1. Hi Andy, thank you for making the time to talk with us today, we see with great interest that you used to be a guide for the British Antarctic Survey, what has that experience taught you about defining scale and motivating in the tech world?
Working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) was a bit of turning point in my career. Before that I had been on the graduate scheme at a large Systems Integrator / Consultancy, working mainly on old school Public Sector IT projects that delivered late and added little value. Using my passion for mountaineering to help with some world leading research in an incredibly beautiful and remote place gave me a very different sense of perspective. BAS gets by on a relatively modest budget and punches well above it weight in global research by getting the basics right. This is equally applicable in the tech world from Start Up to Global Enterprise.
Most important is clarity of goal, we were often constrained by weather conditions and had to clear on what we could achieve in any window we got. The same applies in the tech world, if you don’t have access to the resources or people you think you need for something that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, you just have to think harder about options. If you’re clear with the team on what the goal is and what the key objectives are, ask them what they need to deliver these and then move all obstacles you can to help them deliver it is possible to out execute the ‘opposition’ without their advantages.
Operating practices matter as well, making sure roles are clearly defined removes ambiguity. One person might have multiple roles but if responsibilities are clear it makes it easy to perform. This is very important when you’re working outside at -20c but equally important in the heat of a project delivery or live issue. Always review these practices and be as ready to learn from new recruits as from experienced team members. Things always change so expect it, don’t fear it!
2. Your tech career is highly impressive, from developer to chief architect and now CTO of SpareRoom.co.uk. When you left university with your electrical and electronic engineering degree under your belt, how clear was your career path?
Thank you! All I knew at the end of uni was that I loved mountaineering and that I didn’t want to work in power station, nor did I want to design chips! I did really enjoying using technology to solve problems, so a graduate developer role seemed pretty sensible and gave me time to go climbing between projects! Even after coming back to the UK after BAS and starting our own company (Hacienda, think RightMove but better!) it was still a fairly nebulous plan. The global recession put paid to the start up anyway, so adapting to change is as important in my path so far as anything else.
More recently I’ve set myself some professional goals though these have been steered as much by the timing of opportunities as a need to achieve specific personal goals. So long as I’m enjoying an adventure I’ll keep going with it!
3. If you were to describe your tech career journey so far as a novel, what would it be?
Probably ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ - As many questions raised as answered, some challenges with computers being demolished from underneath me and an awful lot of travel to places I never thought I’d end up. All of it lots of fun!
4. Manchester is increasingly described as a tech hub, what do you think are its strengths and its weaknesses?
Manchester is an awesome place and is becoming even better by the day. The breadth and depth of talent is incredible, the new companies starting up are doing incredible things, office space is available for growing teams, and the tech scene is really flourishing. With the recent influx of big tech businesses into the city there is more demand for great candidates but at the same time the local universities are involved and are delivering more capable people than ever before. We are able to start bringing people north from the south east as the quality of life is as good and the cost of living is probably 50% of London. This has come about through investment from the council in infrastructure, supporting housing and office development and lots of hard work from within the community.
On the flip side the confusion around Brexit and the lack of progress with the Northern Powerhouse initiative could so easily set everything back just as it’s hit an inflection point. It only takes 2 hours to get to London on the train today so why wait 17 years for HS2 when it takes over an hour to get to Liverpool or Leeds, journeys of 1/5th the distance! If we focussed on connecting the north and making it easy for the businesses to access the whole of workforce, and for people to find a wide selection of interesting roles, we could easily be a better global destination than London, Berlin or Dublin. Though to be fair the weather can let us down against that lot as well.
5. On your recruitment page it states ‘a successful company is like a flatshare – it’s the people that make it work.’ What type of people would make it work at SpareRoom?
Our primary objective is to help people to find a new place to live, but we also like to think we are helping people find new friends to share their experiences with. The service we offer to our customers, both room seekers and landlords, is a large part of who we are and the team here very much reflect that. From our in-house Customer Service team, our Tech team, and even our Chief Exec, everyone is, or could be, a SpareRoom user. We all really care about the product and look for ways to improve it. We are a diverse bunch across our two UK offices and will keep the friendly, helpful and responsive culture going as we expand into north America so our customers continue to get a quality service and a quality of choice for their next home and housemate.
6. Your Macclesfield office is moving to the city centre next year, is your NW operation going to be a lodger or a landlord!?
We will be a lodger. Making a move anywhere can be stressful and leaping straight into a new property market without having tried it out first is scary so we’ll rent our offices for a bit and see if and when the time is right to buy something. Pretty much like our customers!
7. Which programming languages and skills are on your ‘hot’ list right now?
SpareRoom is primarily written in Perl and as we consider other technologies we have to keep in mind the longevity of the platform and the availability of skills. In the languages world, Node.js and Go continue to interest me as they develop in maturity and the ecosystem around them matures. Likewise .net Core, allowing the use of well established .net ecosystem on linux infrastructure is another one to watch.
Skills wise, developers with ops experience and sys admins with an understanding of development & real world experience of AWS or Azure continue to be hard to find. The emergence of DevOps as a role still confuses me. To me, DevOps is an approach (and a great one at that), not a job. Roles have changed but the fundamentals still matter regardless of job title. Likewise as ‘Big Data’ has now grown up and developed into something useful that helps add massive value to a business. I can see engineers (data or otherwise) who really understand how to help an organisation respond to events in real time being in ever increasing demand.
8. What do you think are the 3 major no no’s when it comes to recruiting into your tech team?
Never hire on experience alone, cultural fit and openness to learn are massively important as well. Teams learn through open conversation and everyone has to be up for questioning their own approach as well as those around them.
Never hire a candidate because they are all you can find, putting the wrong person in a team is usually worse than running a team without enough capacity. Demand can be managed, cultural damage or time lost is harder to recover from.
Never hire while you still have any niggling questions outstanding. Better another round of conversations to get to the bottom of it and understand the candidate better than taking a punt, potentially pulling someone out of another business, to discover two months in they aren’t right.
9. Are you all about the Cloud or leaning towards hybrid?
Anything new we do is basically Cloud first now but we have a big investment in physical & virtual kit that we’ll continue to use for a while yet. The ease and speed with which SaaS tools can be turned on and rolled out makes it easy to improve our tooling and processes. As our core platform evolves and we expand into more territories the ease of roll out on services such as AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud Platform makes it possible take our services to these markets very quickly. This means we can concentrate on customer service and local market knowledge, not hardware operation.