CTO Sessions: Mike Fenna, Avado

What type of CTO are you? "I make an effort to always be a ‘servant leader’, and I’m certainly a people-person CTO. My number one priority is my team, they always comes first."


Name: Mike Fenna

Company: Avado

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: January 2018

Location: London, England

Mike Fenna is the Chief Technology Officer of Avado. Fenna is responsible for internal and external technology strategy and execution through business technology, development, learning platform experience, data & integration, and business transformation functions. Prior to joining Avado in 2018, Fenna spent 6 years in the insurance industry, and 12 years working for large technology companies, including Microsoft and IBM.  His roles focussed on business and technology transformation.

What was your first job? After a couple of hiccups along the way – a rejection from Tesco at age 16 to name one – and some temp work throughout university, I started my career as a developer at IBM in the year 2000, as part of their graduate scheme.

Did you always want to work in IT? Up until the last year of university, I was planning to pursue a career in music technolgoy. After one slightly unexpected job application, though, I secured a role at IBM — much to my surprise! I decided to pursue this route, keeping music as a passion on the side.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold a Computer Science Degree from University of Warwick, and quite a few project & programme management, technical and soft skills certifications. I was lucky to work at large companies early in my career who were big advocates of investing in education for staff.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Throughout university, my plan was to do a masters in music technology. That all came to a halt when I sort of stumbled upon a role at IBM. I was at a fork in the road, and chose to pursue a career in technology, and I’m really glad that I did, because today I’m able to pursue both passions.

What type of CTO are you? I make an effort to always be a ‘servant leader’, and I’m certainly a people-person CTO. My number one priority is my team, they always comes first. I ask questions and opinions of everyone on the team because in reality, they are the experts and have the knowledge to lead us to success. Whilst I may put the vision in motion, they lead the projects that drive our business forward.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Data-science in its broadest sense. More specifically, I’m intrigued by predictive analytics and machine learning, and particularly how these functions will continue to transform industries. I’ve already seen this happen since developing a data science team at Avado, but I look forward to seeing it evolve.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain, it’s one of those ‘buzzword bingo’ terms that has become overused. I understand the benefits of blockchain and how it can work, but I’m yet to be convinced that it has widespread applications that will transform peoples lives.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? There are a range of initiatives we’ve put in place since moving to full-time remote working, activities that go beyond standard day-to-day project delivery. We’ve placed a lot of focus on looking after the mental wellbeing of our staff, and how to build a team culture when not physically together. For instance, we host regular ‘virtual watercooler’ sessions which give the team a chance to connect as they would over shoulders in an office. Our employee surveys suggest that these initiatives are successful, too. Not only do we have fewer reported sick days, our employees have increased levels of happiness. I’m proud to be part of a team that has made this possible for our organisation.

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 business transformation programme which is part of our tech department. It is wide-ranging and includes customer experience improvements, internal systems transformation, culture change, brand and revenue growth through a formalised governance process. To execute our strategy, we hold fornightly prioritisation sessions with the executive team on urgent matters such as resource contention – it’s absolutely imperative to a successful programme to have complete buy-in from these key stakeholders. Part of our programme is communicating our plans throughout the organisation – the more visible it is, the more widely accepted the transformation is likely to be.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? At Avado, the clients we work with are placing even more importance on driving digital and culture transformation in their companies. They appreciate that the pandemic, and the associated economic uncertainty, means that business agility is more crucial than ever.  They are looking to learning and development to drive real change in their organisations so that their workforces are better equipped to survive and thrive through these troubled times, and this is absolutely what Avado specialises in.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? For my team, we always ensure that the tech roadmap and any project we have in motion drives back to the overarching business goals and strategy. It’s really critical to have a cohesive strategy that is valued by everyone across the business, too.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? If you’re not careful, and don’t have the right plan in place to ensure stakeholder buy-in, it’s very easy for product and tech strategies to diverge. External factors can influence product strategy, so if technology isn’t at the heart of the inevitable conversations about how to respond to those changes, you can quickly find your tech strategy is built on quicksand.

What makes an effective tech strategy? First and foremost, alignment to the business strategy. Whether that strategy is in place or not, you can always retrofit a tech strategy based on an understanding of the business startegy. And central to this is aligning with key stakolders to ensure that your tech plan maps back to the overarching business objectives. Also important to remember is that an effective strategy is ever-evolving, as our environments are constantly changing. In fact, I have a monthly reminder to review and revise our tech strategy to avoid it becoming ‘shelfware’.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Progressive companies with CTOs who value leadership from the bottom up will gain more traction, particularly as companies become rooted in flexible and remote working models. If you have a workforce spread around the world, which is very common nowadays, traditional management doesn’t work as it once did. The role of the CTO is to be transparent and empower their team to deliver.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Digging into the archives, I’m very proud of a national project I ran to increase border security in 2007 — the July bombings happened whilst we were working on it, which was a difficult thing to manage. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of pressure, and a lot of risks to mitigate. We spent nearly two years rolling out the project, but because of the precautions we took, everything ran smoothly despite the severity and uncertainty of the environment at the time.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? When I was coasting in a previous roles at a different company, I would have ‘made the leap’ a bit sooner to look for something new, rather than continue coasting for a while. But, personally, once I’ve learned lessons, I try not to look backwards to often, and instead focus on the present and the future.

What are you reading now? The Whistler by John Grisham. I’m a big fan of fiction, so Stephen King is always on the book shelf as well.

Most people don't know that I… I’m a lead guitarist for a blues-rooted rock band that’s made a couple of live apperances on national radio stations including the BBC.

In my spare time, I like to…Spend time with my wife, kids, and walking our friend’s German Shepherd, who we seem to have semi-adopted and lives with us half the time. Most of the rest of my spare time is taken up with writing, recording, listening to, watching, and playing music.

Ask me to do anything but… As my wife will attest, I have no problem taking on projects, big or small, around the house and garden, but I’m really not a fan of ongoing maintenance – jobs that need to be done repeatedly forever – so I’ll happily build a shed, but I hate weeding!