Succeeding in uncertain times

June 2016

Help, support, advice, guidance road signThe macro climate throws up challenges that start-ups might not be equipped to meet. Philip Symons MBCS, Director of Zapplication Limited, explains how the BCS Entrepreneurs Group’s innovative CTO-In-Residence scheme can help.

BCS is well known as the body supporting education and professional standards in computing and IT. Do we also support enterprise? Are we directly involved with entrepreneurs, and if so, is that involvement confined to the IT sector? The answer is: yes.

The BCS has recognised that almost every business, even if not in the technology business, uses technology in their business. So the goal of the BCS Entrepreneurs Group is to enable every entrepreneur - regardless of the market they operate in.

The CTO-In-Residence scheme is an example, and BCS Entrepreneurs Group has now completed arrangements for a CTO-In-Residence to be provided to SETsquared, a leading player in the startup scene.

SETsquared is a long-standing partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey which specialises in growing high-tech start-ups through its incubation programme and other business acceleration services. SETsquared has taken first place in the UBI Global World Top 25 University Business Incubators 2015 rankings.

Independent research carried out by Warwick Economics estimates the economic impact of SETsquared member companies to be £3.8bn over this period, with the creation of 9,000 jobs and that these companies will go on to deliver a further £8.6bn of impact to the UK economy in the decade ahead.

What is a CTO-In-Residence?

A Chief-Technology-Officer-In-Residence is a senior figure with extensive experience in the field of computing and information technology who is on site at an incubator such as SETsquared for agreed periods of time each month.

Many of the startups at SETsquared won’t have their own CTO, but they still have to make decisions on technology. They’ll now be able to talk to a senior figure who can give them quick feedback on ideas they’re considering.

Even businesses with their own chief technical officer can benefit from the CTO-In-Residence. The CTOIR is not a replacement for company executives - he or she is a mentor.

Decisions often go through many rounds of research and discussion before the answer becomes clear. The CTO-In-Residence will often be on hand for quick meetings at short notice, where ideas can be bounced around. This is a natural fit for an iterative decision-making process.

By directing management away from dead-end lines of enquiry into more promising directions, the CTOIR can help businesses to speed up tech decisions and get better results.

Facing Brexit

In the growth phase of a business, what do entrepreneurs spend most time thinking about? Generally it’s about how to stay competitive and grow in their chosen market. There would be something seriously wrong if they did anything else.

It’s hard to say what the effect of Brexit (now perhaps looking less ‘flexible’), the Trump Presidency, or economic and regulatory changes will be - and when those effects make themselves felt. Most of this macro information doesn’t generally matter to startups, but just occasionally it matters very much. The CTO-in-Residence spends more time considering the macro level than the entrepreneur can. They may be able to provide that snippet of vital information.

An ear to the ground

At the micro level ‘choice fatigue’ afflicts IT professionals as much as it does technology users. Trying to make a full investigation before each technical decision leads to ‘paralysis by analysis’.

‘Big data’ is an example. Does the company’s data qualify as ‘big’? Perhaps - but the majority of technology in this area is likely to be irrelevant. The CTO-In-Residence can narrow the search.

Trade gossip about a product can often be a quick and reliable way to decide whether a product or technology is the future or fading way. The CTO-in-Residence has many sources of ‘industry buzz’ and can pass on what’s useful to the entrepreneur.

Keeping an eye on P and L

Even a supreme technical expert may have a limited appreciation for how technology decisions impact the financial performance of the business. As a board-level professional, the CTO-In-Residence understands the connection. They can help to fit decisions to business strategy.

Leaving a problem to be dealt with later in product development can hugely increase the cost of putting it right, but you may not have thought about the
opposing scenario.

Taking on ‘technical debt’ by leaving the problem alone may be the right solution if it improves cash flow and time-to-market. Just as a finance director may advise that the risk of taking on monetary debt is more than offset by improved financial performance, the CTO-in-Residence may suggest that certain issues be left alone until the business has more customers. At that point, the increased revenue makes it more affordable to do the fix.

How do you know which problems must be dealt with and which can be left? That takes experience, and that’s where the CTO-in-Residence can help.

A trusted voice

The BCS is developing its entrepreneurial capability, but is still the leading professional body for IT practitioners. Its code of conduct binds the CTO-In-Residence, as it does any other BCS member. You can be confident that you’re are receiving unbiased, professional advice.

It’s easy for the daily needs of a business to get in the way of the ‘big picture’. The CTO In Residence can help. Brexit is only one example: growth of the business, changes in regulations, or changes in the world of technology can all make it important for old decisions to be revisited.

As a senior executive the CTO-In-Residence will point up the effects that decisions on tech are going to have on time-to-market or the financial returns achieved by the business. As a member of the leading professional body in computing, bound by its code of conduct, a high level of integrity and neutrality is guaranteed.

The CTOIR in action

A CTO-in-Residence can offer advise about many of the challenges faced regularly by businesses. Here are some examples of solutions they’ve alighted upon previously:

  • Cost reduction: A startup was concerned that as they processed increasing amounts of client data, the cost of their in-house-developed big data application was eating into any profit. A review of the design identified cost reductions. Computing-power costs were drastically reduced by migrating the application to a cloud configuration optimised for data throughput. The reduction in computing power needed cut costs and improved profitability. The CTO-in-Residence then worked with the CTO and the CEO to account for these technical factors in the client contract and ensure that profitability would be maintained in future.
  • Keeping pace with client demands: One startup was losing sales, as the product didn’t meet the client’s internal IT requirements. The CTO-in-Residence supported the technical team in meeting immediate needs, as well as mapping out the longer-term change and evolution of the product. The CTO-in-Residence identified a problem on-boarding of clients, and the need for self-service tools to speed up that process. This played a significant part in restoring a healthy revenue stream.
  • Tuning the sales process: A comparison of the competing technology helped one startup to sharpen technical descriptions and sales messages; new sales opportunities were also identified. The handling of client objections and meeting the technical challenges of product integration can delay a sale. The CTO-in-Residence prepared a list of areas to be considered in ‘pre-sales’ discussions. This sped up the implementation time from twelve weeks to four and reduced costs
    for clients.

Can the BCS Entrepreneurs Group help?

Could your incubator or accelerator use a CTO-in-Residence? It’s only one of the ways we can help young businesses grow. Have a look at the BCS Entrepreneurs Specialist Group web page, or contact us by email at john.morton@bcs.org or shakeeb.niazi@bcs.org.

Image: iStock/3D_generator

There are no comments on this item

Leave Comment

Post a comment