Learn from Chief Technology Officer Ben Mostafa: What is a CTO?
Ten years ago, Ben Mostafa started as a young web developer with MessageMedia when it was just 30 people strong. Now with over 200+ employees across AU, US, UK and NZ, he serves as one of its youngest CTOs or Chief Technology Officers.
We talk to Ben about what kept him at MessageMedia for over a decade, how he rose through the business plus what really sets MessageMedia apart from other technology providers.
What do you do as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at MessageMedia?
I find it quite hard to define what a CTO does, or their primary responsibility, because I see it as such a varied role depending on the company you work for.
If you’re a CTO of a small start-up with just 10 people, you’re probably pitching in, writing code and developing product. You’re ‘on the tools.’ If you’re a CTO of a mid-market business like MessageMedia, you’re doing something very different as opposed to the CTO of a bank or a big organization.
The title doesn’t mean much without the context of the workplace you’re in.
When I first started as CTO at MessageMedia, I asked our previous CTO Igor Zvezdakoski (now MessageMedia’s Chief Product Officer) for a list of all the things that he did. He never gave me that list. I now know why.
There is no one list because your day to day never looks the same. Some days I’m planning out our team structure and strategy for 18 months down the road, other days I’m diving in to help with solution design for a new feature or coordinating an incident response process.
I’d break up my job as CTO into four key areas:
- People: acquiring brilliant and diverse talent, keeping them engaged and retaining them. One of the most important pillars.
- Architecture: what is the technology infrastructure or architecture of your technology stack? How does it all fit together with the different parts of the business? How will it scale and grow?
- Operations: Keeping the lights on and running.
- Delivery: New features and functionality, making sure that things are getting through the pipeline quickly.
What is your biggest challenge as CTO?
One of the biggest challenges is how those four key areas constantly compete with one another.
If you want fast Delivery, you have to sacrifice Architecture. Improving Operations can hurt the People side of things. You have to ask people to work late or provide 24/7 support.
The goal is to keep those four key pillars in balance. Sometimes, however, you must accept that you’re not going to keep them all spinning. You need to also look back and see how far you’ve moved ahead despite all the setbacks and roadblocks in the way of your business goals. Make sure that you and your team are counting the wins.
Can you reflect on the last 10 years?
The last 10 years has challenged me every step of the way.
The change that’s gone on in the business over the last 10 years has been phenomenal. Every couple of years, I made sure that I was doing something different. That’s been very easy at MessageMedia because it’s been growing so fast – there’s always been opportunities to jump into.
There were two significant jumps that stood out to me. There was the first one when I went from being a developer to a technical lead. At the start, I was just building what I was told to build. When we started to build a new gateway in 2014, no one knew what to do. I saw a gap and stepped up.
I went from doing the work to managing the work.
The second jump was when I learned to lead people. You’re managing people now and trying to understand what they want and what motivates them. You’re hiring and organizing people into teams and structures. It was hard and I didn’t get it right the first time.
But I made sure I got it right the next time.
Looking back, what’s stuck out is being comfortable being uncomfortable. As soon as you get comfortable in a role, I think that’s when you need to look up or sideways and do something else. The last ten years have been a journey of pushing myself into different roles, spotting opportunities and just going for it.
What’s an important insight you’ve gained about leadership in tech?
I think the most important thing is to understand what motivates them, how they like to work as well as what engages them.
Some people like to be told what to do – here’s a list of things we need to get done today. Other people don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be told what the outcome is, and to let them work out the solution.
I think, especially in tech, a lot of people want to solve problems. If they’re not solving a problem, they’re not enjoying their job and they leave.
Did you ever imagine yourself as CTO?
I never really sat back and thought ‘I’m going to be CTO.’ Early on, I wanted to be a technical person writing code and solving problems.
Over the last 5-6 years, I realized that leading people was my strongest suit and where I wanted to go. I’ve always just kept going for opportunities and the outcome led to this.
How did MessageMedia encourage you to become a leader?
I think at MessageMedia the opportunities are always there.
When I took them, the team supported me in doing so. Whoever was above me was always helping me once I was in the role. I think everyone I’ve worked under have been excellent leaders. They could see where I was going and supported me through that.
What sets MessageMedia apart from other tech companies?
A lot of opportunities if you’re willing to reach out and grab them. You’ll never get bored if you’re hungry and grab everything that comes your way.
MessageMedia has a diverse set of customers ranging from small businesses to large enterprises. It makes it really interesting working across such a large spectrum of requirements and customer needs.
Our growth is also incredible in that we keep acquiring these businesses so the step changes are huge. This again creates lots of challenges technically. You have to manage all these different platforms and consolidate them through migration.
How do you help your staff personally and professional develop?
We try to ensure people are always training and learning on the job. One thing we’ve been doing this year is making sure staff are trained up and certified on AWS (Amazon Web Services).
I also really like to see the tech team working with other parts of the business so that they understand what our customers want as opposed to building what they’re told.
We always look for talented people who are eager to progress through their career. We make sure they’re on a path to do that. For example, we put them with more senior engineers who can mentor and help them develop. We also put them in roles that have a lot of opportunity and scope for growth.
Why should someone work at MessageMedia?
Because they want a challenge.
It sounds simple to send SMS but a lot of the problems we face, including scaling, breadth of customers, acquisition and migration are hard to deal with.
It’s a rewarding place to come and solve problems because there is no shortage of problems to solve. Engineers are problem solvers so it’s a perfect place for them to come, flex their muscles and hone their craft.
If you’re hungry, keen and want to push yourself, this is a fantastic place to come and do that.
Are you looking to join a business that wants to help you grow?
Join us at MessageMedia. We believe your growth contributes to our own.See our open positions
Looking for a challenge in tech? Or finance, sales, marketing and more? Check out the MessageMedia careers page. MessageMedia is a global messaging provider that helps business of all sizes – from SMBs to enterprises – better connect with customers for almost 20 years.
We are one of the largest specialist messaging providers and drive business success by creating engaging mobile experiences that customers love. We have offices in the US, AU, UK and NZ and are always looking for the new talent to join us.