From Zero to CTO: Edoardo Turelli is in the spotlight

  • Name: Edoardo Turelli
  • Current position: Product Engineering at Hadean / CTO Advisor & Mentor
  • Bio / Previous positions: Former VP Engineering at Adbrain, creator of Flux and founding CTO of Koinup.

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

I’ve worked for almost 15 years as a hands-on software architect and developer. I started freelancing for side projects while at university, not expecting to fall in love with software engineering. But I quickly discovered how great building tech products is: creating something out of nothing and that people will actually use. I’ve built a variety of API and web-based systems from scratch, like multi-tenant SaaS platforms, two-side marketplaces, real-time chats (it was not trivial before socket.io and all the js push stuff!), e-commerce platforms, bespoke CMS, CRMs, and real estate management. I’ve also built various desktop and mobile apps, like a photo-book creation tool, and news and entertainment mobile apps.

In 2007, when startups in Italy weren’t a thing, I decided it was time to create one. I then became the founding CTO of Koinup — a social media for gamers — creating a community of creative people publishing screenshots and videos shot in virtual worlds and games. From a technical point of view, it was like building a bit of YouTube, a bit of Facebook and a bit of Instagram — it was fun! In 2010, as Koinup become more stable, I wanted to build something mobile and decided to create a news reader. The challenge was to adapt my knowledge to a completely different environment, with major constraints on resources and where good UX is everything. I’m glad I did, the amount of knowledge you gain when building something end-to-end is incredible.

Koinup was acquired and Flux became very popular — it was time to move on to something new. So, I moved country!

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

It was naively intentional. I was leading the SaaS platform team at Adbrain, a cross-device ad tech company and there was a lot of big data and AI in the other teams that got me fascinated. I wanted to work with them. My team was doing quite well and the CTO asked me to lead them as VP engineering. I was a bit reluctant at the beginning; I worried that I’d become too involved in project management and less focused on the technology. But in the end I accepted as I was really excited by the idea of dealing with new set of problems.

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

At the beginning I focused on technical decisions, overarching software architecture and making sure that the coordination of cross-team projects was effective. I soon realised however, that working with smart people leads to non-technical problems arising. It’s about people not the product — the way you set the context, the way they communicate, and how they work together.

Dealing with technology requires rationality and logic as it is very black and white; you can assess the pros and cons without emotional attachment. When it comes to people however, you have to deal with all the grey areas including emotion and the subtleties of communication. It was intense at the beginning and a huge learning curve, but it quickly became an exciting journey.

4. What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

It happened with during the hiring process: we had an excellent candidate, clearly competent and determined. One of my team members, after speaking to the candidate, believed him to be arrogant, and concluded that he wouldn’t be a good hire. I actually thought he was simply extremely competent and his self-confidence was misinterpreted as arrogance. I ignored my colleague’s opinion and went ahead with the hire. Within a fortnight, it was clear my colleague had been right, and the new hire was let go post-probation. After that incident, I introduced a veto policy at every stage of the hiring process. Because, when it comes to people, gut feelings count.

5. What made you keep doing it?

I was thrilled to discover a completely new world and learn how to lead people; I realised that you can be much more impactful when you create an environment in which people can perform at their best. It was also extremely rewarding to see progress every week — people coming into work happier and the subsequent improvements in delivery.

It’s was also fascinating for me to be at the edge of two fields: leadership and technology. You’ll be as good as the minimum of the two. You can be a rock star developer but bad with people and you’ll struggle to empower your team, or extremely good with people but a poor technologist and you’ll fail at intercepting when things are heading in the wrong direction. Tech leadership is as much about people as it is technology.

6. Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

*Jazz hands*… I can tap dance.

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

By far the most important quality to be a good leader is empathy: the ability to genuinely listen and connect with people. The second is to be able to articulate the ‘picture of success’ well, i.e. what achievements you’ll be happy with. It can the company vision, a well-designed architecture or the metrics you’re optimising for. Thirdly, good time-management is a must-have practical skill — you’ll be quickly overwhelmed if you haven’t mastered that!

8. What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

That it is hard, extremely hard. Hiring is time-consuming and often frustrating, but it’s the most impactful thing you can do as a leader — building the best team. Retaining talent can also be tricky, but there are a few things that work well, for example keeping the quality of the codebase high, and continually refining the dev process. It’s also extremely important to be aware of personal ambitions and expectations from your team members: the closer you’re aligned with their personal goals, the more they’ll stick around.

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

I’m a big believer in intrinsic motivation, brilliantly synthesised by Daniel Pink in Drive where he discusses autonomy, mastery and purpose. Work on those aspects and you’ll need very little by way of traditional HR-driven motivation.

10. How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

This is still very much a work in progress!

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

Besides the usual business rituals (such as weekly senior leadership meetings), I find regular 1:1s are the most valuable way to stay up-to-date.

12. Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I’d love to be more involved in coaching and mentoring because I feel the urge to share my knowledge and I realised that helping others is actually deeply rewarding and a fantastic opportunity to learn as well.

Also, I might be back in entrepreneurship, it’s been a while now since I created anything new and I miss it!

13. What product do you wish you’d invented?

The iPhone! I still remember the early days when I was just using it to feel the magic of scrolling with your finger on the screen — pure geek pleasure!

Part of the new ‘From Zero to CTO’ series — Follow us to be kept up-to-date on the next segment and other articles.

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