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How to Build, Lead and Scale a superstar Engineering team with Chris Iona

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Thanks to coding programs in schools and extracurricular groups like Code Club Australia, it’s never been easier for kids to start learning how to code, and more and more are taking it up; Code Club Australia reports it now has 65,000 children in its community across the country.

For those of us who left school as recently as four or five years ago, however, it was a different story – ‘computer class’ in the 90s and early 2000s mostly consisted of being taught how to touch type and use Google, with only a select few people going beyond that to learn what actually made the machines and the internet tick.  

Chris Iona was one of those to get an early start, thanks to his father, an electronic technician, bringing home a BBC Micro kit computer in the early 90s. Helping his father build the computer – “or more watching,” he laughed –  Iona then picked up the book that came with it to learn how to use it.

Despite this natural exposure to technology early on, when it came time to go to university Iona intended to study commerce and stockbroking before a work experience stint helped him rediscover just how much more interested he was in computers. Shifting back to tech, he launched his career on the Optus help desk.

“I sort of made a pact to myself after getting some advice that I wouldn’t decide which type, or which part, of tech I’d bind myself to until I had a chance to get exposure to most of it, so as my career progressed I started to get experience across network engineering, in building systems, and writing software, all the different aspects of it, so that when I made my decision on what I wanted to do, it was well rounded and well thought out,” Iona explained.

The common thread linking these different areas? Creativity.

“The thing I really enjoy about technology is actually creating new things…[technology] is definitely the enabler for being creative and creating something new, and most importantly, solving a problem,” Iona said.

“That’s something I think a lot of entrepreneurs and people who get into tech feel. They just like solving problems.”

Following his time at Optus, Iona spent a few years at Internode before joining ecommerce provider BigCommerce in 2010. At that time, the startup was still self-funded and counted 6,000 paying clients. It’s since raised over US$160 million, with US$13 billion in sales processed by its merchants.

If working with one of Australia’s biggest startups wasn’t enough, Iona then moved to another, taking on the role of vice president of engineering at tradie marketplace hipages in 2014.

While the likes of BigCommerce and Hipages may have had the resources available to attract the best tech talent, Iona said the short supply of skilled talent locally affected those bigger companies, like it does the the smaller.

“It’s hard. Anything to do with technology is hard…we’re talking about an industry that changes so rapidly. I’ve had circumstances where I’ve started a new project with the latest tools and within a couple of months, it’s already out of date, just because the tools themselves are changing so quickly,” he said.

For non-tech founders wondering how to recruit and lead tech talent, Iona’s advice is to carefully consider what skills, or what type of engineer, you actually need, and whether you may be able build someone up to that level.

“[It’s] not about front end or back end, it’s that, depending on your product or your company, you may not necessarily want to attract someone who would work for Google, for example, because your product may not require the same level of computer science,” he explained.  

“A tough role to hire for over the last few years has been dev ops, so what I found in the past is that it’s easier to find someone who’s curious and talented in say, software engineering, and then upskill them towards a dev ops career pathway if it’s something they’re interested in.”

While some tech skills may be in short supply, Iona said a sense of curiosity and willingness to learn are not – and can be just as important.

“When hiring, I generally look for the right team fit, definitely curiosity, and a willingness to learn and grow, because you can do a lot with that. Sometimes, if you’ve got those sorts of people, you may need one or two less staff to actually get the same amount of work done,” he said.

Of course, not everything is exactly the same, but now Iona has gone out to launch his own company, FuturePass, he said “philosophically”, the core to his approach to hiring remains intact.

“If you find someone who’s genuinely involved and interested in what it is your company does or what your product actually is, it’s going to be more win-win. I always look for the win-win when hiring people, because you just end up with a better result,” he said.

Iona will be sharing his insights into hiring and leading tech talent in How to build, lead and scale a superstar engineering team, an interactive, hands-on workshop for non-technical founders running on October 20.

Among other key learnings, the workshop will look to give participants an understanding of the structures and processes to put in place to balance speed versus quality, and lead a productive and motivated team. Crucial for non-tech founders, through the workshop Iona also aims to help participants better judge the decisions, capability, and performance of their team, and communicate with engineers in their language.

There are things he has experienced throughout his career, Iona said, or knowledge he has around engineering that he takes for granted, and through the workshop he wants to share what he has learned.

“When I catch up with non-tech founders, for example, and I hear some of the decisions that they’ve made, it’s like, ‘Oh, if only I could’ve told you this just before you made that decision, you could have been more informed’,” he said.

“By running a workshop like this, I can impart a lot of the key principles, ideas, and things to watch out for to the participants, and then at least they know what they don’t know, and as they start to discover some of the challenges in their company growth, they’re able to better address them or at least walk away with some real, meaningful strategies and tactics.”

Learn how to build, lead and scale an engineering team with Chris Iona at his upcoming Zambesi course. Book now as spaces are limited.

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