Krzysztof Witczak

Lessons learned from my CTO

October 02, 2023

Around 2.5 years ago I was in a couple of different recruitment processes for the Engineering Manager role. One of them stood out from the first conversation, which was with the CTO of the company. Back then I couldn’t understand why the CTO himself would interview me in the first phase - I imagined him being so busy that he could delegate the first conversation to somebody else… exactly as everyone else did!

The quality of the first talk, thoughtful questions, and ability to easily answer my questions (both their obvious side, as well as my intent behind them) made a first impression so high that I was nearly certain where would I go if the process ended well. It did.

The lessons

The first lesson I was taught was the importance of the hiring process. Since then there was many great articles explaining why it is so critical to hire the right people. The involvement of the CTO in this area is more obvious, due to the importance of the process outcomes. However, I’ve learned from my own story, that a CTO is also a person who can sell the company to the candidate effectively - showing by example what leadership in the company looks like, clearing out what is expected, company culture, strategy, and plans. It may not be a game changer for every role, but it was for me.

The second lesson I’ve learned was bias for action. After I joined, I noticed that my CTO was crushing it in terms of efficiency, getting things done and general output. I felt I was nowhere at that level. I knew many productivity principles, but eating the frogs, the Eisenhower matrix, 5-minute rule and many other well-known principles were not cutting it well enough. After some time and observation, I understood that my CTO could make snap decisions based on gut feeling due to 20 years of experience in IT as well as being a couple of years in the company, but it was not only that. It was this sense of urgency that he was applying to nearly everything he was doing, looking for any action that could be done to push the topic further and further. Oh, and of course - delegation. You’d be impressed by how many things you can delegate. One of the quotes that he said that lasted with me:

“Make it difficult for us to keep up.”

The third lesson comes from “High Output Management” but I’ve heard it for the first time from my CTO, and it allowed me to calm my nerves when times were tough. It’s also a great quote:

“A manager constantly juggles many balls in the air. Some of them will fall… but always remember how many of them you kept in the air.”

With sometimes 40 meetings a week and a never-ending TODO list it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the end of the day or a week. One of the things that my CTO applied was asking managers what was their biggest win each week. Even when we all felt bad and we couldn’t define the impact we’d been hoping to achieve, that question sparked positive emotions and allowed us to close the week with a smile.

The fourth lesson connects with not being afraid to decide against a common opinion. After reading many books and articles about leadership, I deeply felt I needed to hear everyone’s voice, make them feel heard, listen and ideally find a solution which makes everyone happy. Especially, that I’m further from the code than they are. At the same time, there are situations where you may be in the minority, but you strongly feel it’s the right choice. It may be due to experience, context, strategy or ethics. Sometimes achieving consensus may not be possible in the time given. In any case, in the end, it’s your responsibility, what will be decided. Don’t let fear of making people upset stop you from doing what’s right. Of course, everything in leadership is about the right balance or the golden mean between extremes… 😉

The fifth lesson will be about empathy in leadership. From the first months, I’ve noticed that my CTO was commenting on the meeting results like this:

“I didn’t notice signs of disagreement on X’s face during the comment about Y, made by Z. Did you notice any?”

I caught myself feeling silly that I didn’t pay attention. He was not only listening to the conversation, and contributing to it, he was also looking at every individual, trying to guess their reception and if it’s necessary to do a follow-up. In some cases he would ask specific people, seeing they were about to ask a question but they couldn’t find a spot during argument. When we’ve discussed certain situations, decisions or outcomes between me and my CTO, he would always think about individual perspectives and contexts of the people. During calibration sessions and performance reviews, he would ask us to remind ourselves about common biases affecting our judgement. All of these examples displayed clearly to me how important empathy is, and that it is a deep topic, worth years of learning, practising, and improving. It’s not a surprise anymore for me that HBR published a set of 14 volumes and 2320 pages about empathy… 😂


I’ve learned many things, but my top five lessons are:

  • Hiring is critically important, it is both the verification & selling process
  • Being biased for action makes things happen
  • You’ll juggle a lot of balls, some of them will drop but that’s OK - remember how many you’ve kept in the air
  • Don’t be afraid to go against the common opinion, consensus is not always the best choice
  • Empathy is a core leadership skill

My CTO left the company at the end of September, preparing to start another challenge as VP of engineering in a larger organization. He left GAT engineering in great shape - with an improved culture, trained staff, highest software delivery metrics ever achieved. He will be missed! I’ll do my best to fill up those big shoes.

Thank you Wojciech Olearczyk! 😉 If you want to reach out to also learn from his wisdom, here you can find his linkedin.