Insights From Birkir A. Barkarson, Ex-CTO of Vivino: Event Overview
This year Symphony Solutions is celebrating a decade of partnership with Vivino, the world’s largest online wine marketplace and most downloaded wine app, with 63,3 million users.
We invited Birkir A. Barkarson, ex-CTO of Vivino, to explore Vivino’s unique wine culture, their partnership with Symphony Solutions, and the challenges and opportunities they faced while scaling the Vivino project. Birkir shared how they built high-performance teams, the impact of COVID-19, and business insights.
Vivino Origins and 10 Years of Partnership With Symphony Solutions
“The Vivino app is an excellent platform to explore the many facets of wine, expand your knowledge, and connect with like-minded people. It’s like a pocket partner that guides you through your journey of learning about wine and understanding it.”
Vivino is like an on-hand worldwide encyclopedia of wine, that can give you comprehensive information about a particular wine – from composition to manufacturer. What’s more, it’s like a gateway to an online community of wine aficionados who engage with one another, rate and review wines, which is later aggregated into data points on any given wine, the most popular feature being the label scan that helps recognize any wine from a picture. It’s an online marketplace where you can find personalized recommendations to buy wine online through the app or website. Vivino promotes wine culture by providing a personalized experience and an online space for a large user base that makes up a happy and positive community, which in turn helps build a positive vibe in the company as the teams can see their impact.
Vivino’s partnership with Symphony Solutions started a few months before Birkir started 10 years ago in 2013. In many ways, it was a way to bring in existing talent into an outsourced company structure, a company that could be a trusted partner with access to a good pool of talented software engineers at competitive rates. Through Symphony Solutions, they were able to quickly establish a QA system. As time went on, the partnership changed and became all about finding the right people and talent no matter the location.
“I remember my first visit to Symphony Solutions Lviv office in 2013, which was a novel experience for me. Later, when other team members visited, it was always fun to show off the office’s unique decor with a cow on the ceiling.” – Birkir A. Barkarson
Vivino Project Scaling: Challenges and Success Story
A crucial part of the project development was scaling in the beginning. The Vivino team would set the foundations for better systems, put in logging and monitoring, and hire full-time DevOps and infrastructure people to help set up robust continuous integration and deployment pipelines. Stability and security issues were addressed by adopting the Go language for the backend and leveraging that to build for scale. Things needed to be restructured and reinvented purely for the scale at which they were starting to operate.
QA was added to help address the issues with mobile apps and help deliver faster with fewer regression bugs. Vivino was focused on increasing quality and building in-house teams since getting the right quality from some of the outsourced teams was a challenge in the first few years. Later, Vivino started building a Marketplace for selling wine, which was a whole new adventure in itself, with a lot of different complexities in different markets.
The journey of this decade at Vivino has been one of coming in as a lead engineer and being focused on putting out fires and getting things working. Becoming VP of Engineering the focus was really on building for quality and scale as well as hiring and expanding the teams. Then in the role of a CTO, it started to be more about structuring and organizing teams and setting up processes and policies to guide large groups of people. Although those were hectic times, it was a lot of fun.
Vivino Management Approach for Building High-Performing Teams
Management of Vivino for Birkir at first was more of a leadership role, that shifted into technical leadership, where he determined the steps to his management approach as follows:
- Coaching developers, helping them grow and explore different and unfamiliar ways to building the application;
- Working with design and other teams on finding the right direction for further growth;
- Building teams and hiring people;
- Helping your team become independent and trusting the process;
- Focusing on server leadership model. Remove obstacles for your teams, set them in the right direction and empower to set their own milestones and find solutions.
“Are we using Engineers to build features or are we using them to innovate?” – Birkir A. Barkarson
“You don’t necessarily all have to agree, but if you disagree, know why certain decisions were made and why you are going forward in that particular direction.” – Birkir A. Barkarson
Metrics That Matter: How CTOs Can Measure and Enhance Team Performance
- Motivation through Purpose: Connecting Your Team with the Company Mission
Motivation often comes from a sense of purpose, so it’s important to connect your team with the company mission. They should have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the larger goals of the organization.
- Cultivating Motivating Behaviors: Establishing Ground Rules and Providing Context
To cultivate motivating behaviors, you must establish ground rules and provide context to your team. This includes giving them trust and autonomy, explaining the company vision and goals, and encouraging collaboration.
- Avoiding Demotivating Behaviors: Micromanagement and Blame Culture
Demotivating behaviors can harm team morale and productivity. To avoid this, it’s important to avoid micromanagement and blame culture, instead promoting collaboration and trust.
- Keeping Your Team on Track: Providing Space to Focus and Collaborate
To keep your team on track, it’s important to provide space for them to focus and work on the right things. Collaboration is also key, and pair programming can be an effective way to ensure everyone is working on the same problem in unison.
- Using Metrics to Track Progress: Measuring Success and Identifying Areas for Improvement
Metrics can help you understand if your strategies are working or hindering progress. Use them to measure success and identify areas for improvement.
- Interviewing for the Role: Demonstrating Interest in the Company and the App
Candidates should research the company and the app to demonstrate their interest and suitability for the role. This includes understanding the company mission, goals, and the role of the app.
- Summary: Motivating Your Team Requires Purpose, Behaviors, and Tracking Progress
In summary, motivating your team requires connecting them to the company mission, establishing ground rules, avoiding demotivating behaviors, providing space for focus and collaboration, using metrics to track progress, and demonstrating interest in the company and the app. By following these guidelines, you can cultivate a motivated and high-performing team.
Vivino in the time of Covid-19
At the start of the Covid crisis, Vivino withheld recruiting and other efforts until they could understand the situation better. Once the commercial impact became clear, it kicked them into gear – sales were going up and they were getting a lot of traction. This led to some operational issues before Vivino could adjust to the massive jump in sales and make the delivery process smooth. So Vivino tried to catch up and improve things as much as possible to capitalize on all the new traffic coming in. The commercial success triggered interest from investors and eventually new funding. Vivino invested in its own growth, although it proved to be not entirely sustainable since Vivino was riding a high that, like many companies found out, unfortunately flattened out once the pandemic was over.
Transitioning to remote work was quite challenging. Vivino’s product development has always been quite local and focused on key decision-makers. While still being a very open environment, the teams were able to be very flexible as long as they got the work done. However, for those people working at home, it was at times very hard to understand what was happening in those rooms where the decisions were being made, they wouldn’t have the context, or it wasn’t always communicated. This was also true for distributed teams where communication was separated by many hours of time zones. Going full remote solved some of those issues, since no one was contained to a room and so the decisions had to be documented and clearly communicated. Even after the pandemic, as people are going back to the office, you enter hybrid mode. Now, you have to expect remote, and you have to build for it and be set up for it.
The Future of the Tech Industry as Seen by Birkir A. Barkarson
Advice from Birkir A. Barkarson for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders looking to build successful companies in the tech industry:
- Get experienced technical people in as early as possible.
If you’re a founder and you’re building a technology-focused product, then getting those people in early will save you years of work in the future. You’re not going to be fighting legacy. You’re fighting poor decisions made by inexperienced developers earlier. At the same time, those experienced people need to understand that the goal is to make a successful business, not to build a beautiful code Cathedral. You’re looking for a good foundation rather than perhaps making it look or work perfectly but the experience of a good developer or technical person can put that Foundation that structure in at an earlier point.
- Beware of the latest technology trends.
It’s so popular for developers to want to be on The Cutting Edge of the latest technology or framework. Those are always worth consideration but it’s very important to use the right tool for the right job. Don’t just try them for the sake of trying them out but make sure it’s really solving a particular problem that you have.
- Focus on collaboration in your teams.
Understand how product design and engineering work together at a scale. This tends to come naturally in the beginning for startup companies who already have some of their talents in place, but it gets lost when things grow. It could be that the mindset doesn’t carry to scaling your teams or the particular talents are locked in certain individuals that are in those roles and get carried on into the teams or scales with the teams.
- Don’t make anyone on the team subservient to each other.
You need to interplay between product engineering and even design to get to the right solution. It’s very important that they can work together on that level.
The Future of Tech Leadership: Key Trends and Challenges Leaders Should Prepare For
AI as a Major Trend in the Tech Industry
Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an increasingly significant trend that everyone is talking about. Its potential for disruption is vast, but the impact and applications are still being explored. As a leader in the tech industry, it’s essential to keep an eye on AI’s development and its potential implications for your business.
Leveraging AI Internally for Efficiency
Companies can harness the power of AI by creating their own internal versions of chat GPT to ingest corporate documentation. This enables employees to ask complex, company-specific questions and receive accurate answers, effectively increasing the speed and efficiency of teams across various aspects of the company’s operations.
Determining the Best Applications for AI
The challenge now is to determine how best to leverage AI for new technologies or services, which is still not entirely clear. As a tech industry leader, it’s crucial to continuously evaluate AI’s potential applications and assess whether they align with your company’s strategic goals and objectives.
Convincing Non-Technical Board Members to Support Lesser-Known Technologies
It can be difficult to convince non-technical board members to support lesser-known technologies, as they may be more inclined to follow popular trends. Communicating the reasons behind adopting or not adopting certain technologies, and weighing the pros and cons based on the company’s unique needs, is essential for gaining their support.
Educating Stakeholders on Practical Implications and Potential Benefits
In some cases, the opposite problem occurs, with board members pushing for popular technologies without understanding their purpose or relevance to the company. In these situations, it’s essential to communicate the reasons behind adopting or not adopting certain technologies, weighing the pros and cons based on the company’s unique needs and goals.
Ultimately, whether it’s AI or another emerging technology, the key is to educate stakeholders on the practical implications and potential benefits while considering the company’s specific circumstances and objectives.
Becoming a CTO: Expert Tips and the Hard-Earned Truths of the Corporate World
The journey to becoming a CTO can be challenging, but there are various paths you can take to get there. Birkir’s personal path involved working as a software developer, focusing mainly on back-end development. Other equally valid routes include being a technically-minded product manager. It’s essential to understand that throughout your career, you’ll need to reinvent yourself and adapt to new roles and responsibilities.
Transitioning from a programmer to a manager requires a shift in mindset. While programming involves solving problems and building solutions, managing is about providing direction, supporting others, and building strong teams. This learning experience is a crucial part of your growth as a CTO.
As a CTO, you’ll need to collaborate not only with your team members but also with your peers on the executive level. It’s important to understand the broader business context and actively engage in discussions about the company’s direction. Balancing your technical expertise with a solid understanding of other business aspects will enable you to challenge and guide the organization in leveraging technology effectively.
One of the significant decisions Birkir made as a CTO was to change coding languages to improve our legacy system. Our PHP codebase was massive and had been patched together by various developers, resulting in a poorly structured and insecure system. To address these issues, Birkir decided to transition to a typed language that offered a simpler syntax and procedural approach, making it easier for our existing developers to adapt quickly. This decision allowed us to build a more robust and secure platform for our business, ultimately contributing to the company’s overall success.
The Power of the 20/80 Rule: How 20% Effort Generated 80% of our Company’s Growth
There might not be a single factor that led to the company’s success, but if we had to identify the most crucial contributor – the 20% effort that resulted in nearly 80% of the triumph – it’s undoubtedly the solid foundation. The founding team’s ingenuity in building the wine database from scratch played a pivotal role. They employed creative strategies, such as hosting label photo competitions with enticing prizes like corkscrews, to gather a vast number of images. Bootstrapping the business was indeed challenging, but constructing a robust database and crafting a remarkable experience around it became the cornerstone from which everything else blossomed.
Overcoming Decision-Making Hurdles as Vivino’s CTO: Birkir’s Method and Takeaways
For Birkir, one of the notably challenging decisions was whether to re-platform, as it demanded a thorough understanding of its objectives. Birkir was certain that he had compelling reasons for this change, and their approach ensured that the business remained uninterrupted. They didn’t rewrite just for the sake of it; they initially adopted the new language as a proof of concept for an innovative feature. Gradually, they moved simple components and assessed their implementation and functionality. Eventually, Birkir and his team addressed larger-scale elements that required improvement. Over nine years, they balanced the migration with delivering new features for our users and the business, always seizing opportunities to adopt the new language and updated methodologies.
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The Journey Continues: Together, Creating a Legacy of Innovation and Excellence
Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do at Symphony, and we are thrilled to have Vivino as a partner on this journey. Our shared commitment to excellence has enabled us to achieve remarkable success together, and we are excited about what the future holds. As we continue to work together, we remain focused on driving innovation and creating transformative solutions for the wine industry.
We are grateful for the trust and support that Vivino has shown us, and we look forward to building upon our successes. Together, we can create a better future for the wine industry and beyond!
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