CTO Sessions: Darragh Curran, Intercom

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “I’m excited about environmental and climate tech and the potential for it to repair the hole humanity has dug itself into.”

Headshot of Darragh Curran, CTO at Intercom

Name: Darragh Curran

Company: Intercom

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: January 2022

Location: Dublin, Ireland

Darragh Curran has been at Intercom for over 10 years and as CTO, he leads all of Intercom’s engineering teams. Previously, he worked at Amazon and software design consultancy Contrast.

What was your first job? My first job was in retail: I was passionate about mountaineering, so I worked for an outdoor clothing and equipment store. Work is more than work when it can align with a passion — and the job exposed me to the full spectrum of what it’s like to serve customers. It helped me understand the customer mindset and develop interpersonal skills.

After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin, my first ‘professional’ job was at US software company S1, which built software for banks that wanted to digitise. My job was as their ‘build engineer,’ responsible for taking all the source code and assets and assembling what could be distributed to testers and clients.

Before I got this job, I was already hooked and passionate about understanding the ways the best software engineering teams work — I was immersed in the eXtreme Programming movement, and I saw my challenge as making my job largely disappear.

This wasn’t my dream job or company, but it was a meaningful challenge, and allowed me to flex my love for heavily leveraging automation of build, test, packaging and deployment. It took me 9 months to automate my job away, turning tasks that initially took a whole day for one person to oversee to something that took minutes by the time I left.

Did you always want to work in IT? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I liked building things and problem solving at school so enjoyed woodworking and sports like mountaineering, so I toyed with the idea of being a mountain guide. However, I didn’t want to mix my hobby and career.

A career in IT has common ground between building and adventuring — there’s constant problem solving and having to make something from nothing. Tech allows you to take on challenges as big as you want and is full of opportunities to really test yourself — and just like mountaineering, an incredible breath of problem domains and industries you can apply your skills to.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied Computer Science at ​​Trinity College in Dublin, where I was awarded a scholarship and completed a bachelor's degree.

While useful or even essential in some contexts, I haven’t found certification super relevant for the work I do, nor an indicator for success — I would rather showcase our culture and the impact our team delivers through their work at Intercom.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After an internship at IBM and my first role at S1, I joined Exoftware as a software engineer and Agile Consultant, which included training and consulting, as well as bespoke software development. The project I most enjoyed there was building an online and box office ticketing system for an international film festival in a matter of weeks, using Ruby on Rails which at the time was pre version 1.0, but enabled us to move very fast, and soon after spin out a company to focus exclusively on building it into a SAAS platform for venue ticketing.

I then took 5 months off, arguably a pause or detour, to go skiing in the alps, pursuing my passion for the mountains.

Soon after, I joined Newbay Software where I became a Principal Engineer and led a team to deliver a high value, high-profile project for T-Mobile and trained other teams in software process and technical skills. Here I was able to gain great experience working with demanding customers, internal stakeholders, and larger engineering teams.

From there I joined a startup as lead engineer, where we built something interesting, but ultimately failed to get commercial traction or prove out a viable business model. I then worked with Intercom co-founders Eoghan, Des and David at their consultancy Contrast, working on client projects and our own product, Exceptional. However, I was drawn away by an opportunity to be part of the emergent cloud movement and joined Amazon working on CloudWatch and internal monitoring systems — it was a valuable learning experience, operating at scale, and sharpening what I liked and disliked and would strive to emulate or improve in my next role.

Which brought me to early 2012 when I joined Intercom, with a mission to make Internet business personal. I’ve seen Intercom grow from 5 when I joined to over 1000 employees today. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with and learn from so many incredible people, and have had the responsibility of leading our engineering team, now in the role of CTO, growing and scaling our team, product, and culture along the way.

What type of CTO are you? As CTO, my role spans responsibilities as a member of our executive team, along with leading our engineering team and more broadly our R&D team. I approach my role thinking holistically about technology, people, culture and business. I see my job as creating an environment, team and culture where great people can thrive and have high impact building a product and platform that solves our customers problems well, is reliable and trustworthy and where we can continually move fast.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m excited about environmental and climate tech and the potential for it to repair the hole humanity has dug itself into. I’m also excited about the potential for step change improvements to diagnosis, prevention and treatment of many of the illnesses and diseases that cause massive suffering throughout the world.

Closer to my area of expertise: I’ve seen how better languages, frameworks, and tooling has massively raised the ambition for the type of software people build today, and how it has become more accessible to more people to pick up this valuable skill. I’m excited about the further opportunity here. I see technology, especially software engineering skills, as a massive enabler in endless problem areas, and if we make it accessible to 10x the number of motivated people, or make it 2x as powerful, the impact you enable is mind-blowing.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? There’s an unnecessary hype around complexity and in reality, complexity is a trap. People gravitate towards it without understanding the cost and benefits. They are drawn to exciting solutions for other people’s problems. A tangible example of this is complex deployment architectures like Kubernetes — it is shiny and hyped, but not necessarily the right solution.

Part of our technology strategy at Intercom is being opinionated and conservative. We choose a small set of well-suited tools that solve the types of problems we encounter well, and we invest in deep expertise in them, and for us they become battle hardened. Doing so enables us to maximise the amount of our creative energy and problem solving skills that goes to solving real customer problems. When you insulate engineers from the responsibility of understanding, caring about, and solving customer problems, that creative energy is instead often expressed through technology exploration and bikeshedding, which usually doesn’t lead to better business outcomes, and often slows you down.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? The initiatives I’m most proud of will typically be cultural, as I think back to our job as leaders is in shaping the environment, and helping set the direction where good people can do great work together. This last year we’ve made some small but important tweaks to our mindset around ‘how we serve’ our customers. Our customer obsession doesn’t stop at understanding our customers and building the right product, it also must go to ensure customers can be wildly successful with what we built, and this requires understanding all the things that get in the way and addressing them.

With respect to product initiatives, I’m really proud of our new, next-generation Inbox — it’s a complete overhaul built from the ground up, taking the lessons of the last 5 years to build something fast by design, both through its performance and its capability. I’m also really proud of the huge engineering effort to go from being single region hosted, to now enabling our customers to choose to host their Intercom instance in the US, EU or Australia, helping companies better control their own data privacy posture and compliance.  

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? Intercom exists because all businesses are (or need to be) internet businesses. So, while I’m not leading a digital transformation internally, Intercom helps other businesses be great digital businesses.

One thing that often gets stripped away during the digital transformation of business is the human side of things. Intercom’s mission is to make internet business personal — we’re bringing the human aspect back where it matters most. As businesses go digital, the relationship with customers becomes more important and loyalty drives business value over time. This loyalty is derived from trust, and that’s what we’re helping companies establish with their customers via the right types of thoughtful, in-context engagement through the full lifecycle of a customer.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Intercom’s sweet spot is helping businesses who know they’ll grow faster by putting care and attention into the experience each individual customer has with them, giving them the right context or support at the right time, helping them find the quickest path to value, and best support if they get stuck or have a problem. Intercom excels at this.

An interesting adjacent challenge we are tackling is around interoperability. No tool exists in isolation, in fact according to this research, the average company has more than 200 distinct applications — and we are heavily invested in making sure Intercom works really together with the other tools and systems our customers depend on.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Part of the beauty of technology is that if you do things well the impact can scale and compound. You can build a product once and then tens of thousands of people will use it. When I think about technology and business goals, I think about how to deliver them against a business goal today, and how that will evolve over time. The best deployment of technology is one that can deliver compounding value over time. Because business goals typically change and evolve over time, my general technology philosophies are around prioritising our ability to move fast, to iterate, and keeping a low cost of ownership.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? No. For starters, our engineering discipline is deeply overlapping with our product and design disciplines, and engineers play a strong part in shaping product strategy. Furthermore, our technology strategy is intentionally simple and opinionated and slow moving, we expand or tweak it when we face compelling product challenges we cannot solve well with our current approach.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that gives engineers clarity around decision making and enables them to focus as much as possible on solving customer and business problems and not technology problems.

If you have a good strategy that is robust then engineers can understand it. This will enable them to think quickly, take decisive action and focus on the customer and business problems rather than the technology itself.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I don’t predict massive changes. The role of CTO has always varied, from company to company, person to person, and based on the stage your company is at. Often the role can be very focused, almost exclusively on technical challenges or IP, especially in the early days. Sometimes a CTO will partner with or leverage others to take on organisational responsibilities. Sometimes a CTO will be very internally focused, other times very outwardly focused. Sometimes they’ll be the product visionary, other times they’ll partner with a product visionary. There’s no one size fits all. But my hope or advice would be to understand your own unique situation, what your team and company need, and what your strengths are and act accordingly — don’t fill the mould of others by default.

As a C-suite role, you are a company leader, first and foremost, make it your business to keep a solid foundational awareness and oversight of business, people, technology and product aspects of the business, and then go deep in the ways you can provide the most value, building the right team around you to compliment your strengths.

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