Meet Nicholas Armstrong!
Chief Technology Officer at MarshallZehr
We chat about designing a diverse and transparent interview process, bringing an innovation culture to more traditional industry, and solving "people" problems!
Can you tell us about what you do?
I am the CTO of MarshallZehr – which means I supervise all of our technology: everything from software development of internal tools (which run our business) through all the traditional IT infrastructure – help desk, applications, security and privacy. I am responsible for all things technology.
You have helped to bring a culture of innovation into a more traditional industry. Can you share some advice for companies that might be earlier in this journey?
I have 2 pieces of advice:
Focus on being data driven – it forces you to be honest. If you are not measuring how your business and business processes operate, then you do not know what needs to be changed. Whether that is for technical things in the engineering/IT world, or business functions – numbers let you identify when something is healthy and when it is not. The culture of innovation requires measuring where you are now, identifying where you want to be, and determining what needs to be done to get there.
Which leads to the second piece of advice – it is important to know what best or better looks like. You cannot make progress if you do not know in which direction you want to move towards. If you do not have the resources internally to determine this, there are a TON of external resources for every domain. Whether you are setting technical goals, or business goals like OKRs – find others who have already built the tools, templates, and best practices you need. Find great thought leaders – ones who do not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. See what they have to say about what “best” or better looks like, and then identify your gaps from where you are now. Work towards industry best-standards, and do not be afraid to use tools created by others to help you get there.
How do you ensure your interview process values diversity and transparency?
The biggest thing for me is designing an interview process where there are multiple routes to success, rather than one set of correct answers that I am looking for. Humans are weird – they come from different backgrounds, perspectives, thoughts, etc. Some large companies have the “luxury” of being very picky with their candidates because they already have the brand recognition and thousands of applicants… but that can also lead to homogeneity, rather than a diverse workforce.
That being said – I like my process to be consistent and fair for everyone. Whether you are an internal candidate or a direct applicant, I ask the same questions to everyone. But I design those questions in a way where there is room for exploration so we can wiggle around with the candidate and find ourselves having interesting debates and discussions.
I often hear the sentiment “only hire people smarter than you” – but it can be impractical in practice. I make it practical by allowing the candidate to drive the conversation, taking us to places I have not considered. If I, the interviewer/hiring manager can learn from you in an interview, chances are I can learn from you on the job as well – and that is what I am really looking for.
If you were giving advice/mentorship to those starting out in engineering leadership, what have some of your biggest lessons been? Or, said differently – if you could go back in time and give yourself advice when you first became an engineering leader – knowing what you know now, what would you say?
Don’t solve “people” problems with technology or process. Technical professionals – leaders included – tend to see everything as a machine; something they can tweak and fix to get to their desired outcome. An organization can be seen as a complicated machine; for technical people, we want to “fix” everything to make it more reliable, faster, better, etc.
When I think back to when I was a new leader, I thought of every problem as an opportunity to incorporate new tools or processes. I thought it was a matter of tweaking and tuning the machine even further, and quite often we do that in technical ways: we need Jira, we need a more efficient code review process, we need to write a runbook, etc. But again – humans are weird. They do not fit into nice well-defined boxes.
A lot of the problems you will face as a leader when your team is working sub-optimally or in a frustrating way – those things are better dealt with as human problems. Humans have feelings, they have different backgrounds, they work with one another in different ways. Generally speaking, everybody means well; they are not trying to be malicious.
When you recognize that – and keep digging to find the root cause – you will find that they mean well but are missing key information (or perhaps are not the best communicators). Work with people at a human level. Do not throw technology – or endless process – at people problems. That is destined to fail.