Cogent Conversations: Episode 4 - Cogent

Cogent Conversations: Episode 4

Robert Postill from Greensync

Episode 4: GreenSync

A depth of empathy is something Robert Postill is a strong advocate for, and something he demonstrates in his interactions with people, the way he builds teams, and how and why he loves creating digital products.

Having recently moved jobs, we spoke with Robert while he was working in his previous role as Acting Chief Engineering and Product Officer at GreenSync, where he brought his humour, empathy and depth of knowledge to an organisation that is changing the way we produce and consume electricity.

In our conversation, we covered things like what Robert looks for when hiring staff, how to build an excellent team, and his expression of servant leadership.

To keep up to date with what is happening with Cogent, including when new episodes of this podcast are released, you can subscribe to our blog at cogent.co/blog. Or follow us on Twitter: @cogent_co or Instagram: @cogent_co.

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Adam Murry

Meet the host: Adam Murray

Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).

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Full Episode Transcript

Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcasts made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.

Robert Postill: When you start out, you kind of have this very black and white view of everything, and you’re very much focused on how you get the most out of yourself, like can I type faster, can I think faster, can I have the best conversation that gets me to the top quickest? And then later on what you realise is that, it becomes a team sport. Like, it stops being about you when it starts being about everybody else.

Adam Murray: Hello. It’s Adam Murray here, and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. In this episode we are talking with Robert Postill, who at the time of recording was working for GreenSync. I owe this week’s guest quite a bit in my own journey to understanding what it takes to create a thriving digital business, not to mention in what he has given me as a friend. I’ve known Robert for almost a decade now, and I admire his ability to create amazing teams and the excellent work he does outside of his day job to bring diversity to the industry he cares so much about. GreenSync is about creating the future of sustainable energy networks, and Robert’s role at GreenSync was that of chief product and engineering officer. Let’s get into it. Good day, Rob. Good to be chatting with you.

Robert Postill: Hey, Adam. How are you going? 

Adam Murray: Good. We are sitting in the GreenSync office in one of the rooms, the bright room. Is that what it was?

Robert Postill: Bright. Yep. Where the lights have only just been turned on.

Adam Murray: We were laughing at the irony of that, of course. Do you want to give a quick spiel about where you are working at the moment?

Robert Postill: Okay. So I work for this company called GreenSync. We do demand management and demand response in electricity. The pitch – I end up going to give you like a 40-minute spiel, some of those job candidates, by which point they, generally go, “Okay. Please stop talking.” But I guess the elevator pitch for me is that, we do two things. The first thing is that we provide information about electricity and we help people make better decisions on electricity, particularly the larger players in electricity, either the large users, retailers, or distributors.

And the second thing that we do is we actively try to make sure that assets and resources that use electricity or produce electricity are efficiently used. And we have a company goal of 80% renewables on the grid, which is something that always everybody kind of goes, “Yeah. That’s cool.” And it is cool.

Adam Murray: Yeah. It’s made people pretty proud to work here as well. They’re pretty enthused. 

Robert Postill: Yeah. It’s awesome. I think there’s probably – Well, we don’t necessarily have it as an explicit goal, it is great to be pushing an industry and pushing an entire sector in some cases around a set of useful and interesting ideas.

Adam Murray: Yeah. The reason I wanted to talk to you about this podcast – or on this podcast – or interview you is, there were many, but for me it goes back a little bit to how we first met, and the role that you played in shaping my thinking about product and about digital businesses, as well.

Robert Postill: I just feel the need to apologise to all of Adam’s co-workers. Past, present, and future.

Adam Murray: It was a confessional, actually. That’s why I wanted to interview you.

Robert Postill: Look at the damage you’ve done. I’m sorry.

Adam Murray: So, we met each other at C3, right?

Robert Postill: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Murray: It was essentially a start-up within a consulting company.

Robert Postill: That’s correct.

Adam Murray: Yeah. And you’ve been working here a bit longer, or we probably started about the same time but you were working on that… business and all that back in consulting land at that time.

Robert Postill: That’s right. But you had previous history with the founders and you were-

Adam Murray: I did, yeah. That’s right.

Robert Postill: You were a well-known quantity and I was the mad pot.

Adam Murray: So, that was back in the day when the idea of Agile was pretty new, very new to C3, right? Probably, relatively new, in the world. And you did have that job of, I guess, explaining to the company what that actually meant, and it was a very waterfall-based company. But, I came on, and we started working together. And I owe you a lot of gratitude, actually. Because you basically, taught me very graciously as we went along and what it meant, and you gave me some books to read, and we created what I thought was an awesome team there. And you were a massive part of making that team what it was. So, I see you as someone who – well you’ve been around a lot of businesses around Melbourne. Now you’re staying at one business.

But I see you as someone who has a very strong idea of what it means to build a team and to make them cohesive, and the ideas that are important, and the principles that are important in under underpinning all of that as well. So, maybe we can start a little bit in thinking about C3, and maybe we can progress a bit in how your ideas have gone since then. I think that was your first dev lead job, is that right?

Robert Postill: So, I’d done a little bit of kind of informal dev leadership. And it’s probably fair to say that, so the company before C3 was Dius Computing. This was a very classic routine consultancy, rather there was a bunch of clever people, and those clever people went out to the spots in Melbourne where they could afford to get those people on a day rate. And I loved working at Dius and I loved the people at Dius. But it became clear over time, that I was increasingly starting to feel the need for leadership, that there was this problem behind it where like I was… Funny thing is that there’s two sides to it, right? And you kind of, in retrospect, can look back at yourself and kind of go, “Was I the person that I could have been?” And kind of go, “Well, maybe not.”

For whatever reason, I was getting grumpy about what was going on with the leadership teams that I was involved with. And oftentimes kind of shoving around the leadership team, to my will. And it became clear to me that I wanted those leadership roles, and I wasn’t getting them. And I couldn’t have them because you can’t really give leadership to somebody who’s on a day rate. That’s not cool, except in kind of specific circumstances. And so, I became frustrated, and I decided to go to C3. And part of C3’s pitch to me was that they had a product, they didn’t know lots about building product, but they want to develop a product. I was like, “Great, this puts me in a leadership position.”

Adam Murray: Yeah. So you came in, I think there was probably one dev there at the time. Is that right?

Robert Postill: Yeah, there was one very angry dev.

Adam Murray: Very talented, as well.

Robert Postill: Over time, we developed a beautiful relationship. But yeah, I think the first thing he said to me is like, “Why are you here?”

Adam Murray: And so, as you started to hire people, what shaped your feeling about creating that team and sort of the rituals and the practices that they adopted?

Robert Postill: I think initially what shaped me was the idea… because your point about C3 being a consultancy first, I think it’s really important. C3 had a successful winning culture that was based on consultancy. A number of people who worked at IBM and PWC, they had a template and a recipe for success that was clearly successful and did work for them rather like, that business exited very successfully to EY and you have to respect that. Like you couldn’t just kind of go in there and kind of go like, “I know better than you. You’re clearly all idiots and you should follow me.” So at least, initially, what I was looking for was I was looking for people who could fit culturally within the business as to what it was, and then also have the right flexibility and pragmatism to adopt and persuade others around their job ideals.

But it’s also probably interesting that in C3, like business intelligence as a sector of technology was that little bit behind where the general software practice was. So, the general software practice was quite comfortable with our job. Maybe three, maybe even five years, if you went internationally before BI was. So, in BI, everybody knew that this was a necessary change. Like nobody ever argued with the change, but there was a lot of that like, is it gonna work? How does this apply to me, kind of conversation.

Adam Murray: Yeah. It was a pretty unique situation. I suppose, it happens a lot where there is a product team inside a consulting business. But yeah, that’s interesting that you were very much on the lookout for those kinds of people, that could fit both cultures, in many ways.

Robert Postill: Well, yeah.

Adam Murray: And transition, yeah.

Robert Postill: And one of my early mistakes was I hired somebody who really couldn’t, who was massively software. Particularly, I guess, the Ruby and the Ruby on Rails community in Melbourne at that time was very, very start-up. Very independently driven. That happened to be the technology that we’d picked to implement the products in and that implementation had really… It was great for me because it was a stacker I was familiar with and it was a stack that was easy for me to look at and not necessarily, day to day be involved in. So that transition between individual contributor and leadership was not quite so hard for me.

But it did also mean that the pool of people that we were hiring from expected things from start-up. So one of the first hires, excuse me, this wonderful, wonderful guy, but he left after a couple of months and was just, “Yeah, the fact that you’ve people wear suits is just whack.” And I remember at the end of that thinking, “Oh, this is going to be hard.” And respect due to Cam and Conrad, like Cam and Conrad, the two founders of C3. I think both of them individually sat me down and said, “You’re probably going to need to make some different choices to what the rest of this business is making. And you should think about whether or not, for instance, the dress code was something that you wanted to perpetuate.” And I was like, “Wow.” I didn’t expect that level of support, and I was very appreciative that I got it.

Adam Murray: Yeah. Yeah. That project, that business went on for about two years or a bit longer, three years? How long were you working for them?

Robert Postill: I feel like it was three and a half, four years.

Adam Murray: Yeah, yeah, it was quite a while.

Robert Postill: Yeah.

Adam Murray: So, since that time, you’ve worked at MIB. And you’ve worked with DoneSafe, and now you’re at Gransden.

Robert Postill: Yeah.

Adam Murray: I wanted to ask you now that you’ve had what’s been, what, five? How long since C3’s day ended? About?

Robert Postill: I don’t know, maybe four.

Five years?

Adam Murray: Five years?

Robert Postill: Yeah.

Adam Murray: So, what has changed in that time in how you think about product and think about… more, I guess, even a higher level than that, think about a digital business, and the teams in the businesses that you’re doing, like what’s grown in you? You came into this room saying, “Older but no wiser,” but I don’t believe that.

Robert Postill: No, I still stick with older but no wiser. Because I think the funny thing is you make a difference that are mistakes. It’s a flippant comment. The reality is that, particularly in tech businesses… You’ve dealt with this, right? You’ve been through the different transition yourself when you start out, you kind of have this very black and white view of everything and you’re very much focused on how you get the most out of yourself, right? Can I type faster, can I think faster, can I have the best conversation that gets me to the result quickest? 

And then later on what you realise is that it becomes a team sport. It stops being about you when it starts being about everybody else. Probably what I’ve realised about the last couple of years is just how much I need to make sure that it is other people’s success that occurs, not mine.

I am successful through my team here. There’s simply no point in me being the best developer at GreenSync. That is just wasteful and it’s mean spirited. I read ‘Turn the Ship Around’. ‘Turn the Ship Around’, it was one of those books where I was like, I have to buy a copy of this for everybody that I know. And there’s a bit in there where I think he says like the previous ship’s commander was… We’re going to turn this into a book review. It’s like he takes command of this submarine and the last guy who was in command of the submarine was basically booted before the end of his tenure.

And the whole reason that he got booted was because he just couldn’t carry the crew.. He’s like, “I’m going to have all these Naval ratings for things.” And it did badly. And he said one of his pivotal realisation moments was that this guy was very, very technically good at all the things, but he just was not allowing the crew to get on with it themselves, and by not allowing them to get on with it he suddenly created everything to be about him. 

Then the way that I read it was that every one of his failings kind of magnified and certainly where I’ve gone wrong, I’ve felt that same thing. When I’ve got it wrong, I’ve made it about me, and then I’ve made it about me, and then that’s ended up magnifying the fact that I am not perfect. And that acceptance of not being perfect, and the acceptance of kind of saying, “Well, for me, if I look at this team around me right now, one of the beautiful things about the team around me right now, is just how much they are different to me. And those differences to me make me better.” 

I talk a lot about hiring for difference. How do you hire for difference? Out of our job adverts, I’ve taken out a whole bunch of that laundry list of skills. You know when you see a dev job and that dev job says, “Have they got Relap, React, and C Sharp, and Java and J3E? Nah. Pfft.”

There are three things that I hire for: empathy, intellectual curiosity and, I used to call it drive, but it’s something about personal grit/drive. It’s kind of, an excellent quality that I haven’t got a great name for. It’s basically that, can you do deal with it, when the going gets tough? Because there is an emotional rollercoaster in every start-up. I remember, when I was at DoneSafe, I wrote that in the job advert. People were like, “This seems a bit extreme, you saying it’s an emotional rollercoaster.” “Well, there’s four of you, like you’re living every day, you are… there’s very little escape from being four of you.” 

Then, for a long while, in Melbourne, there was two of us in the office. 

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: So, you’re literally living in each other’s pockets. You know, everything about each other. 

Adam Murray: Good housemate as well, is that the…

Robert Postill: I think you… it ended up kind of being like that, right?

But yeah, the most important thing for me ends up being empathy. Where we get it wrong as a profession, is that we load the computer, and we say, oh, well the computer is, you know, we try and make it right, right? If you look at… Like, I was reading ‘Weapons of Maths Destruction’, which is about data science and algorithms and making sure that those algorithms are right. 

A lot of that is really about, people putting the computer before the people. They kind of went, “Hang on a minute, the computer doesn’t have feelings, and doesn’t have emotions, so therefore it will make the right decisions.” If you feed it what the humans have done, the answer is, it’s going to make the same decision as the humans, because it thinks that’s what’s right. Because the computer has no ability to choose value. But, the only reason that you were doing that is for people. 

So, I’m banging on and on and on about this stuff, and saying, what is it that we’re doing for? We’re doing for the consumer of electricity. What is it that we’re doing? When you talk about Myer, right? Myer is a big business. But the reality is what you’re trying to say to people is, if you were a hairdresser, if you were a baker, and you don’t really care about accounts, you just want to be legal and solvent. Then, you shouldn’t be about the computer. You should not have to spend hours and hours, in front of that computer, because you know what, that’s not what makes you money. Baking bread, fixing cars, cutting people’s hair, that’s what makes money. 

So, you have to have that empathy, you have to, as a provider of this technology, say to yourself, how am I doing that, how am I making it easier for you to be a baker? For you, to have the most fun baking that you possibly can because that’s what you want to do. Not, I would like you to spend two hours typing in, like, you know, these 35 forms to get the super payment out of it. Forget it.

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: It just needs to be simple, it needs to be for you, and that’s the same with DoneSafe. One fascinating thing about DoneSafe was just how moribund that market was. When we entered that market, literally everybody was like, I have this massive form you fill out these 65 things in a form and that’s how you say there was a workplace incident. 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: You’re like, Ah, so hang on a minute. Somebody who, might have gone through something super traumatic… You know, we did some work with a bank, right? One of the big health and safety problems at a bank, is people try to rob the bank, right? Somebody’s just pointed, what you might believe was a gun at you. You’re not in a situation where you want to go, “Oh, 65 forms, that’d be great!” It’s just not right. It’s not what you should do for people. You kind of end up saying, well, what if I asked you five questions and then came back to you later. People lost their minds over that, people were like, “Oh, this is the future!” But, it’s so simple. 

From, a technology point of view, DoneSafe wasn’t a complex piece of software. But it was thoughtful. The people who founded DoneSafe were generally bothered about making it simple, because either they were employers or they were health and safety experts and they knew how much of an arse it could be to do it the old way. When we went up in competitive tenders, right? Again, there was four or six of us, and were all leaving big accounts when we left, they have 5% in the ASX 200, from zip. 

Adam Murray: Wow.

Robert Postill: When I started, I was employee number one. My first day, we rocked up to this big, bad meeting. I was like… it was in Brisbane. So, literally, day one, in Brisbane. I meet my boss at 7 am. I’m preparing my laptop, I’m trying to download, all the dev tools like Xcode. Getting stuff on this laptop. So, I could get a build of the software running. So, he’s literally, devil with these pdf screenshots that he’s taken. So, funny. And these people are in this meeting room, going, “This stuff looks so cool!” And I’m like, “I can’t even get it to run.” It was so bonkers.

But, again, it’s about the people and… I think, one of the other interesting things about DoneSafe as well as, like the problem, was that health and safety in particular, HR departments, were one of the last of those back office departments in organisations to get any money. They got less money; They got it slower; it was less considerable. And they did get it, and so, they literally spent all these years using crappy technology because nobody cared about them. 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: When you walked into those big IT departments, and there’s thousands of people there, running the strategy and the risk and the regulatory function of the technology department. You’re like, what about Jan, who sat maybe 15 metres, maybe three floors away from you, but is struggling every day, gets paid a third of what you get paid, and is having a shit time. But, you’re all like, “Well, you need to fill out the 70-page form to get your purchase requests through. You just end up going, there’s a lot of people who have got technology wrong. If you want that start-up advice, the start-up advice is just go and find a place where people have got technology wrong and just go in there and be human and care about people. It would just up-end the market. 

Adam Murray: That’s such a good point about empathy. I think. 

It’s something that Mark, the CEO of Cogent’s been talking about recently. He’s like, “What about if we just got rid of all our values and replaced it with one, empathy.” Because it feels like that would incorporate everything else. One of our biggest values is transparency, and he’s like, “Even that.” Empathy. If we had empathy for each other, we would want to be a transparent company as well.

Robert Postill: Yep.

Adam Murray: So, couple of questions about that. How do you nurture that in yourself? That’s the first question. How do you nurture that in yourself?

Robert Postill: There are a couple of different things, I think… We were talking just before you hit that record button, about looking after yourself and how easy it is to stop looking after yourself. I think, one of the ways that you look after yourself is being out of the bubble. I’ve got a family, I’ve got friends, a whole bunch of things, reading and sport. While they’re not necessarily high order things, or things that people would classically think of as self-improvement, they are… They’re grounding things, right? They remind you, that this is the reality out there.

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: And probably, one of the other things I point to, particularly, personally, the positive effect of Rails Girls on me. So, I’m one of the co-organisers for Rails Girls, in Melbourne. I think, looking back on it now, I probably, started, for the slightly, at least slightly, selfish reason of thinking, “I’ve got a little girl.” I was kind of like, it would suck to be a little girl with a gift of geek, but stuck in the industry as it is now. So, in part, I was trying to make sure that I’ve done my bit to move the dial. 

But, what… The funny thing was it very quickly turned into something else. It very quickly turned into this thing where you kind of went, “Hang on a minute, there are a bunch of fascinating people here.” Every time you run a Rails Girls, there are a bunch of wonderful, wonderful people that you meet. There are wonderful, fascinating, interesting points in our lives. Again, it takes you out of that bubble, it takes you out of that idea that technology is only about people in San Francisco doing cool thing with social media. You’re back in the reality, that there are people with lives and jobs and kids and all the other accoutrements that go along with all their lives. And they are genuinely trying to look after themselves. But the computers in their lives often control them, they don’t necessarily enable them. So, we have this luxury in technology. Particularly in like… We work inside these super technical companies, we know how the wizard works, right? And that’s a fantastic super power. But, there are a whole bunch of people that don’t have that. 

And when you meet some of those Rails Girls attendees, and they’re like, “Wow, I had no idea how this would get done.” Whether or not they come out and start a start-up, or take a software development career. It kind of doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they know, that the wizard’s cloak is taken away, and you can see that this is how you get it done, this is how it works, this is why it works that way. 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: Being on the other side of that, which is helping people to understand, is actually good for you. Because it reminds you just how much of the knowledge is assumed. How whack some of the ideas are. When you start talking about some of these things and people are like, “Why? Why would people do that to each other?” And you’re like, “Oh yeah.” 

I did this mentoring with a lady, Sophie. Sophie, she took the software development career track. So, she went to Rails Girls, she did Rails Girls next, and now she’s a software developer. But, when I first met her, she was a stay-at-home mum, and was thinking about how to move her career on. She’d been in beauty therapy, something completely different to software. The first thing she wanted to do, was she wanted to organise a little bit of a family life. We started talking about how dates get worked out in computers. Now, dates in computers are just bonkers, right? You were trying to take this thing, that’s been divided up into 365 pieces. Which is then divided up into 24 pieces, which is then divided into 60 pieces. You just go on.

Not one of these numbers is either a nice simple round number, like 10 or 50 or 100. Or a binary number, like 2 or 8 or 16. So, all computers make these terrible, terrible decisions, just to try and mash these things that is not like a computer, into a computer. It is hideous. Just having that conversation with her, which was just pure horror. Why would we wear that? 

70 years of bad decisions, lying one on top of the other. 

But, again, you have these assumptions. And you kind of go, well that is right, that is how dates are done, right? Dates are converted into integers, then you convert the integers backwards and forwards and that gives you the number of seconds. It just sounds bananas, because it is bananas. But, that’s what we’ve done, as an industry. And, we’ve made it, frickin hard to work with dates. And so, now it is hard to work with dates. It’s not pleasant. And teaching her this stuff, makes you look at it and kind of go, not only is that terrible, but it also pushes people away from doing it. Like I know, personally speaking, right? Whenever somebody says, “Oh, I’ve got a date problem.” I’m like, “Ugh.” I wonder, how many dates aren’t in software because dates are kind of difficult to work with, right?

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: Then you kind of go, hang on a minute, now we, as… That Jeremy Sowinski quote of, software is eating the world. Software is eating the world, right? Like your car is just a collection of computers, right? Here at GreenSync, what are we doing? We are basically applying computing intelligence on top of electrical devices. Now, when you start to think about that, and you go, well, all right, I can control your air conditioner or your pool pump. Right the way up to like a multi-million-dollar furnace, or a snow cannon, weirdly. You’re like… There’s always things that I am applying a computer to and I’m making the thing work like a computer or seem like a computer. That’s really what the computer is doing, because it’s sitting on top of the thing, and making the thing a computer. So, now the overall I could get, is a computer. That means, that that whole thing about, what is possible becomes viewed through that lens of a computer. And that lens piece has good bits to it, and there are shocking pieces to it.

Adam Murray: Talking to other people about that, and teaching them that. That provides insight into that, into how that is being framed and lensed.

Robert Postill: Yeah. Totally.

Adam Murray: The role that you’re playing at the moment – I mean, you talked about it a bit earlier, how you hire for diversity now. You look to empathy, you look for intellectual curiosity. You look for grit or X factor.

Robert Postill: Yeah.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

What is your title here? Your role?

Robert Postill: So, I was GM of technology. I think, I am now, chief engineering and product officer, or something like that. 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: Sorry, Phil. 

Adam Murray: We can edit that bit out, if you want. 

So…

Robert Postill: Maybe leave it in. 

Adam Murray: It’s like, the approach you’re taking, is this, bit of leading from behind. Becoming, a bit of a platform or building up a team around you. Is that some of the thoughts that go into the way you are leading?

Robert Postill: Yeah. Totally. 

A good example of that is when you… We have multiple product lines, right? If you want multiple product lines to get done, the reality is you need teams to do the job. You can’t be in the way, or rather, you can’t be in front of those teams. It’s not fair. Because everything is from the… Again, gets limited by how much capability and bandwidth you have. So, what you actually need to say is you need to say that the teams are autonomous. The teams in their autonomy, are able to drive the outcome. 

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: Because that’s the only way that the product lines can evolve correctly. That they can fulfil their market potential, they can provide rewarding careers for the people who are working on them, right?

Adam Murray: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robert Postill: So, you get into this thing of, it’s not fair for me to be in front of you. Or, we talk about something that is definitely hit me harder over the last 18 months, than previously. That’s probably one of those things of just making sure that I am not grabbing the limelight from other people.

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: And it seems… It’s far too easy, right? Even in something that has a relatively flat structure like this. The reality is, people are often going to look at you, and kind of go, “You’re the one with the job title, right? You’re the one with the C, in the job title. Shouldn’t you be doing this?” And you’re like, “Well, maybe, maybe not. Maybe, I don’t know more than you.”

 And maybe, it’s not fair for me to… For instance, to mediate things. Like, one of the great things about working here is just the vision. I know this is going to sound a bit sycophantic, but, one of the best things about working for Phil, is the vision. When he talks, you just kind of go, “Yes, I want to go with you. And I’m like…” He has this view of the world in the future that you kind of go, “I’m on. I’m going.” And that’s fantastic. But, it really… It makes you… I know Phil said it about himself, he’s not that details guy. He’s not going to be down there. But, if you stand in between Phil and the team, well then, what’s going to happen is that team is only going to get part of Phil’s message. 

Adam Murray: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robert Postill: It might get the wrong bit of Phil’s message. So, the best thing that you can do is step out of the way. Let the team talk to Phil, at that moment. And make sure the authenticity is there between the comms there. And I kind of go, “Right, you’ve got this.”

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: Right?

My job is to make sure that you are supported in that, and when the mistakes inevitably happen, because they do, that someone is there to support you and help you. 

Adam Murray: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robert Postill: If somebody is going to get in trouble, then it probably should be me.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

That’s pretty massive, what you’re talking about there because… And it takes a degree of… You’re probably going to hate me for saying some of this stuff, but a degree of self-awareness and humility, as well. To, think well, you know, maybe, I don’t need to be, the thing that everything is funnelled through. Maybe, I don’t need to be the one in the spotlight and the one that’s the spokesperson for everything. My job can be more to support people in their work and kind of make sure they’ve got what they need, to do their jobs well. 

Robert Postill: Yep.

Adam Murray: I mean, it doesn’t surprise me, from you, that you’re being able to do that. But have you…

Is it being modest, because…

Robert Postill: I’m just going to play this back to me, so it will stroke my ego all the time. 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: Thank you. 

Adam Murray: Maybe we don’t need to talk about it anymore. 

But I don’t think that would come… Like, that’s not something that comes easily to everybody. I think there are some challenges that come with that. 

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: Probably about two minutes into listening to this podcast, anybody  who doesn’t know me, would be like, yeah, he’s got a big personality. 

I do, and I can… Like, I know in myself that I can, I can dominate a conversation, I can make it all about me, far too easily. It’s one of the things that I try and contain in myself, to make sure that I’m not being a tool. But, it can be hard. 

I can certainly say, again, if you talk about the worst of me. The worst of me is when I’m overbearing and on people. It’s a thing in myself that I don’t like seeing. I guess, I’ve learned over time, to catch myself in it and apologise to people for doing it. Because I do make the mistake and continue to make the mistake. I’m not perfect.

Adam Murray: Yeah, sure. 

Can we talk a little bit, then, about… I mean, just some of the practicalities of what you put in place to enable what you’re talking about? So, you talked a bit about autonomous teams and having that direct line of communication. What have you put in place so that you are able to provide the support that you need to provide, but still know what’s going on so you can provide the support at the right times? Have you actually structured things here? What’s the flow?

Robert Postill: Probably, in terms of my leadership thing, one of the things I bang on and on about is one on ones. The value of a good one on one should never be underestimated. A little while ago, I sat down to write my management read-me, one of the things I’ve put in there is, the value of the one on one. It is… and I ask people the same three questions, right? How are you going? How’s the team going? How am I going? Right. So that we’re constantly talking about them, their development. That setting within the organisation and making sure that I’m getting feedback, right? This is not one way, I’m not telling you how to be, without you having the opportunity to tell me when I am wrong. And there should be a privacy and a sanctity to those one on ones, as well. That it’s not okay for you to, just talk about what’s happening with the one on one. But, to make sure that you’re helping people. 

So, that’s the thing about personal relationships, I try and build more personal relationships, hard.

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: Which is actually something that I, I learn a lot in MYOB. 

So, when we’re at C3, Steve Sikolas, who we both know, He was one of those coach’s coaches; that’s how he did it. And I was very impressed, when he managed me. I was like, “Yeah!.” I loved being managed by him. There’s something really in this. So, I started trying to do that at MIYO. The funny thing about MIYO is that I was managerial mayfly. I was there for a couple of years. But, there was a whole bunch of people who have been there, for 15 years, 10 years. We were handing out those long service awards like lollipops. And you can… In some ways it’s kind of embarrassing. I’m trying to tell you what to do, but you’ve lived in this business for so much longer than I have. 

At least initially, I struggled for a while because I was like, “Why aren’t they getting it? I’m telling them all this cool stuff to do, and they’re just not getting it.” 

Suddenly, it occurred to me that part of the problem was that was what I was doing. I was telling more than listening. That I was a reflection of what Steve did. Well, Steve did not do that. And I was like, “Huh!” So, I started changing my style, a bit, to work on that better.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: After a while, the listening to people got big. As it got big, then people started to accept why I was saying what I was saying. And, it gave me the opportunity to talk about what I was saying and link it back to what I thought was going to happen. That was a major milestone, for me. It was being able to say, “I think if we do this, then, that will happen. And if it doesn’t happen, we’ll fix it, right? We’ll have a retro.” I guess, the Agile, software practices help me a lot. They provide some of that group and teams stuff, that I supplement with the one on one stuff. Because if you’ve got an Agile team, you know that they’re going to retro, you know that they’re going to showcase, you know that they’re going to do stand-up. You know that open communication is going to be valued, and you know that they are going to strive for that transparency. You don’t have to top that off with all that much. You actually only have to be around, to provide bits and pieces. 

Then, the Agile will tell you, if there’s a long cycle time, that means that you’ve got to do something about that cycle time. That gives you a solid conversation starter, right? You can say, well, “Why do you think it takes so long to get the software out?” Well, actually the next one’s had reasons. All right, now I’ve got it on my management list, right? I know what the strategic priorities, that I’m working on. 

What I’ve done outside of that, is probably learn a lot more about other bits of business, right? In my stuff, I try to make sure that I’m marketing books or things that have business reviews. Which – certainly, 10 years ago, when I started looking at some of those articles, that was poles away from where software and tech was. Now, you can see a lot more of the overlap between the communities. But, at the time, it was just like – “If you run a big business, you should do these things.” At least initially, I was like, “These people, they are on some heavy drugs.” But it gave me vocabulary to talk to people, and that vocabulary to talk to people allowed me to help me talk to them and them talk to me. 

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: And then what I probably didn’t always realise at the time at which I started to do it, at least in part, I just want to understand, why they were trying to make some of the decisions they were making. But, later on it became clear to me that the vocabulary piece became super important.

A good example, at C3, right, we worked with Sharon, who did marketing. And Sharon had a very strong set of opinions about how marketing should be done. It was fascinating, that by the end of that, my time there, she was running it on Agile wall, she was doing Agile, right? A lot of that, coming out of the fact that, as I’d learned to talk to her, she’d dropped a bit of that, “Oh look, there’s captain propeller head.” That’s probably a bit unfair on her. But there was certainly was that view across the professions that was exacerbated by the fact that there was physical distance between you. That meant that by the time that we were talking, there was a whole bunch of reasons why we wouldn’t talk and not many why we would. And so building that vocabulary stuff started to help unlock thinking about thinking. And understand what she was trying to get at and what she was trying to achieve. I probably wouldn’t have done that a year earlier. 

But you still end up with that situation. A good example now, at GreenSync, right? Energy is a field that has had 150 plus years of history. So, people in energy, they have ideas, they have conceptions in the way things work. You don’t talk to them through the lens of those conceptions. Again, that language thing becomes super important. So, probably, right now, one of the biggest challenges that we overcome as a company is how we bridge those worlds. How we’re talking to ourselves, how we’re talking to our customers, how we’re talking to the industry at large, about the changes that we think should happen. 

My colleague, Aideen, she was speaking yesterday at a conference. She was saying that one of the things that came out clear is just how much of the software thinking that Agile start-ups lean – which I’m aware has a deeper history. All of that stuff is now starting to be acceptable to talk about within the energy industry, in a way, that probably wasn’t five years ago. We’ve had to work our way around that and continue to work our way around purchasing cycles; that’s a good example. Or, the financial models for these things…

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: … because they’re all based on assumptions that we don’t necessarily believe to be true. So, you’ve got to do a bunch of that stuff. You effectively, you’ve got to start learning. You’ve got to start learning about health and safety, electricity, accounting, business intelligence. 

If you don’t learn about those things, don’t expect to make any impression on people, you’ll just bounce off the side. 

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

I mean they’re two super valuable things. I agree, with the power of the one on one. That’s um… And Steve is a great exemplar of someone who does that. 

Robert Postill: Yup. 

Adam Murray: I noticed even at C3, that’s something you highly prioritise with each of the devs there. And then, I mean… touching on empathy, again there, I suppose, so building a vocabulary of, and your understanding of different parts of the business so that you can be kind of a better listener, really … 

Robert Postill: Yeah.

Adam Murray: With those parts, and understand, and then, perhaps even enabling your team to be more empathetic, through learning about that as well. 

Robert Postill: Yeah, absolutely.

Adam Murray: Yeah, cool. 

I guess, there’s only a couple of other questions that I’ve got for you. And they… it kind of comes back to the Melbourne tech scene, I suppose. Then, I guess, it’s pretty obvious that you haven’t spent your whole life in Melbourne? 

Robert Postill: Oh dear. This is one of those podcasts, where you’re actually going to have to have some subtitles on the podcast. 

Adam Murray: I didn’t mean that, at all.

Robert Postill: There’s actually a famous slack conversation in here. Which we do, these things called fire drills, right? So, we practise when things go wrong. Because sometimes, it is go time, right. At least, some of our customers only have us, for when things are dire in the grid. So, you don’t have a lot of time to think about it, or to spend your day, and kind of go, “Well, I’ll flick to page 533 of the manual, and work it out from there.” 

Adam Murray: Yeah.

Robert Postill: It’s like, you’ve got know it. So, anyway, we do these fire drills and there was this famous fire drill. When we effectively simulated a security incident and so, at one point, I think there’s four or five devs, and then three of the team leads with those devs observing and trying to take some notes, through what’s going on. And one of the devs, is talking to me, and I – through the customers, kind of, said, well, you know, “You can’t trust it, like everything.” I think I might have even said, “Everything is knackered,” or something like that. And there’s, this literally, there’s this page long slack of “What did he say?” And there’s these five devs, just sitting there, and these three team leads, kind of slapping each other, kind of going, “They don’t know what he means. Do you know what he means? I don’t know what he means.” 

Adam Murray: You’re great in an emergency!

Robert Postill: No, no. It’s something I constantly battle. 

Adam Murray: I might get this wrong, but I think you grew up in Yorkshire.

Robert Postill: Yep.

Adam Murray: And you came to Melbourne, I’m going to guess, about over ten years ago.

Robert Postill: Yeah, like a dozen years ago, now.

Adam Murray: A dozen years ago.

And you decided to stay, and I guess, a big part of that is who you met? And… 

Robert Postill: Yep, absolutely. I came for love and I stayed. 

And the good people that I’ve met here. 

Adam Murray: Yeah, that’s right. 

Robert’s pointing to me, for those that are listening. So, thanks Rob. 

I’m wondering what you… I mean, what you love about- maybe, what’s a bit unique about the tech scene in Melbourne, about digital businesses in Melbourne, and what’s enabled, perhaps, a business, like GreenSync to emerge from here, as well?

Robert Postill: That’s an interesting question. I think there’s a couple of things, right? While it is a big city, it does still have a very home-y, welcoming feel. And certainly, if I think about what happened for me, coming as an expat, I was able to fit in here now, look, English being my native language, well, ostensibly

But, also, that thing about saying that there are communities here and the meet-up scene is strong here. The funny thing was, there was a meet-up scene in the UK, but it was never quite as welcoming and holistic as the Melbourne meet-up scene. Stuff like, a bunch of the jobs that I got, a bunch of good friends that I’ve made here have come out of meet-ups and hanging out in the tech scene.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: You know, we have numerous mutual acquaintances and friends and really good friends that we can both point to – that we’ve met through working in tech and working in Melbourne.

Adam Murray: Yep.

Robert Postill: So, I think, that is super important. I think, probably, also, what you’d say is that- compared to a long dinner in New York or San Fran, what you notice as well, is that the life balance thing, that we were touching on earlier, it’s capable and supported here, culturally. Like, it’s okay to go home and see your kids and it’s okay, to go to the footy or watch the theatre together. You’re not… people rightly get kind of weirded out if you’re in the office all hours. One of the abiding memories I have, particularly of New York was, nobody did that really. People came at 7 and they were still kicking around at 7:30. But, weirdly they weren’t doing a lot. 

Coming from the UK, I was in at 9 doing my work, trying to get finished for 5, so that I could go to the pub. Now, that’s not to promote alcoholism as a great lifestyle choice. But, it is to say that culturally speaking in the UK, because there was that expectation that you weren’t going to be at work, that there wasn’t in the US. You were expected to be at work, and that was how you hold on to your job. I feel like, that allowed things like  empathy to build in people, right? In the grounding to stay in people? So, when I came here, I was like, “Yeah, this place is a grounded place.” Right? Meeting people for coffee or meeting people for lunch is cool and it’s normal. There’s no big deal to it. But, I feel it’s super important.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Robert Postill: Because again, it puts you back in touch with the people who are using the stuff that you make.

Adam Murray: Yeah. 

Rob, always a pleasure to chat with you. 

Thanks for taking the time.

Robert Postill: No worries.

Adam Murray: And sharing all… well, not all that you know. 

Adam Murray: Thank you very much for listening. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what Cogent is up to, including when new episodes of this podcast come out. You can do that, by subscribing to our blog updates at cogent.co/blog

And of course, to help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite podcast platform. 

And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is thriving that you think we should hear about. The best way to do that is through emailing us at info@cogent.co.

I’m Adam Murray, and I do look forward to hearing about how your business is thriving.