In the first episode of the FinTech Me This: Engineering Management Podcast, we talk with Adrian Mizzi, the co-founder and CTO of Weavr, about the importance of recruiting the right talent to your engineering team. We also cover a practical rundown of the recruitment process and the challenges of building a payments business. Check out the podcast below and read the interview to find out more!
FinTech Me This: Episode 1 with Adrian Mizzi, co-founder and CTO at Weavr
This episode’s guest is Adrian Mizzi, co-founder and CTO at Weavr, an embedded finance provider and payments platform. Adrian is an experienced technology leader in FinTech. His experience covers various management-level roles in innovative payments companies such as Entropay and Ixaris, where Adrian worked as head of R&D, CIO and CTO, among other roles. He’s led software engineering teams as big as 100 team members, and he’s seen a lot of challenges that you might face in IT operations and generally in the payments sector. He’s also recently completed his PhD in Computer Science.
The challenges of building a successful payments business
Magdalena Grzelak: On your LinkedIn profile you described Weavr as your “most exciting and ambitious project yet.” Could you give more background on how Weavr came to be?
Adrian Mizzi: As you mentioned in the introduction, I have worked in other companies and, in fact, the other co-founder Alex and I both worked together in two other payment businesses. We built payment businesses starting from a start-up as well. I joined when we were just a small team of five many years ago. And what experience taught us is that it’s really hard to build payment businesses. Probably one can also add that it’s becoming increasingly hard. It’s becoming harder to do so as time passes.
The reason being that there are many challenges, things that you need to do and overcome to build a payment business, regulations that come out continuously that you need to keep up-to-date. And the bar is set at a very high level for anyone who wants to create a business which is doing something in payments. And that is how in a way, Weavr came to be because we realised and understood that it’s so hard. Why does it have to be so hard?
Then one of the projects that we were working together on in one of the previous jobs that we talked about was to try and build a proof of concept. It had originally started as an EU Horizon 2020 project. We wanted to explore whether we could make things easier for others, for third parties. That is how it started. So it was a new company that came out of that. It was a bit of a spin-off, and the idea developed further. We wanted to see how we can enable our customers—we call them innovators—to be able to build payment businesses or include finance and payment technology in their own application without making it so hard or impossible to enter the market.
Magdalena Grzelak: I agree. I think competition is getting more intense, especially in the FinTech sphere. There are more and more new startups and more new ideas.
Practical aspects of CTO’s everyday work
Magdalena Grzelak: You’re a CTO of the company, and obviously a CTO is at the helm of all things technical. But still, I feel like what the role covers can differ depending on the company. In your own words, what are you responsible for in this role?
Adrian Mizzi: Today I’m responsible for both product and technology. Our product is a very technological type of product. That’s, in a way, the reason why I have this responsibility across the two. We have the platform that we’ve built, which is our product, and we have our own team that develops and builds this platform. The two are very joined-up together. In terms of responsibilities, I have the product team and the engineering team, which both report to me. They work very closely together on delivering the product and functionality to our customers through the platform.
Magdalena Grzelak: How big is the team you’re managing?
Adrian Mizzi: We’ve grown relatively quickly. Just a couple of years ago we were just starting a team of five people. The whole company was five people. I think today we’ve just touched 50, with new people who have just joined. The size of the product and technology team is 25. So roughly half of the company is in product and technology. If plans materialise, we’re looking to probably double or triple that by the end of the year.
Magdalena Grzelak: That’s very intense growth.
Adrian Mizzi: It is very intense growth, and probably one of the biggest challenges in the industry at this time. But yes, those are the plans that we have at this time.
Magdalena Grzelak: Just to cover the basics, what tools do you usually use for your management tasks? Or is there any software you usually use, or any organisation systems? Because as you said, you have to combine managing both Product and Technology. I assume there’s a lot of juggling of different things to do and things to keep track of.
Adrian Mizzi: Starting from the technology stack, it is a Java stack and all things that come with that. In terms of coordination and how the organisation works together, getting requests into the engineering backlog, and work delivered, we use Jira for the coordination element, as probably most development teams do, Confluence for Wikis and documentation. That is the company’s set-up. We’re very much cloud-based. Even if you think from a data centre perspective, we don’t have a data centre. We run on the cloud, GCP, AWS, that kind of stuff.
Being involved in the process of recruiting engineers
Magdalena Grzelak: The focus of this episode is on hiring developers. With the plans that you revealed, that’s probably going to be also a big focus for Weavr. How involved are you in the recruitment process since you manage the team?
Adrian Mizzi: I am maybe getting less involved over time. As the team grows and scales, you can start establishing the appropriate roles to be able to manage the team. Over [January], in fact, we had two VP of Engineering join the team so that they can grow their own teams and scale up to meet the requirements of the business. So I’m getting less involved in the process.
But at this time, as part of the interviewing process, we’re still doing a meeting with the co-founder. It’s usually the final interview. The reason why we do that is always because being a relatively new company, a start-up company, it’s good to meet candidates and for candidates to meet you to learn a bit more about the company because in a way, there’s no one better than a co-founder to share the passion and the vision of what the company is about. So at this point, I am still involved, but getting less directly involved. Others are now doing the initial screening, like the first interview or technical interviews, where typically one of the senior members of the engineering team gets involved, and then moving on to the final interview stage where I typically participate. Then if it’s successful, we move on to the job offer and so on.
Magdalena Grzelak: Have you taken part in the technical part of the interview, either in Weavr or before in your previous roles?
Adrian Mizzi: Yes. Even throughout the journey here at Weavr, especially as the company and the team were a smaller team, you tend to get involved in all different parts of the business, including the recruitment process where you have to tackle different aspects of first, second, or maybe now even third interview stages.
Magdalena Grzelak: Do you prefer the earlier stages of the interviews or the final stage where you probably can talk more about the company?
Adrian Mizzi: Sometimes the challenge is from a time perspective. If you think about recruitment as a bit of a funnel where you get to meet 30 candidates at the first interview stage, you shortlist, I don’t know, ten candidates to eventually make an offer to one candidate. The amount of time that you need to be doing first interviews is much more significant than the final interview. So we’ve also shaped that journey because time restricts the amount of availability that you can do to spend on the recruitment front.
I find the interviews to be quite interesting because you meet different people coming from different backgrounds. That is where you try to figure out and understand: could there be a good fit here? Is there the right level of skill? To be able to make someone an offer, to continue that conversation or not. Sometimes, at least at the final stage where I’m involved, that process of recruitment is already narrowing down the candidates. In most cases, when it gets to meeting the founder, it’s usually just a rubber stamp in a way to just get on with the process.
How to recruit engineers that fit your company culture
Magdalena Grzelak: You mentioned that in the recruitment process you have to assess if the candidate is going to fit in the company culture, because there are people coming from different backgrounds, with different personalities. As I was researching Weavr, I came across a description of the company culture. There are two things that really drew my attention. One, that it said that the culture at Weavr is “unashamedly geeky.” And I love that because with technology companies, you take it for granted that everyone is a little bit geeky in the technology team. You kind of have to stay up to date with everything that’s going on, and I imagine that if you’re programming, you have to have a little bit of passion for that. So I really liked that you put emphasis on that.
Another highlight was that you’re building “a community of makers.” So I imagine people who have a can-do attitude, they have incentive. They’re not looking to just automatically complete tasks, but they want to have some input on what they do.
So when you’re hiring and you’re looking for the right candidates, how do you assess if they’re going to fit into the company and into the team?
Adrian Mizzi: About the geeky part, as a background, I’d say that probably both founders, Alex and I, come with an academic background, we both have a PhD in Computer Science. So you can already imagine the level of conversations that tend to end up on that topic there. We look at problems the way that we’ll look at solving problems in a certain way. Having said that, we think about coming up with solutions, which, I think, is also a part of our culture. We think about doing things smart, not doing big or overengineering type of solutions. So we’re trying to come up with the solutions that are smart for the problems that we’re trying to address.
You mentioned the community of makers. The Weavr platform, the way that it is built, enables third parties. We call them innovators. That is the community of makers. They are looking to build solutions on top of our platform. Without the Weavr platform, many solutions might not happen because the bar of getting into FinTech is so high that it’s simply impossible to start, as a start-up with limited funds, limited capability of doing certain things. So we think about what the problems that we’re trying to solve are, what the best way of solving them is in terms of offering tools to innovators, this community of makers, to come up with ideas, generate new ideas that on our own we would not be able to do because we maybe don’t have the capacity.
But if we enable others, this community, there are many good ideas that can be developed as a result of that. We think of ourselves in that way: enabling this community to build applications and ideas.
Magdalena Grzelak: That makes sense. Thanks for the explanation. A neat description is always one thing, but what the culture means in practice is another.
When you’re in an interview and you have to evaluate if the candidate is going to understand the vision of the company and if they’re going to be happy to work with you on that, how can you tell if they’re going to fit in and they’re going to be a good addition to the team?
Adrian Mizzi: That’s a good question, and maybe the answer is not that simple. There isn’t a simple formula for that. But there is an element that as you talk to someone, maybe even discuss potential problems, how they can be solved, with the ideas that the individual is generating there on the fly, you can start identifying certain patterns, certain ways of thinking about problems. That is where it gets to that culture element: geeky, I mean, smart rather than big. What sort of solutions would the individual think about?
The conversation itself also helps to understand. If this is a one-way conversation, because even individuals might be different from each other. One individual might just want to lay it all out; no interruptions or no feedback asked for. “Is this on the right track? Is this right?” Someone else might be more willing to [say], “Maybe I’ll try this or that and this. Did you have a preference?” Even in the interview itself, create that level of conversation that you could see where that person would fit once they would maybe join your team.
So there are little things and maybe little signals that one would typically pick up, asking the right type of questions to put the conversation on the correct part. But there’s probably no magic formula in that.
Magdalena Grzelak: Yeah, people are so different. That’s why I’m interested in how you approach that, because as you said, there’s no one formula. You can’t just say, OK, that person says this, that means that they’re going to be perfect. And if they say something else, that means we have to think a bit more about this person. Testing for the culture fit is perhaps a bit more instinctive, and you have to read the other person.
But on the other hand, for technical roles, you have to have a more formal test for the technical skills. How do you go about that? How do you evaluate the candidate’s technical skills?
Adrian Mizzi: As I was describing our process, the first interview is typically very nontechnical. There is a short—well, maybe an hour of conversation about understanding the background of the candidate, giving more background about the company, and so on. Once it gets to the second interview, and we call that the technical interview, a longer session might be reserved for that. Typically, senior members of the technical team, of the development team would be involved in conducting that interview.
We typically start by looking at the candidate’s CV to understand where the experience is. So in a way, if you have a candidate that is experienced in one area, but you’re asking questions in a completely different area, the candidate will not do well because the knowledge will be fairly limited. So we typically tune questions, depending on what the candidate has put in in the CV. That is typically where you would start from.
Then there would be technical questions about the experience that the candidate has gone through, difficulties that developers typically encounter and how they handle them in specific situations, explaining general questions or general problems, general projects, how they would go about tackling it again. Usually there isn’t a right or bad answer, but it can be answered in different ways. And can the candidate make a convincing argument out of it? Because there can be many different ways of solving a problem.
So we look at a lot of that. The experience from the CV is also very relevant because it depends if we’re hiring for a senior role versus a mid-level type of role. That also comes a lot into play, of course.
Recruiting engineers remotely to access a bigger talent pool
Magdalena Grzelak: I noticed that in development roles, you’re recruiting people not only within Malta, but also you’re looking for remote candidates, as long as they’re within the Central European time zone, +/-1 hour of availability. When you’re hiring remotely, what do you pay extra attention to? Is it any different than when you are recruiting on-site?
Adrian Mizzi: In a way, we’re relatively new to hiring remotely. We’re getting to the halfway mark. Half the team is now working remotely, and half the team is still based in Malta. We’re relatively new to this. And probably as for most companies, COVID has helped to speed up that adoption of working remotely. Maybe more time needs to pass before we really better understand what the mistakes were or what the good things were.
However, the initial observation is that, first of all, if you want to tap into really good talent, you need to expand the pool that you’re looking in. Malta is a very small country. The pool of developers is very limited. There are a number of companies already in Malta, so it’s very difficult to find good talent here in Malta. Working on that basis, you need to look further afield.
In fact, one of the reasons why we are limiting that +/-1 hour time zone is because it gets a bit harder to do coordination and communication if you go beyond. Even though I do think that in the future we will get to the point that our system, our platform is structured in a way that we can more easily give projects to time zones that are further afield, whether it’s 6 hours away. Because there will be less dependency on interaction between different team members. So today we’re mostly focusing on that +/-1 hour just to have people more or less overlap during their work, because there is a lot of collaboration going on.
The way that things have structured for us, it feels that we’re building a second base out of Portugal, as we have three developers who are working from Portugal. That starts to form in a way like a second base that you can get more people to join, like a local centre. But we also are getting people from Spain and from Romania to join. We’re doing interviews with candidates almost all across Europe.
It’s a bit difficult to say what will work or what will not in terms of specific candidates, because it’s really hard. However, there are certain aspects that you would look out for. There are a number of platforms that enable interaction between employers and employees, where you get to meet potential candidates. One of the things that we look out for is candidates who are frequently changing jobs. Because maybe every time that you change a job, you go for a higher salary, which means that as you start training an individual, very shortly after they might leave. So we do look for a bit of stability, at least from a candidate’s perspective. That’s always something that we look for.
Otherwise you would look for someone who has responsibility, because working remotely is a lot about working on your own unsupervised. We trust people so we want people who can work on their own steam without too much interaction and supervision. But then there are the daily interactions between individuals. We try to make the most out of the situation, to be able to bring people together in maybe daily stand-ups, in department meetings, and all-hands meetings, things like that.
Magdalena Grzelak: I’ve been working mostly as well and it can get lonely a bit without group meetings. I suppose you can kind of miss the social element, getting to know each other because you can’t do that without everyone sitting in the office.
Adrian Mizzi: We try to organise some events, maybe not to the same level as being at the same office. We organise the Weavr Wind-downs where once a month at least we get online, like on a Friday afternoon and maybe play some games, like Two Truths, One Lie, that kind of thing, have a glass of wine and get to know new people who have joined the company and so on. Maybe it’s not as good as doing it in person, but I think we all have to adapt to working with people further afield and remotely.
Magdalena Grzelak: Exactly. I think it’s kind of the name of the game, at least in FinTech and technology. Anywhere where you want to innovate, you just have to adapt.
Why businesses need to recruit the right engineering talent
Magdalena Grzelak: You outlined a very solid framework for hiring and going through the [recruitment] process and what to pay attention to. But I think it’s also essential to ask ourselves why it is so important. Why you should have a framework. Why you should pay attention to all of those elements.
Why is hiring the right technical talent so important for businesses? Why does it make a difference?
Adrian Mizzi: I’m a strong believer that the people are what makes the company. The success or failure of a company really depends on the team.
The company can succeed if there are the right people to be able to handle difficulties as they come up throughout the journey with creative solutions, ideas to solve situations, develop solutions, and so on.
At Weavr, I think we’ve taken an approach where we’re hiring people mostly who are senior and experienced, who have done this before, which is probably a bit different to what I have done in the past. Looking a bit from experience about what I’ve done in previous jobs where maybe I took more an approach of the football nursery clubs where you got your players coming up through the school and growing them into becoming your players. This approach takes time, and in this kind of era, time is one of the elements that you need to fight against.
If you want to grow and you want to grow quickly and be successful, you need to make sure that you bring the right people on board, ones who are experienced, not just in the technology side, but maybe even in domain, in the industry. They’ve done it before. They know the pitfalls, they know the mistakes that they need to avoid. In that way, you can improve and speed up your growth and increase your success rate. The people and the team are very much core to the success of the overall company. So it’s very important to get that right.
Magdalena Grzelak: I suppose you could have the best technology, but if you don’t have an experienced driver behind the wheel, it’s not going to do anything.
Adrian Mizzi: Precisely.
Empowering your team as a key to the company’s success
Magdalena Grzelak: To wrap it up, you have wide experience in FinTech and payments, especially in leading software engineering, software development teams. Looking back at all of that, what is the most important lesson you’ve learned since you started to manage technology teams?
Adrian Mizzi: Getting the right talent is definitely one of them, which we just tackled. However, I think more than that is empowering the team to be able to make decisions on their own, without decisions always coming up to the top to make a decision.
So the more that you can empower the team to make decisions on their own, which also means giving them the information that they need to be able to do the job, make the decisions directly as part of their job is critical. For me that is the most important lesson to build successful teams.
Magdalena Grzelak: Yes, trust and transparency. Again, I’ll come back to this community of makers. You said it’s about innovators that are going to build their solutions with the help of the Weavr platform. But I feel like it’s also about developing this mindset within your own team.
Adrian Mizzi: Precisely. It’s very important to give space for creativity to the individuals, to be exposed to the environment, understand what the challenges are, to, then, give them the space to come up with ideas and solutions to address those problems.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
FinTech Me This: Engineering Management is a podcast where we sit down with engineering experts to discuss the ins and outs of leading effective, driven, and happy technology teams in FinTech companies.