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Developer wellbeing: A Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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A Computer Weekly Downtime Upload special with Capital One bank’s CTO, Brad Miller

Brad Miller lives in New Jersey and, due to the pandemic, has the flexibility to work both out of his home and from Capital One bank’s New York office. Miller has been CTO of Capital One for two years, where he is responsible for the bank’s enterprise products and platforms technology organisation.

With more and more of business relying on software, Miller believes the role of an IT leader is to ensure software development teams can work in an agile way and are not held back by avoidable effort. He says: “Look for bottlenecks in your systems.” For Miller, it is very easy to identify these bottlenecks. They can be revealed as a massive backlog of work to do, or when the net promoter score of a business service starts to fall.

However, he adds: “There are not as many instances of true agile development as what people think.”

For Miller, the reason true agile development is hard to achieve has nothing to do with the ability of software development teams to work in an agile way. But, in Miller’s experience, within a publicly listed company, the cadence of software-enabled product releases is set by the delivery commitments made to shareholders and the financial markets.

“Certain capabilities that you’re forecasting in your financials or to enable investors to understand [the direction the company is taking] means that you’ve kind of shifted yourself away from extreme agile,” he says. “You’re working back from a date.”

While the market expects a “big bang” product release, the developers are working iteratively to build out the new functionality by a specific deadline, he says.

Miller says Capital One uses scrum methodologies to enable teams of developers to make small product releases that are iterative, enabling the company to deploy innovation on a sprint-to-sprint basis.

Software is seen by many business leaders as the catalyst that enables them to accelerate business strategies and develop digitally enabled innovations. But Miller says the main challenges IT leaders face is how to hire great talent. And although every new tech trend is followed by a demand for new skills, leading to skills shortage, Miller says: “We have such a large appetite to develop new business capabilities that we are constantly hiring. But Capital One has done a really great job at being very specific about the skills we need. Whether it’s front-end development, or iOS/Android mobile developers, I’ve been very impressed with our recruiters’ ability to go after the right talent.”

Miller says this has adapted as the business shifts to requiring people with skills in newer areas, such as data-focused skills. “We’re really focused on getting the right talent in with the right set of skillsets in order to deliver [technical] capabilities to our customers right now,” he says.

To ensure that Capital One is able to continue to innovate with software, Miller says it is imperative to maintain a focus on developing software that is core to the bank’s business goals. “Nowadays, retaining staff through training is a critical part of our talent strategy,” he says.

Along with developing strong internal skills, Miller says he will, where necessary, buy in technology or work with a tech partner to fill in the skills gaps in the organisation. 

Looking at how to keep developers motivated, Miller says: “Software developers love really hard problems. They love work on the most modern stacks and they love work that is innovative.”

These motivations can be drawn upon when businesses are battling to modernise older systems to prevent technology from going stale. Automation and right tooling are crucial. Miller says developers spend a huge amount of time managing code deployment pipelines. Capital One has centralised the code delivery type pipeline as a managed service by the IT department.

Development as a team effort

In Miller’s experience, one of the benefits of the software development and engineering process is the notion of scrum teams. “These teams are very focused on a service that they’re bringing to market and the team rallies around that service and the supporting services,” he says.

According to Miller, such a work environment creates cohesion among team members. “It’s a very socialistic way of building software where developers and product managers and designers and testers are working together, whether virtually or physically, with the same goal of creating, developing and operating great services for their customers,” he says. The team thrives, irrespective of whether team members are working in an office or virtually, he points out.

With modern business requiring constant software innovation, there is a great risk that software developers will become overworked and experience burnout. Miller says the pandemic showed how people could work isolated at home and connect to each other using technology. “I wouldn’t say it’s as great as being able to be physically in front of someone or hug somebody, but I couldn’t imagine life without it over these past few years,” he says.

“In this era of non-physical togetherness, we’ve actually flexed our muscles on thinking about the other people as real people and what they may be going through and we’re embedding more social interaction, even though it’s over Zoom.”

Mentoring

Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced business leaders to reassess the way employees work, where they are most productive and how to manage teams where some people are not all in the same office. The hybrid mode of work has also altered the pre-pandemic way that people interact in a work environment.

As Miller explains, the so-called “water cooler moment” is an aspect of office work that cannot easily be replicated over an online conference. “These positive collisions happen on the work floor and nothing replaces walking by someone at the water cooler or, to date myself, it was at the printer or the printer room,” he says.

Capital One believes in flexibility at work, says Miller, which means offering a hybrid mode where Mondays and Fridays are optional days for people to come into the office. “Tuesday through Thursday are options for people to come together,” he adds.

However, one area that is often overlooked in hybrid work environments is how people can be mentored. Miller’s LinkedIn profile shows a career spanning senior roles at Mastercard, building the cloud operations at Citi Bank and general manager at Amazon’s e-commerce platform. He also spent four years as a security strategist at Microsoft.

Discussing his experiences of being mentored and mentoring, Miller says: “I grew up in an environment where I was going to the office every day, sitting beside some of the smartest engineers at Microsoft and Amazon and learning from them and asking questions.”

He says he was able to benefit from the mentoring that takes place in such environments, adding: “We’ve yet to develop new mechanisms to do mentoring in a hybrid way.”

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