Leadership style: Extreme minimalism
Shanghai, April 17th, 2017
Ronan Berder, founder and CEO at Wiredcraft, has cemented an interesting leadership style that is opening up new opportunities for the company and its clients. He let us into his inside track.
Strategist at heart, Ronan says he loves building things and help teams figure out ‘the what’ and ‘how’.
“I am a jack-of-all-trades with proven expertise in development, design, management and leadership, equally comfortable leading teams, entire companies or contributing to UI and code.
“In 2009 I founded Wiredcraft, a data science and Development and Operations (DevOps) company, helping the largest organizations in the world get things done. We build things like the software running the elections in Myanmar or the infrastructure powering the business intelligence for the largest electronic manufacturer in the world.”
The ‘talented Mr Berder’ also speaks four languages fluently: his native French, English, Chinese and Spanish. We suspect he might also be learning German.
“We originally started in Shanghai. While most of our clients are international organizations, we decided to open a Berlin branch after spending some time meeting the local tech and design communities. At Wiredcraft we mainly communicate in English but we do have the occasional chit-chat (or swear) in Chinese, French or German.”
As a businessman and leader, Ronan’s choices might not be everybody’s cup of tea. An absolute minimalist, he doesn’t even have a pad he calls his own.
“I recently went back to not renting an apartment, choosing to move to a new short term rental (usually on Airbnb) every other week.”
Ronan’s approach to the UX and UI design work Wiredcraft carries out, can also be viewed as somehow different and definitely innovative. But his was not necessarily a smooth ride.
He confesses that there have been three key things that have marked his path and resulted on where he is at today: his visit to China in 2005 – a last minute decision for a six months internship that ended up with him staying there; his previous job, which ended in bankruptcy; and failing at products.
“Wiredcraft has only been seriously growing in the past couple years. Prior to this, we tried, failed and pivoted for quite a while. This included a two year period where we tried to build our own products. This was followed by an offer to join Techstars and accept some investment for one of them (devo.ps), which we ended up turning down to focus seriously on our agency. These failures were instrumental in building the foundation of skills and experience that make us successful today.”
Although he accepts that testing and prototyping are necessary to achieve a well functioning user interface, Ronan says ‘no’ to meetings; and ‘no’ to sequential working. If you have to have a meeting, he emphasise that everyone has to come prepared. The whole thing has to be done in 30 minutes tops. Keep it short, sweet and to the point.
“There are a lot of gimmicks that are common with human cantered design (HCD) techniques, such as using an endless amount of post it notes on a board to brainstorm about HCD. Lots of it is unnecessary overhead that bears little to no impact on the overall success of your design approach (but they do look nice in pictures).
“We use mostly simple techniques; user and stakeholder interviews, user testing (using Google Hangout) and the usual analytics and A/B testing.”
Wiredcraft approach to pretty much any project is:
1- Open. Mostly by making the discussions transparent across the team (which includes the clients) and asynchronous, ensuring people are free to participate when and if they can or care.
2- Iterative, allowing for ideas and discussions to evolve, change and grow, rather than trying to build discrete, long-lasting and accurate depictions of what things should be. In practice, this means avoiding meetings and instead exploring ideas and carry out arguments online (mostly on GitHub) before asking for a face-to-face meeting or a video call, and only if it can’t wait our next scrum.
3- Preparation. If a meeting is indeed needed, even if a quick white boarding session with some other team members, all have to come prepared. For example, we often collaboratively prepare an agenda before we actually meet (Hackpad is great for that). Before having a scrum, we update our issues and move things around on SweepBoard, our GitHub kanban. If we’re going to talk UI or UX, we would prepare some doodles and sketches in our notebooks prior to meeting. It wouldn’t be surprising for one of us to refuse to meet until there’s a tangible proof of preparation.
4- Keep it short; being prepared helps, but overall we avoid meetings that go beyond the 20 to 30 minutes mark. Meetings should help get a consensus on complex issues; don’t drag a whole team in an argument that only concern 2 of its members. Similarly, we try and keep our GitHub issue clean and concise.
5- Be ‘drafty’; we rarely do “clean” wireframes (if that’s even a thing). What you’d usually get from me is a set of (questionably crappy) doodles that I drew in my notebook, then photographed with my phone before uploading it straight in the issue thread. I even skip mockups, preferring to design things directly with HTML/CSS/JS with maybe some help from Sketch to decide colors or design the logo and icons.
6- Capture everything and iterate; our team rely heavily on GitHub to discuss pretty much everything, from application design to new hires (that’s kind of why we built SweepBoard). Whatever it is that you want to discuss, the first question you’ll be asked by anybody on our team will often be; ‘Where is the issue?’ Chats will most likely translate into updates in the issue queue.
Wiredcraft employs over 50 people now and has a pretty much global reach with outstanding projects around the globe, but does Ronan think he is truly leading his company in the right direction?
“You can never be sure. That’s part of why being a leader isn’t for everybody. Now, I can assume we’re doing a few things well based on our high employee retention and the fact that we get even former employees wanting to come back after they experience a few other companies.”
Does he focus more on problem-solving or opportunity creation? “I usually problem solving. The essence of entrepreneurship is dealing with problems. Opportunities themselves often come from problems you meet (or created for yourself).”
“I often refer to myself as the CJO: Chief Janitor Officer. My role is to take care of what’s not yet picked up by the team and do the unglamorous work of experimenting, failing and putting the foundation in place before I can delegate.”
Here are three things Ronan likes and three he dislikes about his current position:
Challenges: we are confronted on an almost daily basis with problems and new obstacles that we need to address. There’s rarely a dull day.
Learning: a direct consequence to the previous point, I get to constantly learn new things. I never thought when I started my career that I would end up writing and lecturing others on UX, business and leadership.
Impact: a lot of what we do has an impact, either by being meaningful (e.g. Open Data platform for the World Bank) or by the scale of our audience (e.g. building digital experiences for Starbucks in China). Sometimes we even get to combine both (e.g. the Myanmar elections).
Private life: I’ve basically put my private life on pause for the past few years. The little free time I have (because let’s be honest I’m a workaholic) is usually spent reading, working out, cooking or working (yeah I know) on side projects.
Patience: most good things require you to be patient and work slowly towards your goal. For some things it requires you to be able to execute strategies over the course of 2 or more quarters.
Sacrifice: unlike what most may think, being the boss doesn’t mean you get to work on what you’re good at (or what you like). Quite the opposite. You work on the things you have to while, which often means things nobody on the team wants to do. If you do it well, you get to catalyze your team’s effort.
“But to be honest, I’ve learned to embrace these dislikes just as much as the perks. You can’t be happy running your own business if you can’t find opportunities in the worst.”
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