Nominet CTO, Oli Tweedie, joined as the custodian of the .uk domain in November 2022, taking over a tech transformation project that was already in progress. He considers what questions those in his position should be asking themselves and others.

Where do I even start?

As a CTO, CIO, or any leader of a technology team, you’re always coming in to make an impact and deliver business change. It’s exceedingly rare that you’re leading a completely new wave of transformation: you’re often brought in to fix an existing programme that didn’t hit the mark — a brownfield site, rather than a greenfield. You inherit a lot of decisions, technologies, and people. Rather than asking yourself where you should start, try thinking to yourself: how can I make the best out of this situation without starting all over again?

It’s a case of building on the transformation efforts of others. The truth is that old systems are the most successful ones — they wouldn’t have become old if they weren’t successful. Some technology leaders see the latest technology on offer and decide to just start everything again from scratch. They try and replace 20 years’ worth of incrementally built systems and process in two years and wonder why it fails completely. That’s not how you do modernisation. Stop yourself from following the crowd with a ‘big bang’ replacement, and beware of consuming more than the strictly necessary capabilities. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater to transform.

It's also critical to have the right people around the table with the best attitudes. There can be big challenges when inheriting a transformation project that has faltered — a lot of technological complexity, a damaged culture, and sometimes a downturn in productivity. It’s important to be empathetic, listening carefully to everyone about what went wrong and how they suggest fixing it.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to turn a culture around quickly, especially after a transformation project hasn’t ended up how it was planned. You need to understand where expectations might not have matched reality and where people have been involved in challenging elements. Even though a lot of things are quick fixes, it takes some time to feel the positive effects.

Try to identify who your change agents are within the team — people that you know are on your side and can support in driving things forward. Leveraging them correctly can have a hugely positive influence on your team and can really support your people in feeling positive and excited about what lies ahead.

How can I set my people up for success?

While being a successful technology leader comes down to experience, a lot of it isn’t technology related. Most of it is about setting your people up for success, taking constraints away, and enabling them. Often, you’ll hear people talk about ‘people, process, technology’ — I’ve found that it really is in that order.

For example, you can’t execute agile transformation and shift from waterfall to agile if you haven’t set your teams up properly to do so. For agile you typically need all the skills in the team to deliver the outcome, as opposed to waterfall where there are multiple teams organised by skill type with hand-offs between each one.

So, set up the teams based on what is needed for specific outcomes, or domains, and have the right mix of people in each team, scaling horizontally as your scope increases. Once you’ve set up the people and transitioned to the new process, then you can deliver the right technology.

Ask yourself: does your software development lifecycle (process) happen inside one team (people)? If the answer is that it happens in many teams, you’re likely to have a problem with getting things done, and with agility in general.

At Nominet, we’re using Team Topologies, which provides a methodology to shape teams for modern software development. It works by creating four key team structures with three core interaction modes, which streamlines work and aligns teams with value streams. But most importantly it is a people-first approach to building and running software systems.

How can I focus on the right things?

At home I don’t live a minimalist life, but I like the idea of it – you don’t need too much clutter. And the same can be said for digital transformation technologies.

Lots of people embrace the cloud, and they understand how to deliver software, but not in the cloud specifically. Cloud services are now so productised that many are like kids in a sweet shop, buying new software left, right and centre. It’s easy for developers to just go on Amazon Marketplace, for example, and purchase something they want, just because they can. This can lead to extremely complicated systems that have every component under the sun and present a support nightmare.

You’ve got to be a discerning buyer. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to use it — more people need to consider that everything they add to their stack has to be managed, maintained, supported, and paid for. Whilst the cloud has reduced friction, its consumption has opened the floodgates of complexity, and many are being swept away.

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Additionally, when organisations put a lot of resource into building the next exciting thing, the danger is that it only serves to distract everybody from the current business needs. Technology teams have a lot they need to take care of, so real trade-offs are inevitable. If the major transformation programme falls short in any effect, or does not turn out how it was hoped, IT leaders might quickly realise everything else has been neglected in the process, core business-as-usual systems have become obsolete, and they’ve ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.

Rather, ask yourself ‘what’s the business opportunity?’, and work backwards from this. Don’t forget that you’re solving human-centric problems.

Innovation is necessary — but how much?

As CTOs, we’re always interested in what’s next, and what solutions have been created to solve a variety of problems. Currently, we have a growing interest in AI — beyond some of the headlines in the press, the AI future is not just hype. Companies like Google are demonstrating its value themselves, and this is inspiring other businesses. But I believe it’s going to take time for companies to figure out how to use it properly, and my concern isn’t about killer robots from the future — it’s trust and safety, which can be easily jeopardised.

Last thoughts

Digital transformation is the modern equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge – when you think you are coming to the end, you realise you are actually never finished. You are stepping in and inheriting an imperfect situation, and you look to solve those things in a human-focused way. The CTO that follows you will feel the same — that’s the circle of life.