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Alf

Episode Overview

There is one role that often gets overlooked in an Agile organization… I’m referring of course, to the C.E.O. Granted, they may not be able to give you a detailed breakdown of how Scrum works, but they must always have that customer first mindset, that vision of tomorrow, and that insatiable drive for growth. Today I speak with Alf Wallis, CEO of Voyager. We discuss the origins of Voyager’s Agile journey, where the company is today, and his vision for tomorrow.

Transcript

Christian Espinoza:

In the fast paced world of technology, agile organizations are constantly responding to change. If you've been listening to our previous episodes, you'll know a bit about how agile tried to work now, alongside scrum masters product owners and the development team. You know, the team of really clever people who get the work done. They chip away at the backlog of work day by day and ensure that we're putting out great products consistently. But there is one role that often gets overlooked in an agile organization. I'm referring of course, to the CEO. Granted, they may not be able to give you a detailed breakdown of how scrum works or what ceremonies happen when, but they must always have that customer first mindset that vision of tomorrow and that insatiable drive for growth. Today. I speak with Alf Wallis, CEO of Voyager. We discuss the origins of Voyager's agile journey, where the company is today and Alf's vision for tomorrow. Alf. Thank you so much for being on the show today.

Alf Wallis:

Good to be here.

Christian Espinoza:

Great. Take us back to the beginning of our agile journey, if you would?

Alf Wallis:

Right from the beginning for Voyager?

Christian Espinoza:

You've been here the whole time?

Alf Wallis:

For the agile. Yes. I've being with Voyager for just over six years, Voyager's first I guess the exercise with agile goes back some years ago where we had a CTO and a CIO and the CIO had had experience with agile and through that, he was keen to implement it into Voyager. And the CTO was keen to get more development happening in the space, so he was very supportive of it as well. But as an organization, we, we, we missed the boat because what happened was our CIO in, put agile, some agile practices into the development team. And of course they may have done some things differently internally in that space, but nothing really happened outside of that department. So as a consequence, it didn't really deliver a lot of value into the organization, because the rest of us were expecting them to do things, and we didn't change.

Christian Espinoza:

So why agile in the first place?

Alf Wallis:

Then the CIO was able to convince us that it was essential for him and his team to be able to deliver more value. We weren't getting productivity also, that's not fair, we weren't getting the outcomes that we needed for the organization and we felt things were just stalling around the development team. And it wasn't so much the people, it was actually the whole process from what we wanted as an outcome, all the way to delivering it. And so it was all done very piecemeal. So we would have a desire to have a particular development around maybe a product. And that product would require some system engineering, some networking engineering, maybe some, some internal systems changes. And of course, a developer across it all. And we were sitting back thinking that this was all about actually handing it over to the development team and just give it to us!

Alf Wallis:

Wrong, big wrong. Then the next part of the journey after that came about when we had someone join us, and was part of the executive team. And it was a company that we'd purchased, it was 'Conversant' and they had done agile in their business and it had worked really well for them, and he was a big supporter of it. He'd done a lot of research on it. He wasn't Cameron wasn't particularly well-versed on agile because they've only had done it in one place, but they were able to demonstrate very clearly the whole value, but it wasn't about a development team. It had to be an entire organization. We had to become an agile organization, that it was a pull type approach or a demand exercise.

Christian Espinoza:

So you couldn't do it in silos?

Alf Wallis:

You couldn't do it in silos. It needed to be top down, supported, not from a department trying to drive it outwards. It had to come from the top. The executive team had to buy into it, each department had to buy into it and we had to be supportive.

Christian Espinoza:

So what happened next?

Alf Wallis:

So what happened next was we went through, we got an external, we got an external consultant who was a friendly here's some that our organization knew and trusted within our engineering and our development teams. And he put together a structure that we then got the rest of the organization to buy into. And we start with him with when implemented it, we, in the same process, we employed a CTO that was well-versed in agile. And so he was able to facilitate the plan rather. So he was able to execute on the plan.

Christian Espinoza:

How hard was it to find a CTO who actually had the agile background?

Alf Wallis:

It wasn't easy, but actually it wasn't hard, either. A lot of CTOs, certainly at that level had had a pretty good understanding of agile it's been in there, particularly in the CTO space. It's been in their world for quite some time. So yeah, at a CEO in certainly from my background, CFO, it was, it wasn't I was familiar with the terminology, but really had no experience in it. So, so if I was trying to find a CFO, I probably would have struggled, but trying to find a CTO with that experience, most of the people that we were looking at had that, but the person we've we found well that we put into their team was very well versed, very experienced in it rather. And he was able to he'd done it with a couple of organizations already.

Christian Espinoza:

Right. So he came in with the experience, the know how so then how did that mov, the, the progression of Voyager's agile journey?

Alf Wallis:

Well, that's when we started to learn about having a scrum master. And then, so that was part of the structure that had been agreed upon. So he was able to immediately start employing scrum masters, set that team in motion before he joined us, we got them across the plan so that he was, he endorsed it. So he knew what he was coming in for, and that he was going to need to make this plan happen, which he did. He loved it and fully endorsed it. We got on with it. Then after that, it became clear that product owners were the next step because the product owners were the link to actually the executive team. So we were still having the problem even after doing that first step was that we had a gap. So we had our scrum masters managing the cross-functional teams, and we had the cross-functional teams grouped appropriately, but we then discovered that we were still having a gap between what we were wanting, a strategy, what we were wanting and as outcomes, getting that to these teams in a manageable way, it was proving very difficult. It was still somewhat piecemeal.

Christian Espinoza:

What was it that the product owners brought to this to this ecosystem?

Alf Wallis:

What the product owners did, they brought a customer perspective. They brought a deep understanding about what the market was what's happening in the market, what was happening with the customers, what the customer's demands were. So they were getting ahead of the game instead of being reactionary and just trying to fix what was obviously in our faces. They were able to get ahead and say, this is where we need to be in the market. This is where we need and want to be in and putting that vision in place for those product segments. And they were the ones setting the storylines for the, for the agile teams and in the scrum master of course, was having to facilitate all that to happen. And importantly, cause what we were before was that we were, what we were trying to do was we'll sit in a whole bunch of priorities.

Alf Wallis:

So each time our strategy team would sit together, we'd see a big, long spreadsheet, a list and that list grew without fail every single time with the promise that we've got to shrink this list and every single time we'd look at our hundred odd on that list and say, "what are absolute must do's in this next quarter? And what are the ones that we cannot do?" And without fail, we'd usually end up with more on the must-dos than we with a list that was at least four times longer than we could ever achieve in the timeframes that we had. So what the product line has helped us do is prioritize that list with alignment, alignment to strategy, because then they could align it to the customer, to the, to the future needs of the customer.

Christian Espinoza:

What I mean, during this time there was a lot of change. How did people in the business react to the change?

Alf Wallis:

Different reactions all over the place. So some, some people are very good at collaborating and they, they took to it really well, like a duck to water. Others tend to like to just get on and do their thing. And they struggled naturally because they're now having to work in a team. And so the team is having a daily standup, and then they're having weekly meetings and then they're having scrum masters having to gather and just say, right, how did we go yesterday? And how are we going today? So everyone's work became is becoming more and more transparent. And some people don't like that either. They're uncomfortable feeling that there aren't, they're getting monitored every day, but as a team, if you can get the culture right, and you can get the team believing that they can make a difference, then they work so well as a team and they want to achieve it.

Alf Wallis:

And they also get ahead of the problems because they recognize the problems before they're at them. So they can have the scrum master going away and working to solve some of those problems before and get on with what they can get on with. So whereas what we had before, what the, that a task may be completed, but then will get handed over and then it would get done when that person were the group that needed to do it, had time to do it. So everything was taking forever. Whereas now we can do things quite, quite quickly.

Christian Espinoza:

You mentioned the culture. Do you think that going on this agile transformation has helped to improve the culture or influenced the culture in some way?

Alf Wallis:

Yes. I think go hand in hand. So if we don't get the culture right, or don't facilitate the people willing to be part of this process, then actually that won't work. So we've got to have a good, strong culture and to allow our job to go really well at the same time though, get agile working well, it absolutely fosters a great culture.

Christian Espinoza:

In terms of the journey and the progression of this agile transformation, how have, how have you seen this progress through from getting the scrum masters the alignment with the CTO and then the product owners in place, the tribes as well. How was that move for you now? And, and where are we in this, in this journey?

Alf Wallis:

So one of the things that we've been trying to achieve, which is where you mentioned tribes, is that we want to have so Voyager has a whole range of product sets and some of those product sets fit brilliantly into under the umbrella of having a premium internet type strategy. However, things like domains has a whole bunch of specialists needs. So what we were concerned with is that those products may not get some of that specialist attention. So we wanted tribes where they become a business unit within our business. And then we have a group of people with a clear focus on a particular product setting, product grouping, that allows the so you can have a finance person in there, you can have your billing person in there. So that means the whole process of engagement from end to end for a customer and for the processes and the, from marketing all the way through to billing gets attention from the right people, the business, so that it becomes a much more organized affair.

Christian Espinoza:

Right so the tribes are very self-managing and have the vision to move forward?

Alf Wallis:

As we speak, no - but yes, that's exactly where we want to get to, that's the plan. So at the moment, it's still in its infancy where one of the challenges we're faced with at the moment is the financials Aren't mature enough to allow us to give them a really good visibility into all their details. We can do it to a direct contribution level, but then of course, things like, how do you allocate costs of an office and things like that. Those things were just staying away from at the moment, but that's where we need to get to so that when the sum of all the business, all these tribes will equal the sum of the total performance of the company. And then these business units can actually own their own financials and they can make decisions. They can make decisions on future products based on revenue opportunities. And they can make decisions on profitability because they can decide which products are generating a better gross profit for them.

Christian Espinoza:

How far away do you think that we might be from that vision?

Alf Wallis:

I think we're probably 12 months of maturity to get everyone understanding financials, because you've got to remember that for the most part, most people don't actively 'own' financials. They may understand the rudimentary of it, but their ability to interrogate a set of financials and ask the right questions, be able to drill down, to understand where those costs are coming from is not, you usually rely on the accountants or the, or the finance team to do so, but really what you want as your business managers to do that, because are the ones that actually understand those costs, the accountant can tell them where who's charged them what, but it's important that the business managers can interrogate all that information. And so we're really training up a group of people to try and take ownership of a financial performance. And that's quite different to where we are now.

Christian Espinoza:

Yeah. Well, so where do the business managers sit in these tribes? Because there's a, there's a line of people management and then there's tribes where collaborative teams are working cross-functionally and within their own tribe, et cetera.

Alf Wallis:

So this was part of the agile where we have all the cross-functional teams and groups. So we have an executive structure that works on your traditional methodology of direct reporting lines, and they are grouped by function. So you've got your operations, got your HR, you've got your Finance and you've got your Growth team and Technology. And they, the executives that are running that we've divorced them from strategy as in that group are responsible for operations. They need to run all the people well, we need to make sure we've got all the hygiene factors going well, the culture's great and things like that recruitment so forth. Then we have a strategy group. It includes the executive team, but then we have the other key elements, because if we look at our executive team, you've got a representative finance, HR technology, and customer and operations.

Alf Wallis:

So you've got equal weighting there, arguably. Whereas what we want from a strategy is a strong focus on for the customer. And we want a strong focus on the technology because primarily we're a technology company. So in order to be able to deliver what the customer needs are to be the future, we need to have technology completely aligned to it. And so what we wanted as a strategy group was the weighting towards the customer and technology. So what we've got now is a strategy team, which includes the executive team and we have our two product owners and then we have the lead architect. So now we've got a bigger group. We also include our key stakeholder Seeby [Woodhouse], who owns the organization. And he's really a visionary. So Seeby doesn't so much get involved in operations, but what he does do is challenge constantly challenging the business. He's constantly looking across the horizon and seeing where the opportunities lie. And that's what he brings to that is he's challenging us because it's so easy when you're running a business like this, that you just get stuck with the things that are coming at you. Now you're trying to fix all the squeaky wheels and he's sitting there seeing he's not having to bother with the squeaky wheel, but he is looking to see where the future holds for us and wants to position us.

Christian Espinoza:

How do you work with that? So in your, in your role as CEO and Seeby, as, as the visionary that comes in, how's that dynamic work?

Alf Wallis:

That's probably one of the harder parts of the business, working with entrepreneurs is always hard. And I've done it a few times in my career. And Seeby loves the phrase of "to get to the moon, you've got to aim for the stars". And so and the challenge with that is that's how an entrepreneur and Seeby will think. And so he's constantly, not bothering himself with all the, the hard work or the challenges that you have to get there. It's just like, 'let's get there'. On the other hand, the majority of us have our heads kind of firmly grounded, and we like to have a plan and a path that we know we can walk. So trying to map out a plan to the moon and not get too stuck in the stars is a balancing act.

Alf Wallis:

And tribes actually, I think is where we'll, which is where I want us to go with is that we can actually put some of those visionary and some of those 'shoot for the star' material in the tribes, because then that can be actually, they can relate it to a particular product rather than actually as a, as a whole entity. It can get a little bit lost because we've got so many products and different customer segments. However, if we want to have challenges on the business within those tribes, that could be broken down to certain product segments or certain customer segments. And then they in turn can be trying to shoot for the stars. And as a small group, they could probably achieve it.

Christian Espinoza:

More with Alf in a minute. Growth is a podcast about people, their stories, their challenges, and how they helped to shape technology for all of us. We've kicked off our show with a series of episodes, dedicated to Voyager's own journey, into becoming an agile company. I interview a variety of people within Voyager and ask them why they do what they do. And usually we have a good time talking about it. If you like this episode, follow us on your favorite podcast app, you'll get new episodes as they come out. And you could also catch up on older episodes, too, such as my interview with agile coach Tim Phillips, where we discuss creativity at Pixar, agile consulting and red bull all nighters. And now back to my conversation with Alf.

Christian Espinoza:

Looking at across the business, you have an investment in people, in products and technology. There's a lot of things going on at any one time, you're juggling a lot of things. How do you find your focus at any one point?

Alf Wallis:

The focus tends to move around a little bit, but primarily it's keeping clear on the goals that we're trying to achieve and making sure we've got the right people on board to do it. So the secondary one, keeping the right, getting the right people on board to do it is the hardest. And it's, I've never seen it so hard as it is now. And 30 odd years of recruiting or being involved in recruiting people. I've never seen it this difficult.

Christian Espinoza:

Why do you think that is?

Alf Wallis:

I suspect in talking around to some other people, it's primarily because people's people tend to work on hygiene factors. So what is it? Is that something like compensation's typically a hygiene factor where it, it it's, it's not necessarily a great motivator, what keeps us motivated or the excitement of the goals and the challenges. And once one thing like our compensation has been met yet, you're satisfied, but that satisfaction may not solve the other problems. So what may have triggered someone to just get curious about maybe taking a new role or looking around in the market may have been money, or it may have been career opportunities and maybe they've been there for two, three years. And I just feeling like we're having a sniff around what opportunities on the other side of the fence, whereas what we've got now is that it seems that job security is become people's primary factor.

Alf Wallis:

So the reason, so the reasons, all those other factors that may have got them interested in looking have gone, and that only really concerned about, I want to make sure my job is secure because we're dealing in such an uncertain world at the moment with COVID. And so, because of all the COVID that's going on business confidence was still relatively low, or certainly at a culturally with us all the better with the devil they know, because there's so much, it's been so many news of companies failing or all the risk of companies failing that they're all feeling a little bit apprehensive.

Christian Espinoza:

Do you feel that that tension is really still in the air?

Alf Wallis:

On an employment phase? It is because we can see that if the roles that we're recruiting for at the moment, the there's just so few applicants coming through. Normally you'd get a bunch of people from those that have are over overqualified to completely under-qualified, but we're just not seeing that at the moment. So people, if they've got a role or staying put, so typically you might be talking to someone that there has been a shift in their role, and they've been forced to go look for, but the people that just sniffing around, no, that's just not happening at the moment. Now, business confidence in the news has been sounding like it's beginning to improve. So maybe that'll happen shortly

Christian Espinoza:

When you're looking at recruits or maybe you're not looking yourself, what's probably the most important thing that would look for to bring people into the company?

Alf Wallis:

Mindset. Attitude is, is this probably the single biggest factor. A lot of people will, will be trying to sell themselves. So it's trying to actually, we need to intervene to try and get past that point and actually see what makes them tick, what their interests are and then a mindset to really want to do well and be part of a success formula. And that's, that's what we're looking for because when times get tough or something happens, like, as we had COVID, and put together, everyone felt a common need to get on and make happen. We, we, we had through that first lockdown, we nailed so many projects that had been just sitting in the wings for months a month. And in that six, eight week period, they got put to bed. That was just fantastic. In that regard, it was a sense of urgency from everyone. There was a sense of desire to get this done. There was, everyone was feeling probably stressed that, that the company, every company around the whole country was at risk. And so it pulled them together. And it's a bit like, I think what we've heard before in the past of that war mentality, you know, even, even though everyone's getting that London was getting bombed to hell, they like will pull together and still felt good about that. We're actually making a difference.

Christian Espinoza:

So how do you get that same mentality without the war?

Alf Wallis:

That's an ongoing battle. As an exec, we're constantly looking at, we're doing surveys. We're constantly looking at which groups are, need support or trying to understand why their culture isn't as good as it was the previous one. And there's always different reasons for it. So sometimes it's as simple as you've, you've got an individual that's managed to just find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's impacting the whole team. And you've just got to be able to somehow be able to fix that, turn the person around, or, or put them into a different role if need be.

Christian Espinoza:

You know, agile being an agile company. Do you think that extends to the executive team as well as the you know, the CEO, the CFO, the C...?

Alf Wallis:

Agile Has much bigger demands on certain parts of the business and it does so that the CFO needs to be very supportive of it accommodating big, but what it means for them is more around putting the tools in place around the financial tools and all the other reporting tools to ensure that those teams can actually operate, operate well as cross-functional teams. And that's consistent with when we, when we adopted agile, as they started to mature, they started asking for all the tools they, instead of previously just having tools that would allow them to do their role within their silos, suddenly they needed a whole new set of tools to see a very different outlook on what they were doing. So that's a CFO needs to be able to supportive of that type of approach. Whereas the technology department suddenly finding themselves involved in a whole bunch of things that they weren't involved in before, because they are now in cross-functional groups. And they've got to dedicate some time into that cross-functional group. And at times it's frustrating for them because they're involved in things that just don't make sense to them, or they don't really want to be involved in, and that's where agile needs to mature, which is still maturing within our own organization so that they aren't necessarily bogging those people down. And, but in those people are seeing the value of why are there,

Christian Espinoza:

How often do you find yourself with the teams, with the tribes doing the work well, that, that are doing the work rather?

Alf Wallis:

Well, that's an interesting question because agile requires self-management, and that means as execs, one of the hardest parts was for the execs to stay away. So that was, that took actually quite a bit of training. So it was a,

Christian Espinoza:

How did you tackle that?

Alf Wallis:

That was hard. And the hardest part was actually trying to deal with the likes of Seeby who just wanted to go down and work with the developers. And we had to pull him right out of the business and say, "no, these developers, no matter what you say, Seeby, they're going to agree with you". And that's hard to understand sometimes because often as an exec, you get to a point where you use you, they will challenge. Well, the way of challenging is, is trying to get a reaction. And, and that, that will get turned as an instruction by default sometimes. And so that's what we had to avoid. And so, these agile teams need to operate without exec presence and then even management presence so that they become self-managing. They have the confidence to get on and question themselves and ask to make sure that they've got the right storylines so that they can actually deliver the right outcomes.

Christian Espinoza:

What's next, do you think for us in the next, say five years?

Alf Wallis:

Teams, tribes, I mean, it will be a big factor for us getting that so that they start operating as not independent, but certainly as separate business units so that they will have their own maybe, mission statements they'll have their own goals and they will work together well as a team, allowing that to mature at the same time, providing all the strong infrastructure around your billing systems, everything else that they can share, but those systems will actually provide the needs of all those groups. That's where it's going to start getting a little bit challenging because as the, as, as those tribes mature, they're going to have demands on our systems that we won't be able to deliver on right now, and then trying to be able to deliver and meet those demands will be hard without maybe causing some conflict with other tribes,

Christian Espinoza:

Right, so more disruption through more growth.

Alf Wallis:

Always growth.

Christian Espinoza:

Always growth, do you think that any companies working in technology who are not agile could still thrive?

Alf Wallis:

Agile is an element of the way the future is it's not going to suit every business. It doesn't suit every business at all. And an element of it will be the size of the organization. So Voyager at a hundred staff, we're in that danger zone. So danger zone being that if you're under easy, easily, if you're under 30 staff, it's relatively easy for, for a manager to stay very much in touch with everything that's going on in the business. And if you imagine if it's 10 staff, it's a breeze. And then if it's 20th, that you can manage it with some structure 30, again, you can manage it with some structure and you can stay on top of everything. You can generally know where your costs and got a pretty good understanding of everything going on, how profitability the products are and all the rest, when you get to a hundred staff, you you're in that space where you not really big enough to have a super strong governance that are going to be trying to put a whole bunch dictator that end up with execs.

Alf Wallis:

Rather, they're very hands-off because that's their role, a hundred percent of the execs. We're at a hundred staff. You've actually got execs that need to be hands-on as well as be the executives. And that's where it gets hard. And so we're in that dangerous and that's where agile works so well for us, because we can actually sit, we can have the execs removed from a lot of that hands-on stuff and still be hands on in their silo. And then you've got the cross-functional teams to deliver the outputs in managing and self-managing their own deliveries

Christian Espinoza:

In the ideal future, once these tribes and teams are self-managing, how do you see your role? And, and, and potentially, what could you, you know, what would you add to Voyager once everyone's doing their own thing, very, very well?

Alf Wallis:

That's dream state. Quite frankly, if you look at any CEO or any general managers role, there are always fires and there are always challenges of growth and things like that. Dream, everyone doing exactly what you'd like them to do. All that we'll do is discover one part of our design wasn't as good as we needed it to be. And we're back trying to actually fix something. So I don't see that state ever happening. The key for me is recognizing people's skills that they can bring to the particularly executive table and even the management level and making sure we've got really good people in that space and their skills have to be different. It's not about vanilla. We want all the different flavors and that way, and getting to work as a team. That's an area that I try and work on and that we can accommodate sometimes individuals that have unique skill sets and they don't always fit brilliantly into teams, but they've just, can bring so much more with a

Christian Espinoza:

With a Great attitude.

Alf Wallis:

A great attitude every time.

Christian Espinoza:

So when you're not at work, being the CEO, putting out fires and doing every other millions of things what do you do? What do you like to do?

Alf Wallis:

Well, of course, there's home life. That's, that's usually not too bad, but fishing is a passion and dive into passion. So I get out and do a bit of fishing with a few friends. And my daughter has been getting into the dive in and she loves it. She's trying to convince me at the moment to spend some money on some camera gear for us so she can get more into her underwater photography.

Christian Espinoza:

Oh, let me tell you that is, that is a money pit right there, but fair play to her!

Alf Wallis:

I know I'm beginning to, I'm beginning to understand that. At least I got, I got to thinking about the dollars more so by agreeing that she has to contribute at least a third of it. So she's a bit more cautious up until then. It was like the world was her oyster.

Christian Espinoza:

Underwater photography is a beautiful thing. Tell me what's what are some good diving spots?

Alf Wallis:

Poor Knights would undoubtedly be one of my most favorite and the variety of sea life. There is spectacular and there are so many different spots. There are creatures there that we just don't even realize are in our New Zealand waters. And they're just in your face, but the moment you hop under water, there is that they're close. And I can't understand why, how often when I run into people that they've never been there for New Zealand. So it's a 30 minute boat ride from land and yeah, and they've got great facilities there just to take people out all even if anyone's never even dived. They make it so easy.

Alf Wallis:

You can free dive there?

Alf Wallis:

You can free dive there, but the boats that they've got it sussed, they have little platforms at the back of their boat. So you can just sit, sit waist deep and put your flippers on and get accustomed to the water. And then just slide into the water without even, even feeling concerned,

Christian Espinoza:

If you're ever having a challenging day, you can look, you can think back to the poor Knights diving! Alf, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate your time.

Alf Wallis:

Thank you, you're welcome. Enjoyed it.

Christian Espinoza:

That's it for this episode, from our agile series. The growth podcast is a production from Voyager internet. The show was produced, edited, and mixed by me, transcription by Josh Yeats, special thanks to my guest, Alf Wallis. If you liked this episode and would like to hear more, follow us on your podcast app. If you feel like taking a leaf out of Alf's book, then go and hop on that 30 minute boat ride out to the Poor Knights for a dive. In fact, why haven't you gone already? There's no excuse! Until next time. Peace.