Welcome to our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.
This week, we talked to Saul Zarrate, Head of Delivery at Altamira, to find out more about why he joined the tech industry, what his role entails, what are the challenges he faces as a tech leader, and his advice to aspiring engineers and developers.
Could you introduce yourself and your current role?
My name is Saul Zarrate – I am the Head of Delivery for an American start-up called Altamira.
Can you tell me about your journey and how you got where you are now?
Having studied Computer Science and Systems Engineering, I spent most of my early life coding (mainly caffeinating while battling Java and Oracle). While doing that, I became aware that my strongest fortitude lay in leading IT teams, managing clients and customers, and explaining IT to non-IT people. This mix naturally led me to become an IT manager.
What inspired you to get involved in the IT industry?
Honestly? It was a great accident. My older brother studied Computer Science as well, so we had a PC in our house, which I would play games on (for many hours!). However, an element that is a better answer for this is that I liked abstracting information, structuring data, and solving problems; in other words, I was a math geek! This blend put me in IT.
Having said all this, once I got to understand IT at University and then at work, I became super passionate about the ability to make things easier for people via the power of automation (which technology provides). Elon Musk talks about how IT can be seen as magic, i.e. if you were going to describe it to someone from a century ago, they would think that you are a sorcerer – that’s the magic of IT!
Why did you decide to specialize in DevOps and Agile? What do you like about it?
It was first introduced to me in 2010; as many I was initially skeptical since it sounded like a hippie fashionable concept. The fancy names and the purism injected into these ways of working didn’t help either. I realized, however, that the difference was not so much on the tooling, the processes, or even the practices, but the approach itself. These ideologies are very team-oriented, and are all about simplicity and user-centricity – all this resonated and still resonates with me after more than 10 years of learning and practicing.
Do you have a favorite part of your job?
Not just one, but I often think about the adrenaline rush that comes from transforming seemingly impossible challenges into a deliverable that provides value to a user/customer. Team collaboration is a formidable tool to change something unthinkable into something tangible.
According to you, what makes a leader in the industry?
In my opinion, the answer to this question is a combination of several simple answers. Savvy IT leaders don’t have just one or even a handful of skills; they have a combination of many. I will miss some, but here are a few that come to mind:
- Understand that collaboration, inclusivity, and diversity are key to building great software.
- Strive to do more with the same, or less. Seek to automate, build templates, re-use, etc.
- Question stuff, e.g. Do deployments take more than an hour? We have a problem then. Do products take months to launch? We lack simplifying, etc.
- Understand that the most important decision is to hire the right people. By bringing in the right people, your project is already 60-70% closer to success.
- Know that it takes an optimal combination of cultural fit and technical competence to find the right team members.
- Play an infinite game but are pragmatic and results-oriented. Strive to improve team throughput/velocity over time.
- Have accountability. When something goes wrong, they acknowledge it right away, apologize, and share some learnings from it.
- Start with the customer in mind and then retrospectively find an IT solution to meet a need/opportunity (most IT people start with IT and try to fit it, into the customer!).
- Are empathetic. Are able to understand the other party’s perspective, whether it’s a customer, peer, or teammate.
- Understand that being in charge of people means looking after them. Show genuine interest for the humans in their team, challenge them, respect them, support them, coach them to do/be better.
- Help to achieve 2 to 3 company business goals. As humans, we are drawn to details, which is why we get obsessed and distracted – ultimately, all that really matters in a company is stuff you can count with your fingers.
- Are altruistic. Make everything about the team, ensure the team is recognized, get excited about it, fight for them – never run teams with an ego.
I am sure I am missing a few, but the point is that just ticking one or a few, doesn’t make you a good leader. The compounded combination of many little things like these is what savvy IT leaders share.
What are some of the challenges you faced during your career?
- I lost key people on a high-profile project, seriously compromising its completion. Our team culture allowed others to step up, do the impossible, and cover as a team. Remarkably we managed to deliver the project at the end.
- I once worked for an egocentric and uninspiring manager. This taught me about my own resilience capacity despite toxic situations as well as about setting boundaries, which we tend to forget when we try to prove ourselves.
- I have managed people with mental health issues and had to let people go. Finding the sweet spot between ‘it’s just a business, not personal‘ and ‘they are people with families, lives, etc’ was challenging, but, a useful lesson for my career. These situations can be great opportunities to practice empathy, but also to let go of things we cannot control.
- A team I once inherited had a highly toxic team culture during a time of adversity for the company. This was a great opportunity to keep faith in people, seek the best from them, and work hard at releasing the toxicity to foster healthy working environments, which encourage continuous improvement, innovation, productivity, etc.
What are you the proudest of in your career so far?
A handful of particular achievements come to mind, however, what I am proud of most is that I have hit a paradoxical sweet spot of understanding that nothing in my career matters too much yet everything I do in my career matters a lot. It is about doing your best every second yet accepting that work (and life) has many disappointments and being OK with them. With this approach, I have been able to deliver very challenging (sometimes impossible-looking) pieces of work in a calm and driving manner.
Furthermore, I am quite proud to have built relationships with people that have had a positive impact on their lives.
Here are some more specific accomplishments:
- Come to the UK with little to non-English and then with time, developed my skills to become responsible for large programs, teams up to 80 people, all over the world on multi-million-pound high-profile pieces of work.
- In a previous contract, after two weeks on the job, I was promoted from a senior to a very senior position (planets aligned and someone saw potential).
- Drove substantial growth for my current employer (an American start-up) through DevOps and cloud adoption, increasing market share by 300% and growing the IT team from 12 to 80 in 18 months.
- Receiving a round of applause from very senior stakeholders of a former employer in recognition of my performance, perseverance, and quality of a highly complex program (pretty embarrassing/surreal).
What have you learned from your experience so far?
If you are looking for one as I suspect, that almost always, there is a way to resolve what seems unresolvable – all you need is patience, problem-solving, collaboration with as many points of view as possible, decisiveness, and some coffee/tea.
Do you have any advice for aspiring engineers?
The T-shaped Engineer is an interesting idea that I believe is not well understood by many.
Many engineers tend to get obsessed with knowing all the features of one or a few programming languages (which change so rapidly anyway!), however when you understand that it is about being able to abstract a business problem, structure it and then find a solution using technology, even if it means learning a new IT solution, that’s the gospel to follow! In other words, abstraction, problem-solving, a structured brain and adaptability are the winning formula instead of being a coding guru.
Collaboration and doing things for the team’s success are the icing on the cake. You do that and you will be a formidable and desirable engineer that every team wants to have!