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Reinventing the Future with Renaud Visage

Author Matthew Birchall

“I think all technical people will at some point have to decide if they want to remain technical or if they want to become managers.”

“The experience challenged me on several fronts: How could I best create a community, how could I evangelise this community, and how could I build a website that connected this community with content that was relevant and engaging?”

Renaud Visage has a rare ability to capture the moment. Whether he’s indulging his passion for photography or fine-tuning Eventbrite’s technology strategy, Visage is forever thinking about the next move, the next moment. We sat down with the Co-Founder and CTO of Eventbrite, the world’s largest self-service ticketing and registration platform, in an effort to find out more about reinventing the future of technology and innovation.

So, tell me about your journey to Eventbrite…

It’s been a long journey. I started my career as a civil engineer so nothing to do with computer science, the web, or anything like that. I had the good fortune of being located in San Francisco at about the same time that the web started to become mainstream. The possibilities of the web really hooked me and I quickly began to self-teach myself, before eventually creating a small personal website. Photography was, and is, a big passion of mine, so my first website was all about nature photography.

“The experience challenged me on several fronts: How could I best create a community, how could I evangelise this community, and how could I build a website that connected this community with content that was relevant and engaging?”

I continued to read widely, immersing myself in books and online content: you name it, I read it. After a while I started to do more and more web work, even though I was still technically employed by a civil engineering firm. My next move was to transition into a photo-sharing organisation. Zing, the firm I joined, was one of the world’s first photo-sharing companies, and I joined as a developer right at the height of the Dotcom bubble in 2000. It was a real confidence boost because it confirmed that my wider reading was time well spent. Zing was very early, perhaps too early, into the tech space.

“In one year alone, for instance, the firm moved from having only thirty employees to having 120, before scaling back down to ten. In one year!”

If nothing else, Zing is representative of what happened during the dot-com bubble. We were focused entirely on the wrong metrics; when the bubble burst and the funding dried up we were left with no business plan. We had a lot of potential value, a lot of useage, but no clear revenue model, and that is why we failed. As we went through the lay-off process, however, I actually saw my individual prospects improve. I was promoted every time there were layoffs, moving from Junior Developer to Senior Developer, before being promoted to Director of Engineering. Once the dust had settled after the final round of layoffs, I was one of only ten remaining employees. It was proof that I had some value to the organisation. But perhaps more importantly, I think, it made me learn things really fast.

“All of a sudden, I had to learn how to manage people and how to transition people through the layoff process. These were all very valuable learning experiences for me as a CTO.”

It prompted me to think far more carefully about recruitment, for one thing. It also got me thinking about how performance is evaluated and how a company’s bottom line has a bearing on what it can and cannot do in the technology space. These were all valuable things that I subsequently applied to Eventbrite, which I started in 2006 with my two co-founders.

What are the skills that helped you get to your position?

CTO’s are enablers in the broadest sense of the word. This means that you need a variety of skills in order to be effective. The things that have helped me succeed as a CTO include my ability to drive Eventbrite’s technology roadmap and my capacity to scale both our team and product. I also think that vision is important. My understanding of how people’s behaviour evolves has allowed me to adapt our technology to meet the constantly changing needs of our customers.

How can people learn these skills?

I think these skills are best learnt on the job. Gaining experience in a wide variety of business environments helps, as does gaining as much leadership experience as possible. Figuring out whether you like to lead a team, even if it’s only small, is also really important. So while having a background in computer science obviously helps, the real key lies in learning how to look at technology problems as though they are business problems. You don’t have to be an expert in technology but you do have to be an expert in how technology intersects with business. Early exposure to this balancing act is invaluable if you want to become a great CTO.

Who are some of your heroes in the industry?

For me it’s always been the people who reinvent the future, so Google obviously comes to mind here. The founders at Google started with a search business, transformed it into an advertising business, and now it touches a lot of different areas like self-driving cars and all that. They’ve invested a lot of their earnings into thinking about what the future will be like without a strict, ‘you must do this’ business plan. I find that invigorating. If you go to business school and do an MBA, they will tell you that you need a clear business plan for your entity and that you need to explain how you are going to make money. But a lot of Google’s endeavours have no clear path for how they will become profitable in the short term. It takes courage to invest earnings into technologies that will potentially have a very big impact in the future.

Elon Musk is another person who is touching so many different fields through pure foresight. He is asking important questions about the future, the long-term future, and thinking hard about what he can do about it.”

People like Musk inspire me because they are courageous enough to make the bold investments today that will pay dividends in the future. Companies like Uber and Airbnb, who are both neighbours here in San Francisco, are further great examples of how to positively disrupt the market.

Do you teach or present at any industry events?

I don’t spend any time teaching, but I do speak at a lot of conferences aimed at entrepreneurs. These events are hugely rewarding and I always enjoy giving back to the community. Sharing my experience of taking a company from three people to 500 is, I hope, useful for those aspiring to become CTOs themselves. With respect to the sorts of conferences that I like to attend myself, I particularly like the ones that make you think the hardest!

“Events held by Wired UK   are always great value. They get you to think beyond the small and home straight in on your own company.”

Thinking about the potential impact that technology can have on very broad populations never ceases to amaze me. The discussion on offer at conferences such as Wired, where people come from backgrounds as diverse as medicine and geology, is always thought-provoking.

What’s been your best learning experience?

Definitely my experience at Eventbrite. Taking a simple idea and making it into a real business has taught me numerous lessons, ranging from how to scale a business, grow a team, and streamline the technology we use and produce. We also had to navigate our way through two major tech changes that affected the whole world. When we started social networking didn’t really exist; it only became more mainstream about two years in. We obviously had to adapt to that. The other huge shift was the rise of smartphones. In 2006 no one had them! We really had to think hard about what our offer was and how we could align our technology to this end goal. So, all in all, it really drove home the importance of being aware of technological change, and adapting your strategy to meet any changes in consumer preferences and tastes. Doing so allows you to make your product and company that much more competitive.

Where do your employees go for training?

Throughout my career I have learned the most from my peers and superiors. People have inspired me or taught me things that I couldn’t have found in books. We encourage employees at Eventbrite to adopt a similar approach to learning. Asking your manager about how they solved a particular problem, say, or asking one of your colleagues to walk you through their thought process, is a great way to learn. So we encourage employees to learn by asking why certain decisions are made: curiosity is always encouraged.

Are there any particular resources that you would recommend to curious readers?

I think books are a great resource and I try to read both industry books and books that are more general in focus. Most recently, I have read Peter Thiel’s Zero to One  and Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s Bold. Thiel has done great things at PayPal and Palantir while Diamandis is an inspiring figure because he has been able to get several ambitious projects off the ground. Mastery   by Robert Greene is another good book that deals with similar themes around business success. There are also books that challenge you to think in a slightly different way, such as Matthew Mather’s novel Dark Net. Though it’s fiction it’s very much grounded in reality and it explores several topical issues in the fields of technology and artificial intelligence. TED Talks  on entrepreneurship are also great, as are industry publications like Wired magazine, the expert interviews on First Round, and the curated content that Medium sends round to subscribers through email.

What advice would you give to people looking to enter the industry as a developer?

We are looking for experts in their field who can be productive from day one. So with that in mind, I would suggest that applicants try and develop both their technical and business skills. Applicants who have taken the initiative to contribute to open source, say, or have taken the time to understand the business cycle immediately put themselves in a really strong position. Having an awareness of what a given company is trying to do on a business level can really distinguish you from candidates with purely technical skills.

“And be a doer! This is the quality that really separates the best employees from the pack.”

Learning languages such as Python is obviously necessary. Whatever the main languages are, you should know them. Going to school is one thing, but learning how to deliver clean, efficient, functional and beautiful products is more of an art than a science. Working with people who are leaders in adjoining fields is also very important as it exposes you to the whole product life-cycle rather than just a small subsection.

And what sort of attributes do you look for in a candidate?

Technical excellence is always top of my list. We want people who are great at what they do. Mental agility is something that you need today in order to take a variety of inputs and make the right decision about what technology to implement. Increasingly we are also hiring more and more people with specific skill sets such as experience in tech research. They are really focused on one task, do it super well, and understand all the complexities of the job. These sorts of people are highly sort after, even more so than perhaps generalists because they have specific competencies in newer technologies that fewer people have. I also always look for whether a candidate has spark, that something extra that will allow them to contribute to my team.

What about progression for those already in the technology space. How can someone develop the skills to move up the ranks and become CTO?

I think being a sponge is a really useful skill to master. Getting the most out of your interactions everyday with your peers is absolutely vital if you want to develop the skills that will allow you to lead a team. Putting yourself in their shoes to understand what you are currently missing in your knowledge graph will help broaden your skill set. If you want to be a manager then you need to understand why your manager does things a certain way; you might not agree with all their decisions but if you understand why they are making them then you’ll be in a better position to take on responsibility in the future.

“I think all technical people will at some point have to decide if they want to remain technical or if they want to become managers.”

It’s really hard to do both, and I think CTOs are one of very few positions where you actually can do both. If you are given the opportunity to lead a technology team, even if it’s only 2 or 3 people, then I would absolutely recommend it. It will give you the chance to see if you like the dynamics of leadership and whether you are respected as a leader; it will also help you develop the soft skills that you can’t learn from books. You ultimately have to decide for yourself and that’s a hard decision, so getting as much experience as possible balancing the demands of technology with the demands of people is invaluable.

In short

Visage’s holistic approach to technology is as insightful as it is compelling. Not merely content to drive technological change and innovation for the sake of it, Visage instead prefers to carve out a space that straddles the divide between business and technology. Doing so, Visage insists, allows CTO’s and technologists to reinvent the future…

Author Matthew Birchall