CTO Sessions: Joe Waller, Finder

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? “Spotting when they spend more on a financial product or service than they need to and helping them save significant sums of money.”

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Finder

Name: Joe Waller

Company: Finder

Job title: Chief technology officer

Date started current role: September 2018

Location: Sydney, Australia – with teams in Poland, the Philippines, the US and UK.

A driven, results-focused CTO with a passion for technology that thrives on a challenge, Joe Waller has been instrumental in launching the Finder app, virtualising Finder’s infrastructure and transforming it into a message-based event-processing stack, deploying a state-of-the-art block-based CMS and improving delivery throughput from 4 project launches a quarter to over 50. His executive experience includes transforming a startup into an FTSE 100 multinational and technology leadership of an IPO, as well as scaling a $1 million valuation angel-funded machine learning startup to a circa $100 million public company.

What was your first job? I began my career as a QA in IBM. I was a developer in my spare time, though, and automated testing and deployments of systems at IBM. This was back in 1994 when things used to be installed via floppy disks, so it was a significant labour-saving efficiency improvement for IBM that won me several awards.

Did you always want to work in IT? I wanted to be an astronaut when I was four but about a decade later, when I discovered computers with my first Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K, I was hooked. I have always loved using technology to bring delight to people.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I left school without any qualifications. I’m dyslexic and from an age before dyslexia was really recognised as a thing. I remember a teacher telling my mother that while it was possible that an intelligent child could appear stupid, had she considered the possibility that a stupid child could also appear stupid?

I was able to talk my way into a Bachelor of Science honours degree for Scientific Computing. I managed to fail most of my exams in this degree too, but due to my practical work and course work I was awarded a degree along with being awarded the university’s prize for the quality, scope and scale of the practical work – which was a 3D space flight combat simulator with AIs using fuzzy logic, sound, music, wingmen, missions, a story and more. This was what got me into my first job in computer games.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career has been fairly focussed. I worked in software engineering in four different companies before taking a software engineering role at Betfair. Within my 10 years there I was promoted 5 times, finishing up as chief of staff. I then moved to CorporateRealEstate.com as a CTO in 2014, before moving to FlamingoAI and more recently Finder, both as a CTO.

What type of CTO are you? Technology is not a service, it is an engine. Our platform is our product. The best engineering crews are completely integrated in the company, not set aside or apart as a separate entity. My engineering goals are the same as our CEO’s commercial goals: strategy, revenue and excellence in engineering.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m fascinated by DeFi and the abstraction of currency. Bitcoin could be to the dollar what the dollar was to the gold standard. This, collided with a platform-first approach to delivering products and maturing capabilities such as machine learning could make things very interesting. I think trading will migrate further into the domain of machines and the big stock market crash after this coming one will be machine led.

3D printing has also been something I’ve been following for a while – once it matures, the disruption felt will be fundamental as big factories and mass production of parts are needed less while IP and personalisation gets closer to and cheaper for people. If you have a smartwatch you can already change its face to your style very easily. People will be able to do that with physical products. This will be a transformative disruption to logistics and manufacturing.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? This is hard to answer given what has just happened in 2020. I was expecting some hype to appear around products for virtually meeting and socially distancing but I’m not seeing a huge impact of those on the zeitgeist.

A lot of people think that 5G, AR and VR are overhyped, but I don’t see it. I think VR is a growing industry and I’m not seeing bubbles in VR companies. Similarly, I don’t feel as though network tech like 5G is overhyped – we will always desire more and more bandwidth.

I do think that technology firms have very high price earnings (PE) ratios at the moment. Apple’s ratio is 36 at the time of writing. Amazon’s is 73. Google’s is 65. Tesla’s is over 1,000. Historically PE ratios this high precede a bubble bursting and a stock market crash.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I usually organise around autonomous squads running their own roadmaps (workstreams). I tend to ring-fence these squads so that they can focus on their goals really well. Each squad is accountable for their technology stack and so becomes a centre of excellence for that stack. Engineers on a stack for the long haul feel a sense of belonging and ownership and the quality increases as a result. This strategy allowed us to bootstrap our new architecture and launch our app from a standing start. However, in the last 12 months I have explored a tweak to this approach that has worked well. Squads have remained accountable for tech stacks and have kept being centres of excellence, but we have merged workstreams so that multiple squads have focussed on the same goal. Instead of a dozen teams working on a dozen projects, a dozen teams worked on two. This took a bit longer to get going, but once there was momentum, boy was there momentum. We’ve just delivered two “forever projects” – projects that have been underway for years with progress being made, and goals being met – but with the swarm approach, the goals have been nailed out of the park.

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? Yes, we’re transforming on several fronts at the same time. One project I’d like to highlight is how we’re changing the way we put our content up onto the Internet. We’re moving from flat HTML powered by shortcodes which are designed by our writers to machine-powered design powered by blocks and templates.

A huge focus on this is to enhance the customer experience, which is more important to me as a focus than revenue growth because it leads to revenue growth. The way we’re doing it actually improves operational efficiency as well. First, it removes the need for editors and writers to need to think about design. Second, it puts what they’re writing in front of them in a way that it appears on the site or the mobile device. Third, it adds tools to improve efficiency (such as inserting a product) and finally, when 500 pages need to be updated a page at a time, a block that appears on 500 pages can be updated just once for all 500 pages.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Spotting when they spend more on a financial product or service than they need to and helping them save significant sums of money.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? These are one and the same. Technology that does not serve a commercial purpose is really just an ornament. It can be pretty and even incredibly impressive, but you can not use it for anything. And a fixation on driving business goals over an understanding of the correct and appropriate deployment of technology is like driving your car without ever changing out of first gear. You won’t go very fast and you won’t get very far without blowing the engine if you try to go fast.

At Finder, we (me, the C-suite and the co-founders) started with our vision. We are here to help the world make better decisions. At a week-long offsite on the strategy we landed on a five-year mission to help our members make better financial decisions every day. We broke this up into a number of focus areas that we needed to deliver in order to complete our mission. No more than five. This was broken down further so that we understood the measurables (KPIs) that we could use.

At this point it is easy for a company to publish the mission and to put it to one side and continue business as usual. For me, it was important to organise behind our focus areas. We created the concept of a strategic pillar with each pillar being broken down into strategic initiatives, with each initiative mapped to a dedicated squad. We organised our teams around delivering our business goals. Each team was responsible for its own technology stack(s) – be they already built or to be built.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? No, not when we work on them both at the same time as a leadership team. Part of my role is to align the global executives on what we want to prioritise, and just as importantly, what we’re prepared to sacrifice. When I joined Finder, I listed out every project that each company leader wanted completed. There were more projects than there were software engineers. At that time, we didn’t meet as a leadership team every week, so I kicked off a weekly meeting. We were aligned on our strategy but we were not all executing in the same way. So my first job was to give each leader five upvotes and to get them to prioritise the top five most important projects for them. Doing this was easy, but it only gave a clear first and second place project. The rest of the projects were all about equally voted for. The harder part was still to come though. I then gave each leader five downvotes and got them to deprioritise projects that were not important to them. This took another few weeks to do, but we were left with a really focussed list of projects to execute on that I was able to organise around – and this organisation fed into our company strategy.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that has strong alignment with – and drives components of – an effective company strategy.

After that the role of the CTO is to take capabilities and find ways to arrange them into new products and services that drive value. I only have seven principles of software engineering with the first and most important principle being “don’t build it”.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I’m watching what happens to the chief product and technology officer (CPTO) role. I have loved being CPTO at Finder – but the focus just is not there to be superhuman at either, let alone both. I think that the role will remain.

What has been your greatest career achievement? We’ve done so much under the bonnet at Finder that I just can’t talk about yet – but I’m very satisfied with the capabilities we’ve assembled and cannot wait to see the ground we cover in the next 12 months. But as I can’t talk about it yet, I’ll talk about another difficult thing I led, which was finding a way to scale Betfair. What I loved about Betfair was that it provided a financial exchange that allowed customers to trade sporting odds (instead of stocks and shares).

Betfair had been an astonishing success. It had grown so much that it had reached the limit of vertical scalability. Due to the nature of the exchange, we could not scale horizontally. When trading something, we needed to commit to provide the best price possible, which meant the first person to place a trade got their transaction matched before the second person. This meant a serial process – and we could not do full table DB scans across a network – not quickly enough to meet the 1,000+ transactions a second needs that being a C2C exchange required. We also settled immediately after a market closed. We met with the big financial exchanges to see how they did it. Atos, Euronext, LIFFE, Nasdaq and more. None of them settled in real time like Betfair and none of them had the transaction volumes Betfair had. They could not help. They had not solved the problems we had to solve.

The problem was existential – if we could not solve the issue we would at first cease growing – and then assuming a competitor solved the issue, all our liquidity would move to them. Being an exchange is a winner-takes-all business. There is no motivation to put a trade down on an exchange where there is nobody to match that trade (or you just don’t get as good a price).

We managed to scale using software. It was at Betfair that I learned that you can scale almost anything using software. More efficient algorithms, faster hash tables, smaller hash tables, smarter business logic, sharper business rules, caching everywhere where there was a line on an architecture diagram, changing where logic was processed in the architecture.

Betfair grew past and out of that limit, merged with Paddy Power, and is now the largest e-gaming company on the planet.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? My biggest mistakes have all been with people. Not investing enough time with relationships and understanding what motivates and drives people. A big focus for me is on serving our crew better as a people leader.

What are you reading now? I’ve just finished 7 Powers by Hamilton Helmer and am now reading Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. It looks at Amazon’s approach to culture, leadership and best practices from the insider perspective of two of its top executives. 7 Powers is a groundbreaking and comprehensive strategic investment toolkit to help you drive enduring value. I also recommend Good to Great and Built to Last by Jim Collins.

Most people don't know that I… Love the universe. I once ground my own mirrors and made my own eight-inch reflecting telescope. I also wrote to NASA and ESA when I was seven and got my hands on some moon rocks.

In my spare time, I like to…Solve problems that generate real and lasting value. I love doing what I do. If I did not, I’d do something else that I did love. That said, if I’m not doing that, I enjoy exercise, being active, playing games and creating things.

Ask me to do anything but… Eat my greens. Unless you’re my wife and I’m in front of my kids. I’ll eat all my greens then.