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  • Operator Sessions
  • 05 January 2023
  • 9 min read
  • Words: Northzone

Operator Session: Creating high-performance tech organisations with Nuno Simaria

Our Operator Sessions are a regular fixture on the Northzone calendar. It’s a time for us to bring together our portfolio companies to explore the hot topics of the moment while speaking with our directory of advisors to gain fresh intel and perspectives.


In our latest session, we gathered a group of tech engineers, R&D teams and tech leaders from our portfolio companies to discuss operator models in technology organisations with Nuno Simaria. Nuno worked as CTO at HelloFresh in its early days, scaling the tech team from 5 to 700 people and beyond its IPO. He is currently an Interim CTO for The Modern Milkman, CTO in residence at the Techstars Berlin Accelerator, and Founder and Chief Technologist at Slow Growth. 


With his track record in hyper-growth, we wanted to tap into Nuno’s thoughts on what drives and shapes a high-performance tech organisation in today’s world: what are the behaviours, cultures, and personalities making this happen?  


The future is technology-enabled 


In today’s world, a tech-enabled company is essential for long-term growth and success. As newer tech-enabled organisations stake their claim in the market, leveraging technology is about survival as much as thriving. 


But those organisations seeking hypergrowth need to go further; increasingly we’re seeing tech leaders and VCs embrace iterative software development to drive sustained hypergrowth in companies. This is the ability to change the software as it’s being built and served to customers, so effectively in real-time. 


It’s essentially a superpower, from Nuno’s perspective, “because there’s a scarcity in software development capacity and talent, it makes it an incredible asset to have in companies. For so many organisations, the hardest part will be trying to figure out the best way to do that.


The Challenge: Success is elusive


Because software development is as much about technology as it is about people, Nuno believes the path to hyper-growth can sometimes feel elusive.


As we’ve seen different tech pieces develop, be it software engineering or infrastructure, system administration or front-end engineering, we’ve been able to identify the behaviours that high-performance organisations share. I believe the cultural part is truly a foundational element which will also impact how the software actually drives customer values or efficiencies of some sort.”  


For Nuno, there are three pillars of high performance: a generative culture, high impact, and high efficiency. We’re going to explore each of these in more detail. 


The three pillars of high performance



The first is the generative culture which can often be spotted coming into an organisation. You’ll find small, cross-cultural teams with strong domain expertise and end-to-end technical knowledge. These teams will also be autonomous in their daily operations.


A generative culture is synonymous with a performance-oriented culture. There are behaviours like high levels of cooperation, a tendency towards sharing risk where bridging is openly encouraged, and the mindset that failure leads to deeper inquiry so you see more implemented innovation.


Nuno suggests that an organisation looking to build this should start with outcome-focused metrics and an appreciation that your team will need specific support, “Go deep on users with different experiences and focus on experimentation. Deliberately learn about what your customers want, need, and value across each vertical.


High impact is next. For Nuno, this is identified as actionable, outcome-focused metrics informing autonomy, and confirming alignment across teams.


Techniques like tracking, experimentation, and data-mining play a huge role. The goal is to sustain a steep learning curve at all times. To sustainably achieve that point of high impact means you’re learning a lot about your customer and integrating that back into your offer.


The third behaviour creating that hyper-growth state is high efficiency.  For Nuno, these organisations will go beyond typical efficiency models and really focus on investing in talent and excellent practice to create that culture. “You have to look beyond the metrics and have a clear understanding of how you’re being when developing new software or systems. Compare experiences within teams. Put a number on key performance indicators and challenge yourselves with exciting goals.


Leadership is key here too. “For CTOs, you need to understand where you are and what it is that you can ask from your organisation. It takes time for change management, allow for that and be prepared to lead through it.” 


Fostering a growth culture in an economic downturn


We’re all aware of the current tough climate for tech organisations. Therefore, how does one balance the pressures of the economy with a growth culture? 


In a way, the economic environment has truly been testing the culture companies say they have. Many organisations have been selling an ideal when it comes to the workplace. Managing expectations is crucial, and every position has a core role to play. For example, for a CTO, looking at his team, it’s important to remember that engineers are not managers. Fundamentally, they’re born to build. 


Nuno believes that the tide raises all boats. In recent years we’ve had a trend of it being an employee marketplace with the war for talent. It’s when things aren’t going well that your culture gets tested. His advice is to be upfront and share your challenges and expectations openly.


The truth is these are tough times. Nuno says, “You owe your people transparency. Be clear about the struggles and concerns your company might be going through. This way, your team will know where to focus and work collaboratively towards the same goal. The way you put this into practice will really set the culture of your team, and how you can retain and invest in people over the longer term. People remember behaviour in tough times so it’s a great time to show true culture.” 


Staying connected to purpose as a CTO 



A common challenge for CTOs is stepping out of their native state of writing code into leadership and strategy. It can sometimes be a challenge to stay connected to what their teams are working on while avoiding the temptation to jump in and fix any challenges. 


For Nuno, this comes back to leadership. He highlights that as a CTO you’re operating at an organisational level, so while you’ll need to stay close to the software, you will also need to keep in line with potential possibilities. This can’t happen at a coding level. His advice is to stay on top of the output of the team and incidents and use this as data to understand where systems need more development. “You want to be growing your team by guiding them, not fixing problems for them.


Maintaining team culture as your organisation grows 


As a CTO, a common challenge arrives when you’re scaling your teams. With more leaders, comes greater delegation and culture shifts as more team members set the tone. Nuno addressed how to tackle culture from this perspective.


Nuno advocates for a thorough hiring and management process to foster how culture is set and evolves. “Get your top performers into hiring interviews and encourage them to bring people that are better than them, to be able to learn from them. Selectivity is important but also nurtures connection and fit. You want to work with people you click with while having diversity of thought within the team, making sure you can challenge thinking.” 


Another challenge to overcome is organisation merges, as M&As are such a common feature of the startup story. For Nuno, it’s more about seizing the opportunity of integrating great talent and being flexible on adaptability rather than which systems you do or don’t migrate. It’s all about evaluating what practices are best kept intact and which will benefit by adapting to different methods. This depends on a case-by-case basis. 


Keep innovation front and centre as you scale, while using metrics


So many startups experience that “magic point” where everyone is driving the vision forward together, quickly, and aligned. But as one grows, inevitably more responsibilities and processes become a reality. Later-stage startups sometimes struggle to maintain those levels of innovation as they grow. 


Independent reporting lines, with a very clear scope of work, KPIs, and clear purpose will help the team,” Nuno recommends, “Give teams 80% freedom within projects, and incorporate periodical check-ins to make sure you’re being clear and following up.


Measuring software delivery metrics is critical when creating high-performing tech organisations and reaching velocity. While a later-stage company is more likely to have people in charge of collecting that data and acting on it accordingly, for early-stage startups it can sometimes be overwhelming and challenging to find the time to build such metrics. 


Nuno advises that there is no right time to start collecting metrics and that it is ok to start small. “If you have a team, you can measure.” He also recommends this video as a good starting point: Measuring Software Delivery With DORA Metrics


We know that today’s success is the domain of companies that are the most efficient and impactful in how they leverage technology, to drive value and in turn, growth. Going into 2023, our eyes will be on the companies maximising that for global good, across our neighbourhoods, the environment, and into our global communities.