by James Henderson

What are the key attributes of a modern-day CTO?

Sep 03, 2019
CTOIT Leadership

Mark Porter, CTO of Transport, Mobility and Core Technologies at Grab, documents the requirements of technology leaders in the modern world

Mark Porter, Grab CTO
Credit: Grab

For any aspiring chief technology officers in ASEAN, the role of the CTO has become much broader than its technical heritage, evolving into a ‘chief of the tech department’ position of influence.

That’s the view of Mark Porter, CTO of Transport, Mobility and Core Technologies at Grab, who believes success can be judged on the ability to build an organisation housing “healthy culture, engineering excellence and speedy delivery”.

“But it takes constant attention to detail,” said Porter, when speaking to CIO ASEAN. “The best CTOs I’ve known, the ones I model, are the ones who can inspire those they work with to execute independently, with both speed and quality, within the agreed-upon guardrails that make up the entire business, the guardrails that the CTO is responsible for maintaining.”

Porter, who joined the ride-hailing giant in October 2018, described internal culture as software for the brain’ – a set of rules and guidelines designed to help all employees work together.

“One of my main roles as CTO is to make sure that our culture of ‘engineering excellence’ is maintained throughout the organisation,” he added. “One of the key tenets of that is ensuring the team improves as it grows. This means that the team needs to embrace a ‘learn it all’ mentality instead of a ‘know it all’ mindset.”

According to Porter, this approach starts from the day a new Grabber joins the business.

“Every new engineer at Grab goes through a multi-day on-boarding session followed by a set of projects which steadily steps up in complexity and impact,” he explained. “In addition, we have now started ‘re-boarding’ all our engineers to go through these same processes as appropriate to keep them fresh.

“Such an approach ensures that we are all aligned and have a ‘One Grab’ mindset – one that keeps us productive whether we’re in a room together or working in a distributed way across our seven R&D centres.”

Delving deeper however, Porter stressed the importance of creating a “diverse culture set”, spanning gender, industry tenure and cultural background.

“We find that a diverse group of employees creates better dialogues and makes consistently better decisions,” he said.

Porter joined Grab after five years at Amazon, where he was most recently general manager of Amazon RDS, Amazon Aurora and Amazon RDS for PostgreSQL, in addition to technology-focused roles at NASA, Oracle and Caltech.

Naturally as CTO, the industry executive also helps shepherd the basics of the organisation, spanning finance, learning and development, alongside mergers and acquisitions, program management, quality management, engineering operations, and compliance.

“To name a few,” he added. “I have a wonderful set of business partners that do all the heavy lifting, and we work together to keep the company running smoothly.”

Speed over noise

In assessing the current market landscape, Porter said the most obvious change is the pace of play with regards to technology, with speed now the name of the game in business. 

“We can go faster than ever before,” he said. “Everything in the ecosystem, from tools, to cloud technology, to languages, to artificial intelligence and machine learning, is allowing organisations to move faster and yet continue to produce safe, stable and secure products.

“Back in the 80’s, rolling out new software took years. In the 90’s and 00’s, months and weeks. Now, it’s possible to roll out changes, fully tested, in days or hours.”

At Grab, Porter and his team conduct “literally hundreds” of experiments in the fleet per week, from minor things such as moving button locations or style or colour, all the way to taking a segment of users and offering them a “markedly different” experience.

“Implementing feedback loops and tracking them is essential to move fast – and moving fast is essential to delighting today’s customers who want instant gratification and services that can answer their unmet needs quickly,” he added.

On the flip side however, Porter acknowledged that “cutting through the noise” of all the technology opportunities remains an ongoing challenge of the modern-day CTO, in addition to focusing on the ones with the highest chance of paying off.

“For Grab, finding excellent engineers at the rate we need is pretty hard,” he acknowledged. “This is one of the reasons that we have seven R&D centres across the world – in Singapore, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Beijing and Bangalore.

“This allows us to source for the best technology talent, wherever they are located in the world, at the same time allows us to grow and develop a new generation of technology talent here at home in Southeast Asia.”

During a wide-ranging interview with CIO, Porter cited the “smart” use of data as a key priority in 2019 and beyond, alongside balancing the introduction of new technologies with customer requirements.

“There will always be new technologies; and now they come much faster than before,” Porter added. “However, this is offset by the ease of learning about each – almost every technology is available in an easy way to try out.

“So, the role of the CTO is somebody who not only encourages the trial of new technologies but is a gatekeeper from the hype which can pull an organisation off track.”

Common questions asked by Porter and his team during the “very early” process include; – How will this benefit customers? – Will we be able to deploy it safely? – Is this a one-way decision that will hamper or inhibit other areas of innovation? – If a new implementation causes teams to use different tech stacks, is the difference worth it?

“A key role of a CTO is to also build an excellent team, and I have one,” he added. “I trust my teams and leaders and encourage them to try technologies often, and we make sure that our analyses are customer-focused rather than technology-focused.”