From Zero to CTO: Joel Greensite is in the spotlight

  • Name: Joel Greensite
  • Age: 44
  • Current position: CTO, tenthavenue
  • Bio: As a kid I was far too into video games — my ability to write code wasn’t legendary, but I did manage to progress past Basic and learn a little assembly before entering university. Despite studying engineering I did as much computer science as possible and took a ‘gap year’ after I graduated to cycle from London to Jerusalem with a friend.
  • I knew I wanted a job writing code and one that paid well, so I ended up working at Accenture. Partially because a friend told me (possibly due to my nose ring and long hair) that there was no way that I was going to get in and I wanted to prove him wrong. I did.

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

I thought I’d be at Accenture for a year or so to pay off my ‘gap year’ debts, but I stayed for nine years working in financial services and utilities. For someone who likes change, Accenture was incredible. Every year I was with a different client in a different role, working with a different technology. During the .com boom I used to read my DHTML handbook on the train to and from work, because it was the only time I wasn’t working! It was hard to leave as I desperately wanted to make partner, but I came to the realisation that I wasn’t prepared to make the personal commitment necessary to make it happen.

I was ‘bullied’ into interviewing at a digital agency who were so appalled that I wore a pinstripe suit to the interview, they very nearly rejected me (so I’m told). This was AKQA and the first (of three) WPP companies I worked for. At AKQA I was hired with the illustrious title of ‘Head of Java for the UK’ and this was my first leadership position where I had to manage a section of a department. Prior to that it senior engineer / architect / manager roles. I spent nearly two years at AKQA and it was amazing. I moved when an opportunity came for a promotion and change of country.

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

I was offered a director role at Blast Radius in Vancouver, Canada which turned into my first VP / CTO gig. I knew I wanted the position, but I had no idea I would actually get one so quickly. It had absolutely nothing to do with planning and everything to do with timing. I was looking and Blast Radius were having difficulty finding local technology people with experience in a global digital agency. I also misunderstood my wife telling me to apply for a job in Vancouver, she was as surprised as I was when three weeks later I was offered the job!

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

When I was Head of Java at AKQA, it was an incredibly exciting time; we built social media networks before there were any real frameworks available to do this for you and I got to experience what it was like to be deeply involved in the creative process. All this helped prepare me for the transition into more senior roles. My biggest problem was and remains that I am a very detail-focused person — the engineer in me wants to know how everything works

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

I have a hard time letting go and calling time on things when they don’t work out. I hate losing and so will often drive myself to succeed regardless of the costs. This can cause huge strain on personal and business relationships. In my first few leadership roles I did not pay attention to what this was doing to me and the ones that I care about most. Thankfully I have changed.

What made you keep doing it?

I am wired that way. A great friend of mine calls it ‘glory or death’ — it’s a fairly apt description of how I approach things.

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you.

When I was 6-years-old my teachers wrote me off, they told my parents I was a nice kid but I would never really amount to anything. My parents told me this in my teens at a point when they thought I was getting a bit big-headed. It certainly brought me down to earth.

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

  • You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, so use them in that ratio. Listen to everything — both the direct communication and indirect communication. So much of what people tell you is not in what they are saying, but how they are saying it.
  • Be aware of what motivates you, why you bother to turn up to work. Learn this about yourself and in particular learn to be aware when your motivations change. Recognise that your drivers may be radically different from your colleagues and that’s OK.
  • Hold your plan lightly, be focused on the journey not the destination. Making mistakes is part of life so don’t beat yourself up about mucking up. Everyone does it, it’s how you learn from those mistakes, in order not to repeat them again, that matters

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

There has never been a time in my career where talented people were just waiting around to be hired. There is always a shortage of supply and a massively unbalanced demand. On this basis, it is a priority for any leader to build a ‘virtual bench’ — individuals that you want to work with, who also want to work with you.

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

I have an exercise that takes about 45 minutes to run through with all my new team members; it’s focused on what motivates them to come to work. This enables me, together with the individual, to build them a personal plan tied to those motivations. Referring to this and checking to see that it’s still relevant is part of my management style. Regarding stress, I encourage everyone to exercise, eat healthily and focus on priorities rather than urgencies.

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

I am a very restless person. To balance things out I tend to have a monogamous relationship with one of the triathlete sports at a time, eat a vegan and wheat-free diet, don’t drink, smoke or do any kind of recreational drugs. I need this as I tend to be attracted to stressful organisations. I can become obsessed trying to balance sleep, diet, exercise and supplements in order to achieve ‘flow state’ which I often hit between 11pm and 2am; I am not great at sleeping or remembering things that I am uninterested in.

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

I work in a really tight team across data, operations, sales, HR etc in a pretty small open-plan office. We tend to be in each other’s business (in the right way) a lot of the time because we are so physically close to each other. For people that I work with remotely, there is constant sharing and communicating via email, phone, chat tools and video conferencing; I have very few regular status-type meetings and a lot more informal quick chats.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Increasingly my role is less about technical details and more about education and enabling. I see this continuing as the business I am in is moving more towards automation, AI and complex products. This could mean that my role changes to be more product than technical, but it’s too early to tell. I used to care about titles a great deal, now I care about doing things that are interesting and working with great people.

Finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, I was going to develop artificial hearts and limbs. However, I hit my first career crisis early on in my degree, finding out that I was more interested in Computer Science than Electronic Engineering. That said, I really wish that I had invented a medical product that directly affected the livelihood of people. Even just a better way to manufacture sticky plasters would have been amazing!

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