CTO Sessions: Donovan Frew, Goodlord

What makes an effective tech strategy? “The thing to always bear in mind is that strategy and execution go hand in hand, so the most important thing about strategy is that it’s executable.”

Headshot of Donovan Frew, CTO at Goodlord

Name: Donovan Frew

Company: Goodlord

Job title: Chief technology officer

Date started current role: April 2018

Location: London

Donovan Frew is CTO at RentTech company Goodlord. Having worked in technology his entire career –with previous roles at Booking.Com, Cable and Wireless Jamaica and Stratejet– Frew has a wealth of experience and knowledge he uses to drive Goodlord, and RentTech in general, forward.

What was your first job? I’ve always been in tech – even my summer jobs were in tech departments. But my first job out of university was as a programmer analyst for Cable and Wireless Jamaica. I was building applications to improve the operational efficiency of the customer support team.

Did you always want to work in IT? As a young boy, being a pilot seemed amazing to me, but everything changed when I got my first exposure to computer science in year 9. My school opened a computer lab and I found it all really interesting – it was then that I knew I wanted a career working with computers.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I got my bachelor’s degree in computer science at the University of West Indies. Computer science was my major and I also took the opportunity to minor in subjects outside of tech. I’ve always seen what I do as an enabler for something else and so I took economics and marketing alongside the main degree.

After my bachelor’s, I got my masters from the University of York in software engineering. I also have a number of Sunand Microsoft certifications.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I have had a lot of jobs in my time, all of which were within the tech sphere in some way. The only time I ever really veered away from a career in tech was at college.

There was a time when it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to get into the computer science programme at university and so I briefly considered other avenues. I took some classes that would help me get into hospitality as that’s a big industry in Jamaica but luckily, I changed schools and got back on track eventually earning my degree in computer science.

Following my degree, my first job was as an analyst at Cable and Wireless Jamaica – they were one of the biggest tech employers in the country and so it made sense for me to start my career there. From that job, I got a scholarship to come to the UK to do my masters.

When I returned from my masters, I felt like I wasn’t able to fully utilise the knowledge I had just gained, as the tech environment in Jamaica wasn’t sufficiently advanced. That prompted me to move to the UK where I worked for the company that became Booking.com as a web developer. At some point, I had the same feeling I had in Jamaica – that I wasn’t really doing software engineering, I was just programming websites.

From Booking.com I moved to i2 (now a part of IBM), where I worked on analytics products for intelligence agencies such as GCHQ, London Metropolitan Police, etc. The nature of the product and problem meant that we had to apply rigorous software engineering techniques across the entire product life cycle.

A few years into i2 a Product Manager role came up and, while I had no intention of giving up software development, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to spend more time in the earliest stages of the software development life cycle. I took up the role and spent two years learning the tools of the trade which would eventually come in handy later in my career when I took charge of a Product team.

It was at Secret Escapes that I got my first role as a CTO – I was in the right place at the right time when the previous CTO left and it ended up being the longest I’ve ever spent at one company.

In between Secret Escapes and my current role as CTO at Goodlord, I had a brief stint at a company called Stratejet. William Reeve, the now CEO of Goodlord, reached out to me for the project, and when that didn’t work out, we both moved on to Goodlord.

Overall, my career has all been tech or tech related in its focus – some moves were deliberate, others were serendipitous.

What type of CTO are you? I am a people and product focused CTO, who is mostly hands off.

My area is technology but first and foremost I’m a problem solver. While I’m biased towards using technology to make people’s lives better, the reality is that not all problems are tech problems and so I take a holistic approach, applying the tools that I think are best suited to the problem at hand.

Our users are trying to build and run a profitable business or in, the case of tenants, move into their new home. They want that to be the best possible experience, not just use tech for tech’s sake.  That’s something that remains front of mind in my role as CTO. 

That said, I do love technological problems and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty if I need to. In fact, I don’t like to be too far away from what happens on the ground because then I can’t relate to some of the concerns or issues that get raised.

But ultimately, my job is to leverage the skills of the people around me to get the most out of them. If I am hiring the right people, giving them the right training, and creating an environment for excellence, then the rest will take care of itself.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? It’s really a great time to be a tech enthusiast as there are so many cool innovations popping up everyday. In the lettings space we have seen the difference that technologies like Open Banking, e-singing and digital identity and document validation makes to the overall process. Imagine where we would have ended up without this kind of technology during the pandemic? 

Outside of lettings, I’m captivated by rejuvenation / anti-ageing tech. I’m not alone, Altos Labs, for example, recently raised $3B from backers like Jeff Bezos with the goal of transforming medicine by reversing diseases. 

Of course, the search for the fountain of youth isn’t particularly new and always ended in failure, but with the technological advances we’ve made in biology and AI coupled with the scale of data we are currently able to process then this time could be different. And think about the possibilities and prospects for humanity if they succeed. Think about the ethical and philosophical questions that this raises. It’s truly fascinating.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain is somewhat overhyped. There is definitely potential for the technology but oftentimes the problems being solved with blockchain could have been solved with other existing, better understood technology. Or on the flip side, the problems proposed to be solved with blockchain are simply impossible as their solution isn’t rooted in technology (see what’s happening with crypto for an example of this). It’s just really hard for me to think about blockchain and think this is the future.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We’ve recently introduced a Tech Leadership book club, where we choose a book each quarter, read it, discuss it, and take actions from it into the next quarter. We’ve had book reviews at Goodlord before but on an adhoc basis, we decided to formalise it and added it to our quarterly objectives in order to cement it into our culture. 

The transformational effect has been palpable. There are books that I’ve read multiple times that have come up in book club which I now have a new appreciation for. The way we dissect and discuss the content has helped our leadership team to develop a shared understanding, communicate with a consistent language and approach issues in a coherent manner..

Some recent books include: Working Backwards; High Output Management; Start With Why; and Crossing the Chasm.

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? Goodlord is all about digital transformation. We’re taking what is an extremely manual, paper-based process and, through the use of the latest technology, digitising it end to end. The end result is a far superior experience for everyone involved. 

Customer experience always takes precedence as it drives engagement, loyalty, and ultimately long-term success. I believe that revenue follows customer experience so any investment in customer experience is an investment in revenue growth. 

This is not to say that operational efficiency should be ignored. One of the great benefits of technology is its ability to completely revolutionise the way we work, completing in seconds what used to take days. For a business with low/negative margins this could be the simplest and fastest way to improve their outlook. 

So how do we balance both? We listen to our customers/users and adapt as necessary. In today’s environment, for example, we’re facing the very real possibility of a recession and businesses are looking at how to run their operation in a much leaner way. That tells us that we need to be focusing on giving them those tools to improve efficiency. But while operational efficiency has a fixed lower limit (you can’t reduce costs below zero), there’s potentially no upper limit to revenue growth so we’ll always keep an eye on that.

Generally speaking, achieving this balance all comes down to embedding ourselves with our customers and truly understanding what’s best for them.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Compliance. There is new legislation coming out all the time which means that Lettings Agents have to remain vigilant in order to avoid falling foul of the law. But they also have a business to run and are generally not legal experts.

By keeping on top of compliance, our platform allows agents to focus on what they do best while feeling assured that they are not making any potentially costly legal mistakes.  

Inflation is another topical issue. Costs are going up everywhere and to remain profitable, businesses need to optimise their costs or increase their revenue. Goodlord helps with both as we offer products that help to boost an agent’s revenue stream as well as tools to help make their operations more efficient, ultimately reducing their costs. 

And of course, the core of what we do is transforming a manual workplace into a digital one, which is more important now than ever. For example, when the pandemic hit face-to-face approval of documents for tenants had to be suspended and the process handled digitally instead. This is something we were able to help our customers with in the short term, and also something that we are now integrating into our product permanently as document verification can continue digitally post pandemic.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? It’s simple, business goals drive technology use, not the other way around. Earlier I mentioned taking a holistic approach to problem solving then choosing the most appropriate solution. When the most appropriate solution is tech, we default to working with what we already know, this means we’re able to leverage our existing skills and focus on solving the problem rather than learning the technology.

However, there are times when the solution requires introducing new technology. In these cases we take a defined approach to choosing and defining new technology. Most importantly though is to never lose sight of the business goal.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? In my current role, I don’t really have any trouble matching the product and the tech strategy as I’m responsible for both. This was actually a deliberate decision to ensure that the two never diverge and would instead develop/evolve together. 

I mentioned earlier that strategy and execution go hand in hand and it’s at the execution phase where things tend to get a bit trickier. For us it’s the same group of people that are responsible for delivering both strategies which means that we have to prioritise the activities against each other.

Sometimes it’s straightforward and a particular product strategy depends on implementing parts of your tech strategy. Quite often though, the dependency isn’t so obvious and in these cases rigorous analysis coupled with good judgment is needed.

What makes an effective tech strategy? The thing to always bear in mind is that strategy and execution go hand in hand, so the most important thing about strategy is that it’s executable.

Execution is usually the responsibility of the team who won’t be able to do so unless the strategy is clearly defined, consistently communicated and readily accessible. But the whole point of the tech strategy is to enable business goals which means that the tech strategy must be aligned with the organisation strategy.  

That description is somewhat generic and abstract. In more concrete terms, I think an effective tech strategy needs to include, a minimum:

  • Vision 
  • Business drivers 
  • Guiding technology principles
  • Gap analysis on where we are now compared to where we want to be 
  • Constraints including budget, time, people, technology
  • Risks

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? We are going to start seeing more CTOs in the boardroom.

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