#1 - Startup Tech Leadership - Jerome Poudevigne
“Leading others is leading yourself first. That’s a very big work of self awareness, and you should always do that."
Jerome Poudevigne is a serial CTO who has co-founded multiple startups with multiple successful exits. Recently, he has been working at Google Cloud and AWS to help startups grow and make the most of cloud technologies.
In this very first episode of Tech Lead Journal, Jerome shares with us his startup wisdom from his lessons learned; advice for hiring, building culture, pitching, and managing stakeholders. He also shares with us his “Rule of 50%", a practical strategy that you can use to build your startup/product from zero scale to planet scale. Moreover, Jerome shares his interesting anecdotes about cultural differences between different regions based on his experience.
Listen out for:
- Jerome’s career highlights, lowlights, and his lessons learned - [00:04:03]
- How to pitch yourself to (potential) investors, and how to assess good investors - [00:06:49]
- Some tips for hiring, especially in a startup, and how you can assess someone’s personality and culture fit - [00:09:37]
- How to ensure that everyone works towards the same vision of the company - [00:16:37]
- “Jerome’s Rule of 50%” - how to build your startup from zero scale to planet scale - [00:20:49]
- How you should not get distracted by the latest technologies when you’re starting up - [00:21:07]
- Stakeholders management, and how to explain about technology to non-technical stakeholders - [00:28:42]
- Anecdotes about cultural differences between different regions - [00:32:40]
- Jerome’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:43:56]
Jerome Poudevigne’s Bio
Jerome got his first computer when he was 12 and got into programming games, hacking copy protection schemes, and putting together electronics during his school years. He decided that computers and software were too much fun, so he got a CS degree and started doing it professionally, building radar systems and avionics for Airbus.
In the mid-90s, he moved to the Silicon Valley where he got the startup bug, and soon after he co-founded his first startup, Kermeet, a Web-based event management. After it was acquired, he very soon started another one, acquired too, and then a third one, that is still growing. In-between co-founding companies, he was an independent software consultant helping out clients solving tough technical problems and other start-ups to take off the ground.
Since 2017, Jerome has been working at Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, helping startups make the most of cloud technologies. When not traveling around Asia to a meet-up, he spends time running his small social enterprise helping people with autism.
- LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jpoudevigne/
On Dealing with Investors
This is actually something I very often tell people who are looking for funding, you will talk to investors and they will evaluate the value of your idea and maybe the value of your technology. But first of all, they will evaluate your ability to navigate the future. Because they know that what you are showing them, the idea, and also the financial positions, the only thing you know is that this is incorrect. This is not going to happen this way. So your credibility as a person is important.
Most startups do not end up being Facebook. Most startups end up being, not multi-billion dollar businesses, but multi-million dollar businesses. Investors don’t always look at the next unicorn. They also look at this sort of company. So, your ability to evolve, your ability to pivot, your ability to negotiate are very important.
When you are facing the investors, you are being evaluated, you are also evaluating the investor.
What they really wanted, was to know the quality of his team, if he was prepared to handle questions and they did not really want to hear a prepared speech and a prepared pitch, they just wanted to know how deep we wanted them, how deep he knew his stuff, and how prepared he was and how he could handle all those questions, and how his team of co-founders was structured. And that was the mark of a really deep, knowledgeable investor.
I think being a startup or not being a startup, you still try to hire the best quality you can afford.
What you really want when you are hiring for a small team, you want to hire somebody who’s a bit multitalented, somebody you’re going to be working very closely. You need to have a personality fit. You also want to hire somebody, not just because they are great at the technology you need right now, just fill the technology gap. You want to hire people who you feel are going to be able to grow with you and grow with the company and bring additional knowledge to it.
At some point, if your company grows, you’re going to start having to handle people who might be a lot less passionate about the product and you start hiring people for whom this is just a job - and I want to highlight that even people who do a job, because it’s a job, can be extremely good and productive- but they might not be as motivated as you are. And they will be unmotivated very easily by things you don’t even consider important.
In a relaxed setting, people tell you a lot more than in the formal interview setting.
The team that’s going to work with this person should be, in charge of hiring the person, even though you have the final say.
Have an onboarding process. They need to know how the system works. They need to understand what has already been built. They need to understand the process.
Have a discussion with them about why we’re doing this, what is the company about, what problem we are solving and try to sell the vision.
From Zero Scale to Planet Scale
You need to keep in adequation what you’re focusing on and the means you are mobilizing, the effort you are putting in. Very often people tend to select a collection of technologies even before actually trying to understand if they are really useful for them.
So my message is always: do not get distracted, because when you are a company, you are not building a technology, you’re actually building a business. And technology is actually just supporting your business.
Very often I can see that earlier founders and co-founders really focus too much on picking technologies that they are not comfortable with or just because they read that it’s the cool thing. When you start a company, the best technology you should pick is the one you are comfortable with. Do not believe the sirens of whichever programming language, do whatever you’re comfortable with.
In the life of your startup, you always have five factors that you have to balance. You have cost, you have reliability, you have performance, you have scale, or how you manage the scalability, and what I call operations, which is the ability of making releases very often, CI/CD, having automatic testing. And not all of these factors are important at the same time.
You’re going to have to rebuild your technology multiple times, and every time you will build it for the next level of growth.
Jerome’s rule of 50% - You plan in multiple stages and every time you reach half of your capacity, you rebuild for the next stage, which is usually 10 times what you are planning.
On Stakeholders Management
When I started my own companies, I discovered that not only I had to manage my employees but I had to manage a lot of other people that I never really thought I would have to manage. You have to learn how to pace yourself, how to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing to people who do not fundamentally understand technology.
You have to build a roadmap, pace it a certain way with investors in mind, clients in mind, new products in mind.
You should learn to not say no. So, never say “no, it can’t be done”. Just say “yes, it will be done”. And maybe in a different way than what you thought. What I learned is also that as engineers, we have this idea of perfection. There are very often ways to pitch what you’re doing in a positive way. You have to rephrase it in a functional way that people who are not really technically inclined can understand. And this is actually a big part of it. The hardest part is: you have to grow out of the engineer mindset. Always have the roadmap and always refer to the roadmap.
They felt it very threatening because they used the local language as a safe space.
The ability to admit that you don’t know.
You cannot have something that is just fitting everybody’s culture. So the only solution I found is you create your own culture. Culture in your company’s super important. This is the sum of all the behaviors.
Jerome’s 3 Tech Lead Wisdom
For many people who like me grow from being a very good engineer to becoming a leader, you have to remember that leading others is leading yourself first. That means you need to, at some point, really sit down and understand your own character, how you regulate emotions, what behaviors you have, how you communicate this behavior with others, how you handle difficult conversations and difficult decisions. That’s a very big work of self awareness, and you should always do that.
As a leader, everything you do impacts the company. And if you are not careful to keep bad behavior in check, it will actually have an effect that ripples down all the way. So basically anything you do creates the company culture. It has to be very, very intentional.
Never hire out of desperation. Never hire, just because you’ve been looking for somebody for so long, that now, you have lost the patience of looking for a great candidate. You should never do that. You should always have the highest standard and preferably hire somebody who is smarter than you. You want to never be the smartest person in the room. You want to be hiring smarter people and learn from them.
Episode Introduction [00:01:04]
Henry Suryawirawan: Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of the Tech Lead Journal. I’m very, very excited to kick start the show with my very first guest Jerome Poudevigne. Jerome is a respected friend of mine and a great mentor for all his massive wisdom and experiences, especially in the technology and startups. He has been a serial CTO co-founding multiple startups, and he has had multiple successful exits in the past. In the last few years, Jerome has been working at Google Cloud and Amazon AWS to help startups grow and make the most of cloud technologies.
In this interview, I discussed with him various aspects of technical leadership, especially in the startup world, ranging from his lessons learned, dealing with investors, hiring and building great technical team, building vision, and Jerome’s rule of 50%, which can be very insightful for those of you who are building a startup or product out there. He also shared interesting anecdotes of his experience working with different cultures around the world.
So let’s get started with this episode and I hope that you all enjoy it.
Henry Suryawirawan: Hi Jerome, thank you for being part of the Tech Lead Journal. Jerome is one of my respected colleague. He has over 30 years of career experience. He has been a serial CTOs in multiple startups. He had successful exit. He has worked in multiple countries and culture. He’s been traveling around the region, which is interesting enough, around Southeast Asian . He has also been in the West, Silicon Valley and in Europe, and lately he’s working in multinational cloud companies, helping startup to grow and to be successful.
So welcome Jerome.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:02:51] Hi Henry. Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure to chat with you.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:02:55] Jerome, to start this episode, can you tell me little bit more about yourself and your experience?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:03:01] Alright. I kind of got into computers when I was very young, like many people, because I wanted to do video games. And, I got lucky because my parents couldn’t really afford video games. They could only afford a cheap computer. So, I sort of had to build them. And one thing after the other, I ended up taking up computer science, graduated in computer engineering, and I started working in a few companies, mostly large scale companies like Airbus or Alcatel.
I got lucky. I got an opportunity to go to the Silicon Valley and I worked there for a few years. I got bitten by the startup bug and after I left the Silicon Valley in 2000, I started creating companies with friends and colleagues and even my own brother at some point, and I haven’t really stopped.
We got successful a couple of times. And then also after I, decided that startups are really what I liked. I’ve been working around startups for various big cloud providers. I’ve been also working in multiple countries in Asia. I’ve been in Asia essentially since 2000 in various countries. It was also a very interesting journey.
Highlights & Lowlights [00:04:03]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:04:04] Yeah, that’s very interesting. I mean, looking at your career, there are so many things that you have seen, you have experienced not only in terms of technologies, but also dealing with the people, right. So can you tell us a little bit more about your highlights? What are the biggest highlights that you have in your career?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:04:19] The biggest highlight , the thing that left me really the deepest impression, which is why I sort of tried to replicate it multiple times was the exhilarating time when you’re creating your first company and then you sort of hit the bottom of the hockey stick and then everything go crazy, you get this surge of adrenaline all the time.
All of these was very, very new. I thrust and catapulted into these positions that I didn’t really know anything about. So that was really exciting. I don’t think we handled it the best way it was possible, but at least I learned a lot and this is actually what motivated me to create more companies after that.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:04:55] What about some low lights?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:04:57] I did have one company was actually complete failure. We created a new company around an idea, and very quickly, this idea was killed by a very large company, who basically provided the same service for free. And I ended up having to cancel the team, tell the investors we were not going to proceed anymore because there was no business model and manage it the best I could. That was really a gray moment in my life.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:05:22] Wow. I’m sure that many people also in the startups have experienced failure, but I think every failure journey is unique.
Lessons Learned [00:05:29]
Henry Suryawirawan: And is there lessons learned that you want to share with the audience here?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:05:33] One of the things I tell everybody in my work today, whichever mental state you are in today as a CTO of a startup, I’ve been there before. Even if you think you are failing, even if you think things are going bad, I’ve been there. I’ve also been lucky that it was successful. It took me a little bit of time to pick the pieces up. But then also I had the long list of ideas and I basically have a mental checklist about all the things I should definitely make sure of before I even start, because honestly, this startup failed, because I really wanted to startup, I was in a hurry, I didn’t really look at the market. I didn’t really look at anything. I just thought, Hey, it’s a cool idea. Let’s do it. And I was very ignorant.
The next company we created, we explored the market and we did a lot more research, making sure that it was actually a valid opportunity.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:06:19] Researching the market, finding the right business model in a sense, and maybe assessing the technologies?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:06:26] Yes. Well, I mean, we had been very lucky. My first startup, we had a very talented team, that counts a lot. We were a bit lucky because none of us really knew the industry or knew the market. We just had a gut feeling that it was a good idea. And we were able to navigate the obstacles. And at the end of the day, the startup that emerged, after four years, was very different from the one we had envisioned.
Startup Investors [00:06:49]
Jerome Poudevigne: To me, this is actually something I very often tell people who are looking for funding, you will talk to investors and they will evaluate the value of your idea and maybe the value of your technology.
But first of all, they will evaluate your ability to navigate the future. Because they know that what you are showing them, the idea, and also the financial positions, the only thing you know is that this is incorrect. This is not going to happen this way. So your credibility as a person is important.
And having had failures before is actually something that is also, somehow playing in your favor. Of course, if you were creating the next Facebook, all of this is moot, but in fact, most startups do not end up being Facebook. Most startups end up being, not multibillion dollar businesses, but multimillion dollar businesses.
And in fact, this is actually most likely what’s going to happen to you. And investors don’t always look at the next unicorn. They also look at this sort of company. So, your ability to evolve, your ability to pivot, your ability to negotiate are very important.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:07:51] When you talk to the investors, how can you show this side of yours? Like showing that you have credibility, you have learned from your failure, and show that you can deal with any of the future uncertainties.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:08:02] Investors will ask the question. I’ve been in this situation, when you are facing the investors, you are being evaluated, but also one thing for me is you also evaluating the investor.
I tend to think that this is something investors should know, so they will look at your profile. They will ask, have you created companies before? Are you a serial founder or what is, they will do their homework on you. If they don’t, it’s usually not a really good sign.
Lately one of my friends was going through some fundraising, had exactly this experience. He went to see an investor from a very reputable firm. And he was facing somebody who said, I don’t want to see your slideshow, your PowerPoint, but tell me about your team. And he had to jump to slide 12, or slide 6 in that case.
And then they asked him about something else, and, he had to go back to slide 3 and then something else, and he had no slide. What they really wanted, was to know the quality of his team, if he was prepared to handle questions and they did not really want to hear a prepared speech and a prepared pitch, they just wanted to know how deep we wanted them, how deep he knew his stuff , and how prepared he was and how he could handle all those questions, and how his team of co-founder was structured. And that was the mark of a really deep, knowledgeable investors. Most others go. Okay. I look at your page and do I believe in your PowerPoint? And it’s actually not the best investor you can have.
By being who you are, you can just show your experience, and you have to rely on the investor to sort of do their homework on their side. You cannot just go and say, let me tell you, you know, for one hour all about what kind of person I am before you judge my business idea.
On Hiring [00:09:37]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:09:37] Right. You mentioned something about the investors assessing your team, right? Like the quality or maybe the credibility behind the team. And I know you have like a very good skill in hiring people, hiring talented and good quality people. Maybe you can share with us, what are some of the tips for hiring, especially in a startup, right? What do you look for in terms of quality of a candidate? Maybe skillset or maybe behavioral related stuffs?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:10:04] First of all, I think being a startup or not being a startup, you still try to hire the best quality you can afford. What you really want when you are hiring for a small team, you want to hire somebody who’s a bit, multitalented somebody you’re going to be working very closely.
So you need to have a personality fit. You also want to hire somebody, not just because they are great at the technology you need right now, just fill the technology gap, or you want to hire people who you feel are going to be able to grow with you and grow with the company and bring additional knowledge to it.
So that actually is very hard. This is true, regardless of whether you’re in a startup or not. I think the additional features you need for somebody is that they’re able to carry their weight individually without very much supervision and you want them to be passionate. Some point, if your company grows, you’re going to start having to handle people who might be a lot less passionate about the product and you start hiring people for whom this is just a job and I want to highlight that even people who do a job, because it’s a job, can be extremely good and productive, but they might not be as motivated as you are. And also actually they will be unmotivated very easily by things you don’t even consider important. So to give you an example, many years ago, in my first startup, we hired some really, really good people at the beginning. And one of the person was really like had a family. And they had to pick up the kids at some point. They had to leave at six regardless. And for one of my cofounder was very much obsessed by his company. He always was a little out.
So I had to do a lot of negotiation to make him understand what’s normal. On the other hand one day, this employee came up and we had forgotten to pay one of his expenses. And the reason why we forgot to pay one of his expenses was because the company was really going through some hard time and we are still like didn’t even know if we are going to make it the next five months. Right. So we were so worried. I was handling the payroll, the expenses, everything. We couldn’t afford an accountant. And I forgot to pay his expense. And I’m talking about $10. And the, a guy came in in the meeting and say, you haven’t paid my $10.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:12:14] Wow.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:12:15] And I was very dismissive and I said, come on. It’s just 10 bucks, right, we are talking about important stuff.
That was really, really the wrong thing to say, because yeah, for me, the company is my baby. And I’m talking about the survival of the company. For him, it’s the fact that I neglected to do what I promised. That was clearly important and then 10 bucks. And I was very dismissive. I was like, Hey, you know, I’m doing important stuff and you’re not.
And for him, 10 bucks was important. I completely forgot to look at this from his point of view. It took me an entire month, getting on the positive side because it was so upsetting. Because I was treating him very dismissively. And for me, it was just like in the heat of the moment.
So you have to be very, very careful. So you need to have people who are at some point, when you grow the company, you will have people who have a slightly different outlook on the company as you, but when you hire your first employees, you have to have them be passionate and willing to make some sacrifices.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:13:11] So how can you actually, like when you do the interviews, right, or when you talk to this person, how can you assess whether their passion and their personality actually fit with what you find and what the company’s all about?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:13:24] Really, this is a lot like dating or, you know, at some point you see if you click on the human level, which means that very often when I interviewed people for my early roles, I would really go through a formal set of interviews. But I also, after the interview, sat with them for coffee, sat with them, make them stay over lunch, talk about life and you try to gauge the person’s identity.
Also, let them talk about their past. Let them talk about how, what they, like in the management culture they had, talk about their own experience. And I think in a, in a relaxed setting, people tell you a lot more than in the formal interview setting. But for me, I basically very often did this for the early, early days.
Or you hire people you know. My first startup, I actually poached a number of developers that I had worked before with. And then, you know, I already knew we shared a lot of values.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:14:20] Makes sense
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:14:20] But there was no magic formula. It’s really is a very personal thing.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:14:25] Yeah. So this hiring one person is one aspect and one challenge, right? But talking about hiring a team, right. Where you have multiple people, with, with their different characteristics, their way of working. So how do you ensure that you can build a solid and effective engineering team that can work with each other?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:14:45] I think you need to have a clear culture. So I used to very quickly, very early in the process, first of all, I used to have always all my engineering when you’re a startup of five people, having all the engineering and interview with somebody is very easy, but I would say the team that’s going to work with this person should be, in charge of hiring the person, even though you have the final say. So first of all, I would cover the basics about culture. So very often I would do an interview where I would like to see what they like in management culture. How would they like to work with other teammates? How would they like to work with management?
Because I would be managing them. So I wanted to understand their aspect of their personality, but when it comes to then the rest of the team and the competencies and, the technical fit, I would have my engineering team interview them. There are two reasons for that. First of all because I didn’t always have all the time. The other part is you making the engineering team by hiring the people themselves. They have the responsibility to make it work. Otherwise, it’s too easy to blame the boss. He hired this person. I don’t know why, because he or she doesn’t do this X, Y, and Z, but it’s not my problem.
So actually by making them in charge of the hiring, you actually empower them to take the people who are fit. You as a manager, should still keep a veto because I found in my experience that engineers, the team will not look at it with management eye. And you, as a manager are really watching out for, is this person going to grow? What is the person going to bring beyond immediate ability to write this code or design this system? And I did veto my team’s decision a few times, because I felt that the candidate overall didn’t have the potential to evolve beyond what was just being asked for that specific position.
Building Vision [00:16:37]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:16:37] Right. So speaking about the team right after the hiring, obviously you have a bunch of people working as, as part of the team. How do you ensure that they go towards the same direction, working towards the same vision of the company, building a great product with good quality? Any tips about that?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:16:56] First of all for me, the very early, what I always had in all the companies. Was a onboarding process. It sounds silly, but I actually did have an onboarding process, even if it’s a, just a hey, here’s Jimmy and he’s going to be your buddy and ask him any questions. But I always had the process because I mean, talk about engineers who are developers. They need to know how the system works. They need to understand what has already been built. They need to understand the process.
You would be surprised, but I have had candidates that I was interviewing for positions and they asked me, do I get a laptop? I was like… what do you mean… you don’t get it, of course, you get a laptop I’m giving you the tools to work. Why do you ask this question? And they told me, yeah, my previous employer expected me to use my own laptop and they expected me to buy my own office software. I found this ridiculous, but apparently it still happens. And so for me, it’s part of it. Here’s your machine, here’s your tools. Here’s how you compile code, here is how you go. I would have them spend time with developers in order to get to know the whole tool set, the whole process. And I will usually have a discussion with them about how we have one on ones on a regular basis, and trying to explain to them some of the philosophy of why we’re doing this, what is the company about, what problem we are solving and trying to sell the vision. Really leadership versus management. Leader is selling the vision to the team and to the others, and to the clients. But really for me, it was really just about getting them to understand where you come from, because now they, you know, they, they said they’re going to do this cool work and write code with all these good people and having fun with this fancy technology. But beyond that, they have to really understand who the clients are, what problem you’re solving, be able to think in their shoes. And this only comes if they are very familiar with the problem. So really having a structured onboarding, even when you’re a five people team and having a regular sessions of, Hey, you know, let’s play. Let’s imagine you’re a client. This is what problem we are solving for you.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:19:09] Okay. So like simulating a customer problem and asking the team how to handle those kinds of things?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:19:17] Yes, for example. But also really once a month when I was a small company, we would spend a Friday afternoon just, brainstorming about situation or reviewing feedback from customers and trying to understand the scenarios and trying to see in the greater scheme of thing, how this was really a problem for such and such person.
A lot of this was a, I like role playing, so it was kind of fun. We did this by pretending we are a client and I’m trying to understand what would motivate them, going over some discussions we had, going over, okay, I would very often come and say, Hey team, I talked to this customer and this is what they told me. Now let’s hash out some potential discussion. We would usually end up by saying, okay, so this is the answer we want to be able to give, how can we then build the product features in order to be able to give that answer?
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:20:08] Right.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:20:09] I found it was a very interesting way to, evolve the product and it would get people to really buy in.
Nowadays it’s very fashionable and it’s not a bad idea. You don’t use fashionable in the bad science, but people talk about storytelling a lot, and I was actually maybe our early sort of informal way of doing storytelling.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:20:29] Yeah. And also I find that kind of exercise, sometimes give you another perspective in terms of ideas, especially from the people who build the product, maybe they find a new ways of using the products, even like a new interactions of how a user or customer can use the product and sometimes those kinds of things can come out of this brainstorming activities.
From Zero Scale to Planet Scale [00:20:49]
Henry Suryawirawan: Segue a little bit, I’ve been into your presentations talking about building a startup engineering product. This presentation talks about from zero scale to planet scale, right.
So can you share us a little bit about this? I find it super interesting for people to relate to the story.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:21:07] Yeah, you’re right. I’ve talked about this subject many times. Actually, for me, the whole idea is that you need to keep in adequation of what you’re focusing on and the means you are mobilizing the effort you are putting. So for example, today you’re bombarded by messages about technology, right? So such frontend programming method is the best. You are nothing, if you are not choosing this programming language. Oh, this kind of database is the future, and if you are using an older kind of database, then you know, you’re dead in the water before you even start.
It’s a very strong messaging. And very often people tend to select the collection of technologies even before actually trying to understand if they are really useful for them. So my message is always do not get distracted because when you are a company, you are not building a technology, most of the time, you’re actually building a business and technology is actually just supporting your business. Unless of course you are building the technology, and if you are building the next, programming language. Yeah. Okay. Sure. But if you are having something where said technology is a very strong component, like an eCommerce shop, or maybe some software that will read X phrase and be able to interpret it better than a human. Technology is a very strong component. But what you are really selling is medical diagnosis. What you are really selling if you’re an eCommerce shop is not the ability to click on a button and pay by credit card, what you are enabling people is to basically create a shop from their home, or you are enabling sellers to make money and you take a cut. You are really just not building a very powerful database of articles, right?
So you have to be very conscious of that. Very often I can see that earlier founders and co-founders really focus too much on picking technologies that they are not comfortable with or just because they read that it’s the cool thing. My first message is when you start a company, the best technology you should pick is the one you are comfortable with. Do not believe the sirens of whichever programming language, do whatever you’re comfortable with. Today’s programming languages, today’s databases, are largely enough regardless of their maximum capacity. You are actually going to not be there at all. So anything you master is enough. When you reach a few million to a few billion users, then you know, you will hit the limits of what you originally did, but for your first few hundred thousands to few million users really being in your comfort zone is what matters.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:23:39] And what about the scale? Obviously when you’re starting up, your scale is kind of small, and you will grow in terms of the number of users, number of traffic to your application, to your website, right. And, for a startup team, how do you solve this scaling problem? Do you start by solving for a small scale first, or you build a design in such a way that it can handle a large scale?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:24:01] In the life of your startup, you always have five factors that you have to balance. You have cost, you have reliability, you have performance, you have scale, or how you manage the scalability, and what I call operations, which is the ability of making releases very often, CI/CD, having automatic testing. And not all of these factors are always important at the same time.
So for example, if you are a very young startup, typically you’re very worried about costs and you’re going to focus on reliability, because you typically want to have your first users have a good experience. And I don’t think really should care about scaling and performance, unless you’re selling performance. But typically it’s not really a big concern. At some point, when you start growing you’re going to have to focus on different factors. For example, if you have now funding, cost is much less a concern, and you start having users. So reliability and performance are now important and scale starts to show an importance.
And when you are really much bigger, operation is important. Performance is key. Cost will be managed differently. So every time you have to go of one of these steps and you have to bring in something in focus, you will have to make new technical decisions. You will have to bring in new products. You will have to make your architecture more complicated. You know you’re going to have to rebuild your technology multiple times, and every time you will build it for the next level of, of growth, but if you are very experienced, like I’ve been in this for a long time. So maybe for me, well I’ve done it a few times. It’s easier to architect from day zero for something that will be able to scale into tens of millions of users.
Every time you make these architectural decisions, you actually usually involve a few more moving parts. So you have to maintain them. What typically I would build is, okay, I need to deal with, from zero to, let’s say, 100,000 users, but when I reached 50,000 users, I will rebuild for 100,000 to 1 million. When I reached 500,000, I will rebuild for 10 million.
And every time you add a little bit more effort, so you have to really really fit the efforts and what your software can do, to where you are targeting for the next six months to a year.
I used to call this a “Jerome’s rule of 50%", right. You plan in multiple stages and every time you reach half of your capacity, you rebuild for the next stage, which is usually 10 times what you are planning. So you go from 100,000 to 1 million, to 10 million, to 100 millions like this. And every time that 50,000, 500,000, 5 million, you rebuild.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:26:38] That’s very insightful. “Jerome’s 50% rule”. Is that correct?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:26:43] Yes. The rule of 50%. That’s correct. It’s very hard. I mean, as a techie, you will understand that maybe better. The people who you have to really sell up, sell this vision to are usually the CEO and the investors, because they don’t understand exactly how the technology works.
So your CEO is going to say, but Jerome, it works. Can’t you just like fix it a little bit and make it better? And as a techie, usually understand that it only holds because the foundations are able to support a certain amount of load. But in order to be beyond that, you need to rebuild foundation.
But this is really something that comes with deep understanding of technology. And that is where are you as a CTO usually. And when the company grows your leadership role grows into not just hiring a team and making sure, you know, the system works and they have the proper onboarding and team culture. And there’s a lot to talk about there, but also you still end up having to manage across your CEO and your investors.
And to me, it was also equally, equally challenging. When I started my own companies, I discovered that not only I had to manage my employees but I had to manage a lot of other people that I never really thought I would have to manage. And that actually is also something that is very worth discussing about when you get into leadership position, you have to learn how to pace yourself, how to explain, why you’re doing what you’re doing to people who do not fundamentally understand technology. And for whom maybe what you do looks mysterious and not needed. And also you have to understand, you have to pace yourself. You have to build a roadmap, where are you going to pace it a certain way , with investors in mind, clients in mind, new products in mind. All of this side of the company, which is very different from when you are just an engineer and your job is to make sure that you write this code before the end of next week with no bugs.
Stakeholder Management [00:28:42]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:28:42] I also find a lot of times as the CTO, or engineering manager or head of engineering, right , there are times that we all understand in a startup, we all want to do things in a fast way, do things as soon as possible, maybe tomorrow, I want to release that and give it to the users, right. But at the same time, obviously looking from the engineering perspective, there are things that cannot be done . Just like what you mentioned, stakeholder management or investor management is also one key area of a CTO. Do you have any good tips? Like how actually, should you explain these kind of, you know, paradox, should I say, between engineering and business?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:29:19] I think the number one thing is you should always, you should learn to not say no. So, never say, no, it can’t be done. Just say, yes, it will be done. And maybe in a different way than what you thought. What I learned is also that as engineers, we have this idea of perfection. There are very often ways to pitch what you’re doing in a positive way. So if you are going to rebuild a system and it’s going to delay something by a few weeks, your point is, you’re not going to explain that you are redoing a system. Your point is you’re going to sell the dream of the next feature you’re going to be able to build with that rewrite. You are not doing, okay, I’m you know, redesigning this core part of the system. What you are doing is we are enabling AI driven something in the system.
And very often, this is what you are doing, except that you cannot explain it in technical terms. You have to rephrase it in a functional way that people who are not really technically inclined can understand. And this is actually a big part of it. The hardest part is you have to grow out of the engineer mindset. You have to learn to sell, and you have to learn also to explain, to talking to maybe a more financial terms, and salesy terms. And for many engineers, this is a hard thing to do.
So really let me rephrase it. When you have this sort of situation, don’t talk about tech. You are actually doing it for a reason, which is a business reason and you cannot go and say, we are refactoring this because we don’t have the right performance in technical terms. You have to say, we are enabling this part of the roadmap, which is why for me, one of the things that I learned very quickly was to always have the roadmap and always refer to the roadmap. And in fact, also I tend to pace myself and keep a few innovation in my back pocket. Even if I had ideas, I would not always put them in the roadmap, or I would phrase my work plan in terms of roadmap and in terms of features that can be understood by the board.
I remember the first time many, many, many years ago, my manager was on leave. I was, I was in a team and the project manager was on leave. And so I was kind of the second guy in charge and they asked me to go to the monthly business review of the whole company to present what my team was doing. So, I went there and when it was my turn to speak, I started explaining some database issue in deeply technical term. The CEO looked at me and said after I was done, he said, okay, so now can you say that in English? And ultimately I was errrrr okay. So errrr it’s going to, it’s still going to take three weeks and he was like, Oh, okay. And I was very deep in the weeds of explaining intricate programming concepts. And it was like, so how long is it going to take? And this was, I realized I was very young. I was in my late twenties at the time of this is when I realized that yeah, you have to have adequation of the message.
So, for example, another thing is you are going to talk to your investors and you’re not going to tell them we are using the cloud. You’re going to tell them instead of having capital expense, we are using operational expense. So I don’t buy computers, but I buy capacity by the minutes.
So this is actually an OPEX, right?
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:32:36] Yep.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:32:37] Many little mini little tricks like this.
On Culture [00:32:40]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:32:40] Right. So switching a little bit into your career journey, right? You’ve been a startup architect a number of years lately, having seen a lot of startups within this region in Southeast Asia. How do you compare between startups, from Asian and also Western, do you see any difference?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:32:58] First of all, let me take you up on one thing. I don’t think it’s fair to say Western versus Asian because, there is as much difference between somebody who lives in Indonesia and somebody who lives in Vietnam, as there is somebody between, between, you know, France and the West coast of America.
These are very different cultures. So to put them as Western and Asian is actually really not accurate. There’s vast cultural differences, but even in the West, like, for example, for me moving from France to the US, when I moved to the Silicon Valley, that was a very vast difference. And then I found when I moved to different parts of Asia, that sometimes things were more similar to Western Europe. Things were more similar to North America or things where they’re just purely local. So I can give you a bit of anecdote. For example, the French are very famous for arguing all the time. So in the work culture over there, everybody has an advice on everything all the time and even while you’re executing a project, even when decisions have been made, we are still debating about the decision that should have been made. Right. Whereas, in America in general. And I, of course it’s always simplified, when I was in the US in general, decisions are made faster and people stick to the plan a lot more. It’s a lot more about having execution. So less people are going to, you know, debate about decision we should have been made while you’re actually executing the plan.
On the other hand, after the plan is done or after you reach a milestone, it’s free for all you can debate, what went wrong, what didn’t go, what went well. But I also found that is very similar between France and many Asian countries, France and Asian countries have a lot of power distance in the sense that there was a very strong sense of hierarchy. And power distance is the concept that was defined by a psychologist. But basically it is how people relate to authority and how they react in front of authority. And that is very cultural. In Asia, very often there’s a very strong power distance. In France as well also, there is a very strong power distance. So this is one of the similarities we have, but that basically means that, if you’re the manager, if you’re the boss, if you have the authority, people will not contradict you. They will be afraid to speak up. They will be quiet. So you have these meeting rooms where you say something and you ask, is there any question? And everybody’s very silent because nobody dares to speak up. As a manager, this is not something you want. You want to have feedback because you’re in the dark, you don’t know what’s happening on the ground. You need information and they will not give it to you.
So that’s really hard. The way I dealt with originally was to try to educate people . So in my first experience of that, I picked a leader. I actually found somebody who was educated in the West, but local. And so I made her the person who would speak up for the others. Little by little, they saw that, you know, it was okay to tell me things, it was okay to contradict me. I was not going to override. Sometimes I would say hey that’s a good idea. I didn’t think about it. And little by little, they felt very free. It took many weeks, several months before I got to that.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:36:06] Right.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:36:07] Another thing I did was to learn the local language, because everybody said that, hey you know, you have to learn the local language. And in fact it didn’t work out at all, because in that particular country, they felt it very threatening because they used the local language as a safe space. They could be talking to each other. And I didn’t understand that they felt safe, but then, you know, I started to be able to answer or understand the gossip and then they were like completely lost. It was really a really disturbing for them and it actually made it even harder for them to adapt to me.
So it was quite of a paradox.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:36:37] Interesting.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:36:38] So the other thing is the ability to admit that you don’t know. So in many cultures, it has different forms and in Asia, what I found very often is that people find it very, very hard. They can’t say I don’t know. So they will make answers which are very evasive, which don’t necessarily answer the question, but are always correct. So I always make a joke. You know, if you ask this question, then you say, is this program working? And the guy looks at you and say, “Today, the sky is rather blue” . It has no relation with the question and he looks at you and say, yeah, but it is correct. Today the sky is indeed blue, so you can’t fault me for that. And so , I used to get very angry and then I realized that this is a way to tell me in a very oblique, polite manner that I don’t know. I won’t be able to give you an answer and you have to stop being upset and being direct and say, okay, let’s circumnavigate around this, and go like that.
It’s very hard to admit you’re wrong. Even French people equate being correct with looking smart. So in my culture, we also find it very hard to say, I don’t know. But we will not do like this. We will say your question is stupid and then we will fight, which is kind of fun because French people like to argue all the time, but we like to argue very strongly and very passionately. So it will terrify many outsiders. And at the end of the meeting, we say, oh, you know, hey, good conversation. We should do that more often, and the others are like, how come you didn’t kill each other? You know, we were about to call for help. And you’re like, no, it was fun right. Yeah we have a great time.
If you add power distance, you know, the fact that you’re the boss and the fact that you say I’m wrong, you know , this can be very, very, very challenging in Asia, and you can step on a lot of toes. You can have a lot of work sensitivities.
I also think there is a little bit that is linked to the education system where many countries are brought up where the system of thinking is you learn in the book and then you have the correct answer. And in Europe and in the West, it varies, but it’s usually not judge upon. Like for example, I never had the multiple choice question. In any of my exam until I was in third year of university, you always write essays and statement of facts. You never have a box to check. It was kind of very different way. We basically end up saying, I don’t know the answer. I don’t even want to research if there is an answer. I’m just going to shoot from the hip and improvise something, which can be also very disturbing for onlooker.
The last thing for me is really vocabulary. We all speak English, right? So we think, because actually we speak our English, which is usually a translation of our own native language. And sometimes you might be making big errors without any intentions. So my favorite example for that is, uh, the French when they discuss about ideas, and they think that another idea is not valid, they would very easily say this is a stupid idea. Because in France, when you are in this context, the word stupid is not at all as strong as English. In this context, the word stupid just means ah it’s a little silly, a little relevant, it won’t work. It’s a nice little endearing word. It is not at all the, this is stupid and by extension you’re stupid. It’s not at all confrontational. So you have to be very careful. Yeah. When I was in, the US, I could see my French colleagues coming for business trips and standing up in front of an American colleague and say, you’re stupid. It is stupid. And I could see the American, I think a little bit of a hard time. So I also did this in Asia and I could see people getting really, really, really upset.
So at the end of the day, you know, what do you do? Because when you are in a country like Singapore, you don’t even have to just adapt to one culture. You have teams that come from all over the world. So you cannot have something that is just fitting everybody’s culture. So the only solution I found is you create your own culture. This is something I already mentioned, culture in your company’s super important. This is the sum of all the behaviors, this is what is correct, what is not correct. So you’re really have to build something where people with the new joiners will come in and say, oh, I see this is the standard. And I can confirm to it. This is how it is done in this company. And that will help me free up my own limitations or, you know, overcome my own barriers. If I don’t like it, there is a feedback mechanism for you to actually say it, but you need to build this into your company because you need to be sensitive that people need the standards and they don’t necessarily have them. And I don’t really have a perfect culture building recipe. What I can tell you is this is really fun and you will have some weird times. You will laugh afterwards, but, you know, it’s going to be very, very, challenging and entertaining at the same time.
On Latest Startup Scenes [00:41:15]
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:41:15] Interesting. Interesting. So what are some of the maybe interesting stuffs you’ve seen in the startup scene lately around the region?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:41:23] I generally think that the level of technical ability is rising amazingly, And I know I sound like maybe can be taken bad, but I really have been here 13 years in Singapore. And before that I was in Asia for seven or eight years in multiple countries. And I do know that my first startup in Asia, I had a hard time recruiting people that met my quality standards.
And now having worked a year in multiple countries, I can see that so many startups are popping up and because I actually traveled a lot and talk to many of these. What is amazing to me is that these guys are really seriously good at technology . Which 10 years ago was not the case. So everybody in Asia is really really building up to be some really high potential.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:42:14] That’s very good to hear. So how about business model or maybe in terms of scale challenges? Are there any interesting stuffs you’ve seen lately?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:42:23] So you have a country like Singapore is very technical and many of the startups are embracing highly technological problems. Whereas if you’re in Indonesia with a country that’s growing extremely fast, you have a lot of startups who are about solving issues that have been solved a long time ago.
So for example many of the startups I talk to are about ensuring quality of delivery of a service. I talk to companies who are ensuring quality of delivery of coffee, ensuring quality of office space, ensuring franchising, laundry systems. It’s not like you don’t have laundry in Indonesia, it’s that, the model of the startup is to make sure that if you go to certain laundry shops, you have a guaranteed level of quality. Whereas in Singapore, for example, this is not really a question. What you do have is more about this related to the population density, the high industrialization of some of the areas. And the importance of the port and the importance of logistics and that sort of, so it’s very highly controlled. A lot of the very large successful companies in Vietnam for example, are ecommerce and wallet, because it’s something that is very important and successful.
In Japan, there’s a large amount of companies who are mobile first and will stay mobile because mobile has been really a really big versus a part of India, web applications are still very, very big. So what you’ll find is people are at different stages of evolution and very often it reflects what is the local culture about.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:43:55] Interesting insights.
3 Tech Lead Wisdom [00:43:56]
Henry Suryawirawan: So before we recap the show, I would like to ask you this question. What are the three wisdom that you would like to share our audience here in terms of technical leadership?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:44:07] Sure. So I would say first of all, for many people who like me grow from being a very good engineer to becoming a leader, you have to remember that leading others is leading yourself first. That means you need to, at some point, really sit down and understand your own character, how you regulate emotions, what behaviors you have, how you communicate this behavior with others, how you handle difficult conversations and difficult decisions. That’s a very big work of self awareness, and you should always do that.
The second one is really, as a leader, everything you do impacts the company. And if you are not careful to keep bad behavior in check, it will actually have an effect that ripples down all the way to everywhere. So basically anything you do creates the company culture. It has to be very, very intentional.
And the last one would be never hire out of desperation. Never hire, just because you’ve been looking for somebody for so long, that now, you have lost the patience of looking for a great candidate. You should never do that. You should always have the highest standard and preferably hire somebody who are smarter than you. You want to never be the smartest person in the room. You want to be hiring smarter people and learn from them.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:45:26] Those three are really insightful, coming from all your various experience around the industry.
So how can people find and connect with you on the internet, Jerome?
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:45:36] The best way is LinkedIn. This is where I have the most activities. So you can just search for my name on LinkedIn. It’s actually a very uncommon French surname. So you won’t find many Jerome Poudevigne, and find me and connect, send me a message and then we can start discussing.
Henry Suryawirawan: [00:45:53] Wonderful. Thank you so much, Jerome for joining us for this episode. It’s always a pleasure having this conversation with you.
Jerome Poudevigne: [00:46:01] Thanks. It’s been fun for me too. I love meeting you. I had a great time.
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