On Tuesday 31st July our Chief Technology Officer, Matt Whiteley, celebrated four wonderful years of working at Volcanic.
We sat down with Matt as he reflected on his remarkable journey from his first graduate job as a Junior Developer, to now being Chief Technology Officer four years later. As Matt himself puts it, he’s gone from someone who “works for the business to someone who leads the business”.
Now, before you start reading what Matt had to say, we wanted to give you a word of warning: he is very modest. What he classes as a typical day of work is to us, quite frankly, tech wizardry! The Volcanic team feel privileged to have him driving our business forward as CTO.
“The thing about Matt is that even from an early stage at Volcanic he showed immense talent, but also the vital ingredient to becoming a successful CTO is a real appetite for hard work. I'm not surprised that he's done this well, but I'm proud that we are able to provide a framework for other talented people to achieve their full potential here.”
- Neil Pickstone, Co-Founder
Keep reading for some revealing insights about life in a high-growth tech business and the opportunities it presents.
Lillie: Firstly, congratulations and happy fourth Volcanic anniversary!
Matt: Oh thank you - nice not to get myself fired in all these years.
Lillie: So how does it feel after four years of your journey from Junior Developer to Chief Technology Officer?
Matt: It feels successful. It’s crazy when you say it like that, because it’s not a usual journey. But I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved in the last four years.
Lillie: So, let’s rewind a bit. Tell us about your journey prior to Volcanic. What were you doing before and how did you get here?
Matt: Well, this is my first job! I was at university prior to Volcanic. I graduated on July 14th, 2014 in a MEng Computer Science at the University of Bristol. And I was immediately told that I needed to get a job and start contributing to the bills, as I was still living at home at this point.
So I applied for some jobs online, and Neil’s sister is one of my Mum’s best friends, [Neil Pickstone is our Co-founder] and she said, “My brother is running a tech company and he’s always trying to hire people. I’ll send him a text.”
I spoke to Neil on a Sunday night. I went in for an interview on the Monday morning, and started work on the Thursday. So that’s not bad - I was out of work for two weeks after graduating!
That initial interview though, was a complete trainwreck. It was my first ever job interview so, I mean, everybody screws it up the first time.
Lillie: So you were nervous?
Matt: Yes, well, I just didn’t know what was going on!
Rob [Wilde, our other co-founder] did most of the interview. He had a whole bunch of technical questions like,
[In a powerful boss-like voice] You should know this! Why don’t you know this?
and I was like,
[In a terrified voice] I probably do know this, I’ve just forgotten because of the pressure!
So the long-running funny joke is that Rob didn’t want to hire me because he thought I was incompetent, and Neil said we just need developers right now, let’s take him and we can always get rid of him.
And here we are four years later!
Lillie: Well, it definitely seems like you proved him wrong!
Matt: Well, he doesn’t like being wrong, but I bring it up every now and then, just because it’s funny.
Lillie: So that story sounds like a particularly memorable moment in your time here, but are there any others? Any highlights?
Matt: So, there have been some pretty major bits of work that I’ve been involved in at various levels.
I started off as a junior front end developer, building websites. And I did that for about six months until all of a sudden, we needed another back end developer. At the time, we did a lot of contract work for a particular company, and they had this new product which they needed someone to build. At the time, there was no one available to do it, so, I had a crash-course in backend development from Rob at his house over two days.
So we did that, and then I got unleashed with this specification to deliver this product. But that was funny. “Let’s teach you how to do ruby on rails development in 2 days!” Okay.
Another highlight has been the Varnish cache delivery, which I have spent a lot of time researching. After discovering the benefits it could bring to Volcanic, I have since configured and deployed it on my own.
Like any platform, we have our up and down moments, and times when it is being slow. It used to be that when this happened, no page worked, everyone was offline. And this was a problem when there were 50 clients, and now we have over 700! Varnish has made this a problem of the past. It is probably the most effective bit of tech we’ve added so far.
Lillie: That’s great! Okay so, what is the best part of your job?
Matt: So the best part of my job is that I am able to improve my own knowledge on a bunch of stuff. I do love tech stuff, and in the roles I’ve had here I’ve been given the freedom to just teach myself things. With a lot of what we’ve been doing, no one in the business has done before. Not that it’s never been done in the history of humanity, but it’s new to us, so everything takes investigation and learning and then delivering.
I’ve been trusted to just go and find a solution, research it, and then implement it, which has been great because my self-development technically in that regard has been great.
And stuff is still a challenge every day. There are interesting problems to solve. Some of them are irritating but they’re also interesting.
Lillie: And how about the worst part of your job?
Matt: The worst part of my job is…..
Probably when you come in and you’ve planned your week out, and within 10 minutes, it is evident that none of that is going to happen this week. It’s good and it’s bad, because generally it becomes something interesting, but you’ve got that plan in your head of, “this is what I’m going to do this week and it’s going to be great” and then it just doesn’t happen.
Lillie: Yeah, it’s a case of prioritising isn’t it?
Matt: Yeah, and just getting it all done really.
I wouldn’t say this is the worst part of my job, but definitely one of my challenges is that I’ve obviously now got more of a people management role. And, I am an engineer. Machines are pretty straightforward, they do what you tell them to do. People are slightly less predictable and slightly more emotional! And I’m getting there - Neil has been a great mentor because he has been managing people for years, and since Vicki has been here she has had some good feedback, so it’s going well.
Lillie: So I did have a question about challenges, but it was one that was more general. I wanted to ask,
From your experience as being both a Junior developer and now a CTO, what do you think the main challenges are for developers in such a high growth business environment like Volcanic?
Matt: On a day-to-day basis, high growth businesses are chaotic. Even at Volcanic, it’s chaos, and not all of it is good ideas, despite the outcome generally being positive. We probably do five things, and three of them will have been worth it. As long as the ratio is good, you generally end up being successful.
But you’ve got to accept that requirements will change regularly, and potentially change in a way that is incompatible with all the work you have already done. That has happened before where suddenly a new market opportunity has appeared and we need to do now, but it doesn’t actually work with anything that we’ve already got. So we have to rewrite a whole bunch of things in order to make it work.
I saw a phrase - and I can’t remember who to attribute it too, so it’s very embarrassing - but it was, “The job of a software engineer is not to deliver perfect code, but to deliver effective code on time.”
Also, developers look at their own work much more critically than they will look at anyone else’s, because they know everything that is wrong with it! I’m just the same, and I’m sure there are engineers at Google who think that Google search is terrible and it never returns the right results. That’s because as well as knowing what the product can do, they know it’s limitations. It’s their job to know these things.
It’s important for developers not to get too caught up in the negatives, because 99% of the time, what they have actually produced for the end user is fantastic. The challenge is further reinforced by the fact that the only feedback developers tend to receive from clients is when the product doesn’t work. Whereas if you actually look at the traffic levels, you’ll see thousands of people a minute who are using it and have no problems at all. So that’s just a bit of perspective about that.
Lillie: So you’ve been here four years. There are a lot of newcomers at Volcanic at the moment. This is my third week! What would your advice be to, not just developers, but any new person coming into Volcanic?
Matt: Try and find your niche, and don’t lose it. If you get yourself in a position where you’re constantly delivering value, there will never be a problem. I think it’s a case of not just being aware what you are doing now, but also what you could be doing. And I think that will take a few months of settling in to identify.
You’ve just got to find the time to experiment with an idea without it impacting everything else you’ve got to deliver, which is a bit of a time management challenge when you’ve got a large stack of work to do! But sometimes between 3 and 5 on a Friday afternoon is a good time to do something a bit left-field and see if it will work.
Lillie: That’s really good advice, thank you for that.
So that’s it really! Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
Matt: So the only thing I think is worth mentioning is that I have been given a lot of trust and opportunity by Neil and Rob over the last few years, which has led to me getting where I am.
Especially with the jump from developer into lead developer, and then organically to CTO. They could have hired someone else into the business at that point. But they didn’t, they decided to see what I could do there. And, I think it has gone alright! It could have gone better, but I’m learning as I’m going along.
It happens to lots of people in the business, like Ben Easterbrook for instance, our Head of Ops. He started off as a designer, but hasn’t done a design in years! That’s because, a job needed doing and he was given a chance to have a go at it. And he did a good job, so he earned a chance to do a slightly more important job, and here we are! Him and I have had a similar journey really from being someone who works for the business, to someone who is leading the business. Just by being given some opportunities to prove ourselves.
So that’s been really important because at another business I could have had the same capability, but without the opportunities you just don’t get anywhere. There were plenty of people who I went to university with who were smarter than me, but are still in their graduate employment positions that they joined when they left university! Once a business gets so big there just isn’t the same chance to prove yourself to the right people. So that’s something worth mentioning, because I’ve helped make Volcanic what it is but also what I am is because of Volcanic.
I’m really glad we’ve done this, not just for you to reflect on the last four years, but for all the new people coming in it’s really nice to hear about someone who has been here for four years and has had the opportunities you’ve had, and still also loves their job and is still being challenged!
Thank you so much for your time.
Matt: Thank you!