult technology decisions that negatively impacted team morale but nevertheless maintained best business interests
  • Deftly & tactfully negotiated contracts resulting in better relationships, support plans & drove additional cost savings
  • Grew & improved relationships with vendors to be partner focused, thus enjoying symbiotic relationships than before
  • Turned around governance for both internal and external audits, resulting in Green report within 12 months of a red report
  • Improved monitoring & execution of antipiracy initiatives by developing tools that enabled quick takedowns of pirate streams
  • Shaped the strategic direction of technical platform consolidation, at the risk of disrupting the status quo
  • Key contributor to enterprise-wide governance & steering councils: Risk, Governance, Architecture, Procurement & Cloud
  • Drove cross-group consolidation of competencies, tools & technologies promoting reuse and improving synergies
  • Drove modern application development methods like feature flagging, A/B testing & application logging as well as common cross-platform application development framework on React.JS
  • Transformed the org into DevOps path introducing key concepts of "Mission Control", operational excellence, dashboarding, tooling, large event planning, crisis management runbooks etc.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Book Review: Leadership BS

Confront brutal truths and reality of #leadership or ignore at your peril!

This book took me on a rollercoaster ride though highs and lows, twists and turns, free falling into the deep abyss to be yanked out suddenly again - what a ride! Throughout this book I experienced feelings of deep resonance as well as extreme dissonance as well! 

I've not felt this uncomfortable reading a book in a very long time!  At one point I put this book aside for weeks, resolving to give it a one star rating! I couldn't believe what I was reading. I refused to accept the evidence. The narratives conflicted with my own experience and deeply held beliefs of what leadership is.  Nevertheless I continued on, pushing through at a pace that didn't wreck my mood, working hard to disconfirm my beliefs which were in part, to be honest, largely influenced by the feel-good leadership industry I've become an avid fan of.  Moreover, I am myself a practicing leader, having held leadership positions for 10+ years, with a third spent as C-level and another 50% spent working very closely with C-suite customers. 

So I took issue with the Pfeffer's messages - at times became quite irritated with the evidence presented. My personal value system (vetted by my own workplace experiences and biases) didn't align which made me think the book reflected more a corporate America bias and definitely not a reflection on the global industry! Bias! I couldn't ignore the hard truths though, I've seen all types of nasty leadership behaviours as displayed in the book, we can't downplay the real-world corporate game exists, and therefore, must be played like any other game. It's the system for better or worse.

Nevertheless, this book is a must read if all you've encountered so far is the feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy side of leadership industry, this book provides a necessary healthy dose of reality, earning a 5-star rating in the end 🤷🏽‍

I'm also quite glad I stuck it out and read through all the way. This book re-affirms my own belief to be different, to be the kind of leader I wish I had. I refuse to accept the game as it is. I have walked away from engagements I didn't feel right about, I walked away from leaders that came across as egotistic, pompous jerks. Personally, I'm on my own path to leadership...however it's important to face the brutal facts, but still remain hopeful for change.

I'm reminded of the Stockdale Paradox: Retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of the current reality, whatever they might be.

Curious to learn what other readers have to say about this book? 
Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Book Review: To God through money, by Mohamed Geraldez

I completed reading this book today, within a week of purchasing it. It's been a long time since I've read a book this fast, given my time constraints, so that alone should say something! 

Sharing my review on Goodreads and keeping the reflection notes from each chapter in this post for reference.

I was also smiling as I read Mohamed's views on value systems, knowing one's self, self-reflections and goals of living debt-free. These anecdotes tie in quite nicely with my RAGE framework I've been developing for the last 6 years now.


Goodreads Review

The title "To God through money" is what immediately caught my attention as I browsed niche book collection at my local coffee shop. That, and the author's name "Mohamed Geraldez". Who is this guy? How come I've never heard of him before? Is this yet another one of those self-made autobiography books I doubt?? Intrigued, I bought the book with mild curiosity. 

It turns out the purchase was a good call! 

I'm so glad to have learnt about Mohamed Geraldez. It's a book of hope, admiration, motivation and respect. It is also humbling. Why? Mohamed is an American, who found Islam (almost by accident?) and became a seeker of Truth that took him to far places on Earth, the deserts in North Africa, no less! For me, as someone born into Islam "it's what my forefathers always did", I am always humbled by stories from new Muslims. 

Whilst Mohamed writes his memoirs as an aid for his progeny and generations to come, being the first Muslim - this book should be read by anyone, religious and non-religious alike. Get a glimpse of Islam and how it attracted someone from the outside. Muslims can get a taste for balancing business and life. 

Learn about business and entrepreneurship. Reflection points are shared to trigger "discover yourself" moments. 

Mohamed Geraldez - thank you for courageously putting yourself out there by sharing your story! Well written and suitable for anyone looking to improve their life, seeking answers or anyone looking for inspiration from diverse perspectives. Highly recommended.

Useful Self Reflection Points for Life/Story Mapping

  • According to your parents, what was a particular characteristic you had as a child?
  • What did you accomplish as a kid that made you proud of yourself?
  • Did your parents' love story have an effect on your upbringing?
  • What trait from your childhood has stayed with you until now?
  • Do you think your early years had a massive effect on your current relationship with money?
  • What events from your youth indicated the type of person you would become?
  • Who were the major figures in your child rearing?
  • Did you grow up in an environment where you felt like you belonged, or did you feel like an outsider?
  • Has any death in your life affected you so much that you made a permanent change?
  • What are some of the biggest adjustments your parents had to make because of your birth? If they did not have to, why not?
  • Were you a bully or were you bullied as a child? If either, does this still bother you?
  • Is there something you regretfully did during your youth that you are embarrassed to think about now?
  • Were you exposed to an assortment of cultures growing up?
  • Did you yearn to belong to a group or were you content with those around you?
  • Did you grow up in a religious home?
  • How would you describe yourself in regard to religion? Atheist? Spiritual? Literal? Other?
  • What period in your life did you start questioning long-standing beliefs? How do you resolve them?
  • Are you still close to your best friend from childhood / high school?
  • Is there one person in your life who totally altered your life's trajectory?
  • How would you describe your relationship with your parents?
  • What is one thing you have done in your entire life that you wish you could take back? How have you dealt with it?
  • Are there people other than family members who helped raise you? If possible, give them a call to say, 'Thank You.'
  • Have you ever failed in starting a company? What were the lessons you learned?
  • Have you ever met a person or people that truly amazed you? What was it about them?
  • Have you ever conquered a great fear? What did you learn about yourself in the process?
  • Have you ever been culture-shocked? Where did this occur and why?
  • What has been the most transformative phase in your life?
  • Have you ever had a 'happiest day in my life'? If so, what caused it?
  • Have you ever had someone like 'Brother, Sisyer, Father, etc. I never had'? What made that person special to you?
  • What is one thing or event that if you did it, your life would be complete? What is preventing you?
  • Do you work well under stressful conditions? What helps you?
  • What are the different periods in your life that you learned a lot about yourself and the world?
  • Is there a dream or something of significance that you passed on in life because of barriers or difficulties?
  • Have you ever worked so hard at a job that you became sick? What kept you going?
  • What was one of the lowest points in your life? How were you able to bounce back?
  • What was the most fulfilling job you have ever had? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Have you ever been laid off or fired from your job? How did you deal with it?
  • What is the most expensive mistake you have made in your life?
  • Have you ever taken a risk, and it paid off? When did it not work out?
  • Has there ever been an instance where you went against your gut and regretted it? What about a time that you went with it and worked out?
  • Have you ever had mentors in your life? What did they assist you with?
  • Why is your best friend, your best friend?
  • Do you have any personal finance rules you live by? What are they?
  • From the list of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which one(s) resonates with you the most? Why?
  • What are your "happy moments" in life?
  • Have you ever given any though about your legacy? If so, what you you want it to say about you?
  • What is your Happy Money monthly amount?
  • Has there ever been a time when you refused someone's advice, but later acted upon it? What changed your mind?
  • What helps you in making important decisions?
  • What habits or practices do you have for continuous self-improvement?
  • What events or decisions were not in your favour, but with time, you were actually glad they were not? Why?
  • When you think about the fisherman and the banker story, what things come to your mind about your own life?
  • What blameworthy personality traits do you have that you would like to rid yourself of?
  • Is there a particular friendship you no longer have, but wish it would return? What is holding you back?
  • What is your love language? If you are still blessed with one or both of them, what are your parents' love languages?
  • Who has had the greatest impact on your life?
  • Have you ever felt that pursuing success in this world meant jeopardising your success in the next world? If so, why?
  • Was it ever in your spiritual practice to think about your death? If not, do you think you will now incorporate it?
  • What spiritual program do you have in place to reconnect with your Lord and regain perspective in life?
  • What charity is dear to your heart? When was the last time you donated to it?
  • Are you debt-free? If not, is it your top financial goal?

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Some simple but powerful, useful reminders

A LinkedIn connection shared this post that resonated with me on so many levels, I just had to capture these for posterity on my blog. A picture is worth a thousand words, I could write so much about each one!