#0006 - Bradley Whittington of Superbalist

Civitas Team

33 ideas from Bradley Whittington of Superbalist on eCommerce, hiring and managing engineering teams

Bradley Whittington is the CTO of Superbalist, an online fashion retailer. They were founded in 2010 and acquired by Takealot in 2014, and have grown to become South Africa’s largest online fashion retailer with over 35 000 products and 400 brands. Recently they launched 6 private labels. A Civitas team member sat down with Bradley to discuss partnering with Takealot, the eCommerce industry, hiring developers and building a great culture. 

Summary of the best ideas from the discussion

  • Give engineering teams KPI's that link to business outcomes
  • Hire tech talent that understands business outcomes 
  • Use the 5 whys to solve problems 
  • Find CTO's who are good technically with people skills, good general managers and willing get into the nitty-gritty 
  • Hire engineers with an interest in business, passion for the industry, technically competent and a team player
  • Hire A-types, who understand accountability, peer-to-peer feedback and are open to collaborating 
  • Attract talent by working with the latest technology 
  • Prioritise by function, not by overall business priorities

On eCommerce Platforms

  1. “We're still chasing profitability. The reality of e-commerce is you're either a small business in a niche or chasing mass market to get unit economic fit"

On Partnering with Takealot

  1. “What's been quite useful is that there have been points where we've needed expertise or insight… With Takealot they have been about ten times bigger than us... You could go and get a perspective on something or understand what problems they faced along the way.”
  2. “It's always been a two-way communication, which I've enjoyed a lot because we were independent. We kind of went out and built our own systems our own way and have experimented with some of our [own] approaches and some of those things have rolled into how Takealot does things. There have been some patterns which Takealot have had internally we've kind of gone to them and to lessons improved on it and deployed it internally to us. So it's always been a very nice kind of two-way communication and always very gentle foreseeing of how to do things.”

On Managing an Engineering Team

  1. “What we've done is we sat down and thought really hard about giving engineering teams KPI's that linked to business outcomes and then making sure that those teams can function as autonomously as possible.”
  2. “We've created a culture of people who understand the business outcomes. A very common refrain for me is I'm not paying people to write code. I'm paying people to solve problems and so there is a stronger efficiency in understanding business outcomes.”
  3. “We don't reward people for so many features they build we reward people for how well they met particular business KPI's.”
  4. “We very much treat this as a problem that we make sure that people actually understand what they're working on and hold them accountable for it and that's worked incredibly well.”
  5. “We have quite a lot of sessions where things go wrong. We look quite closely at them, and as long as people haven't been irresponsible in what they've done, there's a lot of sit back, reflect and build up actions which we can take that are preventative.”
  6. “We use the five whys exercise...  Generally quite a good approach. You should be able to get to the root cause of something through the five whys of questioning.”

On Hiring 

  1. “When I hire people I've rejected candidates who have not had that business-minded sense... when they are not worried about how the business is doing. I'm like, “you know, you're not going to fit in here” because there is a strong need for you to understand where your work fits into the bigger picture.” 
  2. “I'm trying to grow engineers within this environment to ultimately be good additions to any business.”

On Finding a Technical Co-founder and CTO 

  1. “A good CTO or technical co-founder is something where I'd want to look at how well do those people deal with people and then try to assess how great the technical capabilities are.”
  2. “You actually want a good feedback loop from a technical co-founder. You want somebody who, if you were ill, you would be comfortable leaving them in charge.”
  3. “You really want somebody who you can trust to be a good general manager.”
  4. “Finding people who are happy to get their boots muddy and get into the nitty-gritty, but also sensible enough to know when they shouldn't be in the nitty-gritty.”
  5. “I think that was a fine line to dance with small businesses and startups of how many nitty-gritty details do you get involved in and [when is it] better to hire someone.”

Hiring New Developers 

  1. “I've always looked for people, you know, for my preference. People who are curious, who are tinkerers, who kind of can be pragmatic about how they do things and who are open-minded to change.”
  2. “I have always been very much for hiring people who are passionate about technology and someone who also shows an inclination towards the business.”
  3. “You've got to hire somebody who clearly shows passion for what you're doing or some kind of interest… I like these aspects of your business would definitely be a strong criterion.”
  4. “We use a service called HackerRank… you can pull an off the shelf test that's very much the hard competencies. Can you do these coding problems? Can you answer the question? A lot of its auto marking. So it also gives us quite an objective measure of someone... If we've got a CV that we looking at - we'll call somebody first, a ten to a fifteen-minute conversation, which is very lightweight. Do you seem to be somebody who would be interesting in the business? Do you seem like passionate? Are you interested in and quite technical? If that goes well then in a technical and objective technical test that's marked by a computer. Which obviously can be gotten around, but you know that in general, you hope that you've kind of found somebody who's got a good, honest personality. Then, we bring people into the office and introduce them to a few different people in the team. You know, it's a big team to hire for that team leads, peers and then myself or one of my other senior managers will generally do a face to face interview with them. And, you know, literally 20, 30 minutes and figure out if they're a fit.”
  5. “I don't like the term cultural fit because I think there's danger there and kind of finding people who are like you that's not what you're looking for when you talk about culture.”
  6. “We look for unconventional A-types, you know, people who will beat themselves up for not getting something right and who will try and try and try to work harder.”
  7. “We look for people who understand accountability, who understand peer-to-peer feedback and are wanting to collaborate.”
  8. “I don't like the concept of, would you have a beer with them? I don't think that's a good metric for people, but would you be happy to sit in an office with them for eight hours?”
  9. “Don't create a mono-culture, but rather seek out those aspects of personality which kind of say they're going to be an asset to your business. Rather than trying to hire your best buddy.”
  10. “We still look at about 80 CV's for every hire.”
  11. “When you start going down that funnel, you kind of started 80 CV's and cut it down to a handful of telephonic, maybe a handful of those pass-through, etc, etc.”

On Attracting Talent 

  1. “We put quite a lot of work into making sure where we're actually working with really good technology.”
  2. “We can sit in an interview and tell somebody that they're moving into a team, that they have the autonomy, they have accountability, they have the opportunity to kind of have an impact on the outcomes of the business.”

On Strategy and Planning

  1. “The three of us would basically sit and every quarter build up this gigantic spreadsheet of what we wanted to do and try to kind of map dependencies and capacities and all sorts of things.”
  2. “Breaking that up into two other kinds of responsibility areas and focus, was a breath of fresh air and went from us constantly butting heads and kind of arguing about what the most important things were, to being able to let go in this area. What's the most important thing? Okay, cool. Let's prioritise that. Let's put it into a list of themes and coming up with a really effective prioritisation scheme which actually becomes less involved than more involved."
  3. One of the things which really was, you asked what was a mistake, it was kind of going down the path of trying to understand every little nuance of the business, but rather a shift in figuring out how can we create units of autonomy and focus is definitely one of the things that was the biggest learning for me. It was the biggest kind of shift and went from shouting matches to. Okay, cool. That's what we're doing.”
  4. “As you start adding more people, there are more opinions. And, you know, to some degree I'd say, well, if you can kind of give the person with the opinions, the accountability and okay, put your money where your mouth is and go do that.”

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