We caught up with Denver Gibson, the CTO of Clik. Having worked in IT for over 20 years, his fascination with technology shaped an interesting discussion on team building, the path to success, and the importance of FinTech.
Joining Clik two years ago, Denver started as the product owner as he helped define what Clik was and what the platform would do.
"Clik is a big complex platform. It's all based in the cloud. We integrate with a lot of partners, like Openway, and their Way4 product, which is their banking switch solution."
"Clik is not just an app. It's like a mini bank, and it meets all the compliance and licensing criteria."
Elaborating further on Clik, Denver described it like "It's not really a payment app, and it's not about the apps at all". Rather, Clik is a platform, allowing people and businesses to connect through simple and safe innovative solutions.
"The apps are tools that form a whole ecosystem that allow merchants to get more return customers, and make life much, much easier for consumers to move money around and pay for things."
Clik is currently accepting Beta sign-ups via clik.asia - with the full launch due imminently.
Whilst he was documenting all the UX and UI features himself, Denver also was in charge of looking after the developers.
“When I started at Clik, we only had 8 people on the technical side, and now we are close to twice that. So things have changed quite a bit in the way that we do things.”
A CTO - Chief Technology Officer - has an important role to play in FinTech firms, with Denver cementing the importance of leading by empowerment:
"I would say, [as a CTO] you need to motivate.
You need to have a team that's effective and happy. That's probably the number one thing. I feel like I'm responsible for that."
A great leader inspires. Denver touches upon a key point when he reveals:
"I haven't needed to specifically tell somebody what to do, probably, since the year 2000."
When you empower your team, things click. Productivity soars. There's merit in motivating team members to make their own decisions and really own their choices, when you assign the responsibility of decision-making to team members their accountability and pride towards their work is enhanced, and really as a leader you're there to oversee and support when necessary.
"What helps me be a good CTO, is the wide breadth of experience that I’ve gathered. I've built computers, and computer networks; I've written, and sold, software. I've done everything in relation to tech, to varying degrees of success. I think that serves me well in being a generalist, and that's kind of what a CTO has to do."
Previously we mused the idea of the 'M shaped' team member, which outlines the value in possessing knowledge and skills in multiple areas. As you move higher up the career ladder into managerial roles, having a deep understanding of various areas allows you to hire, train, support and concisely communicate with team members with different focuses and skillsets.
Once the T shape was introduced, thinkers suggested ‘why stop there’ and mused the Pi shape, the Comb and the X. Suitably, we enjoyed the thinking behind the ‘M’ shape and how it helps us succeed.
As we discussed challenges in Asia, Denver raised the point of cultural norms posing a difficulty to the empowerment process:
"It can get frustrating at times when you ask for an opinion, and you get silence. Extracting information from people has probably been my biggest struggle working here."
Indeed, within South East Asia there can be an underlying 'traditional' view that the boss’s voice is the only one that matters. Creating a culture of holistic decision making can be tricky when there is a reluctance to challenge management ideas or processes.
"Some of our best ideas come from our most junior people. So if we can't leverage that, then we're losing a lot of value from our staff."
At Mäd, we regularly exercise an ideation voting strategy, whereby we encourage teams to work separately, together. Each member writes up their ideas as individual post it notes, and then everyone presents each idea and sticks the idea to the wall. Then, everyone is given voting stickers, to allow a group consensus on the best ideas and best courses of action. We usually balance this, by giving the key decision makers a few extra votes - but the process allows everyone to be heard, valued, and empowered.
As we followed Denver's path, and noted the various career successes he has achieved, we posed various questions to gain an understanding of what insights have shaped his decision making and what advice he would give to helping self-betterment.
“Not thinking that you've succeeded already probably helps, because you're always wanting to be better.”
Firstly, the concept of continuous learning and growth is an ideal path for success. By never settling, you allow yourself further room to flourish and strive to continue adding value both to yourself and any work you do.
"I think one of my strengths is that I've done just about everything there is to do in tech. I've got an understanding and an empathy with anybody that I'm talking to in the industry."
Having a wealth of experience pairs excellently with interpersonal skills. By understanding how others think, feel, and act, you can benefit massively- such as aiding team members in language they understand, or explaining complex problems and solutions to clients. Having ideas and skills is grand, but without clear communication in a way your audience understands, your potential can't be maximized.
"I've been the CEO; I've been the sales guy; I've been the programmer. So I know why they think the way that they think and what their motivations are. That's very important when you're managing people - understanding what drives them so that you can give them more of that."
As we interview inspirational people, we find a common theme that can often be unspoken - passion. Having great skills also needs to be combined with the ideal outlet that matches a persons interests. Denver added that his motivation is driven by belief in his product, and what he is doing:
“I actually believe that Clik will make a huge difference to Cambodia and Southeast Asia. I actually care about the product, but probably more than anything - I care about the people that are building it, because without that, this product wouldn't be anywhere near as good as it is.”
And this raises an excellent consideration for hiring processes. When building a team, you don't just want to find people that are capable of doing a job; You want to find those that want to do the job, that are energized to do so.
We posed the question to Denver directly- What was the most important thing to consider when building a team? For Clik, the answer was finding the 'team fit'.
"We had problems early on, when I first started at Clik, in staffing correctly - prospects looked great on paper, and they were lovely people, but then we threw them into this random environment and it's not an easy thing to adapt to."
It's a challenge employers face, predicting how both skillsets and personalities will fit into the existing team. Deploying test briefs is an excellent way to discover how a person works, and how the skills, experiences and education translates directly to your company's output. However, estimating how an individual will react to existing team personalities, working styles, and even the management styles, can be trickier. Denver shared how the Clik company acts as a catalyst for developing talent:
“We've kind of taken the approach of having more junior people, and we've built an environment and architecture that's good for juniors to get up to speed quickly.”
Given that Clik is based in Cambodia, Denver also discussed the specific regional challenges in managing and building a great team. Noting that many people come to 'developing' countries for lower labour costs:
“We don't think that way. We pay people what they're worth, we don't care whether they're Cambodian, or Australian, or American.”
There's an important element of equality here, and nothing is arguably more powerful than making someone feel valued.
Although Denver’s versatile experience allows him to understand multiple departments and technical roles in detail, this is a luxury most companies tend not to have. We posed the question of how non-technical people should evaluate technical teams during an interview process:
“For junior developers, we have like a simple test that we can give them. The HR don't need to know the answers themselves, they can simply manage the test process. And then after that we'd give them a take-home project to do. We assess that on the technical side. What that has allowed us to do, is not spend an entire week on interviews with our HR people.”
Key to the process, Denver agreed that if someone is excitable and interesting, there's a strong indicator that they have a capability within the field they've applied for. Hiring managers should know what education is expected, and also have some basic understanding of the tools these individuals would use - we've seen job adverts calling for eight years experience in coding software only two years old, which showcases a level of ignorance from whichever company is hiring!
Conversely, we also wondered what 'red flags' may come out of interviews, when Clik is looking for developers.
“If they're not interested, or if the first thing they ask about is money... People are still nervous, so you take that into account, but if they're bored, or you get blank stares when you ask them questions, those are clear red flags.”
As much as it should go without saying, apply for jobs that interest you and manage interview expectations by preparing answers to likely questions - after all, if you've been offered the interview then the company is interested in you, and if you want to work there then your next task is to impress and dazzle! If you find yourself bored in an interview, then it's not the company for you (and you're not the person for them).
As tech aficionados, we're always excited to discuss the latest and greatest technologies and find ideal software solutions to potential problems. With in-house GraphQL experts, we asked Denver for his thoughts on how this query language has impacted Clik.
“It's been pretty huge actually. We did start with a fairly standard restful API type approach to our middleware. We started experimenting with Hasura and GraphQL. Hasura is kind of like an engine between GraphQL and our PostgreSQL database.”
Going on to discuss some key advantages of GraphQL, Denver listed the productivity boost from having juniors able to gain value quickly without prior software coding experience. Not having a timely task-chain between team members is ideal too, as Denver notes:
“Nobody's sitting around waiting for the middleware guys to finish their end-point. And nobody is in the front-end to then test it and realize "oh I needed this field". Instead they just pull everything they need and simply put it on the screen.”
Opening the tech discussion up to a broader question, we wanted Denver's opinion on why FinTech was important:
“It frees people from the dollar. The whole idea of commerce is suddenly tipped on its head if you're using FinTech, in that it doesn't matter where your money comes from.
The idea of change just goes away. That has a huge convenience boost, but it also means that we don't have people walking around with much cash, which is more secure.”
As Denver posed the security advantage, he added the example of potential theft; Even if someone was to steal your phone, they wouldn't have access to your financial applications due to the various security steps within each application. Yet, the ease of linking up FinTech to various daily payments, removes the commercial transaction step and lets life flow smoothly. Denver used the example of the taxi app he had used to get to our Mäd office, whereby he simply booked it; got in; travelled; and got out - no fumbling for the correct cash, no waiting for change - time saved and added comfort gained.
While discussing tech, we gained some of Denver's inspiration as he told us of some of his role models:
“My role models would be Jason Fried (the 37Signals guy), and Fog Creek software that are changing things with Glitch now - the way that those guys think, I very much admire and look up to. They have basically turned the way we think about working software on its head, and they've done the opposite of what we should do.”
To add to this, Denver recommended two of Jason Fried's books: 'Rework' and 'Getting Real'.
“The most important thing is to care about your work, and everything else will follow. I think that that book kind of switched my thinking and made me what I am today.”
These thoughts from Rework are progressed in Getting Real, which focusses more on 'less talk, more action'.
To end the interview, we mused the hypothetical- asking Denver what world problems he'd love to see solved during his lifetime.
“I read a book in 1997 called The Spike that fundamentally made me rethink about technology, in that there are all of these industries or fields that are all improving at an exponential rate. Computing, (what I do), is just one of them. There's bioscience, there's nano-technology, there's robotics - We see those terrifying looking Boston dynamics robots and you fear for your life! All of those things are going to come together at some point as we progress. We're seeing it already - the things that we can do on a smartphone now were inconceivable not even 20 years ago.
So I think we'll have the tools to solve just about any human problem. If politics got out of the way of that, that would be good. Having people living in poverty, and not being able to eat is just unacceptable in this technological age.”