CTO Insights: Highlights from Polaris Leadership Course

The course CTOs wish they had before becoming CTOs.
Sam Thorogood
Jun 2024

In April of 2024, I facilitated the first cohort of Polaris, a short course on engineering leadership for Galileo Ventures.

The course is complementary to Galileo's seed VC fund—some of our first cohort are part of Galileo's portfolio, but not all. We believe the upskilling of senior technical leadership focused on early-stage startups is incredibly valuable, and we're open to all technical software engineers from all backgrounds.

The goals of our cohort were varied. Some were, or aspired to be, CTO-founders (i.e., those who start and build a business). Some aimed to be professional technical CTOs or leaders who want to dedicate themselves to a startup's problems and be whatever founders require to grow and be successful.

I personally consider myself to be part of the latter group, as I see huge value in the skill of being "the grown-up in the room". This is someone who can help grow a business in a way that a founder—who may be hyper-focused on their novel insight or idea, but perhaps lacking experience on how to scale it—ultimately needs to be successful.

👉 Register for our next Polaris cohort now

A few highlights

Engaged discussion and community

Polaris was undertaken over four evenings in Galileo's office in the Sydney CBD, where we delivered traditional course content mixed with active discussions. Galileo also invited guest speakers and had some purely social events, but more on that later.

The open-ended and interactive nature of these evenings led to interesting discussions and insights for our diverse range of participants, all of who brought their unique perspectives to the group. These were- insights from learned experiences, or questions that had never before had a good forum, or challenges that we all emphasized with and discussed as a group of senior leaders. Every cohort member brought something of themselves to the course, and made Polaris better for it.

“Some of the best insights were from other participants speaking about experiences or raising questions. I found it a very validating experience” 

Polaris participants deep in discusison

Strategies for early-stage tech success

When designing Polaris, I drew on my own experiences as a senior technology leader and the lessons that I, frankly, had to learn the hard way, with a special focus on those decisions that, given the benefit of hindsight, I regret not making. And this was well-received! 

The course provides a high-level set of best practices, resources and approaches to problems that are common to early-stage technology startups.

Some examples include how to get the best out of a novice team, and right-sizing your technology stack (hint: 'serverless' doesn't scale). And to even be more abstract, so much of leadership is being able to make the right decisions given limited information, have the courage of your convictions, and change tack when you have got it wrong.

“Having spent many years at a big tech company, attending a course that "CTOs wished they had before they became a CTO" was a perfect way to meld my existing knowledge with the startup context”

Guest speakers and resources

As well as our talented engineers who were part of the cohort, who basically provided insight to one another, we also had some great guest speakers from the C-suite. This included John Barton (Amber) and Tim Dawborn (Grok Learning, Airtasker) and a special senior engineer guest from OpenAI. These speakers brought their personal stories and made them relevant for the next generation of engineers taking steps into the technology leadership role. Plus they gave a few book recommendations and just plain practical advice, too.

Polaris group socials

We also joined together for a social night at the conclusion of the course, plus had a variety of well-catered food during the intermediate weeks to help build community. In fact, for our 2nd cohort, we'll be kicking off a larger community feel with a bigger social component—to eat, drink, be merry, and socialize and network.

Next Time

Are you interested in being part of Polaris' 2nd cohort? I am again partnering with Galileo to facilitate a second round of Polaris this August. Join our expanding community of graduates in 'leveling up' your skills for the next level.

Every participant will get access to the network of previous participants, along with senior technical leadership resources and access to the venture capital community through Galileo.

Key information

Program Start: Tuesday, 13th August 2024

Application Deadline: 12 of July

Format: 4 x Tuesday weeknight, in-person sessions in Sydney CBD + weekly guest speaker. These will be dynamic, instructor facilitated discussions with industry leader guests.

Price: $3,500 + GST per person. (card, bank transfer and payment plans available)

Limited to 10 engineers. We welcome employers and companies to sponsor positions.

👉 Register for our next Polaris cohort now

Why Polaris?

Polaris combines the operator know-how with the latest theory for a practical learning experience all through the lens of an early-stage VC.

Utilizing experienced CTOs and world-class engineers, and drawing on their knowledge, Polaris provides the latest best practices that work for technical leaders at technology companies in the early-stages.

Polaris is a unique short course that is context specific to higher-risk careers within an Australian technology landscape.

What we'll cover

  • Engineering Leadership 101: What does it mean to be a lead engineer or CTO? How does this change over the lifecycle of an organization?
  • Culture & Talent: How do you hire and attract exceptional engineers, help them grow in their career, create a world-class engineering culture and structure engineering organizations?
  • Prioritization & Decision Making: How do you make the right technology decisions? What and how should you prioritize tech development?
  • Communication for Engineers: How do you pitch and communicate strategy to non-technical (or formerly technical) founders and operators?
  • Failure Management: How to take the best learnings from mistakes (or successes)?
  • Product Management 101: What are best practices? How do you structure Engineer and Product teams?

Plus, career coaching and technical briefings including the latest AI model developments.

About Sam

Sam is an experienced engineer having led diverse teams and built products that have scaled to over 1 billion users.

I'm an experienced, principal engineer and former CTO who works as a startup consultant and technical program coach for Galileo. As well as a variety of other roles, I spent my formative years at Google, where I worked on a range of products as a staff engineer. You can read more of my opinions on my blog.

For me, the most interesting learnings I had from delivering the Polaris course (to our 1st cohort) were:

  • Being more flexible with content delivery—because of the engaged conversations of our participants, and where those ideas led the group, we had to work hard to fit all the content in!

  • Just how diverse the teams our cohort had interacted with—in terms of different work styles (remote, local, asynchronous), management styles (light touch, micromanagement), origin stories (university vs self-taught)—and how there's no one right answer for a successful team.

  • Following on from that point, that there is no "one weird trick" to get leadership right: you have to work at it!

I'm excited to meet our 2nd cohort in August (and 3rd, and 4th…) —maybe this includes you. If you're on the fence, please register anyway: it's no obligation, and we can chat to see if Polaris is right for you.

Sam's resource suggestions

While we'll cover the how and why of each resource in the Polaris course, some of the resources that have helped me become a better senior leader include:

About Galileo Ventures

Galileo Ventures is a leading Aussie seedVC firm that backs exceptional emerging founders changing the world with totally new technology. We specialize in investing and supporting first-time founders, in their first round, building their first high-growth technology company from all walks of life.

Part of Galileo’s mission is to increase inclusion and participation within the technology sector. Galileo has made 20 investments to date with 40% of our investments backing women founders and tech CEOs.

About the Author
Sam is a senior engineer, ex=Google and ex-startup CTO. Sam is Galileo's CTO Coach leading the Polaris course and advising high-growth CTOs.

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