CTO Sessions: Stuart Kemp, Reducer

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? “You need a crystal clear understanding of your business performance and how processes affect outcomes to develop a good product.”

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Reducer

Name: Stuart Kemp

Company: Reducer

Job title: Co-founder and CTO

Date started current role: June 2018

Location: London, UK

Stuart Kemp is co-founder and CTO of Reducer, the UK's most comprehensive business price comparison solution. Prior to Reducer, Stuart worked at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence where he designed and developed systems for the UK Government. During his 12 years there, he was tech lead on a major cyber security project, developed an advanced data analytics platform, and initiated several internal innovation projects.

What was your first job? My first graduate job was at Detica, a small consultancy company with a heritage in deploying mathematical thinkers to solve difficult problems like bank fraud. I was building platforms for analysing and visualising big datasets. Looking back it was an environment filled with highly technical geeks. It was a situation I felt comfortable in. Even now, many years later, I am still adapting my working style for teams that don’t always want the details of what’s going on ‘under the hood’. 

Did you always want to work in IT? I graduated in Astrophysics and I was interested in the fundamental sciences, however there weren’t many career paths on offer outside of academia. I consider myself fortunate to have been picked up by an IT company who value mathematical skills and scientific rigour.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? After graduating from Durham with a Masters in Physics I went straight into IT work. It was a steep learning curve as there was no graduate program and I was expected to pick up what I needed to learn using my own initiative. I benefited from some generous colleagues who took the time to train me, as well as working hard on a part-time degree course in Software Engineering.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My first programming experience was building models and running simulations of the universe in Fortran 77. I didn’t know back then that functional programming would be cool again 20 years later. My career took a detour from software engineering into security research. In particular I was interested in industrial control system security; looking at how we can protect critical national infrastructure, such as the power grid, from hackers. I found security work interesting but often unfulfilling due to a lack of progress and urgency. My security years have certainly helped me to become a better software engineer. 

What type of CTO are you? I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help the product team deliver results for the company. There is a tendency in software engineering to be very process driven, and to consider each developer as a resource. I think everyone brings something unique to Reducer, and it’s my job to help them maximise their contribution. I think a good CTO leaves their ego at the door and does more listening than talking.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? There is a strong argument that a significant proportion of the value created by startups in the last 10 years comes down to the benefits provided by cloud computing. We think of cloud computing as a mature technology  but I think we will see in the next 10 or 20 years that we were only just getting started in 2020. The potential for further value creation in almost all industries is huge. The average life-span of a company in the S&P 500 in 1958 was 61 years, today it’s just 18 years. Cloud computing is accelerating this trend for rapid market disruption.

I remember Johnny Lee hacking the wii remote back in 2008 in an augmented reality demo that genuinely looked like magic. Research in applying machine learning to image, video and language processing today gives me a similar feeling of awe. The benefits, such as converting a sales video into 10 different languages with perfect lip syncing, are impressive. The issues, such as deep-fakes of our politicians misbehaving, are worrying.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think transport is an area that will continue to see some spectacular failures. We’ve got cycle hire services that lose most of their bikes in canals, ride hailing apps that aggressively cornered a market with anemic looking margins, self driving cars that still look decades away and an emerging bubble in space technology that is being pumped up with vast government subsidies.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We do one-on-one’s every month at Reducer. It’s incredibly important to provide a regular space to discuss performance and issues. It's all about normalising feedback loops so they become second nature. I picked up a great tip from Kathrina Lake, CEO of Stitch Fix. In every one-on-one I ask ‘What’s one thing I could do differently?’. It's a carefully calibrated question. Asking for just one thing helps to constrain the question to something manageable. The word ‘differently’ gets more valuable results than ‘better’, because ‘better’ puts pressure on the junior team member to be critical. By opening the conversation to doing things ‘differently’ they can form their feedback into a positive, even though they are asking for a change in how you operate.

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? We have a significant project to migrate more of our operations from third party software to our core platform. In the short it means diverting development effort from initiatives that would directly impact revenue growth.

As a startup we are always balancing the short term need for revenue with the long term need for a solid product that can deliver sustainable growth. Naturally we tend to focus on some of the strategic operational functionality when our runway is long.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Each year, businesses in the UK are overspending by £8.7 billion on their business essentials. To reduce that spend, Business owners currently need to spend days of effort to find the best deals across the different services they buy. Business price comparison is tedious. We’re taking that process down to seconds.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? You need a crystal clear understanding of your business performance and how processes affect outcomes to develop a good product. Tracking the right KPIs, estimating the impact of a change on a KPI and how that change will affect overall performance is key. Facebook famously worked out that users stayed on the platform if they made 7 connections in 10 days. They focussed their product on that metric. Without good metrics, you’re shooting in the dark.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Our tech strategy is there to support the product strategy. We haven’t had any issues with alignment so far.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Of course the most important thing is that the tech strategy is informed by, and in many respects is a part of, the business strategy. I think other than that a key mistake I have seen is to consider writing strategies as a one off task, or a set of documents that are revisited infrequently. Reviewing, reaffirming and where necessary, changing, strategies leads to more successful outcomes.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTOs are going to be managing remote teams whether they planned to or not. That’s going to require a new set of skills and new ideas. I think the mature set of tools and processes typically available to product teams is going to put CTOs in a strong position to meet that challenge.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I spent some time building systems for counter terrorism teams. Seeing those systems deployed and used successfully was truly rewarding. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have bought some stocks in Zoom. Other than that the advice I would give myself would be never to take a risk tomorrow that you could be taking today. Running a startup is all about proactively seeking out and exploring risks in your business model.

What are you reading now? I’m reading Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense by Rory Sutherland. I love to hear from contrary thinkers. I also listen to a lot of podcasts; I’m currently working my way through the back catalogue of Software Engineering Radio.

Most people don't know that I… Once ran into a family of bears whilst hiking solo through the Andes.

In my spare time, I like to…Run whilst listening to audiobooks.

Ask me to do anything but… Commute long distance to work. Life is for coding, not for standing in packed train carriages.