In this Data Crunch episode 19, we talked to Mr. TS Lim, the CTO of Mindvalley, an education company with a mission of transforming lives through personal growth and delivers through their platform online and offline experience around the world.
In this video, he shares about Kota Kinabalu, where his hometown is in, and how the tech ecosystem has rapidly progressed along the years. The tech community in Kota Kinabalu is a close-knitted, focus, and robotic-centric culture as well according to Lim.
Also, the congruent support from the state government such as the establishment of maker space, an organization called Kinabalu coders, the state government is doing a lot in terms of coding, game development, robotics, etc. He added one of the premier robotics event in the home region with all kinds of categories including autonomous Sumo fighting, which was something fascinating.
However, he thinks it really comes down to the grass root, although the government and funding help, but ultimately the community and outreach to the rural or interior community to see how technology can change the world which matters.
The challenges of leading a team of developers
Moving forward, Lim shared about his role as the lead architect or CTO in MindValley where he leads a team of 50 people and the challenges he faces in his role. He started out in the company as a developer building tech system. Due to that, he mentioned that his approach was more towards an architectural point of view, understanding which services to focus on based on the company’s core competency accordingly where he diverts his team to focus on that specific area.
Having such a big team and established company also comes with a set of challenges, for instance, over the years there’s a legacy system where you have a lot of services running that might even predate you, hence you’ll have to figure out what’s exactly is going on and who’s doing what within the organization.
Architecture design, microservices, and infrastructure
Lim is also a believer of focusing on what truly matters to the company – educational experience. He emphasises rather than spending time building auxiliary services and tooling that they could outsource; they rather focus on the core and outsource the rest or use third party services. We further explore with him about how to select third-party service providers and how to decide when is right to outsource something.
And Lim also disclosed the tech stacks that Mindvalley uses and the system transition along the years with tech stack shifts. The discussion continues with more in-depth peek into architectural designs and API services, the beauty of microservice architecture, and innovation at each microservice level where team members will be assigned to that for continuous improvement.
Not to mention, the balance of capacity, functional requirement, people and infrastructure will determine the microservices needed. Eventually, microservices is really an option that you want to choose depending on the situation.
Shaping culture within cross-functional tech teams
Getting more into the conversation, we asked Lim about the culture especially managing such a big tech team. As you probably know, the word here he stressed was communication. And the more people you have, the communication overhead increases, like exponentially.
He added that it is a challenge they struggle to solve, and different principles are introduced, such as Agile principles, Scrum. Breaking up into silo teams and allow the team to self-organize, limiting having to talk too many people to get something done.
A cross-functional team consisting of people from multiple disciplines such as from design, product, engineering, infrastructure for security, and even marketing will be formed, so they can move towards a goal independently without much intervention from other teams and with maximum effectivity.
Managing stakeholder’s expectations
The bigger the organization, the more stakeholders requirement and expectation to be managed – Lim added there is always a delicate balance between saying no and prioritizing the right thing as a company, which processes play a vital role in keeping grounded especially a company which has lot of product like Mindvalley.
And across different functional teams, they each have their separate KPIs which requires support from other departments, the same thing happens across the board. This is really where the senior management needs to step in and define the real direction, it might be changing the KPI before the team move into working on it.
Determining each teammate’s intentions and needs
We went even further to ask about problems that Lim faces individually as a CTO. He shared great insights saying stakeholder management is the big thing. “It’s a big part of my job to really understand like, each stakeholder, what they’re really after.
Basically, two parts – their ‘goals’ and ‘personality’ Lim added. As part of identifying their goals, asking yourself “what’s their KPI?” “What’s their intention?” “What’s really the aim they’re trying to achieve?”, and the reason they’re asking for something. Secondly is understanding their personality, in which how do they approach to things. If you’re able to understand this both parts well, then you’ll be able to uncover what actually they want and figure out from there.
Managing DevOps and infrastructure
Furthermore, Lim also shared that it’s not just all about stakeholders management in his role, you do have other stuff like DevOps. That’s something he felt most Malaysian companies didn’t really talk about. Most are still talking about site hosting, share hosting, FTP, cPanel. But Lim said they’ve moved on from that to cloud or a longest time and managing the infra.
Consequently, he talked more about managing the back end, where the whole devOps culture is about trying to break down the silence between the developers and the operators of the system. In an ordinary case, develop code stuff and there’ll be someone who deploy it.
As they deploy and if anything goes wrong, the ‘pointing finger’ game tend to happen and this is where he tries to shape the culture that it’s a share ‘ownership’ model where the whole system is each devOps member’s responsibility.
And how they achieve it is by using the same tooling, communication the same language, and constantly improving the process. This way it’s smooth and even developers don’t feel it’s difficult to go into that working on different developmental tasks.
Startups and how to become more product-driven
The talk then proceed to discuss about Startups, we asked Lim for his advice for people who want to venture into startups, especially what is product, how can people become more product-driven?
Lim sees product as a cross-section between multiple parts – business, tech, design. Product is what that ultimate the user sees, but it’s also how the product looks like, how it functions – it’s decisions made from the engineering, business, and design side. And each aspect has an equal pool to the product.
The problem with a lot of people is that they have only one view of the product. And the user doesn’t care how you balance these 3 parts, but really find the product ultimately supposed to solve a problem for an user. The conversation got even more interesting where Lim shares about minimum-viable product (MVP), the ‘minimum’ and ‘viable’ product aspects and go deep with it.
He also highlighted the importance of figuring out what exactly is a problem a startup is trying to solve, iteration and why measuring and tracking is everything. While pursuing opportunities diligently, as the danger of many startup founders make is pursuing every single one and sometimes you need to fire your customer due to the direction and certain specific reasons. But it takes a lot of courage to do that he concurred.
Product validation vs ideas protection
As we move towards the end of the chat with Lim, we talked about how many techies are very protective in terms of their ideas, every single line of code that is written is blood and tears there. But as a techie you’ll have to be open and listen. Lim said as a techie, before you go about finding your cofounder, validate your solution or idea first, think about several experiments either direct or indirect.
For instance, if what you’re doing is your sort of view onto actually a feature of a bigger product, that’s actually very dangerous. Imagine like, you’re doing something that the other big company can just enable a feature. And then basically rewrite your entire business.
Unless you have certain domain knowledge that you know that you know something that they don’t. Or you know that they will never enter this space because of the reason. Then it’s okay to do that. So basically, it’s is no better.
Finding your co-founder
Back to the question of finding a co-founder, Lim thinks the key is that to find people who are very passionate about solving the same problem that you’re trying to solve. Someone who live and breathe it. And from that is really iterative process.
The whole philosophy of lean is to learn as much as possible. And then reduce to learning and then continues to be on top of it. So don’t get too married about your solution in the beginning. Be open-minded like there’s a validation method. Try out there and see, maximize the learning you can get in the minimum time. And that lot time doesn’t involve tech, unfortunately.
In summary, tech is basically just the enabler that like we said at the very beginning.
Watch and tap into the brilliant mind of Mindvalley’s CTO Mr TS Lim as he shares his experience from a developer all the way to the top.
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