From Zero to CTO — Dominic Barker is in the spotlight

Yeah, it really was that funny.
  • Name: Dom Barker
  • Age: 34
  • Current position: Co-Founder & CTO at Fluidly
  • Bio: I’m a CAD manager turned software engineer. I changed career eight years ago and haven’t really looked back. I returned to a purely technical role when I switched to software and stayed that way for a couple of years. After that I found my self back as a technical leader, but this time in startups. Some very early stage, some a little further on.

Last summer I met with Caroline Plumb and co-founded Fluidly, a ML / AI fintech startup that helps small business manage, forecast and optimise their cash flow. We’ve raised over £2m from Octopus, Anthemis, Nyca and some angel investors truly worthy of the label. We have our first product in production and are very proud to be a Xero developer partner. With the team full resourced, it’s time to execute and unleash the awesome. Albeit in a Californian rather than biblical sense.

Tell us about your life before leadership — what kind of roles and projects did you work on?

In my civil engineering career my two major projects were the London 2012 Olympic Games and Crossrail. I still see lots of features that I drew as much as 15 years ago when walking round London.

As a software engineer I started out in an agency environment; it was great beacause I got to work on lots of different projects across the full stack. From back-end and .net stack, to back-end ruby / nodejs and also some of the earlier front-end Javascript MVC frameworks like JMVC and knockout.js. This set me up well for my future roles where I specialised in heavyweight front end Javascript engineering.

How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?

My first leadership role was managing the drawing office for a very large civil engineering consultancy. It wasn’t my idea — at the time I was a freelancer and quite happy spending most of my time playing records. My boss had other plans and she told me: ‘You need a career not a job. Let’s get you into management’.

She seemed to have so much belief in me that I just went along with it. I really can’t remember exactly why, but thanks Barbara!

How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?

The transition was easy enough — I was still spending 50% of my time doing technical work and I just got on with the rest. I was also well supported despite it being a very corporate environment and I had mentors on hand to talk through problems. I had lots of help getting up to speed on HR and legal issues which has been really useful throughout the years.

I found the pressure difficult and I felt burdened by the responsibility — it was no longer just about me, and I worried about how my actions would directly affect the people in my team. While the pressure was useful for keeping focus, I had a natural inclination to try and keep everyone happy which was not always easy or even possible.

What came more easily was thinking of creative ways to empower the team. I’d write software to make their day jobs easier (how I ended up in this CTO mess!) and find business-wide IT cost savings which I’d trade for a bigger equipment budget.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

Not being proactive enough when problems were occurring. I’d ruminate and try and think of clever ways to solve everything, rather than decisively taking action and doing the best I could. In the worst cases I’d hide inside technical work rather than confront the wider issues.

What made you keep doing it?

I like people and like seeing them achieve their potential. I’m entirely self-taught — by which I mean I have no academic or vocational training so seeing people excelling at their job gives me lots of satisfaction.

It realised that solving really hard problems is too much for one person. I’ve always liked building things, but for the big things you need to work differently: you build the team and they build the thing.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

I once made a breakbeat record that was reviewed by Mixmag. They described it as ‘lukewarm’.

What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?

Need is a strong word and three is too few skills! Every leader has their own style and there are lots of ways to do manage. These are what works for me:

Empathy. All humans (even techies!) run on feelings. Having some level of understanding of what people are going through is critical to knowing their motivations. Without that it’s much harder to align everyone's interests.

Vision. If you don’t know where you are going, people are unlikely to follow. Part of this is the ability to communicate your vision articulately so that it find it’s way into other people’s heads. Otherwise it’s just a daydream.

Humility. It’s not about you — you are not the star, your team is. You are only successful because they work hard.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

Hiring is expensive, time-consuming, risky and fraught. Best avoided where possible by retaining the people that you have.

We’ve invested heavily in a substantial team of incredible software engineers, data scientists and product people. It’s my job to ensure we get the best return on that investment. I spend lots of time listening to my team in our 1:1s ensuring they have the tools and support to be successful. I can’t always fix everything, especially in an early stage startup environment. Often if people feel heard, understood and have the space to share how they feel, they’ll be much happier.

Finally, many management issues are best solved at the hiring stage. Engineering is a team sport, and collaboration and communication skills are just as important as technical skills. Having a team that plays nicely together will prevent a lot of long-term dysfunction.

How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?

Smile! You don’t have to go full swivel-eyed-I drank-the-kool-aid-delirious, but it is important to remain upbeat and be a source of positivity. It’s probably fair to say I balance that with an (occasionally) endearing curmudgeonly edge. I try to say ‘thank you’ and ‘awesome job’ as much as I can. And I tell my team members that whatever it is, they can do it; I empower them to find a way. It might take a while, but success is inevitable and it will be quicker next time.

More difficult feedback is padded with sympathy and solutions. I can’t always say ‘awesome job’, but I ought to have constructive ideas for how to make things better.

It’s vital that I absorb as much of the pressure from above as possible. If that doesn’t happen, that stress and pressure will radiate down. The team have enough worries of their own, they don’t need mine too.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

With great hypocrisy. I encourage my team to not over-work, to take lots of holiday and to treat rest as important as any other aspect of their work. It’s good advice that I haven’t been good at taking myself. I do however, ride mountain bikes and try hard to make time for it as it improves my fitness and my mood. I’ve started running too — you accomplish a decent distance in an hour so it’s easier to fit into the day.

Some dogs listen, Biggles understands.

I also make a point of never rushing anywhere and leave plenty of time to get places and arrive early. I think there are some unnecessary stresses that you can avoid entirely. Rushing around is one of them.

I also find that my dog is a great listener.

How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?

That’s not too hard in an early stage startup — I just keep my ears open as we are all in the same room! But I do also make the time to go and talk to people. 9 to 5 is pretty blocked out, so breakfast and lunch meetings work well for getting to know people in other parts of the business. It’s a nice way to spend time with colleagues too. ‘Face’ time is the most important thing, snooping in on slack channels just doesn’t cut it.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot in the past and pretty much all of my answers have proven to be wrong. This time I’m sure I won’t be too far off by saying that Fluidly will be trucking on and I will getting to grips with the challenges of managing teams of teams of teams.

What product do you wish you’d invented?

The Transform-a-snack. It’s the king of crisps.

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