The CTO Show

Episode 5: Amaury Khelifi - Startup Technical Advisor

Episode 5: Amaury Khelifi - Startup Technical Advisor

Show Notes

Things we talk about

  • 00:43 - Getting Into a Technical Career
  • 02:28 - Starting Startups
  • 04:40 - Consulting Offerings/Skillsets
  • 07:54 - Managing Growth
  • 09:44 - The Startup Ecosystem
  • 13:33 - Providing Value Online
  • 15:01 - Being a Good CTO
  • 17:46 - Using the Agile Methodology
  • 21:49 - Finance and Marketing; CEO vs CTO



ALI: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the CTO Show. Today I have someone called Amaury who is a consultant for start-ups in France. I met Amaury through a mutual acquaintance to whom I mentioned that I do a podcast for CTOs and she didn't let me finish my sentence before she said that there's somebody I have to bring on the show. So, welcome to the show, Amaury.

AMAURY: Thank you very much for having me. Thank you.

ALI: Excellent. So tell me, what is it, exactly, that you do?

AMAURY: At first, building a start-up four years ago, I've learned a lot of things, and for now three years I have other start-ups to thrive through technical challenge so I’m kind of CTO of services or CTO advisor for start-ups founder.

ALI: I see. Okay. Can you talk a little bit about your journey before that? Like how did you get into a technical career and how did that transition into consulting happen?

AMAURY: I don't know where you want to start from.

ALI: Your first job ever, let's start there.

AMAURY: Before my first job I still was a teenager who compiled my Linux kernel at 15 so I am kind of fond of Linux from my first age. I started working for a training company in the middle of France, in St Etienne, and I worked for another company called Linux Mandriva a few years after, where I taught the government and a lot of large companies how to manage a Linux server and from there I moved into the banking field for six years where I managed six engineers in the organisation how to move projects from, I would say, when you have five people who are working on a project and how to reduce these five people to maybe half the people and that is exactly what I was specialised on and, as I told you, four years ago I left. I found that everything in the corporate world - not everything, but enough for me - I wanted to jump in and create my own adventure and I created start-ups two years and from there we, we started, yeah, two years ago, and I created this new consulting based on my training and the neutralisation aspect of what I have done before and match it to the start-up’s needs.

ALI: Right, so you were saying that you had a couple of start-ups two years ago, or you had a start-up two years ago - could you talk a little bit about that?

AMAURY: The story was I was a trainer in the beginning of my career and I created about one thousand slides of courses and when I moved to the banking field I felt, unfortunately, my one thousand slides are still on my hard drive but no one is using it so maybe I should be able to sell it and maybe share it and, at that time, maybe a slide show wasn't enough - I mean it's, what, about ten years ago? So I started to think about how we would be able to see a digital product and five or six years ago I started to code a couple of things and four years ago I just jumped and created what was Woopstore - a platform, a marketplace, where everyone can sell a digital creation.

ALI: Why did that wind up? Was that just because of a lack of traction or you just weren't interested anymore? What was the reason behind that?

AMAURY: It's not only one reason, unfortunately. We learn a lot. The major reason was the fact that we were only a technical founder, that was the main one, and it led us to pick up the room market for our start-up size. I mean we were following another company which was kind of not a competitor because they got $8 million in terms of funding where we only had maybe about $30-40,000. We followed their path, we felt that we were on the right path and we should have niched down on one specific market instead of trying to target a too-large market. So the point was picking this large market, our communication was kind of confused, we didn’t match to any persona and finally we only had a list of one thousand users, so not enough, of course, to lever based on that.

ALI: So after that you progressed by starting a consultancy. When I say consultancy, I think it's just you, rather than you with employees, but can you talk a little bit about what your consulting offerings are now, for what kind of clients?

AMAURY: I like to put things as a story.

ALI: Okay - stories are great!

AMAURY: I stopped these start-ups and I just thought 'Okay, should I get back to the corporate world or should I move on and keep doing what I like and what I love, which is building start-ups?' but start-ups are quite a difficult market to earn money, they don’t have so much money and they try to spend it wisely. So my skillet is I have technical start-up experience as a founder with a quite good pedagogy so these three skillsets led me to create an offer for start-ups to help them to grow.

ALI: Okay, so when you said the three skillsets can you specify exactly which three you mean?

AMAURY: My technical skillset - managing server growth, I just put technical in one skillset. The other one is larger, it's my experience as a founder. As a founder you get some very large skillsets from doing finance to managing what is your marketing positioning and learning how you should target people, how you should communicate. It's a large skill set, it's quite difficult, in fact, to describe it.

ALI: Yeah, it's everything else required.

AMAURY: It's everything else.

ALI: That's kind of my day job now.

AMAURY: And the last one, yeah, was the fact that I am quite good at making people understand and teaching people things. So from that I help start-ups to grow, here in France. Basically I have a couple of international customers too but for now it's mainly in France. I work for Incubator and Accelerator which are more prescribers for start-ups and I help start-ups grow. So by helping start-ups grow, it's in different ways, the first one is management - how to manage a growing team when you move from one junior developer to maybe three, four or five developers and hiring a CTO - how can you pick a CTO if you don't have a technical skillset yourself? If you only have a junior developer he will not be able to help you pick your CTO so I’m doing kind of CTO services, just the time for me to create the knowledge database - technically speaking how things have been done - and then led the founder to pick the right CTO. So that's the different way, technically speaking, management, and I also stick to my old passion which is infrastructure and I help a couple of start-ups to move but also Google and Microsoft Azure.

ALI: So you mentioned there one of the things you help your clients do is to manage that growth in terms of various things but also in terms of growing from, let's say, one junior developer to a team of five developers and a CTO of some kind. When you come in on those engagements, I’m assuming you have a number of different situations you go into - for example, if you're at the beginning of that or you're in the middle of that, where they've already started growing their team, or you're on an established team and you're helping them to sort of tighten up their processes. What I’d like to know from you is, based on your experience, what are two or three things that start-ups in this kind of process make mistakes in? What are the biggest patterns of failure you've seen? The most common, I guess.

AMAURY: I would say the one that I see very often is the fact that they put all of their trust in only one person. One person who, usually, is a junior developer. The junior developers, like every technical person, have a large ego. We've found that we do is the best way and it's typically technical and I was exactly like that before.

ALI: I think everyone is at some point in their career.

AMAURY: Yeah, at some point we felt that the way we did it, because we love what we do and we build things and we've designed things before doing it, so having someone else who just watches behind you is not something easy for developers, generally speaking. So that's the main mistake that founders do, is they put all their trust in one person and when it's time to grow they need help from people, from senior people, from a senior CTO, to be able to grow.

ALI: Let's say you've got this one junior developer, they've put all of their trust in this one person and everything is kind of wrapped up in their ego. From that point I presume you also help your clients to hire, so you help them through that process?

AMAURY: I don't help them to really hire. I help them to define which kind of person they need.

ALI: Right, I see.

AMAURY: Because from the audit stage I am able to define which technology they have, which kind of following stage they need to go on to and to be sure how many people they need with which kind of experience. So I help them in that way. It's happened from time to time that I’ve helped them to interview but I’m not a recruiter. Like every CTO I do it from time to time.

ALI: Many of the listeners of this podcast are going to be based in the UK, perhaps a couple in the United States as well, so I think it would be very interesting if you spoke for a little while about, I guess, the contrasts, the things that might be different between the start-up ecosystem in France as compared to, say, London or the United States.

AMAURY: It's not only the ecosystem. I think it's more about mind-set. The mind-set is totally different. Again, I came from the corporate world. Here in France people are afraid of change more than anywhere else, I guess, and when you build start-ups you become a risk taker and that's a total shift from what I was before and what I am now and I think here in France people are really afraid of launching start-ups and those who do so, they do it exactly like they manage people in the corporate world.

ALI: Right, okay, that's interesting.

AMAURY: They manage and they create a spreadsheet with a bunch of figures to finance with maybe a $1 million budget and they only have $5-10,000 of budget, so they felt they were going to raise a bunch of money but they have nothing, and they spend a lot of time on finance, doing what they do best in the corporate world, instead of just tackling the market.

ALI: Okay, I think that part you mentioned, in this case you're talking about finance, but in many other companies, especially with inexperienced founders, they kind of focus a lot on whatever they happen to be good at, rather than the thing that is going to make the business successful, which is talking to customers and finding a product/market fit and that's something that’s probably not just France.

AMAURY: You are right.

ALI: My wife is from Japan so we often consider what setting up a company over there would be like and they sound like they're very similar to what you're talking about - very risk adverse - and if you're this crazy person who starts a start-up then you are this big risk taker, you're a gambler, you can't be depended on, so, yeah, I guess it's the same there. It's not so bad in the UK - I think we have some kind of entrepreneurial culture, we have television shows with entrepreneurs on them, but it's still not common, I guess.

AMAURY: But still, the ecosystem in France is growing. There is the French Tech stuff, there is a new wave to promote start-ups and I think that we're becoming better.

ALI: You mentioned that you're doing this consulting and you took us through what you talk to your clients about and the kind of ways you help them. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

AMAURY: Yeah, you're right.

ALI: Yeah, I wouldn't have asked you if I didn't know!

AMAURY: Recently I reached the maximum of my time. I am starting a new shift to move online, a new way to provide the service I do. So there are two different ways for me to provide value online. The first one, which was the most obvious one, the easiest one, is building a start-up CTO group, so I started that a few months ago, I gathered other CTOs, most were clients of mine, and we just take a seat around the table and we share best practices - what we've done, what works, what doesn't, good processes - just sharing CTO experiences and that's a very interesting way for me to move online business but I don't really believe, for now, that it's a good way for me to do business, it's more a way for me to have a community around me to learn - I’m still learning because by myself I will not be able to solve all the world's problems so it's a good way for me to learn - and I have a certain project which is more business oriented, like the consulting service I provide today, as well as the coaching service. I'm trying to move the consulting into a digital form to teach CEOs how to manage growing tech teams.

ALI: Okay, the first thing you were talking about is a CTO club where people talk about their experiences, share best practices and generally talk about the work of being a CTO. I'm going to presume that you have some content or some take on what it means to be a CTO, what those best practices are, etc. so can you talk to me a little bit about what it means to be a good CTO, to do well in that role?

AMAURY: A good CTO, for me, is someone who is good, technically speaking, who still knows how to code a couple of things, but just does it for fun, and he's able to manage finance and people and market - three things. Finance, people and understand business and the market, because it's the bridge between marketing and the development team. For me, that's my point of view.

ALI: Okay, so you mentioned that they should still have technical skills but also be good at finance, with people and understanding the market in which the business offering exists. Have you met a CTO that is good at all of those things before in your career?

AMAURY: Yes, there are good CTOs. Of course we are not the best at all of them but we need to have a bit of them and quite a good technical background, I think. The best CTOs for me are those who did a bunch of technical things before becoming a CTO. I have some clients, especially one here in France, who manages a team of fifteen developers. He's very good, quite similar to me, maybe better than me at certain things and I’m better at others. We help each other and he asked me to help him to grow his team and to add a new objective point of view on what he was doing and that is something that's quite rare but it's very smart because when you grow you can't do everything by yourself.

ALI: Let's say you've got a technical CTO, they've got various things they have to do in their day, what activities do you think they should be spending their time on, in terms of managing people?

AMAURY: Knowing your developers, first, personally, and knowing what makes them move forward. For me, the human is number one, and then applying some best practices, whatever the methodology you follow just apply something that has been proved before.

ALI: Okay, specifically on that point, what has your experience been like? The reason I’m particularly interested in this is because my experience hasn't been great, so my question for you is what has your experience been like using Agile with, perhaps, your various clients and also in the corporate world, if it even exists?

AMAURY: I started to use Agile when I was in the corporate world, which was quite new in the banking company I was in - that was maybe seven years ago, something like that. It's like any change - people are afraid of it and then they move forward, they accept it, and finally, after a while, 'Oh, finally it's good!' They found it was a good idea. Agile, for me, changed almost everything and I had the chance to have a quite difficult teammate so putting a framework like Agile helped all the team to be in the same position, even me as a manage, I put in myself and I put in my own goals and it helped people to see that when I come in the morning and I leave in the evening I’ve done a bunch of things and if they don't everyone is going to see that and that's something that is, for me, the key of this methodology.

ALI: Yeah, it's the visibility on the tasks that you get done. I think that's easier, perhaps, now. I'll give you an example of what I mean - in our company, almost nothing that you do does not result in a Slack notification. So if you issue a pull request, if you, not send an email, but if there's anything that you do, if you move a Trello card, do anything like that, Slack will tell me that you've done that thing, which is okay for development work but, like you said, as a manager I don't really have any way of showing people all of the things that I’ve done so I don't know what my employees think I do. So what I did was we started having a weekly update email which not only reported about things I was doing but also showed everybody else what each other was doing, because they were on separate projects, and that seemed to go down really well on the team because without that everybody is just focused on their one thing, whereas if you say 'Yes, this is what Ali did this week. Here are the sales conversations that are happening, here is the marketing stuff that is happening,' suddenly there is this one thing for people to work around. We don't use Agile but I think this weekly update thing really helped us achieve that particular role.

AMAURY: Yeah, it speaks totally to me because when I started to use Agile in fact I didn't apply Agile exactly in the language I should have. We did a daily meeting but only twice a week.

ALI: Okay, right!

AMAURY: But still, it's what I’ve done, what are my difficulties and my next goal, that's universal and if you use it on a weekly basis, that's fine. There are a lot of things around Agile.

ALI: Yeah, that meeting is quite good. I also like the idea of retrospectives as well. Maybe not every week but at the end of a project where everyone has a chance to sit down and talk about what went well, what went badly and things we can improve on. For us, we need to do more of that because there is so much learning locked up in that knowledge and if we can it out and improve our processes as a company I think that's one of the things I want to eventually start doing regularly but we don't do enough of.

AMAURY: Yeah, I totally agree, the continuous improvement, the fact that we have kind of limited improvement possibilities, it totally speaks to me. With the team, I have a couple of people that work with me, we do it on a weekly basis - how should I have done things differently? That’s the best question I really like, and how should I have helped people to be more effective? On a weekly basis, for myself.

ALI: Okay, the other things you mentioned were finance and marketing. If we talk about finance for a second - what do you think are the basics that a technical leader or a CTO, whatever title we're going to be using, should know about finance? I'm asking for myself more than anything else!

AMAURY: In fact, I started from scratch, so how to build a business plan. I think I’m not good enough to teach anything on that point. Just being able to manage salaries, to manage how you're going to earn with your sales, how you're going to spend in terms of marketing. Just putting all of those equations together and being able to have some input maybe from the marketing team, from each team, and putting all of that stuff in one Excel sheet and having the balance at the end. Learning, of course, the concept of assets.

ALI: Maybe liabilities would be the opposite of an asset?

AMAURY: Yeah. I'm looking for another word but that's fine.

ALI: In terms of finance, I’ve, basically, like you, started from scratch and the things that you're talking about - a business plan, salaries - I think what you mean when you say put everything in a spreadsheet with input from various departments, you're talking about forecasting there, so we take a bunch of business knowledge together and then we make a guess as to what the numbers are going to look like in two months, a year, whatever's time. That, to me, is still rocket science. I just learned that you have to log all of your expenses, you have to put money aside for tax and things like that. I was lucky I learned these things when I did because they were expensive lessons but they were not lessons which destroyed my company. So I’m worried about what the next thing is going to be that really rocks the boat with us and makes us have to fire somebody or something.

AMAURY: I think the difference between a CEO and CTO is very close.

ALI: I was tweeting about this earlier today - whereas a CTO or a CEO should have this kind of knowledge, if you're running a business, even a small business, for me one of the most liberating things has been to have a panel of experts who I can call on at any time to help with a certain thing. So, for example, we have a lawyer who we pay a certain retainer amount per month, a very small amount, and for that money he will be available to us over email and over the phone to quickly discuss any small legal issues and what that means is that I can now, whenever I’m going into a negotiation or if a client presents some strange terms in a contract, instead of being worried and scared and messing up in that situation, I can just call me lawyer and just say 'You handle this. Tell me if there's anything I need to worry about and get back to me.'

AMAURY: When you start a start-up you can't afford these kind of services, you just move on your market and that's where you need to have these kinds of skillsets and to learn it and understand.

ALI: I think that's where a lot of experience helps, so if you have a founder who's starting their first company, they don't have the connections, they don't know any lawyers or anybody who knows good lawyers and they don't have the money to pay for a lawyer, whereas if you're on your third or fourth company then I think it's easier to have all of this surrounding knowledge and connections build up. Cool, so should we move on to your picks, the media that you'd like to recommend?

AMAURY: Yeah, the one that I really love is YCombinator courses, for sure. They provide and they hand out a bunch of videos on the web.

ALI: Okay, I was not aware of this. What’s it called? The YCombinator courses.

AMAURY: It’s Sam Altman who hands out a bunch of videos. I think it's if I am correct. That’s the first one. Another one which is more digital, online, is called Pat Flynn.

ALI: Pat Flynn, okay.

AMAURY: It's one that is quite well known in Silicon Valley. It's a simple blogger but he does a bunch of things with a lot of sense. Yeah, I really follow this guy because he is very smart.

ALI: So what sort of content is it? What is it about?

AMAURY: He talks about marketing online, basically marketing online, how to start from scratch and find out a new idea with Google Analytics or keyword planner and to figure out a need and to create something, even based on a small need. So that is someone is quite good. And the third one is Tim Ferriss. It's well known, nothing new I guess.

ALI: But it's something that somebody will be discovering for the first time so it's worth mentioning, I guess. ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’.

AMAURY: I think it's a must when you want to start a start-up and want to shift yourself into a new context and area.

ALI: I think the whole idea of lifestyle design, maybe I didn’t follow his exact advice for what to do.

AMAURY: You shouldn't! You shouldn't. It's an American way of doing things.

ALI: But at the same time, I read it and I thought 'Well now I feel like I have more ability to make decisions about what I want my life to be like.' So I didn't follow what Tim Ferriss said to the letter but my lifestyle is pretty well designed now - I walk two minutes from my home to my office, I can pick up my kids from nursery and then have lunch with them and then get back to the office and then go back home and that's all on purpose. The idea that I could make a life like that for myself came from reading things like 'The 4-Hour Workweek' so I think it’s a really good recommendation.

AMAURY: Totally, totally. I also tried to follow his path but I think he's too good for us for now.

ALI: He's also a little crazy. He's like 'Okay, now I’m going to jump off a building to see how it affects my face being broken,' or whatever, so I’m happy to let Tim to do all of that crazy stuff and I’ll read the books about it. Excellent, well thank you very much for speaking with us. I think we'll wrap things up there.

AMAURY: It was a pleasure.

ALI: Absolutely, and thank you everybody for listening and we'll see you again soon. Bye bye.