Nikolay Todorov: “You did great, but you can do better”

Show don’t tell. As a leader you have to be an example to others. Even as a CTO I often fix issues as our tech support people do. That is an example to others that their job is just as important as mine. Since the launch of our new client interfaces I have been fixing […]

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Show don’t tell. As a leader you have to be an example to others. Even as a CTO I often fix issues as our tech support people do. That is an example to others that their job is just as important as mine. Since the launch of our new client interfaces I have been fixing issues side by side with the DevOps, admins and software engineers. This motivated my team members, and many were proactively asking me how they can help out.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikolay Todorov.

Nikolay Todorov is the Chief Technical Officer of SiteGround, a tech leader in the web hosting services industry, where he’s blending shared-hosting and cloud platform-specific knowledge and the ability to leverage the industry’s best practices. His proactive management style ensures maintaining the top performance of the company’s technical specialists while managing various in-house hardware and software optimization projects for SiteGround’s clients for over a decade now.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

From a very young age, I have always been fascinated by computer science, which led me to a degree in Information Technologies. Fifteen years ago, I started working at SiteGround as a technical support representative. I was quite young and very passionate about my job, so I quickly moved up the ladder — I became a Support Supervisor and later on a Technical Support Manager. I started to be more involved in all the technical projects of the company and the decisions behind them, which naturally expanded my responsibilities and the number of teams I was in charge of. Currently, I am the CTO of SiteGround, and I feel like an integral part of the amazing growth of the company from a startup into one of the largest independent hosting companies.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I cannot say I have a single most interesting story, because my career started at SiteGround. I’ve been with the company for such a long time that it all feels like a wonderful journey, on which I have been going through all sorts of challenges, professional achievements, and personal joys. I actually met my wife in the company — she joined as an HR expert and thus our professional and personal paths coincided. This year we had twins!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Maybe it’s not the funniest, but the one that pops up in my mind was when once I said to a former support representative who wanted to leave early and had about 10 support tickets pending to work on — “Please close your tickets and then you can go home”. He did close them. Literally. Without answering any of them or doing any work. He just used the functionality “close ticket” that we had in our Helpdesk, which allowed you to mark a ticket as processed without even replying to it.

Some people may think that this guy was unprofessional, but if you try to understand why he did what he did, it’s not that surprising. People think differently and process information in different ways. This guy was one of the smartest people on my team, but he had a way of saying things literally and was expecting the same type of communication from me. I learned that if you want to be a good manager and get the best out of your employees, you have to find ways to accommodate their differences.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to talent today?

My advice is — give them the big picture of where the company or the project is going and involve them in the decision-making process. People need to feel that what they do is important and their work matters.

Our latest and biggest project so far — replacing our existing control panel and designing new Client Area and Site Management Tools inhouse (the tools available to our clients that control all services regarding the hosting account of their website on the host server) has been long, extremely stressful and at times demotivating due to delays from the complex dependencies that had to be untangled slowly, the new technologies that we decided to adopt and required us to hire experts in the field and accommodate them in our processes. But no one on the team complained, not even once. They were dedicated and focused on seeing it through as we had this strong sense of doing what’s right for our clients and creating something valuable and unique that motivated us all.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

There were 30 people working on our last project — the new client interfaces — PHP developers, REACT developers, web designers, and front enders, DevOps, project managers, and business stakeholders. This was a large team of people, only half of whom were working exclusively on that project, while the rest had additional tasks with varying degrees of urgency. I would say there were two things that I consider critical to the efficiency of such a large team:

  1. Roadmap, task definition, and progress log — The foundation of every big project is the structured plan with the main work items ordered in a logical flow, where dependencies are clear, and things evolve consequentially. Each item then has to be split into doable sub-tasks, assigned to different team members and the progress of each such task should be monitored. If you don’t have a logical plan, you have a lot of back and forth and eventually create a backlog of unfinished tasks. If you don’t split the main work items into independent subtasks, you create confusion, diffuse responsibility, and cannot properly track the work progress of the individuals on the team. If you don’t track the progress, you lose the big picture. Tools like JIRA, Kanbanize, and others are a huge help when creating tasks and subtasks, assigning them and keeping a work log.
  2. Meetings and chats — No matter how efficient your plan is and how well you execute it, there are moments when live conversations are the only way to resolve a deadlock. I am a strong supporter of the Agile development method because of its flexibility and adaptability to the “unexpected” and part of its principles require weekly/daily/monthly (depending on the project) standup meetings where every team member shares their work progress and blockers. In addition to those, I strongly advocate for one-on-ones — when two or more people are working on tasks that are somehow related or dependent on each other, having an informal chat is the best way to move forward efficiently, with a smarter solution and less stress.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

Show don’t tell.

As a leader you have to be an example to others. Even as a CTO I often fix issues as our tech support people do. That is an example to others that their job is just as important as mine. Since the launch of our new client interfaces I have been fixing issues side by side with the DevOps, admins and software engineers. This motivated my team members, and many were proactively asking me how they can help out.

Set goals and give rewards.

Every person needs a goal to pursue. From my experience working with software engineers specifically I noticed that they feel very motivated when they have short-term goals as they can see the result of their work sooner. You can even tie the completion of the goal with rewards like promising to take them all to lunch if they finish their “sprint” on time.

Create a comfort zone for them to thrive and don’t let other people distract them.

Software developers like to code a lot and go deep into it. Do not allow outside distractions. Be the middleman between them and the businesspeople. Don’t let them go into too many meetings. Be very organized with the daily tasks and priorities. Software developers are pragmatics — they need to know every day what their exact tasks are. If they don’t know that, they cannot focus and can lose motivation and become unproductive.

Always challenge.

“You did great, but you can do better.” We have to be very careful with those kinds of challenges though because it can sometimes demotivate certain people.

I often use it with our DevOps team. They have to come up with solutions to complex dilemmas — how to improve the performance on our platform, or how to introduce new technology without breaking hundreds of thousands of sites already hosted on it. And sometimes, they feel some things are impossible to be done. That’s when you challenge them and say that it really can be done. Sometimes I compare us to a company that is known for certain achievements and I say to the team that we can do better than them. You know, bring the competitive spirit out.

Be a mediator.

A team with many talented people is very hard to manage. They tend to think that their approach on technical problem is the best and fail to see the others’ point of view. Once they see it, they become empowered to come up with an even better solution. You should be a mediator and solve these communication challenges.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Be a boss and a leader. Employees follow their leaders, but they also need their bosses. If you can be a boss and a leader together, that would be the perfect combination.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I had to come up with a slogan it would be, “stay smart and don’t complain.” I think in the modern world, people are getting more and more used to complaining and feel entitled to being helped. That becomes a problem because instead of looking for creative and smart solutions to our problems we just sit and wait, creating negativity and deepening the suffering. When we start to proactively look for solutions, problems get resolved faster.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is a quote by Confucius — “the will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential…these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” When I was a support rep, I often stayed overtime and pushed myself to the limit, because I wanted to learn faster and do my job the best way I could. I spent hours at home reading my tickets and analyzing my resolutions trying to find what could have made them better. If one wants to be the best in their field, they have to be willing to go the extra mile, challenge themselves, avoid going into routines and staying too long in their comfort zone.

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