How to operate 24/7 with outsourcing partners?

Charles Chase, CTO ● Jul 6th, 2023

The full transcript

Stephen May:

Welcome today to the Devico breakfast bar!

It's great to see you.

I wonder if you could start off first of all by telling us your name, your role, and your organization, and a little bit about what's happening there today.

Charles Chase (01:28.320)

Sure.

Well, thanks for having me.

Good Morning!

So, my name is Charles Chase.

I am the CTO of Returnmates.

We are a logistics company here, in the US.

We do last-mile delivery and first-mile reverse logistics, which is basically a fancy way of saying that we come to people's houses and pick up things they may have bought online and take them back for them.

I’ve been with the company for a little over two years…And in my role, I oversee our engineering team, the kind of scope of our technology efforts, very deeply involved with the product team.

And I basically came to this role through just kind of many many years of building companies like this company.

Essentially I spent twenty-five years in an around early-stage technology companies.

First, as an engineer in the late nineties, eventually went back and got my MBA, started my first company.

Kind of stopped doing engineering.

But there has been kind of an oscillation during my career where I've gone in and out of technical roles and it just happened that the founders of this company were at a position where they were looking for, you know, third person at the table that had deep technology experience but also a lot of start-up experience and ended up being a good fit.

Stephen May (03:00.202)

Well, okay.

What a fascinating journey, Charles!

Well, we'll get more into your Returnmates and what's happening there shortly but based on that sort of interesting journey you've had to where you are today what would you say would probably be your most important accomplishment today as a kind of CTO?

Charles Chase (03:18.680)

So I think my biggest accomplishment is probably not the obvious.

I mean I’ve founded companies, I've sold companies, I've had some really great success.

I think my biggest accomplishment has been really a personal one – my journey into becoming the leader that I wanted, that I want to be, and the kind of the people-focused leader that I want to be.

I think one of the themes that we can talk about today is that people – I don't think people really talk about – is just how people-driven technology businesses are.

I think sometimes we get wrapped up in the products, in the code, and stuff like that.

But I think, for me, what I'm most proud of is my kind of personal journey in developing the skills that I have now.

And you know, I certainly have the gray hair and you can see that to kind of proof, the proof of it.

But the financial successes, you know, the products built over, you know, two and a half decades are great but I'm just really happy where I am from more like a mental and kind of leadership perspective.

Stephen May (04:33.182)

Okay, it's kind of thinking linked to that around what you're passionate about in the industry, in the sector you're in.

But you know, what is the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning and says I'm looking forward to going today?

Charles Chase (04:44.420)

Well, the thing that I get excited about is building great products with passionate people that are driven to solve a particular problem we see in a market.

Every project I've ever worked on was always about either myself or somebody else seeing a market problem and saying “Hey we can apply some technology and some process or some better thought to this and solve it”.

It kind of goes back to when I was a kid.

I just love Legos.

I couldn't get enough of Legos.

And so to me, when I discovered engineering, software engineering, it was the same feeling I had when I was a kid building Legos.

I could build something and I could see it.

Even though it was intangible, and it was in the computer, on the screen, I could see it.

And I got this intense feeling of accomplishment.

And so the thing that really the juice, as they say, for me is being able to work with teams of just fabulous people, and really trying to solve some hard problems, and watching us go through those trials and tribulations, and seeing that end product, even though it's imperfect and it's always in progress, just being able to do that day in and day out.

That's really what inspires me.

Stephen May (06:07.422)

Wow, I can feel like it’s coming through what you say, and we will talk a bit more about the people involved in helping us achieve our goals.

One last question I’d like to ask kind of switching to our guest before we move into talking specifically about the industry and some of the challenges there is when you look back at your journey in your career is there a particular funny or bizarre story you could share with us that you look back with a smile and think “wow that was a bit of a crazy situation but we came out on the side of it.”

Charles Chase (06:34.620)

Well, I don't know if it's funny, but I will say that pretty much a thing that I have seen over the years with companies like this is the business you end up in is never the business you thought you were going to be in.

And in the startup world, they like to use, you know, the word pivot, which is to me is a very kind of abrupt change in what you're trying to do.

But the thing that's fascinating – it's not funny but it's just a truth that a lot of people don't talk about – it is that it's very rare that when people say “hey this is the business I want to get into”, even Returnmates.

You find yourself being pushed in different directions a kind of related to sailing where you think you're kind of trying to get to a certain destination, and maybe that destination doesn't change, but as you get closer the destination maybe get clear, but there's all kinds of winds that are coming at you, and how you tackle and how you handle those winds is really the interesting part.

And so I guess, if anything, I guess, I kind of find it funny that we still convince ourselves that when we start something new we think it's really going to end up.

I guess, we were pretty good as humans at that kind of kidding ourselves like that.

Stephen May (08:00.122)

Ok, thanks!

I love the metaphor with the sailing, and the winds, and the changing winds, and that kind is a nice set drive just to start to talk about the changing winds in the landscape of the industry and the sect that we’re working in.

And it's a very fast moving changing environment as we know.

How do you keep yourself up to date with the kind of latest tech and changes in the space?

Charles Chase (08:21.560)

Well. So, mostly I rely on my team.

So, you know, my day-to-day role is much broader than just being the CTO.

I’m, you know, I worked very close with the founders on strategy and a lot of stuff that probably falls outside of most kind of CTO’s swimlanes and so I am not as directly involved, today at least, with a lot of the tooling and some of the methods now.

What that does is it requires me to really rely on, you know, my head of engineering, my engineers themselves to be the ones who are staying abreast of this.

And so, you know, you have some specialists on your team, and the expectation is that they are staying up on what's the tooling that's happening maybe on the front, and, you know, what are people doing on the back, and how are people really taking advantage of things like that AWS or GCP.

And so it's a long-winded way of saying – I really rely on my team to help me.

Now, I will do some kind of high-level macro oversight of what's happening, what's trending, but it's normally not from a deep technology, it's more of what's happening with platforms and how are people using platforms.

Because ultimately in building a company like this we're in a very diverse ecosystem.

And it's essentially a big chess match.

We've got competitors, we've got companies where there's coopetition, we've got partners… And there's this big Venn diagram, you can think about, there's a lot of overlap between what people doing and everybody's kind of trying to jostle and figure out how they can extract the most value or have the biggest impact on this ecosystem.

And this ecosystem that we can talk about that we're in is very complex and very broad… and so that's probably why it's the most interesting because there're so many areas of opportunity to go after here.

Stephen May (10:24.162)

Yeah, understood.

I think some of our audience who would aspire one day to reach the role of a CTO, kind of sometimes, a question for them is when you look at kind of computer language or development frameworks, for example, as well as relying on your team, specifically for you, how do you make those choices about what computer language or development framework is best to use?

Charles Chase (10:46.340)

Sorry, can you say… can you ask the question again?

Stephen May (10:49.522)

Yeah, in relation to computer language or development frameworks, how do you go about making choices on which is the right one for you to use?

Charles Chase (11:00.580)

So, developers, of which I was – I still consider myself one in my heart – we're a funny lot… we love to… we are explorers, we love to try new things, we love to try new languages, we love to try new tools.

It's… great developers are always inquisitive in that nature.

And so, to me, I always want to encourage our team to think about using other tools or other languages that might augment.

I think from a big picture we want to be using platforms, and frameworks, and tools that have wide adoption partially from a recruiting standpoint.

If you use kind of an obscure language or an obscure framework you're going to have hard time finding talent that know that.

So, you know, our case where we're using React Native on the frontend, javascript, TypeScript… I mean those are just really widely adopted, pretty much ubiquitous frontend frameworks, and then on the backend we’re using, you know, Node.js and a lot of AWS services that is it's really easy to find talent who has expertise in those areas.

So..

any… somebody who's coming up in the world somebody who's learning this I would encourage them to, you know, obviously be open-minded but dig into the technologies that… where they can find some mentorship, where they can find good resources.

I remember when I first started as an engineer there was no Stack Overflow, there was not a lot of information on the web.

I mean this is nineteen ninety-six.

So back in those days, you would just buy a ton of books.

So the way I learned was I would buy books and then I would rely on the person who was sitting next to me and kind of get some, you know, “Hey, what are you working on?

That's really interesting!

Can you show me?” So, I think an inquisitive mind is kind of a fundamental piece of this.

And you know, don't be afraid to explore, don't be afraid to propose kind of using new stuff because, you know, it might give the business a better advantage.

But just in general, when we think about the tools we want to use most of it is which are going to be the most stable which are going to have the most resources available to help us, and which are going to kind of be the most performance for for the actual needs we need from a kind of a platform standpoint.

Stephen May (13:47.302)

Okay.

Thanks, Charles.

You've talked a little bit there about some of the skills that developers need to learn from a technical perspective.

I wondered what your view is on how important you think it is for developers to also upskill and learn more about the softer skills and interpersonal skills in their role.

Charles Chase (14:03.480)

I think it is so underrated and so critical.

So, the technology business is a people business.

It sounds cliche but it's not.

The products we're building, the platforms we're building are done by people like you and me who can be inspired but also discouraged.

They need to be in a culture where they feel like they like working with their teammates.

So, the soft skills, the communication skills are so critical.

No developer, unless they're working in a real silo somewhere, which I think is very rare, is by themselves.

This is a connected ecosystem, connected world.

In all these companies you're interfacing with other developers.

You can't be shut off and say “Oh. you know, I'm just going to do this and, you know, don't talk to me”.

You have to have great listening skills because you need to understand from your team what's being asked of you.

And I don't mean “Hey I need to code this”.

It's trying to understand what is being asked of you, what like, what the goal is, what am I actually trying to build here, what's the user experience gonna be, and then I can figure out what the implementation is.

So, incredible listening skills are required and then just verbal, written, and other communication skills because we as a team spend a lot of time in stand-ups, we share our working on… And so yeah I can't stress enough just how much the interpersonal and soft skills are important for engineers that really want to thrive and potentially advance in their career.

Stephen May (15:56.922)

Okay, thanks.

You’ve referred to your team, are you able to share with us any of the specifics currently of the makeup of your team and the types of roles you've got there?

Charles Chase (16:04.200)

Sure.

So our team is basically broken up in the kind of three buckets.

We have a frontend team, we have a back-end team, and then we have a team of test engineers.

We call them SDETs, CETs… And so some of our team members can do full stack, but at this point, we have opted to kind of have everybody focus on their specialties.

I think one of the reasons is that over the years frontend, in particular, has become very sophisticated.

And so my preference is to have frontend team members who are really masters of all that complexity and that sophistication that's happening on the frontend, particularly with these frameworks.

And the backend services are very nuanced as well.

So it's not that I don't want people to understand from a micro level how all the dots are connected but today what's worked really well for us is having people in these special areas and really being kind of masters of a particular domain.

I will also say that one thing I will add to that is that it doesn't come without pitfalls because it requires you to have, you know, backup in particular roles.

For instance, if you have a team that's focusing on a specific platform, maybe a backend service, and this, you know, obviously you need to have backup for those people because, you know, people have families and get sick and, you know, all kinds of regular human stuff.

So, it's a strategy that we've just taken and so far it's worked out really well.

Stephen May (17:49.522)

Okay, and how have you been finding it trying to access that talent to get them into your organization?

Charles Chase (17:55.260)

Yeah.

So, finding talent, recruiting talent, selling them on division, folding them into our system, and having them thrive in the workplace is a lot of work.

It's just I think people just think that you're going to put a job out there and you're going to get people in.

And so, we think a lot about when we're hiring the types of people we wanna hire.

You know. we think kind of culturally… You know, we can talk about culture in depth but like this idea of how do people approach things and are they approaching things in a manner that we would want to if we weren't watching.

But it is very hard to find a talent that maybe fits your scheme.

And so, I myself and my VP, we spend a considerable amount of time recruiting.

So it's… you know, I was saying like always be recruiting.

Even if I'm not hiring somebody tomorrow, I'm constantly meeting people, I'm constantly talking to people, I'm asking people for recommendations because when I have a role come up I wanna be able to already have an established kind of list of people that might be a good fit for the team.

And doing that work early really benefit you.

Stephen May (19:22.522)

Okay.

And an access to key talent, we know, is critical to achieve our business goals.

And I'm kind of wondering then if you could share with us how that then drew you to look at maybe IT outsourcing and that kind of hybrid sourcing model.

Charles Chase (19:36.180)

Yeah.

So, having worked in this business for a long time I've been exposed to and been part of this type of outsourcing for a lot of years.

And to be really transparent I was never really a fan of it because I just had bad experiences with it, kind of maybe in the first kind of decade that I was doing this… And what I came to learn is how beneficial it can be, but you have to… you really have to understand what you're getting and how to leverage it.

And I think one of the things that people don't understand or aren't willing to invest is the planning that communication.

It’s, if you think about it this way: if somebody is sitting right next to me it's really easy for me to be lazy as a planer because something can just pop in my head and I can just turn to the person and say “Oh yeah, this and this”.

But when you have an international team that spread across the world, like we do, who is working sometimes when you're asleep, it forces you to have really refined process and cadence around how you're planning, how you're giving work to people, how you're reviewing it, how they're working with other people that are on different time zones.

And so I basically came back to outsourcing and kind of gave it a new try about five years ago and just had a lot of success.

And so to me, it's a really important piece of our overall strategy.

We don't fully outsource.

We use it as an augmentation to our strategy but it plays a really critical role.

Stephen May (21:27.942)

Okay, and when you say it plays a critical role, what do you summarize to me as probably the key benefits about sourcing?

What it does bring to you?

Charles Chase (21:35.000)

Well, the first thing it does is generally when you're outsourcing, you're doing it internationally.

So it enables you to access talent that you through your own network, so my network is primarily in the US...

So outside of my network, how do I access amazing talent in South America or Eastern Europe?

And so doing that and relying on outsourcing groups enables you to extend your network.

It enables you to get access to great people that you otherwise wouldn't have access to.

It gives you a diversity of country.

So, we think a lot about diversity of risk in our business… And so when we think about where our team members are, we want diversity in terms of what countries they're in, we want diversity of perspective…

Right, you can imagine somebody who is in Ukraine is looking through a different lens than a person that's in Brazil versus a person that's in Silicon Valley.

It also gives us incredible time zone coverage.

So, we like to have people across all kinds of time zones because we're a twenty-four/seven business… And also this isn't the primary driver but it's hard to beat the economics, the economics of outsourcing internationally… Particularly, with the level of talent that you can get is really hard to beat.

Stephen May (23:12.202)

Okay, just in relation to that, are you able to share with us a specific example of where having a hybrid approach with an outsource model has helped you in a particular project?

Charles Chase (23:23.560)

Yeah.

So one of the things, one of the benefits of outsourcing that I probably didn't mentioned earlier is also speed to… How can I say this?

Speed for getting new team members.

So, if we're looking to hire a full-time team member, it might take us, you know, sixty days or ninety days to find somebody and go through the whole interviewing process.

One of the benefits of outsourcing is that speed to acquisition of candidates gets really compressed because they've done a lot of legwork upfront, you know.

And these people are already working on not necessarily similar projects but the frameworks you need.

And so one of things I like about it is if I have kind of an immediate need that I need filled, maybe it's not super long term, maybe a short term, you can do that very quickly because they have a lot of players on the bench, if you will, that are ready to kind of step up and step into a role.

Stephen May (24:33.042)

Ok.

Look there's always pros and cons with every solution, what would be your sense of the potential drawbacks around working with an outsourcing model?

Charles Chase (24:40.760)

Well, the drawbacks are that, as I mentioned earlier, if you're not set up correctly, if you don't have the right processes in place, the right communication channels, like so if you're not good at planning… So just your thoughts very specifically if you're not good at planning, who is going to be working on what, you know, kind of in a sprint model, or just being really organized and being able to share with team members what they're going to be working on, what the QA process is, you can get really frustrated because you're most likely the one who's failing to communicate to them… And so done right it works out really well.

But I know a lot of people that haven't had success including me in kind of previous lives where, you know, you fail to really plan enough and communicate well and then it doesn't work out, and you think it's them and maybe partially it's the other side but it's most likely you… And so, yeah, that's really the only downside is you need to understand what you're getting.

You need to understand that… that it requires more effort on your end.

I think there is another part, which is, it's not a problem for me, but sometimes people have challenges ]with language.

So, you know, we have a team that is in… which spread across Ukraine, Costa Rica, Brazil, the Philippines, and the US.

And I personally have no problem understanding anybody, maybe just because I've done this for a long time.

But, you know, some people, you know, you're going to work with folks who may be..

their English… obviously, their English isn't their first language.

So, you know, you have to be able to accommodate that and work through it.

Stephen May (26:32.022)

Okay, and a kind of curious thing of how you came to work with Devico.

You know, what was happening in your organization at the time?

How did you find Devico?

Kind of how has that relationship been working?

And for how long?

Charles Chase (26:46.300)

Yeah.

So, I joined Returnmates very early.

I was basically the first hire after the founders.

And at that time they were looking for, I think I said earlier, they were looking for somebody to come in and join them as CTO.

But also it was tricky because they really needed somebody who could roll up their sleeves and actually code day one but then eventually grow the team and grow into a much more senior leadership position.

And so it was just a fit because I had been doing some engineering work the year prior to I met them.

As I said, I kind of oscillated in, you know, these engineering roles.

So when I joined them I personally rebuilt and rearchitected the entire system.

They had essentially a prototype running but it wasn't built for the long term.

So I knew all of the backend and basically how to implement the backend but I didn't know the frontend.

I knew I need to bring a specialist in on the frontend.

Before I met Returnmates I had had a lot of success with a couple individuals in Ukraine… And so it was the first time I had worked with the Ukrainians, and my experience was that they were so knowledgeable, like really skilled, great communicators… And so when I was thinking I need to bring a frontend person as my kind of first hire to help me rearchitect this entire system, I thought okay I should… I should find somebody in Ukraine.

So, through a set of mutual friends I got introduced to Oleg from Devico and he sent me a few candidates… And one of the candaites that we looked at, whom I interviewed, his name is Vlad, was just fantastic!

And so in the early days it was Vlad and myself, and that was it.

And eventually, we started building the team.

We've built backend team members.

We've built frontend team members.

And I'm happy to say that Vlad is actually still with us.

The guy is insane!

And the level of talent is just..

is hard to find for the kind of level of, you know, that… How can I say this?

The engineers at Devico are so smart, and the price is… the economics are really hard to beat.

And the other thing is that, I hate to say that, but a lot of developers in the US unfortunately because of all these fan companies have ridiculous expectations about comp, benefits...

And just frankly drama that you just… you don't get any of that with the team at Devico that I’ve been working with.

Stephen May (29:48.262)

Great!

I think that's great feedback.

Thank you.

it's a very competitive landscape.

Right?

There's lots of IT outsourcing people, developer body shops...

You must have spoken to a number of different people providing those services.

I kind of wondered if you could share with us what are some of the things you hear from some of those providers that you think “I definitely don't want to work with those guys”?

Charles Chase (30:07.580)

Well, okay.

So going back to this is a people business… So when I speak with something, I feel like I have..

I'm pretty… have..

I'm pretty intuitive in terms of getting a read on somebody.

And so, when I talk to somebody – we can talk technical details, we can talk non-technical – and I feel like my bs meter is pretty well calibrated.

And so yeah, I've talked to a lot of people that have shops… And I just felt like it was with the one that I didn't choose that I just didn't have confidence or I didn't feel like I had a relationship.

And I will say that the reason that we ended up going with Devico was.

first, because I trusted Oleg.

I just..

We connected and I just felt that he understood what we were looking for.

I felt that he was honest.

I felt that he..

it was just gonna be a great relationship and there wasn't gonna be any drama or shenanigans.

And so yeah, so it was like one hundred percent built on just me connecting with another person and having trust that this person was going to be able to do what they said they were going to do.

And then that just gets further reinforced when the team members that he introduces to me like Vlad and subsequently the other guys that come on… It further reinforces that they know what they're doing because the people that they send to us are quality people.

So clearly they're doing a lot of work on their side.

And so yeah, I think it really boils down to just, you know, these conversations and just trusting that people will have your best interests at heart.

Stephen May (31:58.662)

Okay, Charles, thanks.

Last question.

There will be people who… who watch this video who are maybe considering using outsourcing, going to shops… What would you say to those people who are just about to step into considering doing that?

What would be your kind of top three tips for them as far as advice goes before they enter into that relationship?

Charles Chase (32:19.760)

Well, as you just alluded to, talk to a lot of people, go through your network, talk to people that have used...

Like with any service provider, for any service in your life, be it a mechanic, a doctor, whatever it is, you wanna ask people “Hey, who have you used?

Did you like them?” You know, get..

like somebody in your network, you just need to do the legwork, somebody in your network knows somebody, and have a lot of conversations and really trying understand, really trying to get a gage of if you think this person or this group is going to be a good partner for you.

Right, so, I wasn't looking to have a frontend developer come on for three months.

I was looking for somebody to join us who is going to be here for five years or ten years.

This is a long-term relationship, and so you need to do the legwork.

It's not like anything in life.

It's not just…it's not easy… like if you put in the work, you'll get the results.

And so, have a lot of conversations, you know, ask hard questions, get referals, and yeah, I think if you do those things and you're realistic around how outsourcing is a piece of the solution, maybe an augmentation to your whole strategy, I think… I think people will find a lot of success.

Stephen May (33:50.842)

Charles, thank you very much!

This has been a privilege having you as a CTO from Returnmates – fantastic platform, great service, great idea!

And thanks for sharing all your thoughts with us today at the breakfast bar.

Charles Chase (34:02.340)

Pleasure to be with you!

Thanks for having me on!

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