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“A great tech candidate thinks in modern, scalable ways” – Dan Knight, MATCHESFASHION CTO

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ARTICLE SUMMARY

We recently caught up with Dan Knight, CTO of MatchesFashion. In this Q&A Dan shares his career highlights so far, what he loves about tech, his biggest challenge when contributing to diversity and inclusion within his team and advice for women in tech.

Here at SheCanCode, we are big fans of male allies to women in tech.

So, we were delighted to recently catch up with Dan Knight, from MATCHESFASHION. Get expert guidance on what makes a great tech candidate directly from a CTO, and a whole host of insights on diversity and inclusion in tech.

Hi Dan! Why don’t we start with you telling us a little about your role?

I’m the Chief Technology Officer at MATCHESFASHION. This role leads the technology team which includes product management, software engineering & data science.

The product team focuses on what we should build and why, and the software engineers look at how we should build it. This includes the website and apps used by our customers as well as all “back-office” systems used by staff.

My role is one of support & leadership: this can mean anything from managing the department’s finances and budgets, inputting into long term architectural plans, strategy, and goal setting to looking at how we recruit and retain talent. For me, it’s important to promote a customer-focused culture of self-organising teams. I want to make sure MATCHESFASHION is a great place to work and the teams feel empowered. I’m a big believer that those closest to the problems come up with the best solutions.

When you’re hiring – what makes a great tech candidate in your eyes?

Mindset is really important. A great candidate is someone who is keen to learn and who thinks in modern scalable ways. For example, they know that automation (test, deployment etc) is a good thing.

I also really like multi-disciplinary people i.e. someone might have a specialism (say backend development) but if they are also happy managing databases or writing front end code and even working with stakeholders to refine requirements, then they are very quickly some of the most useful people in the company.

Having someone who can flex out of their core skill set is also really helpful. Priorities will shift and change and if people are not flexible it can be a real challenge balancing the work.  Having commercially focused tech people is also great, such as people who want to understand the users’ needs and the business problems.

YOU JOINED THE TEAM BACK IN 2019: WHAT APPEALED TO YOU MOST?

I started my career in software as a (not very good) developer working for Sky. I gradually moved to smaller and smaller companies all the time picking challenges that would test me. My last role was in a small start-up Ordre, where I built a tech team from scratch in London, then supported the company in its series A funding with Alibaba in China.

On this journey, I found that big companies certainly have a lot of resources to flex in order to solve problems, but they can also be quite slow moving. The startup space is fun and fast, but there is a lot of hustling and often a fair bit of uncertainty.

MATCHESFASHION was an ideal opportunity for me because it was an industry that I have a lot of experience in, plus the company has a rich and interesting heritage in the UK and is backed by a really well-respected private equity firm. We are not so big that the company is loaded with red tape and bureaucracy, but not so small that there is no ability to achieve our goals. For example, around 50Mil people a year visit our site and app. Users range from people looking for a nice pair of shoes for a wedding, to A list celebrities and royal families around the world. I think that’s quite a fun space to work in.

so, How did you first get into tech?

When I was at University, I was in a martial arts club that needed to update its website so I started learning how to code in order to update it. I found it fun and success was satisfying so it went from there really. Because I studied Philosophy at university, there weren’t any obvious career directions, so I just sort of fell into tech.

and What is it about tech that you particularly love?

I love the creative aspect. Building new or better experiences for users is something I find very rewarding. I also think technology is a great leveller; all you need is a computer with an internet connection and you can build a website more or less for free. When I was younger, I built a small import-export business out of my bedroom coding in notepad++. I remember the weekend post office runs with lots of small parcels shipping things to people I had never met in countries I sometimes hadn’t heard of, with money they had sent be based on the website I had built. Tech is a powerful tool that allows good ideas and execution to succeed.

“Technology is a great leveller” – we love that sentiment. So, What role do you think men have in creating a more inclusive tech industry?

2019_08_14_Staff Portraits0368.jpgI think there are some big things and some small things we should all do, to be more inclusive. The first is to be aware of things like unconscious bias. As humans we typically like people who share our interests and hobbies or who are similar to us. We need to be mindful of this and not let it cloud important decision making around hiring, promoting or giving opportunities to people. For example, a candidate and a hiring manager with shared interests might quickly build rapport, but that shouldn’t impact the decision of who is the best candidate for a role.

A structured approach to interviewing based around a fixed set of questions and ideally some kind of task, will help hiring managers score candidates objectively. This helps find the best employees as well as building a more inclusive team.

On the smaller scale, I think making sure team chat and communication are inclusive. Being mindful that perhaps not all the team drink or some people need time to pray in the day or maybe someone has to start late because they drop children off at school in the morning. We all have a role to play in understanding people’s interests, passions, beliefs and needs.

This is easy conceptually but making sure everyone in the team thinks about it and flexes their approach to work is key to making the industry inclusive, I think.

and what are the business benefits of encouraging and supporting women in tech? 

This is easy conceptually but making sure everyone in the team thinks about it and flexes their approach to work is key to making the industry inclusive, I think.

and what are the business benefits of encouraging and supporting women in tech?

The best teams I have worked in are the most diverse. In software you can solve the same problem many ways, so having a robust discussion with lots of different opinions is typically going to lead to a better solution. To look at it from a psychology perspective, your gender makes you more or less likely to fall into a certain Jungian or Myers Briggs profile. If you have male-only teams, your team is more likely to have similar approaches to problems solving. In the long run, this isn’t good.

I do believe everyone can adjust their approach and think in different ways but, most people have a preferred way to start solving a problem, eg diving into detail vs stepping back and looking at the big picture. Therefore, having a good mix of men and women ensures you will have the broadest range of perspectives.

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What tangible and actionable advice would you give to other men in tech, to be better allies to women in the industry?

I would encourage people to think differently about age and experience. A quick Google suggests just 19% of computer science students are women. So as an employer, if you want candidates to have a computer science degree, you’re already making it very hard to build a balanced team.

On top of that, I think experience is measured in hours multiplied by intensity not years of tenure. 1 year working hard, solving complex problems, in a high performing team – could easily be more valuable than 5 years spent cranking out the same work repeatedly. Over the last 10 years I have “taken a punt” on hiring people (men and women) who didn’t have a lot of experience in years on paper, but had the right attitude and a good amount of knowledge; I have never regretted it.

I have also found that the established and intense cross training courses like Makers Academy amongst others, have a very high standard and are teaching people the modern way to do things. Lots of women get into tech that way which I think is great.

 The final thing I would say is to regularly use data to look at a tech team. Key things I look at include:

  • Percentage of women vs men in tech

  • Salaries of the team against industry benchmarks and in comparison, for men vs women

  • Seniority of women within the teams as well as tenure data by gender. This will often highlight areas to focus on or re-balance. This also shouldn’t just be a yearly exercise; it needs more focus than that.

As a Leader, what is your biggest challenge to contributing to diversity and inclusion in your team and the broader workforce?

For me, getting a diverse and inclusive range of applicants for roles is really hard.  For example, when we publish a tech lead role, it’s not uncommon to have 100% of applications be from men. That’s a real challenge and likely comes back to the fact there are currently just so many less women in the industry, but hopefully that will change over time. As a fashion company the broader workforce is certainly not male dominated which is good.

3 lessons you’ve learnt throughout your career?

  1. People are not as clever as they seem. When I started in tech everyone used acronyms and talked in complicated and confusing ways. I thought everyone was really smart and the learning curve seemed huge, but the language and acronyms usually just hide something simple. Now I try and avoid acronyms and insist other people limit them as much as possible. The broader your role gets, the more “acronym collisions” you will have. As a recent example, I think TMS means translation management system (where you translate English text to say Japanese), recently someone was talking about the TMS and shipping details, I was so confused. They meat Transport Management System i.e. for choosing which carrier will pick up and deliver the customers order.

  2. Things always take longer than you expect. Humans are optimistic, when someone asks how long something will take to do, we often either underestimate the effort or forget to factor in all our other commitments. I have worked at massive corporations and tiny startups. All projects turn out to be more effort than expected. There are no exceptions; software is hard to get right first time and there is usually something unexpected that gets in the way. This can be people issues, code problems or market related.

  3. Communicate often & clearly. Senior managers in companies really do want to know what’s happening and can often find it hard to get that information in a clear and easy to digest way. Even when I had junior roles I used to like to do weekly updates to stakeholders or my manager, it helped me focus. It turns out people like these. They evolved when someone taught me to use the Progress, Problems & Plans format: what has been finished, what are the issues or potential issues and what you are doing next. The key is to keep it as short as humanly possible, but anticipate the key questions you might get. This is much harder than it sounds and I’m still learning how to do it well.

Without trying to sneak a 4th point in, always keep trying to learn and continuously improve. However good you are you can always be better. Don’t worry about if you are good or bad, just worry about if you are getting better!

Finally: what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

This is a really hard question. Lots of people have given me great advice in their feedback or questions. 2 examples spring to mind, both from great women I have worked for.

  1. When I worked as a business Analyst at sky mapping systems out, my boss at the time Rashee, always had feedback for me. I felt like I could never get it perfect. Upon reflection she just had a super high bar and that was very helpful because it instilled in me the practice of always thinking what could be better about my work or what could be made clearer.

  2. The second example is from when I worked at net-a-porter. I was really frustrated about some technical choices the company was making post-merger and was almost certainly having some inarticulate rant about it to Stephanie, who led the business area I worked in. She asked me something along the lines of “what would be the counter-argument to your points?” This was such a helpful way of looking at things.

It didn’t make me any more positive about the decision, but by looking at both sides of an argument you can understand the problem better and will likely be more articulate in your think around solving or discussing it.

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