CTO Sessions: Pete Kinder, Wax Digital

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? "Strangely enough it's still GDPR."

Name: Pete Kinder

Company: Wax Digital

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: July 2013

Location: Manchester, UK

Pete Kinder is Chief Technical Officer at Wax Digital, an eProcurement provider that delivers integrated Source-to-Pay solutions to savings-focused organisations around the world. Kinder has helped develop the company's eProcurement platform, web3, from being a custom-built solution for each customer, to an out of the box SaaS offering for all, with a common code base that is configurable depending on each client's requirements.

What was your first job? I worked as an IT support technician for Novartis, fixing bugs in its Documentum research document systems and providing end user support. It was a great way to gain experience with a variety of systems and to make the transition from education and into the world of work.

Did you always want to work in IT? Definitely. From an early age I wanted to be a video games tester, before quickly realising it wasn't as fun as I first thought! I then decided to move to a more technical role.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied Computer Science at Staffordshire University. My three years of hard work finally paid off when I graduated with a first class degree.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After university I set up two IT businesses including Delta Retail Solutions, an electronic point of sale software provider. Unfortunately, the recession's impact on the retail sector meant that Delta had to cease trading. I then joined eProcurement provider Wax Digital in 2010 at the age of 25 as a software developer and was promoted to Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at 27.

What type of CTO are you? When it comes to developing web3, I'm very open minded to my team's ideas. Naturally, my team and I get excited about new tech trends, from driverless cars to Google Glass, and we share ideas about how that can be applied to procurement. We don't pursue every idea, but often elements of them are applied to new developments of the software.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about? The trend of virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, has huge potential in eProcurement and we're excited about applying it to web3.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain. It's an interesting area of research and we have explored its applications. But in the real world, a truly public blockchain is an expensive system to operate effectively, and the more cost effective ‘private' blockchain applications typically negate the key benefit of it being a fully distributed and open network. There are some solid applications, but not quite as many as people initially believed.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? One of our biggest successes has been reducing the time it takes to implement our software, and that's taken a number of initiatives over the past two years. If I had to pick one it would be the renewed focus on our Integration as a Service web3 connect product, which allows us to dramatically simplify and speed up the integration of any software by using pre-built integration components. We've really pushed its use internally to integrate web3 into major ERP systems like SAP and Oracle - this has cut our implementation time down by 85% for those integrations. We've achieved this by building ‘template' connectors for over 100 systems that do most of the work out of the box, allowing the technical team to configure an interface, rather than develop one. It's been popular with clients and the same principle is being applied to the rest of our software.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? I don't see the two objectives at odds with each other - but yes! We are going through a transformation with our support process at the moment, migrating to a new system where we are able to resolve customer issues, queries and respond to comments more quickly than before, with a real focus on fixing any issues once, first time. The objective here was really to improve operational efficiency, for example fixing a bug once and then sharing that same fix with all clients before anyone else found and raised it, but that has a direct benefit to customer experience and revenue growth. It leads to a more efficient operational team but also happier clients, which ultimately leads to revenue growth.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Strangely enough it's still GDPR. We put a lot of time into building out information to help clients understand their responsibilities, but we are still fielding questions daily and it's a topic that every client has raised at least once! Fortunately, our software does lots of reporting and analytics tools to help clients identify personal data and manage it in line with GDPR, so it is usually a straightforward conversation, but it's taking more time than we expected.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I ensure that there's collaboration between all members of the software development team and other parts of the business. There's very much a DevOps culture at Wax Digital, and that ensures that all software development takes place with business objectives in mind.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I think this is a challenge for any CTO - we are always pushing to add new features and evolve our products to keep pace with the market. But we have to match this with changes in technology which have great long-term value but can be expensive and have little to show up front. For us, it's an interesting balance to keep and as a company we've invested in tackling this with a dedicated technical improvement team, which isn't tied to any one product. This gives us the freedom to push ahead with the tech strategy, without impacting what we want to do with the product suite.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Balancing the needs of the business to make money, with the desire of a technical team to push new boundaries. Often, these directions seem very different, but you can usually link a technology push to an uptick in sales or efficiency, which gives you the freedom to push ahead. That's not to say it's easy! We have found a balance where most of our initiatives are actually customer-led and exist to solve real world problems, which is a great position to be in.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think the role is changing to become a more technical role than it has been in the past. You see this with start-ups that are now becoming larger corporations, where the CTO has typically had a strong development background rather than managerial, getting more hands-on than CTOs have traditionally been. I think this is a trend that will continue due to how fast paced the technology industry has become, and also the tendency for businesses to hire multiple complimentary C-level managers who can support each other on both the pure technical and longer-term strategy side of the role. It's a good approach that can really help to accelerate the technical strategy of any organisation.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Transforming the web3 product suite at Wax Digital from what was a largely bespoke software implementation per customer, to an out of the box SaaS offering with a common code base, with regular product upgrades. It was a team effort, but a really challenging one that involved transformation of not only the software itself, but also the operational and business processes that surround it. This made sure we could still give customers what they wanted and had become used to, whilst maintaining all the benefits you get from having a single, standard code base. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I'd focus more on my work/life balance in the early days. It's a difficult thing to get right and it's something I would have wish I'd have pursued.

What are you reading now? Growing your own Heroes, by John J Oliver OBE and Clive Memmott.

Most people don't know that I… Very nearly stood for election soon after I graduated. I went through the training process for a local party and enjoyed being engaged with the local community, before my career took me on a different path!

In my spare time, I like to…Take things apart and then (hopefully) fix them, particularly electronics. I'm a big believer in fix what you have rather than buy it again and it's given me moderate success, despite my rather amateur soldering skills!

Ask me to do anything but… Eat seafood - I just can't do it!