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Carl Edwards is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Chameleon, a London-based digital agency focused on the charity sector. I asked him to walk us through an average day, and to give us some background on what a CTO does.
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Please describe your job! What does a CTO do?
In my case, a bit of everything! I’m more externally focused on the products and technologies we should be advocating and using. A key task is to look out for those technology ‘inflexion points’ that should determine our longer-term strategy. Typically this has included such things as fundraising tools, donation & CMS platforms, virtualisation, new technologies, new patterns in digital consumption, and new ways of viewing and physically interacting within digital content.
I’m also involved in the day-to-day operational aspects of Chameleon. Partly, this is in my capacity as a line manager, but also is due to my experience and historical knowledge of our clients. We predominantly work in the charity sector, so I’m currently involved with clients such as UNICEF, Mind and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. This operational aspect enables me to stay grounded and informs my broader role. I also exhibit CIO-tendencies with respect to internal processes and systems. This has become increasingly important as we work with best-of-breed partner agencies to bolster what we do.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
Over the 14 years I have been at Chameleon, I’ve been involved in most aspects of the business. That experience now allows me to plug gaps between departmental teams.
I have line-management responsibility over the internal development team, client support managers, and infrastructure team. I physically sit amid these teams allowing me to step in when needed!
I report directly to the MD of Chameleon - Vicky Reeves - and have done so since the company was founded in 1998.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
The skills needed for my role are as broad as the role is varied. Clearly technical and logical skills are important; but equally so is the ability to be pragmatic, realistic and remember that fundamentally you are dealing with people not technology.
To be able to think forensically, troubleshoot, whilst remaining calm under pressure is (unfortunately!) a necessity.
For a CTO, there is an inherent requirement to fundamentally understand technology, understand how people interact with technology, and an ability to extrapolate from multiple, disparate industry developments to how those will interact and give rise to longer term trends.
Tell us about a typical working day…
‘Keeping calm and carrying on’ might be a good way to describe a typical day! Generally I keep an eye on what is happening around me and then nudge events in one direction or another as appropriate. As issues arise I am often called upon to advise on a course of action, or to validate and/or comment on actions others are proposing. In almost every discussion my opening question will be “what are we trying to achieve here?”
Working across departments means I am often called upon to help translate between our more technical individuals and less technical staff or clients.
For more complex solutions, I also draw up the technical architecture focusing on data-flows and integration points across digital channels and platforms. This is especially important where clients have existing on- or off-line CRM systems that they work from. That involves meeting with clients, drawing lots of lines and boxes, and in-depth API research.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
I enjoy being able to use my skills and experience to make a difference. Having so many charity clients, there are lots of opportunities to work on projects that make a difference. However, it is just as rewarding to make a positive impact on ‘boring’ processes and systems, quite apart from any specific project.
As such, I get most satisfaction from seeing decisions - taken years earlier - pay off. Over time I aim to make previously impossible or impractical options both possible and desirable.
What sucks is that whilst I still enjoy the operational side of things, it can detract from getting on with the longer-term objectives. Whilst blue sky thinking is important but rarely urgent, agency life is nothing if not a continual stream of the ‘Urgent’! I doubt that is particularly unique to digital, though.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
At an abstract level my goals are fairly easy to state:
●Innovation without proliferation.
●Standardisation without stagnation.
Really what this is about is making discriminating choices and being ready to move on from past choices. We choose to limit the number of systems we use. We choose to focus on a handful of technologies that we become expert in. We then standardise processes around those systems and technologies. Those choices nonetheless must not hold us back from using newer, better services and technologies in the future.
This constant evolution and balancing act is a companywide challenge; but one that keeps things interesting.
The most important metric, of course, is whether the overall outcome helps us produce good work and also sustain us as a profitable organisation.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
A critical attitude towards technology is the best tool you can have. It would be nice to take the ‘Ronseal’ (it does what it says on the tin) approach to technology; but with many products and services, every ‘tin’ says the same thing. This is especially true of CMS products, all of which list almost identical features. You have to dig deeper to understand in what way a given product ticks a given box. Rarely are you given sufficient detail up front to locate the devil in it.
Google Drive is definitely a favourite tool. Whilst it is not yet as fully featured as Microsoft Office, I can still get more done, more flexibly, and collaborate more easily than I can with Microsoft Office.
For developers or managers of developers, versioning software and comparison tools are a must.
How did you get started in the digital industry, and where might you go from here?
I started out in digital when I was about 10, teaching myself to program in my bedroom, first in BBC Basic and then in 6502 Assembler. From there it was a natural step to study Computer Science at university, where I met the person who would eventually found Chameleon. My technical background allows me to have a low-level sense of what going on, even when considering what we are trying to achieve at a higher level.
Back in the early 80s I remember reading a second-hand copy of ‘Future Shock’, by Alvin Toffler, and was very much drawn towards the idea that one could look at the various technological changes that were occurring and think about the ways they could lead to a gradual restructuring of the ways we live and work. Such ideas, together with my ‘other’ background in politics, philosophy and history, lend themselves well to the CTO role.
Combining those two strands is in that direction that I see myself heading. Hopefully I have the potential and opportunity to add something that individuals working within either one of those areas alone might not.
Which brands do you think are doing digital well?
The BBC, The Economist, and the NFL are brands that I feel have risen above the potential threat of digital well by having a strategy that supports their wider aims and objectives: providing a better service, to more people, without going bankrupt.
The NFL’s digital strategy makes its international strategy possible. It has embraced digital as a way to ensure year round engagement with fans, provide additional online services such as fantasy football - itself a huge growth area - and more recently announced a deal with Microsoft to provide an augmented viewing experience on the new XBox One. It does digital well because it has embraced it so comprehensively. The BBC has been successful for much the same reason, with its Olympics coverage standing out as an example of how digital coverage should be done.
The Economist is worth a mention because it recognised and addressed the digital challenge early. Rather than devalue its core product - the print publication – it used the internet to bolster its proposition, increase engagement and debate, and ultimately retain readership.
I also just like The Economist: it grew out of the Enlightenment tradition and liberalising revolutionary movements of the 1848. The internet is a product of that same tradition - if we choose to keep it that way.
Do you have any advice for people who want to work in the digital industry?
As with anything, it is vital to understand the medium. Understand the people using and consuming digital. Even though people change and adapt to the technology around them, it is people and their needs that drive technology and make any digital project successful.
This also means broadening the range of people you think about: not only in demographic terms; but the non-technical administrators of a system are as important to consider as its end-users. Editors are people too!