A Day in the Life: Anne-Sofie (Fie) Nielsen — Chief Tech Officer, Peakon
What has been your journey in tech so far?
One of my classmates taught me how to make basic web pages for a school project in 9th grade, and I discovered that I was quite good at that! So while I was in high school, I built websites for small companies but didn’t really think of it as a career at first.
But at some point, I realized that there was actually a real opportunity to go into a field and an industry that was just emerging at that time (it was the late 90s), so I ended up deciding to study Computer Science & Engineering, which I’ve never regretted.
The first five years after graduating, I worked as a software engineer at a company that made Robotics Process Automation software, which was a really interesting and complex field. I had some great colleagues that were super friendly and smart, so that was a very enjoyable time.
In 2010, I got the opportunity to lead the development team that I had been working in, and that was a super exciting but daunting task to take on! When you go into management, you’re essentially having to learn to work in a whole new field. The technical expertise you have is certainly extremely relevant, but you have to build leadership skills on top of that.
I gradually got more and more responsibility and eventually ended up as the VP of Product Development some years later. After that, I had a 4-year stint as the CTO of nemlig.com, which is the largest online supermarket in Denmark, until I joined Peakon as CTO at the end of 2019.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced moving into your current role?
When I joined Peakon, one of the challenging things about moving into that role was that the engineering team had already been run really well — which sounds very counterintuitive. But most times when you’re asked to take a CTO role or similar, the task is to drive change, clean up, fix things that are broken. It’s very easy to see where you can make a difference and get some quick wins in there.
Peakon was a different story, as it already had an amazing engineering team and the task was more around scaling it to a new level. So for me personally that meant it was more of a long haul project of evolving the team and less immediate gratification by making changes here and now. Taking a role like that really requires you to believe in yourself and the direction you are leading in, and I think that would have been more difficult for me when I was earlier in my leadership career.
Briefly describe your stack and workflow
We believe in a strong foundation and building things right from the start, making our Peakon company value “Build for tomorrow, today” a guiding principle for the Engineering team.
What does your typical day look like?
I try to organize my day to have focus time during the first hours of the workday, setting aside time for things like strategy work, planning team communication or other tasks that require some quiet thinking time.
In Peakon, we have a hybrid working model, so I am in the office some days a week, making sure to emphasize the social aspects, having lunch with my colleagues, and chatting more informally with people. On days where I have a lot of individual focus work to get done, I prefer working from home, and it also saves quite a lot of time, so it’s quite efficient. I really love being able to choose the setting that works best for me on a given day.
We use Zoom a lot for meetings, since we are an international company with teams in multiple locations. The Product & Engineering team members are primarily located in London and Copenhagen, and with flexible working arrangements, most meetings actually include one or more people in a different location than your own, so as a meeting facilitator this is something you have to be aware of.
Slack is our go-to tool for most communication, both within the Product & Engineering team and throughout the company. It’s a great way to communicate asynchronously with everyone.
I have my goals and todo-list organized in ClickUp, keeping track of all the different activities I have going on, and when various tasks are due. It really helps me to not feel like I have to keep everything in my head.
I’ve taken a conscious decision to dial down on notifications, both on my computer and my phone. If I’m concentrating on a task, there’s no reason why I should immediately be notified about everything that people are writing to me about. 99.9% of the time whatever people are contacting me about can easily wait 30 minutes. I’m not a heart surgeon!
What’s the best and worst part of your job?
One of the things I enjoy the most is when I see people growing over time, taking on new and more complex challenges and succeeding with them — regardless of whether this is digging deeper into the technical aspects, or moving to a different career track, such as management. We really want people to feel that working at Peakon has made a positive difference for their career, and for them as people.
The worst part is of course the situations where you have to let someone go; those are always very hard decisions to make, and you know that you hurt people by delivering that message to them. Even if it is the right decision for both parties in the long run.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I don’t think I’ve taken a lot of direct advice in my career. The idea that someone can distill all of their experiences into a handy piece of advice and pass that on to you seems optimistic to me. I think you have to live your own experiences, try bold things and see what happens, and work with smart people that you can observe and listen to.
Actually, I kind of think I am where I am now because I’ve been good at not taking other people’s advice on what I should or shouldn’t do. You have to find your own way.
What is your most useful resource (book, blog, newsletter)?
I’m a big fan of books, as I really like to dive deep, but blogs can be a great teaser to understand which books to read. ;-) The two books I’ve been most excited about this year are:
“Accelerate” that covers the practices and cultures in development organizations that have actually been proven to lead to better business outcomes. It really makes the case for Continuous Delivery, Lean management and employee engagement.
“Thinking in Systems” which is a very abstract concept, but it applies really well to anyone who is trying to optimize organizations. Understanding how changes affect the wider system, and not just the part you are trying to make an impact to.
I also very much enjoy Peakon’s new “Be More” podcast that is very focused on leadership in a changing world, it’s very interesting to hear the perspectives of people in widely different industries.
What’s one thing you’d like to learn, develop or work on in 2021?
One thing I’d like to work more on in 2021 is the area of measuring the work that we do to really understand what’s working well for us and where we’re spending time that isn’t adding value. I’m very inspired by the Lean principles and the idea of eliminating waste (of time, resources, hand-offs back and forth etc.) from the work that we do, which fits very nicely with the agile principles of focusing on delivering value to end-users.
The concept of measuring things has negative connotations in parts of the tech world, because of horror stories of using meaningless metrics such as lines of code produced to measure team or individual productivity — and that’s absolutely not where we want to go. But I think most engineers would be very happy if their management would focus on getting them more time to actually do the work they enjoy by eliminating time spent waiting for CI systems to run, fixing bugs that could have been found the first time around, or doing manual tasks that could have been automated.