On this episode of the NTP Podcast I chat with Tom Howard from the Greater Bank. It was really interesting to hear from Tom about inspiration he has taken from the marines into building software development teams.
Hope you enjoy the episode!
Here you can source all the things we have talked about in the podcast whether that be books, events, meet-up groups and what’s new in the newcastle tech scene.
welcome to another episode of new attack people today we have tom howard qa lead and lean coach at the greater back welcome tom thanks thanks for having me for those who don’t know who you are can you give people a bit of an overview of you know who you are what you’re currently working on yep so i’m currently working on the digital transformation project at the greater bank as their qa lead and lean coach so basically helping the developers maintain a high level of quality make sure we get good stuff through the production and from a lean coach point of view um helping them with flow and delivering stuff fast nice i’m definitely keen to sort of dig into that but let’s try to explore how you got to that position because it’s not a extremely common position what’s how how’s your career you know span today to get to where you are okay so career span so i actually started off as a ai developer back in the day um so working for the csiro yeah from there i moved into um enterprise application integration using tool sets like um tibco rendezvous and tibco businessworks it was during that time that i found out that i was an agilist at heart just didn’t know it and basically since then i’ve been sort of moving more into learning about psychology how people work how my own mind works and helping teams deliver faster very nice i love this whole psychology angle as well well i think technology in general there’s obviously the actual technology side of it but understanding that human side of it is massive can you give a bit of your insights into either you know understanding who you’re building for or the actual creation of a team i’m really interested to hear your site the psychology angle to that well for me the tech stuff’s easy yeah like there’s you know no you know insurmountable tech problems it’s just a matter of like nutting out and getting it done the really hard stuff’s the people um keeping them aligned you know the helping you know understanding their sort of um biases and backgrounds and how their head works so that you know you’re not butting heads with them all the time um helping show them how they can go faster whereas sometimes a lot of the stuff’s counterintuitive like you think oh as i working as an individual okay i’m very productive okay if i’m working in a team okay i feel less productive because there’s pause periods without necessarily realizing that actually as a team we get stuff done faster so individually i’m less productive but as a team i’m more productive but it feels like you’re going slower so it’s really hard sort of breaking those sort of counter-intuitive sort of perceptions of what fast means yeah nice has that then affected how you’ve built teams in the past and currently yeah absolutely so i mentioned before lean coach my agile journey um involved a lot of learning about lean and flow and that sort of stuff but they don’t talk about a lot about teamwork and it was actually through anthony murphy one of the guys i worked with at amp where i learned a bit more about scrum and for me you know there’s a whole leap of rituals around scrum that i don’t prescribe to but the the core of it for me was the name you know the thinking of the you know a team of people in a scrum pushing the story over the line and that’s basically guided how we formed the teams at um greater bank where we have these this fighting concept where um basically four developers plus or minors work in a fire team full stack capability within that team um in order to get the story from start to finish and done yeah so yeah that’s that’s kind of driven that how long have you been operating in that model for a bit over a year yeah yeah and that’s the first time you’ve built those small life four persons yeah yeah it was um a very big experiment i through my career i’ve kind of done really well just by going to conferences listen to podcasts doing conference workshops taking the stuff other people are doing and that’s working well and applying it in the teams i work with yeah so i’m tend to avoid trying something absolutely brand new because it’s like a chance of you getting a ride like there’s no need to reinvent the wheel right exactly exactly so we were having teamwork problems in the project and so from some of the psychology books that i’ve been sort of listening to i borrowed the sort of fighting concept from the marines yeah right and thought we’d give that a go and see see how it fares for those that don’t know how the marines build their teams and that fire team concept can you provide a little bit more context because yeah i think it’s a really uh it’s a really unique approach that that seems like it’s got a lot of merit and you’re obviously having some success with it but i don’t think it’s overly common yet um and i don’t know any other teams um in it that are using it yeah but basically the fighter in construct goes down to a sort of a rule that they have marines which i read once can no longer find a reference to so take it with a grain of salt but basically it was the the rule is that no one person should be more in charge of more than three things yeah so a fire team leader in a fire team is in charge of three teammates a squad leader is in charge of three fire teams the platoon leader is in charge of most three squads and that’s how they build their hierarchy yeah um and that sort of for them keeps things manageable creates a clear line of communication and that’s kind of what we modeled it on so we’ve got the the five team leaders and um fight team members yeah and we have squads which are headed up by a product owner supporting staff like um ux architecture bas um that work across two fire teams and then the two five teams within each of those squads very nice yeah fairness been operating for a bit over a year in that sort of environment yeah a bit over a year we introduced it we first trialled it um it’s done well we started off without fighting leaders because there was a lot of people really like the flat structure that we had before yeah but basically there was there was a need to create a sort of a leadership role within those teams to help sort of create alignment yeah and so fight team leads in itself has probably been around for about i think three months so that’s relatively new but that’s going really well as well yeah i really like that i really like the approach and the actual the the mindset from the actual greater bank to buy into trying something new like that it’s not too often that organizations especially bigger or older organizations actually you know move and jump into something new so you’ve got to give like i give a lot of a lot of props to the greater bank for actually buying into that and it sounds like you’re having a lot of success to it with it because i’ve spoken to a couple of people that work in those teams and they’re really enjoying it and feel more productive yeah but it it’s it’s worked out really well the the sort of the moment for me where i knew we’d really nailed it was when um one of the devs that had been there for green penetrator for you know five plus years we were talking about five teams and um he said that they’d been telling the one of the new starters after he’d been there for three months that we’d ruined him for anywhere else that everywhere else was going to be crap in comparison that’s a good way to keep people right yeah yeah you provide a really good environment that people don’t want to leave so yeah it’s a really good really good story you mentioned you’re part of this the digital transformation uh digital transformations buzzword it is a bit of password but i think people around newcastle understand that the greater bank have been investing in this digital transformation a lot of people might not understand exactly what that is but for those outside that might not know in as much detail can you give people a bit of an insight into what you’re working on yep cool firstly i’d say it’s it’s a horribly overused term and means absolutely different things in different places so at greater bank basically what it means is that we’re effectively rebuilding the bank on a new tech stack but we’re also transforming the ways of working so very much try new things experiment focus on fast flow and and so that when we go ga or general availability with what we’re working on at the moment that we have the ability to move fast and put new features to the customers test them see if they work see if they like them see if they don’t but basically create that ability to to make changes quickly and safely how long has the transformation been going on so officially kicked off april last year and april this year we actually went into prod with a couple of um select beta users which it’s really nice it’s like to go from nothing to core banking front-end for web and mobile app in 12 months that’s that’s amazing it was yeah one of the developers um i remember was saying like it’s the one of the first times you’ve seen something like that happen at the greater which is um fantastic very nice it seems like you’re building extremely capable teams there um when you’re looking to hire into those teams for i guess if if we’re talking to more junior people out there or people that are considering a move what are the sort of traits you’re looking for in in building your yeah culture and team fit absolutely first and foremost basically where in the first interview we’re really trying to suss out if if they’re going to work well in a team if they’re happy working in a team and if not it’s like yeah it’s not going to be the place for you i know some really really capable developers from previous roles that are just amazing the amount they can turn out but they’re solo artists they basically they’re just heads down do the work and you get what you get whether you like it or not yeah um so yeah that’s that’s the first thing that we sort of try to suss out is um whether they’ve got that sort of team mentality yeah and then i like to ask a couple of questions about you know who was there to ask them to tell me about their best peer or worst and worst peers that they worked with best managers and worst managers that i worked with because that tells me a lot about what they aspire to be in terms of their best peer what they try to avoid in terms of the worst peer and how they like and dislike to be managed so that’s sort of what we focus on in the first interview besides selling the role if they don’t want it we don’t want them which is you know the worst thing we can do is go through the hassle of hiring someone for them to you know sort of three months later saying actually i don’t like what you’re doing or i don’t like the the culture or anything but second interviews usually sort of uh um almost a meet and greet with the fight team they’re going to be working with yeah so the fight team members interview them they do a much better job of sussing out their tech creds you know sort of typical problem with developers even myself you know you ask them how good they are and they’ll tell you correct so yeah they’re much better at sort of sussing that out but more importantly they’re good at determining whether they think that person’s going to be a good fit for them yeah if there’s you know good chemistry in that with the team great if there’s not then it’s like probably like well who else is available yeah there’s a couple of points you mentioned there which i uh really appealed to me you mentioned the word selling the role software developers in across the board at the moment are hard to come by where there’s definitely more roles and opportunities than there are quality candidates in that in that space um you mentioned you actually have to sell that role to them in that first stage and get people to actually want to buy into what you work absolutely is that always been the mentality for you as it has it been something you’ve experienced throughout your career i think um different industries view things different ways as there’s other industries that have uh more roles oh less roles more candidates but obviously no i wouldn’t say it’s always been the way but um i can’t remember when the flip happened where but i think it’s you know sort of an obvious thing that you know you’ve got a candidate that’s applying they’re not the only place you’re they’re applying to yeah um so if you can’t you know sort of make the role attractive to them then they’ll go elsewhere developer sort of um experience is is a really important thing previous role i was working with rabobank and they were saying that they were having problems hiring in netherlands when developers would come in and say can i bring my own laptop and they’d say no and they’ll just hop out and leave and say not even interested so yeah so we we focused a lot on developer experience remote working you know creating that culture team with the the five teams and to make it a really really great place to work yeah it’s a nice it’s a really i guess refreshing approach because it’s a changing landscape and i think there’s definitely a need for organizations to sell opportunities to software developers in general because software developers uh especially good quality software developers and not without opportunity right yeah without options so now the other part you mentioned there which really appeals to me is that the culture being the first point of call the first priority technical skills a second i think in the technology game especially not even software developers but across the across the board really good technology professionals are going to have to continue to learn and upskill anyway right the skills that they’re coming in to work on day one if they’re there for five years are to highly likely be evolving their skill set over time right yeah yeah so well we’re we’re we’re effectively an angular and um kotlin shop at the moment we’ve hired.net developers yeah simply because we could go they’re a great team fit we can see that they’ve got a capability to learn yeah and they’ve been guns correct and that’s what i i love that approach i love that hiring for culture first and skills second because skills can be learned especially if you’ve got the right person that is keen so if you’ve got them they want to be there they’re a good culture fit that they enjoy the team they’re working with they’ll pick up the skills right yeah absolutely and we’re even seeing a lot of um cross-skilling within the fight teams now so one of the teams thinking of the fighting mongooses and they’ve all got names yeah right they had sort of a lot of single point sensitivity on the ios development so primarily one person in the team who was doing ios build and one person in the team doing um back-end build and they had two for doing web build and so uh now one of the web guys is learning a lot of ios um and the other front-end guys are learning a lot of back-end so that they can actually support each other more in terms of getting the stories done yeah great approach again not having a single point of failure again uh really strong approach i know a lot of the sort of the stronger tech teams i’m working with have that same approach it’s not a single point of failure having somebody that can back up or a secondary skill set well the other thing is like it’s almost necessary with the structure we created because if you know sort of the if someone wants to go on holiday i can’t send the whole fire team on holiday yeah so and we basically said to the fire teams like you sort yourselves out someone wants to take leave um we’ll approve it you just gotta sort it out yourselves so they talk about it themselves and make sure they’re not gonna leave their teammates and the lurch yeah nice i really like yeah it’s a lot of a team and a culture approach like the words that i’m hearing most from you rather than any technical capability or technical skills if i swing that back to you um you would be considered post-technical these days post-technical that’s not a term i’ve heard i guess from a career development perspective people can come up you you come up around the the ranks in technology and you’re obviously really technical hands-on and you can continue either down that sort of super technical route and become extremely senior from a technical perspective or you start to do the team management and have a look at managing human beings yeah um as opposed to managing technologies or hands-on with the technology becoming a little land’s hands off how have you found that from your career perspective um it was it was very much a sort of a evolutionary progression for me i’ve had a strong sort of focus on continuous improvement since you know when i started my career um don’t know where it came from but it was sort of always there and sort of as i improved my own skills and tried to improve the skills of the team the more i learned about the tech the more i learned that it wasn’t about the tech it was about the people um and that that’s what really sort of drove me to learn you know a bit more about psychology and that sort of stuff so i can sort of help make the changes to to go faster because a lot of the things that slow us down have got nothing to do with the tech yeah if you had to provide advice to other people that that are maturing in the in their technology careers and they’re trying to decide hey do they want to stay hands-on with the tag or move into that sort sort of more people-focused role is there any advice you give to people that want to go down that people route yeah podcast books learn learn learn i’ve learned so much about how my own mind works and my own sort of biases and that sort of stuff um the last few years that it’s um yeah it’s been really informative for me and i you know oh okay that’s why i do that i’ll try not to do that if we dig into that a little do you have any recommendations for people from that people psychology route let’s start with books books influence by robert caldini that’s a really really good book thinking fast and slow by danny kaniman or kahneman i don’t know how to pronounce it um that is an amazing book and there’s so many moments in that book where it was just like oh my god that’s so true and i didn’t know that yeah like someone sort of you know pulling the blind away from the wizard of oz and you see all the mechanics going on the background and go oh that’s how he does it yeah it’s yeah the understanding of the reasons behind the decision-making right yeah secondary to that podcast so on the psychology front there’s a hidden brain by npr that’s amazing kind of more obscure one is um full of civilizations right um it’s just a random one about you know how these sort of big empires and sort of collapsed and i i like to sort of see the similarities between what’s happening there and certain companies and and that sort of stuff yeah i like to do the same thing with autobiographies i like uh i like sport in general so i like to say yeah read a lot of autobiographies and see there’s the successful traits between different people and why they’ve had successes yeah or autobiographies of like one of my favorites shoe dog by phil knight the founder of nike um and just like to hear all the challenges that they they faced and you know their growth as well well another really good podcast for that is um masters of scale it’s tales of silicon valley yeah yeah it tells the silicon valley they’re both really good ones about same sort of thing but about how startups have sort of succeeded and that sort of stuff how they managed to handle the scale and that sort of stuff yeah it’s because it’s very easy to see those big success stories right and think oh it’s all rosy from the outside but you start digging into them while you hear the stories of those other civilizations or companies and you find about the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis and a lot of these companies are on their last dollar or they had to take a loan out or they’re nearly bankrupt and then for something yeah a little pizza is a really good example yeah that was there was an internal tool that um they were using and i think they were developing a game and basically they ran out of money trying to sell this game and went oh let’s try to sell this instead yeah that’s phenomenal right a little bit of luck you have a look at zoom at the moment um you know and they’re they’re benefited like they’re always they’re a quality product but they are a quality product that had a had a user base that’s grown through a worldwide pandemic that’s forced people into using video more yeah right and they were well positioned to be there um so there’s an element of luck though for them that this this pandemic across there’s that but there was also it was it was you know sort of one of the best tools available correct yeah i’ve 100 percent they’re not there by complete not a chance because they had built the quality product and they were you know front of mind or the best product in the market yeah and but then this is fast-tracked by potentially five or ten years absolutely absolutely oh on that note how’s the how’s the pandemic affected affected your role affected your teams you’re continuing to work remotely now yeah it’s it’s actually been pretty good when we started the um program there was a lot of focus on the ability to work remotely especially because we had some team members working from sydney yeah so a lot of effort was put into that and um then you know sort of as things started to look really sketchy with covert we actually did a trial run um i think it was on a friday we just went right okay on the friday everyone’s going to work from home and there was a lot of sort of working out the kinks that day but got it working and it was good and then i think on the wednesday was when we all went into lockdown so i was like we’d even had it we’d had to try and run we’d worked out the kinks and so it was pretty smooth yeah it was uh you know a lot of the the parents in the team including myself struggled with the kids remote schooling that was just love teachers love teachers everyone was like really understanding and um since then it’s been really good and you’re continuing to work remotely yeah we continue to work remotely um i’m coming back to office once a week yeah a few others are doing that but yeah most of it’s remote work what are the tools are you using to help make that a smooth process is it you you mentioned slack is it yeah yeah yeah we use a lot of slack we use a lot of zoom zoom with screen sharing is great for pairing yeah that sort of stuff it’s not unusual to find you know the fire teams hanging out in a zoom room just chatting as they’re working on their different parts within the story yeah we use dura for the actual stories um it’s a love-hate relationship we use that sort of tracking the stories and reporting on them gitlab for managing this the source code and see our pipelines that’s yeah pretty much it it’s a it’s a pretty pretty stock standards um stack right there right they’re all proven products yeah they’re all you know arguably best in breed um so yeah and the cool thing about you know sort of the data coming out of jira is that we can go actually no there wasn’t much of an impact from covert yeah productivity is still strong yeah yeah and how have you found uh mentality of people um with working from home do you think is there a we’re starting to get a little bit of fatigue with her do you think it’d be something to continue a bit of both i know for myself that you know if i was just doing five days a week at home i’d probably be pulling my hair out by now so i you know i find i make the effort to come in once a week but i’ve got no desire to come in more often if i can avoid it and yeah you know basically everyone’s welcome to sort of come back into the office if they they feel that they want to um and it’s going to work for them but a lot of people aren’t liking today we on our side of the office where all the dev sit and the fire team sit we had three people four people including myself yeah it’s a big team they’re all just working from home and we can see the productivity there and it’s great yeah it’s really nice it’s a different approach as well right and it’s good to see it’s good i think it’s just fast-tracked it i guess again for a lot of companies it’s fast track it’s forced us into that yeah and then figuring that out as we go i think part of it as well um i don’t want to hop on about the five teams but i think that helps a lot as well yeah you know there’s i’ve seen other situations in other companies where as an individual it’s really easy to sort of hide and not be productive whereas in the fight team you know your team’s relying on you yeah so everyone’s sort of chipping in to get things across the line that’s really nice um i guess i agree i think you know in a small team you’ve got accountability right as you said it’s not easy to hide and um my opinion is i think that the people that uh are in those smaller teams or have that accountability are really thriving in these uh remote times and having having a mix of that i think there are from from the conversations i’ve had around there there are people that still have that desire for face-to-face or human interaction whether it’d be one-to-one creatures yeah right once or twice a week to get in and see some people have a coffee or just have it have a conversation but then having having that offset by the ability to to work from home and have some flexibility around that it’s really seeing people thrive yeah yeah now one of the questions we ask pretty well every podcast guest is their experience with higher education and whether they use higher education to to get to their position today i believe you went to university yeah yeah so i went to corey university a bachelor of science in computer science had a fair chunk of electronics in it as well which was um i think really helpful yeah because it helped me sort of understand how the software i’m working with actually executes and a little bit of statistics which i hated at the time yeah but i use so often now that i um yeah need to learn more yeah and what’s your opinion on obviously university has been a a step in your your career journey uh is it in retrospect is it an important step what was your experience like for me it was important because it got helped get my foot in the door yeah i’d say you learn so much more in an actual real job that your unit learn at uni but at the same time having that degree opens a lot of doors for me um there’s a lot of places where you know it’s like you must have a better science degree much like most of the roles that i’ve seen advertised for the teams i work with say it’s a must yeah i don’t necessarily agree with that but that’s just the way it is but yeah i’d say the the work experience is far far far more valuable um in my last year i was doing part-time work at csiro and in ai and learning lots more there okay i i believe it is a step in the door for some people a lot a lot of the common answers we get to the question is learning or learning how to learn learning in the ability to learn having that sort of that that capability through university or um learning through there has been a stepping stone or something to build upon over time for people do you find that exciting yeah probably i i didn’t really apply myself very hard during high school um and my first year of uni took me going away for a year and just having a year off education so that when i came back i was like yeah this is what i want yeah and yeah i think that was um really valuable i think that that ties back into the way you actually hire for your teams now is knowing what you want if somebody knows that they want to be a part of your team they’re going to be a better fit you knowing that you wanted to be a university you applied yourself more right i think that that experience that ties in really closely to you know your habits today if you further your education than that is there informal education that you found really valuable throughout your career yeah conferences so conference that’s sometimes in sydney more often not in brisbane and melbourne i found really really valuable um especially the workshops just taking that things that other people are doing the industry and you know sort of bringing them in to large corporations which where most of where i’ve worked just it’s makes life so much easier you can go oh this is what works as whereas in a lot of enterprise organizations they’re very sort of inward focused and like this is how we do it and a lot of focus on improvement whereas you can you know sort of bring in a tried and tested techniques tools approaches and apply them and everyone goes wow that’s amazing and i’m like it was me yeah conferences i love this answer i’ve got a question for you uh conferences can be in my opinion extremely valuable or extremely invaluable depending on how you operate at a conference you’ve obviously been a few of them uh if you had to provide advice to people how to get the most from a conference what would you say oh sure
basically first check out what the the lineup is see if there’s something that interests you then awesome go to it if there’s stuff that you’re half interested in okay go to those talks you might learn something awesome there’s been a few times where i’ve gone i don’t really want to go to any of these so i’ll pick that one and it’s been an amazing talk yeah and then the networking side of conferences have you found that valuable you know having a conversation with other people or peers in the industry yes valuable but not massively so yeah so it’s really the content that you’re there for yeah i’m basically i go in there like a sponge and try to absorb as much as i can okay on the sponge topic we’ve already mentioned a couple of podcasts and books down that psychology route there are any other books podcasts that you would recommend to people i have a list i prepared for this one so podcast we mentioned before masters of scale yeah um ambassador labs all things cloud it’s really good um they have a standard question which is like what’s your worst developer loop and what’s your best developer loop yeah um which i really like hearing that even though it’s like every single podcast i like your podcast thanks tells of silicon valley um this week in tech i used to listen to and watch a lot but i’ve sort of gone offered recently um on the science front science show and nature are both really good psychology um hidden brain caution new tales full civilizations and on the other the slash film cast that’s really cool janae our video editor and website editor is going to have a field day finding all of those and linking them up on our website which they will they’ll be linked up on our website yep in terms of books accelerate by jess humble and nicole forsgren what’s that about it’s basically how it’s basically research on how they found out what high performing teams were in tech very nice it it’s it’s impressive just the science behind it of how they figured it out it was just like wow continuous delivery by jess humboldt and day farley the phoenix project and unicorn project by jen kim very nice that’s a that’s a nice little list and uh thank you for coming prepared very nicely it’s a it sounds like outside of that you’re obviously a formal education sponge the last part i think that a lot of people look to or some people overlook is mentorship or other people that they can follow even if they don’t personally know the person you can follow them and they act like an informal mentor is there any people that you’ve followed or continue to follow that you think have been valuable in your career yeah um lots um so the authors that i’m of those books that i mentioned so they’re sort of you know sort of look up to them and go they’re awesome dan north um for his work in uh behavior driven development aslak hilsoy for his work on cucumber which also bdd related uh jim weber for rest so it’s funny a lot of these people it’s like they’ve i’ve actually listened to their talks or done their workshops at conferences and just got ah they’re amazing yeah so yeah they’re the ones that sort of uh jump to mind nice and that’s something you’d recommend it sounds like you’ve really bought into that and got value out of you know following somebody but you know listen to their conferences and read their books that’s something you think has been valuable in your career absolutely yeah absolutely try not to ruin i try not to invent wheels yeah um i just there’s a lot smarter smarter people out there um so it’s just much easier to take their stuff and go it works and that’s the end and wrap it up on the on the the topic of not reinventing the wheel and how do you manage your days there is a you know some tools out that you’ve used picked off the shelf and you’re like hey i’ll use this it helps me manage my day helps me be productive it’s a bit harder for me because you know the fight teams have the the story backlog and the stories they’re working on and that’s really easily managed there’s a backlog when they’re ready to pick up a new story they’ll have a kickoff with the pos and bas and to understand you know what they’re looking for and they just work that story for me because a lot of what i do is sort of like filling the gaps in the project or helping the flow there’s a lot of tasks that aren’t sort of captured anyway so lately all i do is basically just keep it in apple notes i just basically have a date at the top list of things that i need to do yeah as i do them i tick them off and the next day i just copy that list into a new one change the date remove anything that’s been done and move forward and i find that’s a good way to sort of just keep track of the the little things that i’d otherwise forget nice approach to to building teams is unique one and i i think uh there’ll be a lot of people are quite interested in that for people that want to ask me some questions i might want to dig into that or consider doing that for their own teams you’re happy for people to reach out to you absolutely so probably the easiest way is twitter tom pa howard is my handle otherwise you can sort of find me on linkedin but it’s a bit boring there and you have to deal with too many creditors on linkedin as well yeah yeah i know tell me about it now i i really appreciate your time today thanks for you know providing your insights i for me personally i found it really interesting to hear about the different approach to building a team i’m very interested in myself and you know human psychology and why people operate in different ways and how to get more out of performance so um your approach and attacking something differently is uh very refreshing yeah cool thanks it’s been yeah it’s been fun thanks for your time thank you cheers