Tech Leader Profile: OnBuy CTO discusses her role in the e-commerce space

As CTO of UK online marketplace OnBuy, Jo Smith is constantly looking into how her organisation can continue to thrive using tech in today’s highly competitive e-commerce space. With demand for online retail infrastructure skyrocketing since the start of the pandemic, OnBuy aims to give more power to small businesses and consumers across the country, through facilitating secure transactions powered by PayPal, and not selling its own products. Prior to joining OnBuy in August 2021, Smith served as CTO of Virtual College Ltd.

In this Q&A, Smith discusses the keys to success in her role at OnBuy, the skills needed to prosper, and the biggest tests she’s had to overcome.

How do you go about communicating your tech vision to the organisation?

For me, the tech vision has to be aligned with the business vision. I never put this together in isolation and won’t make assumptions before coming into the business. Through making the effort of aligning business and tech, you’re always pushing against an open door, because you end up explaining how business goals will be met using technology.

When coming into the business, I look into the operations of that business, and also find out where we are from a technical perspective, especially where our pain points are which are holding us back. Businesses that I’ve gone into previously have suffered from a number of issues, whether this be through lack of performance or outages occurring, lack of process or missing skill sets and therefore the improvements that need to be made not only improve tech operations, but also the general operations of the business, so it is a joint benefit, making communication far easier and often received more positively. This also helps towards communicating with the workforce, because when staff recognise these issues are being acknowledged and addressed, they’re more likely to work alongside you as you are working towards a common goal.

What are the most important skills that are needed to successfully carry out your role?

Listening would be the most important skill. I’ve served in many technical roles, and early on in my career senior members of staff would often walk in and assume they knew more than I did. This can demotivate you, so I always try to remember that when I go about my work as a CTO.

I’m surrounded by experts who have each worked in cyber security, infrastructure, development and other areas of tech for 10-15 years, and as a CTO you can’t go in and assume you have all those skillsets yourself. You need to get all those experts with those different and valuable skills to work together effectively, to meet business needs. This also means asking the right questions, without fear of any question possibly being daft, and interpreting what each member of the team can offer, before determining what route to go down. You should never be afraid to ask questions in this role, and relay back to ensure you’ve understood staff feedback.

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What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your role?

At OnBuy, the biggest challenge has been recruitment — getting the right people into the business. New hires not only need the right skillset, but also need to be a good fit for the team. There’s no point bringing someone in who has the right skills, but isn’t a good enough fit. But overall, finding those right candidates in the job market, and gaining their interest in working for the business, has been a big challenge.

Another major test for me revolves around OnBuy’s rapid growth; it’s a fantastic business with so much going on, so it can be difficult to keep up with everything that there is to learn about the organisation. I’ve now been here for five months, and with all the aspects of the job I’ve been getting involved in, it already feels like I’ve been here for years! It’s all staying focused on doing 10 things right, rather than trying to get 100 things right and never achieving it.

I’ve been quite lucky in that the last three businesses I’ve been a part of, I’ve served as the first IT director or first CTO, so when I arrived at OnBuy, I felt reasonably prepared for being the first CTO here as well and the challenges that the business faces.

What advice would you give to other tech leaders in your position?

Never assume you know it all. I’ve learned a lot from places where someone’s come in with pre-conceived ideas, and you wonder how much they really know having not worked in the business before. I’d advise talking to the team before you come in. Before joining OnBuy, I spent evenings after work at my last job talking to the OnBuy team — I probably sent them barmy, but finding out how operations work is vital.

People may have chuckled when I have referred to previous experience in the process of looking at a problem to solve. But it can be helpful to use this to show how to possibly overcome it, while not dictating that’s how it should be done. It’s also important to base your strategy on the maturity that the business is at, as this will always vary, and measures that worked at one organisation, may not work at another, especially five or more years later.

Finally, never fix something that isn’t broken for the sake of making your mark. If something only needs tweaking, it may only be a case of further staff support being needed, then enable that to happen, and if something really is broken, fix it.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.