From Zero to CTO: James Maidment is in the spotlight

  • Name: James Maidment
  • Age: 39
  • Current position: Independent consultant currently mainly providing startups, SMEs, VC’s and private equity clients with due diligence reviews, advice on best practice and helping companies hire permanent leaders.
  • Bio: I joined a very early stage startup called Intuwave as a developer straight out of university and have been working with early startups or SMEs almost ever since, minus a few years at a FTSE100 company to get some experience in that environment.

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

I tended towards the problem-solving side of technical roles and those where there were multiple things to juggle. I was generally happier trawling through logs trying to join the dots on a production issue than I was sitting in front of a blank editor trying to conjure a domain model out of thin air. This meant that although I often started in development roles, I’d often segue over towards infrastructure and operations, generally acting as a bridge between the two.

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

My first leadership role was very much a gradual transition. One of the advantages of being in a small company without a track record of leadership is there is often a much more fluid concept of ‘job specs’. I ended up running a team pretty much because someone needed to do it, I was in the right place at the right time and was interested in doing so. I’d also gained the respect of the rest of the team by that point and so becoming a formal manager was more of a recognition of what I was already doing, rather than a step change in my day-to-day activities.

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

The technical leadership side was easy due to the slow transition, but the people management aspect was new to me. I was lucky that the COO at the time believed in promoting up through the organisation — she gave me a huge amount of guidance on both the legal responsibilities you have as a manager and the practical support you need to give to your team. If you’re new to a leadership role, try and find a mentor on the HR side, as you probably won’t have had experience in it and you’ll be materially affecting your team’s lives if you neglect it.

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

My first leadership role went fairly smoothly, but I moved into another one that I hadn’t grown into. While I had become comfortable with decision-making and leading people, in the new role I was very much jumping in at the deep end. It led to me avoiding or delegating making calls where I felt I didn’t have the exact answer. This meant that the various actions taken weren’t unreasonable in themselves, but as a whole they didn’t tally because I hadn’t provided consistent direction. The result was a need to rework a number of systems; it taught me that it is better to make a less-than-perfect active decision now, rather than let the ecosystem grow without guidance — you can always pivot later.

What made you keep doing it?

The satisfaction of choosing a direction and then achieving something as a team that was larger than anything I could have produced on my own. It was also eye-opening to learn how to interact effectively with the rest of the business and understand the wider reasons behind the decisions being made. It gave me a broader and more in-depth perspective than the one I could have gained in a purely technical role.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

I came within a hair’s breadth of doing English Literature at university rather than Computer Science. I still wonder what my life would be like now if I’d followed that path…

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

  • Decisiveness: Being a leader means you need to make the call. It’s one of the most stressful parts of the role but it’s important to make and own your decisions so that the organisation can move forward. Take input and feedback, but use it as advisory rather than definitive;
  • Clarity: You have to communicate your decisions and the reasoning behind them clearly, otherwise you’re a dictator, not a leader; and
  • Humility: You’ll get things wrong like everyone else, and as a leader the consequences are likely to commensurately greater. Be prepared to be listen to the evidence that you’re going down the wrong path and if you’re convinced by it, put your hand up, accept the mistake and fix it.

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

When hiring, if it’s not a resolute ‘yes’ from all interviewers then it’s a ‘no’. Hiring people you don’t think are great fit or have doubts about because you’re under pressure to grow the team is always a mistake, and one that can hurt your team and the company for years to come.

Making the right choice feeds through into retention as team members will respect each other; the great teams I’ve worked with in the past are still in contact and meeting up years later, the others have scattered to the winds.

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

To motivate a team you need to make sure they understand why they’re being asked to do something and get them on board with your vision. It is incredibly demotivating to be required to work on something you think is a bad decision or that you don’t understand the value of.

In terms of stress management, you need to have an open dialogue with your team so they feel they can raise issues with you. You are a people manager as much as a technical one and it’s vital to not to ignore that part of the role.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

Deal with difficult issues or pressing tasks before bed. It’s far less stressful to make some progress and then worry about the results of that progress than to worry about the consequences of the actions you’re intending to take regardless.

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

Talk to them! You’re all working towards the same goal so have lunch with your accounting guys, go for drinks with marketing, cultivate personal relationships with the other departments and try to understand their challenges and perspectives so you can work with them rather than butting heads.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Given that if you’d asked me three years ago where I would be now I would have been completely wrong, making assumptions about the next five years seems unwise!

And finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

The Arduino. Opening up an easy way for people to have fun with electronics and processors again after the decades of abstractions being built on top of hardware feels really important. I still think fondly of my first circuit consisting of a light sensor, an LED and logic to flip the LED state based on the light sensor. Ta-da, strobe light created!

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