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Episode 87 · May 30, 2023

Richard Seroter on Balancing Business and Technology Strategies

Featuring Richard Seroter, Director of DevRel and Outbound Product Management at Google Cloud
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Richard Seroter, Google Cloud’s director of product management and DevRel, shares his perspectives on the importance of learning, the disconnect between technology and business goals, and building customer-oriented teams. In this episode, we will explore his insights on career strategy, the significance of clear goals, the balance between business and tech strategies, and what’s next in Google Cloud.

Edited transcription

Despite having worked in the software industry for more than two decades, Richard Seroter, Google Cloud’s director of product management and DevRel, assures he has never taken the same job twice. “I think I’ve played all the different things that we deal with in IT, so at least it gives me a bizarre perspective on how it all works together,” He says. Learning from all these different roles resonates with his idea of the strategy for a successful career in the tech industry. Learning itself and learning constantly, believes Richard, is the most important ability you can have. To this extent, he ensures that when looking for hires, he screens for the applicant’s capacity to learn rather than from what they already know.

In this way, Richard’s advice for those in tech is to never stop learning and to learn how to learn. While his passion for learning leads him to meticulously follow a variety of technologies and topics “to at least maintain a basic knowledge on a lot of things”, he knows when “to declare bankruptcy on certain topics” and recognize when to dig deeper on a subject and when to ignore it.

Bridging the gap: Achieving sustainable success by aligning business goals and technology strategies

Richard argues that sustainable, long-standing companies are, most of all, aware of their goals, and consequently have a vision of technology as an enabler to achieve such goals. Hence, they identify with their goals rather than with technology. However, instead of fearing missing out on the latest technologies, they learn to discern when they can pass out of some trends and when to adopt a “fundamental industry shift.” 

On the other hand, Richard points out that it is possible to have a disconnection between business goals and technologies. This gap manifests in different ways. For example, management might ignore the use cases of the latest technologies they are unaware of yet with whom engineers are already familiar. Likewise, company executives —or engineers— might want to implement a technology they have heard of for the sake of doing it, yet they only do so on paper: Rather than implementing it, says Richard, they “cheat”: “Can I say I’m doing cloud computing when all I do is move my Hypervisor to the cloud? No, you’re cheating. That’s not using cloud computing. You’re using someone else’s data center. And that still may add value, but unless you’re using managed services, unless you’re doing things that are more composable architectures, you’re building for failure, you’re not doing cloud computing—You’re just renting more expensive servers.”

To bridge that gap of disconnection between technology and its use cases, Richard once again brings up the idea of having a clear vision of your business goals. What’s key, says Richard, is finding the balance between business and tech strategies: You want a mix of tech leaders that also have a business perspective and business leaders that are aware of the technology. In contrast, you do not want people that value only one of these two aspects: “IT teams that only focus on IT metrics never seem to do great, because it doesn’t translate” says Richard, who affirms IT should propose valid reasons for adopting new technologies “If you say instead, ‘look, we have a security issue, we want to make sure that we have a story that protects our customers,’ okay, that’s a good reason.”

Building empathetic teams for enhanced product impact

Richard’s mindset for working in IT is keeping in mind that, there’s always a customer, no matter what hat you’re wearing. As such, despite your everyday work might be far from the buyer customer, and you might not receive direct feedback on how they are affected by your product, he believes it is necessary to acknowledge who your customer is: “Even if you’re an SRE, your customer may be the developer. If you’re a developer, the customer may be that application team that needs to use that product.” 

From this perspective, Richard assures that you want to build a team with this customer-oriented mindset that reflects how their work impacts the customer, what they enable the customer to do, and what is what the customer wants to do. So you want to create empathetic “teams that can put themselves in the other user’s shoes.”

Richard believes it is the job of leaders to communicate to their teams this empathy aspect and put it into practice. Inviting customers who use their product to meet and chat with the team will make them learn to grasp how much their work affects them, to the extent that Richard says it is important to put a face to their work’s result: “Those are really powerful stories that impacted that human’s life, because of either the good thing or even the bad thing the product did.” Besides, another option for growing empathy in teams is making the team the “customer zero” of the product. If you encourage teams to use their product even before the client does they will internalize it has to be good enough.

Career advice

Richard says that career moves shouldn’t be seen as an inevitable progression. In other words, moving from one position to another isn’t mandatory: “You don’t have to go from developer to architect. You can be an awesome developer for 30 years, and kill it, and that’s amazing.” As there is no natural progression, you might not be aware of what other roles imply, and you might not like some of these other jobs. 

In like manner, it is not mandatory to become a manager, Richard believes, and becoming a manager isn’t a reward for you to relax, but a new job that has its responsibilities and that demands acquiring new skills; in this way, “the minute you become more customer-facing in a sales engineer, developer relations, any of these jobs, you also have to become an effective communicator.”

For this reason, keep in mind what kind of communication you are most interested in using. Verbal communication isn’t the only kind of, there are also written, social media, or training communication roles, among others. The idea is communicating so you can help someone achieve their goal-. design a system that acknowledges the difficulties of the customer and shows them how they can achieve their goals. Likewise, acknowledge the audience as is; review how you use technical language and ask yourself whether the audience would understand it or if the communication actually requires it.

What’s Next in Google Cloud

Richard says that studying end-to-end customer journeys is what drives most cloud providers. As a result, their software tends to be opinionated, that is, it has a predefined way in which it is meant to be used. The trade-off of opinionated software is that it provides clear guidance on how to use the tool: “Google’s been doing some great work on simplifying onboarding, simplifying kind of connective tissue between services, because it shouldn’t feel so intimidating. It shouldn’t feel so overwhelming sometimes.”

Still, Richard points out that cloud platforms should be opinionated but also extensible to not constrain users. In this regard, Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) is an opinionated version of Kubernetes that follows Richard and his team’s criteria for the right configuration and best practices and that is a great starting point for most users that want to get started quickly. However, it does have the option of changing things for those who want to do it. Creating opinionated software, says Richard, is “taking a point of view, which means there is guaranteed that people won’t like that point of view.” That point of view, says Richard, can come from customer data, looking at what most people are doing, or what they have been making for years.

Again, Richard says that the idea is to have the software oriented toward the goal of the user. “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I need to use Kubernetes today.’,” he jokes. Therefore, cloud computing, now and in the future, is not about what you can do, but rather how “can I use these technologies to help me be more agile, help me be more customer-focused, data-driven, delighting people in my user experiences.”

The bottom line

You can follow Richard on Twitter and Linkedin. Richard also has a blog where he shares daily about what he reads on the web: “I’m interested in a lot of things, just so I at least can kind of be aware of what’s going on.”

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Meet the host

Darko Fabijan

Darko, co-founder of Semaphore, enjoys breaking new ground and exploring tools and ideas that improve developer lives. He enjoys finding the best technical solutions with his engineering team at Semaphore. In his spare time, you’ll find him cooking, hiking and gardening indoors.

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