CTO Excellence in 100 Days: Etienne De Bruin

As chief innovator and problem-solver, the CTO value far exceeds technology skills. The CTO must lead as a highly visible, first-class citizen of the C-suite. Still, many technology experts operate in a reactive support-oriented style, struggling to command respect or assert influence, let alone executive presence.

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty and my next guest is Etienne De Bruin, who is here to talk about his new book, CTO Excellence in 100 Days. Let’s get into it.

Hello friends and welcome back to the Author Hour show. I’m here with my friend, Etienne, who is here to talk about his new book and I’m super excited because Etienne and I have met just a few months ago. I see, just last month at the guided author workshop and he’s already starting his second book but man, before we get into all these books, Etienne, thank you for coming on the show. Thank you for just showing up today, I really appreciate your time. I’m excited to get into this book.

Etienne De Bruin: You’re welcome Hussein, it’s fun to be with you. I’m super jazzed that we met each other in person, so I can visualize you as we chat.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: As we go through this, right? Yeah, all right my friend, well, you’ve written an amazing book man. I mean, like I said, before we got on here, I was able to sort of peruse through it and like I said, I found myself really engaged and sort of easy to pick up and read, even though I’m not like a super savvy tech person.

And again, this book isn’t specifically made for me, I yet found myself not being like overwhelmed by the level of language that you use so congrats on that man. What a powerful way to engage the reader and I just appreciate that about books. You did your job man, you did it very well, congrats. Yeah man.

Before we get into the book, I really like giving the audience and really, myself just an idea of sort of who you are, your personal background. I know that I read that you know, you grew up in South Africa, which I think is very interesting but I want to know a little bit about that and maybe, who or what inspired you the most growing up?

Etienne De Bruin: Yeah, I live in San Diego, California. My wife and I moved here in 2000 and from… well, that’s the longer story but we were meant to be in the US maybe for two to three years but we just loved San Diego and America so much that we, you know, we kept prolonging our stays. We kept tag teaming our visas and we kept working on some way to stay in the country.

In 2008, we started having children and they became, you know, they were Americans and then we decided to become Americans. So the progression was like a frog in hot water I suppose, you know? When it slowly boils and then when you look back, you’re like, “Wow, that’s…” we’ve been in the US now probably somewhat longer than we’ve been alive. So I was born in South Africa in the 70s.

I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day about how lucky we both felt that we were children of the 70s because there was such a boom in the early 80s of personal computing and you know, the imminent discovery of the Internet and connected computers and you know, he was raised in around Georgia and I was raised in Johannesburg, South Africa and we both… it was kind of shocking how similar our stories were and just our discovery of computing and creating.

Expressing our creativeness through writing code and I mentioned in the book that I was raised sort of in the last 20 years of apartheid rule. So most of my formative years were in this sort of falling regime or this sort of crack in the oppressor’s government and construct and I also account myself lucky in a way that I was there to witness Nelson Mandela becoming president, moving to democracy and really experiencing the incredible hope that comes with the changing regime.

I know it can come with firearms and war as well and South Africa is one of the most peaceful handovers I think in history. We certainly have our issues today and our issues are profound but back then, I was a benefactor of witnessing sort of a historic change into the leadership of someone who I guess arguably is one of the greatest figures in the world and was in Nelson Mandela.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I got to tell you, I love that story because you have such a unique perspective on you know, of course, you growing up there and being born there and that kind of transformation that takes place usually is met with a lot of sadly, violence around the world, right?

And the change for progress and moving forward and in this case, democracy around a black man who was in prison for what, 30 years or so, when I learned about Nelson Mandela, I was like, “He’s a prophet, there’s no way he’s human” right? Like there’s no way. I mean, he, somebody came and spoke to him from another dimension. Like it’s just, it’s such a profound story seriously because it just feels that way at least, right? And he’s so inspiring.

How would you say that changed sort of in the world that you grew up in and impacted how you saw the future and how you saw, you know, potential for technology and you know, this sort of shift in thinking about the future and what it could possibly hold for economics and all those good things?

Etienne De Bruin: Yes, this is a great question because I am absolutely a transformed human because of that experience. So from South Africa, I graduated at Stellenbosch University. I got my computer science degrees and then I went off to Germany and then spent three years in Germany and then I went to the States.

And that impacted me because when I arrived in the States, I had sort of a Google Earth moment where you sort of zoom out and I thought to myself, “You know, what is it that brought me to this place of palm trees and hot tubs and people swimming with dirty martinis?” I was immediately drawn to the opportunities I’ve had, you know, being a, you know, white male in South Africa, obviously the whole system was geared towards my success.

With that bias removed or at least, the ideology removed, how do we help more people enjoy prosperity that comes with technology and innovation? That was a much longer night of a lot of musing, so I won’t go into that because it will take 10 hours but I decided to ask myself whether we can have more people participate in the economy without the burden of broken infrastructure or the barriers of socioeconomic standing, broken institutions or you know, corrupt institutions.

How can one take this one life that you’ve been given presumably and just be given the best opportunities to succeed? And that’s been my obsession I think since I arrived in the US and I think that was somehow birthed from observing Nelson Mandela coming out of prison and inspiring not only, you know, the oppressed but many, many white people to be different and to have a higher standard for how we think about other humans and sort of our shared humanity and the timelessness of community and commitment.

So I have to say that that was in there because you know, as I mentioned, when I saw South Africa switch from the National Ruling Party to the ANC, I was in my student years and you know, as a student at a university, way more… you’re out of your parent’s house, you’re thinking your own thoughts, you’re formulating your own views of the world and so I was a very, very ripe stage of my life to just ingest all the changes that were happening around me as fuel for hope and change and I’m going to say that that fuel is still inside of me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, so powerful man, I love that. I like that you really made the connection in the sense that I genuinely love how Nelson Mandela was as much as he was for the oppressed, right? Giving voice to the voiceless, all these beautiful things, he was also sort of turning your attention back to you in the sense that, “What do you do with this privilege, what do you do with this honor?” this whatever.

You know, this progression, are you still going to continue on the path of your ancestors have gone or are you going to change, evolve and include all of us as a part of you know, a thriving community? What does that look like in your mind? And I love that it inspired you to look at things differently, to see the world differently. Of course, travel, learn, experience, and of course, finding yourself in the US, where you sort of planted yourself to further grow but I love how that inspirational moment, how that time in the last couple of decades really impacted you.

The Power of Music

Etienne De Bruin: Let me just say, the first, just to give people an idea of how secluded I was, I grew up in the suburb South of Johannesburg, which is also – Soweto is Southwest of Johannesburg. You know, I fell in love with music early on and I was really into Joy Division and U2, and sort of in the late 70s, early 80s and the cultural boycotts hit us pretty hard and I think for a teenager, you know, I always look at my American friends who talk about their adolescence and how they went to all these shows and that was not an option for us.

And not only that but a lot of bands refused to release their music in South Africa and I will never forget you know, U2. In the mid-80s, U2 decided to stop releasing music in South Africa as part of the cultural boycott and there was a kid in our neighborhood who put up a little pirate radio station with his, I guess, his dad’s car antenna or something and he was broadcasting all these sorts of amazing albums.

I guess he just put his record player on and just… he managed to get his hands on an album called Rattle and Hum by U2 and it was the first time I heard the album. It was on this private radio station and there was a song on there called “Silver and Gold” that Bono, during an instrumental part of the song, just regaled the South African government and you know, the oppression that was happening and brother, that was the first time that I heard that what was going on and I always find it you know, my parents were amazing in terms of my parents were not political.

They didn’t sort of subscribe us to all these cultural things, they were neutral in my opinion and it was quite incredible to get my first dose of the reality of what was happening in South Africa through a pirate radio station, playing a record up to a song where Irish artist would tell a little South African kid what the story was. It’s pretty crazy.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: And it’s interesting because you were tuned in with music, right? Like that was your place of you know, just release and creativity and just jamming out to some tunes and there is up and coming artist. But you know, though you felt the neglect and why these specific individual artists did not want to release and then like how political you had shaped, not only then but also their music.

But it’s interesting how that message came through to you and through what mechanism and how powerful music is in highlighting constructs, right? For me, it was like hip-hop on the 90s, right? Like in a lot of ways, still to this day a little bit, although I think it’s predominantly mainstream unfortunately but, you know, the early 90s and 80s, of course, hip-hop really spoke to the insanity that was happening around in the ghettos of the United States, right?

And the oppressed, it’s the language of the oppressed but if no one’s going to talk about it, someone’s going to talk about it and in a way, that is very much amplified and the reason why I feel like that kind of music of course, grew to the heights that it did and does is because there’s truth in it. There’s a story in it that a lot of people can relate to and for me as a Middle Eastern kid, who had just gone through war and refugee camp and then now growing up in the US, that music spoke to my… I don’t want to say suffering.

But I want to say to poetically to my struggles, of trying to fit in, trying to be understood, trying to, in a way engage with people, identity, right? Figuring out who I am and so you know, Arabic poetry is very rhythmic and I found that in hip-hop. So I love that because I connect with you on that in the sense that music taught me a little bit about myself and the culture that I’m in and I used to listen to a lot of Jay-Z and I really wanted and I’m still in this sort of path of becoming more of my artistic self, right?

Through whether it be graphics or writing or whatever, it was people like that that really like, sort of made me believe in myself in a way, right? And kind of giving me behind the curtain scenes. So I love that, I love how music is transcultural. It really opens up our eyes to the world around us, so that’s very cool man.

Etienne De Bruin: Just a question, which refugee camp were you in?

Hussein Al-Baiaty: So I was in a refugee camp called Rafha, which was from 1991 to 1994. 1990 to 1994, after the first Gulf War, my family and I ended up being in this camp and you know, that time was… that was crazy and everything but I was very young, you know? I had older siblings and mom and dad that I was very grateful for that really helped, of course, protect me, took care of me, you know?

So in a lot of ways, I feel that today and what that did to the entire family dynamic but again, it’s the processing over time that helps with the healing and the art and you know, all those kinds of things, which led me to what I’m doing now.

Etienne De Bruin: What do you feel you carry today that you’ve learned in the refugee camp? Like how do you see the world differently especially your surroundings at Scribe or like what do you see?

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Well, I love that we turned this conversation on me, thanks a lot. This is why I love you man. You know, I’ll answer this but we’re getting back to your book because your book is very powerful. So for me, I think ultimately what it’s taught me, you know, I write this in my book as well, it’s really the importance of practicing art and to me, that is resilience. That is how I sort of face the world if you will.

I know it sounds cliché or probably corny, like the sword in which my warrior carries is like the paintbrush or the pen, you know what I mean? It’s like how you know, I want to talk about the refugee story, you know, the dilemma that we’re in. You know, all of these things but through art. It also taught me to you know, really live in the moment.

It’s hard to live in the moment and that you know, it also taught me to just embrace the good, the not-so-good, the bad, the ugly, it is all happening for us not against us and so, you know, what am I learning, right? So that’s what it taught me but I feel like a lot of people have come into my life to help me recognize that, right?

It’s not something I just had an overnight epiphany and just had it. I think you know, my father, my mother, everyone plays a role, my wife, the dog, right? The dogs, we were just talking about before the show, they all kind of teach us something in our show. So and I think people like Nelson Mandela, of course, Malcolm X, Martin Luther, you know, Prophet Muhammad, Jesus, whatever, you know, I have always been… Buddha, fascinated by incredible beings like that that carry just beautiful light within them.

How we are still talking about them, inspired by them, you know what I mean? In our own ways and shapes and forms and so I know you bring a lot of that energy, you know, this is why I talk about meeting you, you know, sitting around with you just you know, you have this very calm and really laid back demeanor but also this sort of light, lighter sense on the reality of things, right? Like you’re in technology, you are helping these CTOs grow and be assertive in their companies.

All these things but I feel like that in it of itself, that drive is connected to a deeper sense of our self and I think for you, whoever you’re inspired by, which is why I ask that question, you know, is profound because it plays a role but I am going to ask you a question because I know everyone asks you this, right? Usually, when we’re on a diet plan or onboarding people, you know, we got 60 to 90 days, right? But you decided to say it’s 100 days, CTO excellence in 100 days.

Can you tell me a little bit of – I know why but I want you to tell us why did you go with 100 days and not 90?

Excellence in 100 Days

Etienne De Bruin: Yes, when I was floating the idea with my friends, they were like, “I don’t get it.” It’s usually like a 90-day plan, it’s a quarterly plan, that’s 30 days, that’s three months. I think it’s probably indicative of the approach I took in the whole book, which is I am not in the business tech leadership track as much as I want to move people into the influence and relational track and I decided to go with 100 days because I was inspired.

You know, I mentioned as well when I came to the US in 2000, George Bush was running against Al Gore. I think it was the infamous hanging chad election but I was overwhelmed in a way by this 100-day plan. Everyone was talking about the 100-day plan and as an immigrant, I didn’t know the history behind that and now of course I know that it was FDRs New Deal that he made with the country during the Great Depression.

Where he basically asked the country to give him 100 days to turn things around and that really just inspires me. It’s a limited time boxed 100 days, it’s a long time. I mean, 100 days is long. You know, in a new job where weeks are just you know, in five-day chunks, you have a substantial amount of time in which you can set yourself up for months and hopefully the years that come after that.

So I wanted to write something for the chief technology officer of whom, you know, I am very passionate about the role of CTO. I care very much for people who sort of fall into that role and are woefully unprepared for the role and so this book is a somewhat lighthearted approach but very, you know, I hope there’ll be some sort of frowny face weird moments like, “Oh, why does he think this is important?” and I hope that all these days will sort of build up to this approach that will set you up to succeed at your company.

Whether you’re joining a company or whether you are wanting to revitalize your role and you’re stuck a little bit and you know, you want a 100-day plan to just turn the ship around so to speak, on your role and that’s why I wrote this book.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, it’s really powerful but can you really quickly, can you tell us what a CTO is and what are the common challenges that they face in those first hundred days and why it’s so important to really sort of create a plan for yourself and get an idea of what the next hundred days are going to look like?

Etienne De Bruin: I love that question. The chief technology officer is the colloquially referred to as the leader of the technology in a company and the very next conclusion that is made is that the CTO is a tech-buff who knows the tech, can build the tech, can do the tech, can write the code, can lead the team, can help the C-suite and I think people create all these constructs on top of a black box of which they have no understanding.

A lot of CTOs or people who are in that role sort of walk into this different constructs and myriads of opinions that the people around them have as to what the role actually is. I have found this to be so true in the many, many, many engagements and conversations and coaching opportunities I’ve had is that people just do not understand what the CTO is supposed to do.

In a tech company, it’s like, “Hey, the tech is still running, so I guess we’re good. We’re releasing features, the CTO is doing their work.” In a tech-enabled company, it’s like, “Hey, you know, I hope the CTO keeps our point-of-sale devices running or our medical devices running.” In all sorts of companies, the CTO is just the tech person and the leader of the tech person and so you know, from my vantage point, the CTO is a business role first and foremost.

It’s not a tech role in my opinion, it is a business role that gets assigned a budget to bring on a team and that team is supposed to develop and enhance and build technology. I don’t actually mention that in this book so explicitly as I just did but it is definitely the topic of my next book. So I think when people look at CTOs, they should look at, “What is this person doing to help our business succeed?” and not “How do we make our business succeed in spite of all the trials and tribulations that the CTO is putting us through?”

I want people to see the role of CTO as a business role just like any other business leadership role that has an X amount of dollars from which to hire the right people to adequately and hopefully profoundly apply it to the resources or the teams that are then going to build the amazing technologies that propel the company forward.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Very powerful but in doing so, there’s got to be a difference in your opinion in the sense of like what a successful CTO and how they’re set apart from those who struggle especially around the ideas, which I love that you talked about this, and the idea of like asserting their influence and asserting their presence in the C-suite because if you are sort of in the back corner not saying much, not really adding value and just kind of being told how to drive something, it’s different than being at the table bringing forth your creativity.

Bringing forth what you and your team are capable of and being a part of the conversation and navigating the ship altogether is an important component. So how do you see in those first 100 days when a CTO can really lean into those sort of assertive sort of characteristics?

Etienne De Bruin: Yes, I love that because I think it’s such a missed opportunity when a person in the tech leadership role is relegated to just delivering technology. I think they have so much more to bring to the collaborative leadership inside of the C-suite and so that’s… my book focuses on, the first month is mostly focused on how to build trust with that leadership team so that they can, you know, take the broccoli with the chocolate, you know?

It’s a lot of CTOs complain especially to me or in our peer groups that there aren’t given the necessary respect or the trust when it comes to making very important technology decisions for the company and when I hear that I always wonder, “Okay, well, what is the run-up to the situation?” I agree, it sucks when you’re not respected in the C-suite or when you know, a critically important decision you want to make around hiring or betting on a certain technology or refactoring or getting rid of technical data in your existing technology is met with skepticism or doubt and it is hard not to internalize that.

But I do question, “Well, what is the environment that you’ve created?” You know, how many times have you overpromised and underdelivered? How many times did you deliver some magic in a weekend and then four months after that, there’s crickets? It’s all about the pacing of the leadership not necessarily to deliver technology. I mean again, the CTO needs to deliver technology. That’s a fact.

But it is about how do we view our relationships inside of the C-suites and how do we galvanize our decision making, so that when people do hear the hard things or even worse, the things they don’t understand they do give you the benefit of the doubt and so for me, this 100 days is focused on, “Well, how can I create the vacuum that people will sort of just rush into and follow my leadership, my strategy when it comes to technology leadership.”

My approach is, okay, if you want to create the vacuum so that people will be sucked in and follow you and trust you and love you as a person, well, you need to take in my opinion at least 100 days of investing in what is it that makes the C-suite tech. You know, what can you learn from the person you like the least? You know, where are the opportunities for a quick win so that you can, you know, show some good faith that people have made the right decision in betting on you? And so that is really the whole approach for the 100 days.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s really powerful, man. I love that. I love how again, you were inspired by so many remarkable people and stretching that 100-day period but of course, it goes beyond that and you know, the idea that whatever your mentorship is and your guidance, you know, it’s the turning of a role of those first 100 days, the setting of the tone, the sort of creating a rhythm and what’s expected and being present and being assertive.

All of those sort of components play together to create that first 100-day run in a beautiful way and I love that and going through your book again, I’m no CTO but it really lays out a pretty clear strategy and plan moving forward. Super easy to navigate and read through. What would you say your favorite part of writing this book was for you?

Etienne De Bruin: Well, this is going to sound like a plug but man, when I joined Scribe it changed everything for me. I actually started this book three years ago as an idea to capture some of my thoughts on paper. I came to Scribe with a fully sort of in my view was a complete manuscript and definitely for my personality type, it just felt amazing to feel like I had a team, you know, there to read the book or the manuscript before they decided to work with me.

You know, when I got the green light, it was incredible to meet the team to see them support me and so every step of the way, I always felt strange when there was like a, “Hey, you know, your feelings are going to get hurt when you read through this. Don’t give up.” I will always found that strange because I really craved the unfiltered feedback on the direction I was taking or on the actual flow of the book. So I am going to say the editing of the manuscript was by far my favorite part.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that. I think you’re right, I would have to agree, the editing part is really when things really come to light although the writing part is just as I think is really fun for me too just to like give myself permission and just let it out, right? Put everything on paper and then sort of later on decide what’s important and what’s not because I feel like in the moment of writing, it is hard to decide what’s important or not, you know what I mean?

What story or what fact or what thing but it’s like just dump what you got and we’ll figure the rest out later and that rest out later, I mean, that stuff takes a long time. I feel like the editing, processing of the information, and really how it changes the person. I feel like that’s probably one of the most profound things that I found not just in myself but even in others, right? Like writing a book really and editing a book really gets you to question a lot of you know, how you have approached something that comes so naturally to you.

Now you’re poking at it in every direction and it has to kind of stand that weight. So I know you did that throughout the whole book Etienne and I think it’s an amazing journey that you’ve made all the way from South Africa to who you are today and of course, raising your beautiful children that I know you love and so many important things that you are laying out the foundation of. I know you’re currently working on your second book too, which is I am super excited about.

But today, we’re going to be excited because I’m just wanting to celebrate you man because again, congratulations. The book is called, CTO Excellence in 100 Days: Becoming the Leader Your Company Deserves. So besides checking out this book, where can people find you buddy?

Etienne De Bruin: Well, I did create a website for the book, ctoexcellence.com, so I’ll be posting updates. I am looking at creating a CTO Excellence community, people who read the book want to be able to discuss. I have a concept of a journal, a CTO journal in there. So the community will be focused on taking the ten sections that really should be journaled and do that in community. So I would recommend people go to ctoexcellence.com.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Right on, brother. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show man, just sharing your stories and your experiences, always inspired just hanging and chatting with you today. Of course, you know, bringing all the greats in and how they inspired both of us really, I just appreciate that, man. I can’t wait to make it to San Diego and hang out. On that note congratulations on your book, my friend.

Etienne De Bruin: Thank you. Thank you brother, I appreciate that.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I am so proud of it, for real. I am excited for you. Anything else you want to add?

Etienne De Bruin: Just that you’re amazing and I think you’re doing an incredible job building the community at Scribe. I genuinely, during the author workshop, I just had sort of a moment where I was thinking, “Man, it’s incredible to be in a workshop with people who genuinely have their stories to share and have the courage to share them” and are overcoming the fears with imposter syndrome or not another book, “Who needs to hear my book or my story?”

Just to see the community that you’ve brought together, clearly it’s curated and it’s great people and yeah, I really feel the connection with you. So thank you, Hussein.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Definitely brother, thank you for saying those beautiful words. I’m sure not only myself but the whole team appreciates it on every level because I certainly wouldn’t be here without them but again man, thank you for your time today, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I can’t wait to continue watching your journey grow and flourish into the author that you are becoming and of course, hopefully one day sipping something really good on a private island, right?

Etienne De Bruin: Thanks, brother.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Have a good day, my friend.

Etienne De Bruin: Thank you.