“I think a manager’s role is to make their team more effective. It’s to remove barriers that make them more productive. It’s not to micro-control the work of that team. I also don’t think a managerial position equals a higher salary nor do I think it should always be considered a career progression step. Google has effectively demonstrated this at scale, but amazing engineers don’t always want to be people managers. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to earn much more than a manager. A manager should exist to help their team do better work and make sure they know what they are working towards.”
I had the pleasure to interview Chris McCann, the CEO of snap40.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “back story”?
Since I was young, I always loved computers. My family got our first computer in 1995 — it had Windows 95 and Pipex dial-up Internet. I was five years old and completely smitten. At the same time, I was surrounded by the growth of my uncle’s company, which started as a tech company, but latterly moved into education. My mum was one of the first employees and I spent a lot of my time at the office. I watched it grow to almost 300 employees. It might sound a bit cliché, but I just always wanted to start a company in tech and do something big.
I went to a difficult school, with very low levels of academic achievement. I never felt like I fitted in, so at 16 I left and went to study computer science. Glasgow, Scotland, is not Stanford or Silicon Valley. Building companies is not the norm here — going to work for large corporations, particularly investment banks, is. In our final year, we are meant to spend the number interning and I had an offer from one of these large banks. I turned it down to start my first company.
That company was a lesson in how not to build a company. We lacked a good environment, good advice and mentorship, the right product, a focus on revenue and product market-fit. It was just a disaster. I shut it down and around that time one of my relatives became very unwell. I was spending a lot of time at the hospital, while also feeling like a failure from my first company. Medicine and computer science have many parallels. They are both fundamentally problem solving. They are both analytical. They both require retention and application of large amounts of information. I decided I wanted to train to be a doctor so in 2012 I began studying medicine.
I only have a few real assets, but one of them is to be open-minded to the root cause of a problem and to ask why. That’s actually fairly uncommon within healthcare — for a number of political, institutional and cultural reasons. Asking and seeking out “why” directly led to the creation of snap40. I didn’t think we could build that kind of company within the system so I decided to drop out.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My co-founder and I are both software engineers, so we had no experience or knowledge of the intricacies involved in medical devices, hardware, regulations in the U.S. — all of these add up to an exceptionally difficult product to build.
We had bootstrapped a product and a clinical trial to prove the product. This was the key to regulatory approval and raising an investment round. We had less than two months of cash left so it was vital that we started on time. That’s when we discovered a particularly insidious bug in our device that crossed both hardware and software. We had one key engineer on the hardware at that point, who had had to travel to Rome for a few days so we got him on the next plane back. On the way, his bag, which had his passport and his visa, was stolen.
We were told by the embassy that it would be two to three weeks before he could get home. We were forced to FedEx an entire development environment to him on a same-day shipment. (That included everything from oscilloscopes to soldering irons.) His hotel in Rome became our hardware lab. We sorted the problem.
The real moral behind this story is that I’ve found, on every occasion we’ve had dark and difficult challenges, one more thing will always happen. I think it’s those moments that select for the companies that make it. You have to just keep going, no matter what.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
I probably challenge the word synchronize. I think the key is how you make your teams asynchronous. You need people to be able to operate independently while functioning as part of the overall collect. We simultaneously trying to optimize for high agency within the team, high alignment to our mission while ensuring we meet super short term existential goals.
There’s a few ways we do this:
• We hold weekly all-hands where we share everything. We expect 100 percent team attendance at these. We go through goals, where we are against goals and what’s stopping us achieving them. We share metrics and the reasoning behind some core strategic decisions. We give the opportunity for the team to feed in, before the all-hands, any concerns they have or things that they think we should discuss.
• We put a lot of emphasis on mission and why we’re doing what we’re doing. People need to know why what they are doing matters. We try to keep communication high and make sure that mission is reinforced constantly.
• We don’t use a set goals framework but we do set quarterly goals at a company level and we pass these down to teams. I think there is too much zealotry around goal setting in some companies e.g. making sure everyone has individual level goals. We try to let teams decide what works for them while we hold our leadership accountable to those quarterly goals. We also aren’t religious about changing goals when they don’t make sense or when more important things come up.
• We’re very anti-status quo. We don’t like process for processes sake and we’re quick to kill or question process where it has no purpose to help people.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
Maintaining communication. Scotland has a small population (5.5 million people). We have amazing engineers here, but given the small population, we always expected to have to distribute our team if we wanted to scale. Moreover, the U.S. is our main market so we were always going to have to a distributed team. For that reason, we built ourselves remote-first and I think that’s really paid off now our team is split across countries. We don’t see any difference between someone working from home versus working in another time zone.
We’re just at the start of our distributed scaling journey, but in my opinion asynchronism is the key to success. You can’t have a team member on one time zone blocked while waiting on a team member on another time zone. We’ve had and still have that happening, and it’s something we are working hard to avoid. I think a key part of the solution is making sure everyone in the team is clear in their mind that they are operating across time zones and thus they have to over-communicate.
It’s also important to make sure that the whole team feels like they are part of the mission. We bring everyone together for retreats in person. Every team member is expected at the all-hands. One-on-one meetings happen between direct reports and managers every two weeks, which helps keep communication high and make sure everyone knows what we’re working toward.
One small but practical lesson is to make sure you set meetings at times where team members on another time zones can actually make it e.g. setting them for 9 a.m. BST is useless for those on Eastern Standard Time.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think the first piece of advice is that every piece of advice is based on survivor bias. Treat every piece of advice with scepticism. Secondly, make sure you think of the context. For example, 50 percent of B2B SaaS advice just doesn’t apply to our company because we’re building a regulated medical device. That being said, I think the CEO has two core jobs: to set and communicate the mission and strategy, and to hire the team.
Hiring is unbelievably important to the function of the wider team. One bad hire can kill productivity and culture. We are very selective. We look for those who will contribute to culture and behaviour in a positive direction, rather than a core set of practical skills. Practical skills can be learned.
Ultimately, the CEO and founders set a cultural bar, they set behaviors, good and bad, that will be emulated. But, ultimately the culture itself will be set by the people you hire. To really make your team thrive, I’d suggest a lot of focus on who you hire. My bar for hiring is “would I want to work for this person?”
We also emphasize a high degree of meritocratic decision making and transparency. For people to thrive, they need to know what our mission is and they need to believe they are actually making decisions to get there. We’re still not good enough at that latter part. We still have a lot of work to do to push more decisions out from the core founders. That’s really hard, particularly in the early days when you are in a crunch to stay alive.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers.” What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
I think a manager’s role is to make their team more effective. It’s to remove barriers that make them more productive. It’s not to micro-control the work of that team. I also don’t think a managerial position equals a higher salary nor do I think it should always be considered a career progression step.
Google has effectively demonstrated this at scale, but amazing engineers don’t always want to be people managers. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to earn much more than a manager. A manager should exist to help their team do better work and make sure they know what they are working towards.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Successfully Manage a Team.”
1. Understand what management is (and what it is not).
I’ve worked for managers in the past who think that the fact they are a manager gives them dominion over their direct reports. They see being a manager as giving them a right to express power. They also see themselves as being professionally better than their direct reports. I think this is wrong, in every way.
I push back on people management being seen as the only path to “career success.” Amazing engineers and designers don’t always want to manage people, but they can have far higher impact than their managers can. Managers should not necessarily be paid more than those they manage.
However, managers are important to a high-performance team. In my opinion, a manager’s core jobs are to guide the direction of their team and to remove obstacles from the path. They are there to make their team more effective. A manager’s output is the gross output of their entire team.
2. Respect. I know CEOs who try to emulate things they have seen on TV. They constantly shout and abuse their team. In my opinion, this is always a sign of weak leadership. Leaders and managers should deliver robust feedback, but that can and should be done with respect. That’s not too say emotion doesn’t sometimes get ahead of you, but that should be the exception not the norm, and should generally be followed by an apology.
Power is not a function of your ability to dominate. You should always show respect.
3. Communicate. This is the number one job of anyone in a leadership or management position. As CEO, my most important job is to set and communicate our mission and strategy, followed closely by hiring the team.
Communication is a 24/7 job. It’s not just in the all-hands or in one-on-ones. It is in every interaction, even in the subtleties of body language and tone. Reiteration is crucial. You must keep talking about the mission, the strategy, the goals, even when it feels like you have already said it ten times before. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
One of my board members once told me that 50 percent of my job is applying positive meaning to bad news and problems, even when you don’t believe it yourself. Even in the darkest moments, you as the leader have to be a shining star to the rest of the team.
As an example, I once delivered an all-hands while exceptionally jet lagged and tired. I was, in my head, upbeat and happy but this was not apparent externally. Externally, I appeared downtrodden and unhappy. This attitude pervaded the company for the next two days. Leaders are torch bearers. The entire team looks to you so you must constantly consider your messaging and attitude.
4. Trust. A leader is not a leader without the trust of their team. Trust is engendered through honesty and consistency. I think many companies treat their team like children. I was always ardently against this. We hire exceptionally talented people — some of the smartest people in the world, in fact — and I think mutual trust is a key component of a high-performing team.
As a leader, I also think consistency of action and behaviour is crucial. They should, for the most part, be within an envelope of what is expected. When you start behaving out with that envelope, it creates concern that there is something negative happening that is not being shared.
5. Be a human being. When leading or managing, I generally find being a human being to be the best course of action. Even when firing someone, by far the hardest job of any leader or manager, you can and should be a human being. I know some managers who think that being human or presenting vulnerability makes them seem weak. I think the opposite is true. I prefer to be honest when I make mistakes or get something wrong. Humility and vulnerability can be coupled with decisiveness and brave decision making. Humility and vulnerability do not mean that you must accept poor performance on the part of your team. You can be a humble and vulnerable leader and still hold your team to account. By allowing your team to understand that you make mistakes, you make it safe for them to admit mistakes and not hide them. By being vulnerable, you make it safe for your team to admit areas of weakness or personal development. Humility and vulnerability are, for me, the hallmarks of a successful and strong leader.
As an example, I am very open with my entire team that I find it valuable to see a counsellor on a monthly basis. I found that doing so helped me to better manage stress, to have a clearer head for decision-making and to live a happier life. Several members of our team have now also gone to see the same counsellor.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’d like more people to start companies in healthcare. We don’t need another photo sharing app. Healthcare is filled with obvious problems that require engineering and scientific ingenuity to solve. I think the barriers to entry put founders off, but I think the next Google or Apple size company will be within healthcare. It’s the space that needs technological disruption the most. I also think the chance to build tech that directly saves lives and improves healthcare delivery is a nice reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s actually something my co-founder said to me once when things were pretty dark. “It’s too important to leave to someone else.” While Elon Musk is now the stereotypical role model for tech founders, he says something similar: “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it”
Building snap40 from the ground, from nothing but an idea, is like climbing Everest every day. Building a patient-facing, life-saving product that crosses hardware and software, and that is highly regulated — it’s just really hard.
But I think if we look forward 10 or 20 years from now, I think our health will be monitored by some kind of chip in our arm. I think healthcare will come to us when we need it. It’s just a question of who will build it. For me, that’s a super important mission, so we do it anyway — no matter the challenge.
Originally published at medium.com