CTO Sessions: Frédéric Rivain, Dashlane

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? “Always solving the equation of convenience + security.”

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Dashlane

Name: Frédéric Rivain

Company: Dashlane

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: November 2015

Location: Paris, France

Frederic Rivain is a passionate CTO, who joined Dashlane after several years working in gaming and ecommerce. He is eager to learn, innovate and have fun with his team, so that Engineering can efficiently support the Dashlane business and offer the best service to Dashlane users. Outside of work, he always keeps very busy, being the proud father of 3 daughters. He needs his frequent dose of sport, as he likes to practice French boxing and trail running.

What was your first job? I started my career at IBM after receiving an IBM scholarship at the end of my studies. I worked mostly as a technical project manager and did a bit of software engineering.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not really, we did not have a computer in my home until I was about 15 years old. IT is something I mostly discovered during my time at university; I liked to use the computer for creative capabilities (3D rendering, video editing, games, etc.).

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied in France at Ecole Centrale, which is a general engineering course that teaches you mechanics, physics, chemistry, and more. I went on to specialise in computer sciences at Cambridge University in the UK.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started at IBM after receiving a company scholarship; it was a great start to my career, and I learned a lot, but I did not particularly enjoy the consulting world. After four years, I moved to a small video game company, where for six years I worked on mobile games (remember the J2ME mobile games on Nokia?), TV games (running games on set top boxes), and on the web when online gaming started picking up.

I then joined as the CTO of an early ecommerce startup, incubated by Veepee, the French equivalent of gilt.com. We offered a turnkey solution for luxury companies to start their ecommerce activity, and built the online shops for Karl Lagerfeld and André Courrèges. Unfortunately, just 18 months in, Veepee decided to stop the adventure, so I moved on to Betclic, an online gambling company. At the time, Betclic had been facing economic difficulties, including layoffs, and immediately I had to rebuild an entire engineering team. I learned a lot while working to turn the company around, particularly when it came to managing teams across three different offices (Paris, Malta, Minsk), which added to the cultural experience.  

I joined password manager Dashlane after being a user since it was in beta—it’s been an incredible experience from the beginning. A constant choice in my career has been to work on a product or content with actual users (games, shopping, gambling, tools like Dashlane). I like to know that I am having an impact on people’s lives.

What type of CTO are you? Above all I am a people person—I consider myself a coach for my teams. What is the most rewarding to me is when team members tell me that I helped them grow and evolve in their life and career. I especially enjoy that this is in a technical context, since my engineering fiber still resonates, even though I have never actually been a software engineer. I am a very structured and action-driven person, which to me is critical when you are accountable for the delivery of an engineering team.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Technology is just a tool, a means to an end. I am more excited by its potential application than by one particular technology. For example, it’s more exciting to me that, at Dashlane, we can build a smart solution that helps everyone have a more convenient online life, while preserving online privacy and security. Of course, this relies on technology: cryptography, machine learning, etc.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Cross-platform frameworks, such as React Native (or Electron and similar technologies). I would love for those solutions to work as best as I would expect them to, but have always been kind of disappointed. There are always significant drawbacks to trying to use one tool to rule them all. However you do need to find the right code mutualisation between different apps to maximise the investment.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? It’s likely no surprise that in the last 12 months Covid and all of us being remote now have had a significant impact. For Dashlane, this was compounded with a history of high growth: we had doubled the size of the engineering team between the end of 2018 and early 2020. So we had to really step up our game on our engineering shared practices: formalise in writing consistent guidelines to operate teams, level up on project management best practices, and reinforce our quality strategy. It is not perfect and not over but it has allowed us to clarify expectations across the organisation, improve quality, predictability and time to market.

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? Not exactly a digital transformation as such but I can speak to two key transformational initiatives:

Dashlane has historically been more of a consumer product, but last year, we decided to invest into B2B as a growth driver. This is challenging for the organisation; as we discover a new business line, we ramp up on new skills and teams like Sales and Customer Success. Engineering and all the other functions must now start thinking with both the consumer and the enterprise in mind. That is definitely an exciting ride as we continue to grow in the enterprise world.

As a company, we recently made the decision to  focus solely on developing our Web application to ensure the highest quality and most secure experience we can deliver to our customers. To meaningfully impact their day-to-day security online, our autofill needs to be so fast and so reliable that it’s more convenient than typing memorised passwords or other convenience-based habits. The web-first experience is a significant step forward in this regard, and it has dramatically outperformed our desktop apps on autofill and user experience. This was a massive challenge: both for the product and engineering teams to ensure our web product was as mature as our legacy desktop apps, but also for customer support and marketing to bring our customers along for this new world. We are doing our maximum to build the best web experience for Dashlane customers, but nobody likes change so it's not always an easy journey.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Always solving the equation of convenience + security. How can we offer a password manager that is super simple to use, while being the most secure one. We just relaunched our one-click Password Changer feature with that in mind.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We start from a company vision, that translates into a Product strategy and an Engineering Strategy to support it. This helps surface where technology is needed to find the right solutions. For instance, how do we build an automated password changer mechanism that can run locally on a device, be scalable and reliable? This is an exciting technical challenge to work on.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Sometimes solutions are unknown and we can’t solve them through technology because of constraints or limitations. It forces us to be creative and at times hack our way to solutions. An example is the mobile ecosystem (both iOS and Android): we are very limited in our capabilities to autofill on phones, so in time we have found workarounds and tricks to still offer the best possible experience to our customers. Technology could not really solve that.

What makes an effective tech strategy? First, to have one. So many companies don’t have an explicit written shared tech strategy. The high-level goals can be top-down from tech leadership, but the tactics and the roadmap to support it needs to come from the engineers themselves so they feel engaged and accountable for the strategy. Then that tech strategy needs to be shared beyond the engineering team to the whole company.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? It is going to be more and more of a versatile, hybrid role. On top of technical skills and leadership aptitude, business-savviness and knowledge of other functions (product, marketing, finance) will be necessary to be a great CTO.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I am most proud of the people I’ve worked with and what they’ve grown to achieve. For instance, I once received an email from a team member who had left the company, telling me how much he had learned  and grew from working with me. This is what allowed him to go to a great next opportunity. At the end of the day, it is all about people's stories.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? It can be a struggle to identify when an employee may not work out or become toxic for the organisation. It’s my optimistic nature to believe that people can change, but unfortunately that’s not always the case, and there are times in my career when I wish that I had acted faster.

What are you reading now? The Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt. It’s the story and learnings from Bill Campbell, who coached many of the great Silicon Valley leaders. It’s a great refresher on core leadership spirit and practices.

Most people don't know that I… don’t have much to hide, I like sharing what happens in my personal or work life. This is what allows you to build intimacy and trust between people. I even think we don’t do that enough in the workplace.

In my spare time, I like to…Take care of my three daughters. And between work and the kids, I run, and practice French boxing. I also still find a bit of time to play video games (PC player).

Ask me to do anything but… I usually faint at the sight of blood!