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Interview with COO Amy Chalfen

We caught up with Amy Chalfen, a highly accomplished COO in technology businesses, to get her perspective on working with founders, managing investors and taking businesses through strategic changes;


Interestingly you studied Anthropology at Cambridge back in the day, before studying law and then moving into the technology industry. How did those career changes come about?

Actually I started making anthropological documentaries in my very early career and it taught me that loving doing something does not necessarily mean that it’s the right career path for you! I realised that I’m pragmatic and really enjoy getting stuff done.

Anthropology is really about how people organise themselves and function best. I realised I wanted to work in business, and wanted to figure out what that meant in a business context – how do people really organize themselves to function well as part of a business? I went into corporate law – with a focus on M&A and IPOs – and it gave me that structural framework.

Then I wanted to work with teams making it happen – not just work on the structure – and so I moved out of the legal sector and started working in telecoms.


You spent a lot of your early career in the telecoms technology sector during a period of time when it feels like there was a lot of change in the industry. What changes in the telecoms sector did you see during your time in the industry?

There was a huge amount of change.

I joined when alternative networks were being created to ensure competition to the incumbent networks. Meanwhile the internet was growing and ISPs [Internet Service Providers] were becoming large businesses, and e-commerce was rising too. Mobile devices were now being used not just for communicating but also increasingly for consuming content and being sources of entertainment. Networking technology was having to keep up with this increased demand.

This massive uptick in demand along with competition at a network level had a radical impact on the industry. I co-founded a company called Geo – that company broke the traditional model of a telecoms operator to meet customer needs in a different way. Later I worked for Openreach, and focused on helping to build out their network infrastructure, which would deliver high speed internet to consumers around the UK.

So seeing effectively the shift of expectations from voice to data and the ability to consume at what was business capacity, for every home, and delivering this incredible array of services – that’s a huge shift to have worked through. And that’s also why moving out of telecoms to software, data and analytics was such a deliberate move for me – that’s where the new challenges were set.


You’ve spent your career both in quite early stage, entrepreneurial startups as well as some large corporations like BT and Experian. How do you drive change in a big company like Experian where there may be lots of stakeholders and lots of politics?

Change in any environment can be difficult for people. You need to think about the framework that the change you are trying to drive is embedded in. The question is always, “why?”, “why is the change worth it?”. What is the impact on revenue and other key commercial metrics? If you can’t get people to buy into the potential positive impact of the change, it won’t happen.

In fact when I first got to Openreach I stopped a bunch of proposed change programmes, because I didn’t believe that they would have the desired impact at a business level. Then when I really understood what would be valuable, it was easier to get the support needed.

When I joined Experian, there was a lack of organic growth within the software decisioning businesses. The common belief was that it was a post sales, execution issue. It was key to discover whether that was really the case. That meant working closely with the sales and delivery organisations and measuring their performance against key metrics – around handover, around execution to plan and ultimately NPS [Net Promoter Score] and figuring out how you could improve those metrics.

Once everyone could see different parts of the problem, and how it impacted the business results including profitability and customer satisfaction, everyone could start to adapt and improve.

Then once the machine was moving, deeper product changes were needed –  to ease the burden of execution at first, and ultimately to move to more proposition based SaaS offerings. As with many journeys – step 1 removes barrier 1, but then you have a new barrier 1 to work on!

So – change is about “why?”, then deliverables, and metrics. Driving change in a big company is not that different compared to in a small company – there’s just more stakeholders.


Often when you work in smaller, more entrepreneurial companies, there may be a founder CEO where the business is “their baby”, which can sometimes lead to more of an emotional attachment to the business and ways of doing things. There’s also less experience – a first time founder CEO may not have encountered certain situations before. How do you influence founders with strong opinions about how their business should be run?

I’ve worked with a variety of CEOs over the years, including some experienced and some inexperienced founder CEOs. That isn’t necessarily what drives the success of the relationship, though it can create additional challenges.

A lot of it comes down to chemistry and the ability to align on a vision between you. Having compatible communication styles is very important, so discussions around strategy or more mundane challenges don’t become acrimonious or frustrating for either party.

I think an aligned view of pace – and what pace means – is important. A lot of founders like to move quickly, but that may be at a task level, and sometimes without considering the impact on team or broader priorities or next steps. Being able to work around all of that together is important.

Also worth remembering this is about learning from each other, so a lot of what works is about valuing what each person brings.

It all needs good, high trust communication and alignment. Which needs to be a focus for both of you to succeed.


Managing investors and the board is an area that a lot of CEOs and investors find challenging. Do you have any advice on this issue?

Money doesn’t come without strings attached in my experience – nor should it. If you have choice, choose investor(s) you want to work with, who will challenge you to achieve the best for your business, and who will get involved only to the extent you believe is useful – or not at all. You need to appreciate and understand the investor’s position, and take them with you on your journey.

In my view it’s important to be open with them and share both good and bad news while avoiding detail. Ultimately, you’re all on the same side and being truthful is extremely important. It’s good to remember to have healthy debates – no-one knows all the answers, and usually your investors can help a lot based on their past experiences with other companies.

It’s also worth remembering that once you have a few investors on your board, you have a variety of opinions which often conflict in some way. Notice it, and don’t let it distract you, but don’t forget you can’t please them all – other than delivering the results, which ultimately is what you’re there to do.


What has brought you the most satisfaction in your career so far?

I’ve always really enjoyed my roles throughout my career – I’ve always thrived on new challenges. I’ve always taken jobs where I think I can add value building on previous experience, but often not doing the same thing in the same industry.

I enjoy jobs where there are challenges I can deliver against, where I see a path through to growth for the business – but also always for the team.

Delivering value is what I’m paid for – my perk then is seeing people grow and evolve on that journey. It is incredibly satisfying and something I take a lot of pleasure from.


You’ve held multiple COO roles over the course of your career. COO roles by their nature can vary a lot from company to company. What has been the essence of your COO roles, and where have you generally added the most value to a business in that capacity?

A COO job title can definitely be a bit of a catch-all, and the nature of the role depends a lot on the stage of a company. It also depends on the strengths and preferences of the CEO. In my experience, it means running business core functions and also leading other functions where extra expertise is needed.

So in my recent roles – when I was COO at Harbr, a lot of my focus was on product management and engineering, whilst when I was COO at Zaptic I focussed much more on the go-to-market strategy and execution.

At its core, a COO is there to work closely with the CEO and to help to drive a business to the right outcomes.


One of the challenges in the tech industry is the lack of diversity, particularly around certain functions like engineering. What can we do to have a higher proportion of women in leadership roles within the technology industry?

It’s broadly accepted that for many years tech was seen as a male area – particularly around engineering. At school level, it’s important to encourage more girls into studying STEM subjects, and lots of effort is going on there.

But I also think for too long there’s been the perception that the technology industry is highly technical, rather than the truth that it’s just like any industry – there are roles for people with very different skillsets and personalities. You can appreciate, understand, articulate and challenge the value of a deeply technical offering without being a highly technical expert contributor.

Meanwhile everyone wants their business to be female-friendly, and diverse at all levels in theory. But there’s a huge difference between that and truly understanding whether there are reasons or obstacles to overcome in each business.  It’s important that over recent years this issue has been discussed much more openly and companies are increasingly aware of what they need to do change, whether that’s a focus on empowering existing talent, adapting interview techniques, adjusting job descriptions, recognizing patterns that need challenging  – and then measuring the results and examining what those results tell you. Being brave with the metrics is a good start.


You’ve got a lot of experience of working with software companies going through change – such as moving products to the cloud and moving from selling development services to SaaS products. Do you have any tips when it comes to driving cloud transformations and moving from selling services to products?

The first thing about moving to a SaaS offering  is understanding whether the purpose is to move to a cloud delivery system or to create a truly simple sales and delivery experience. Those are very different challenges. A lot of cloud transformation programmes aren’t clear on their objectives at the very beginning, and this can lead to problems down the road. What is the portfolio you are building and how does it fit together commercially?

There’s always important architectural questions too – are you maximizing use of cloud services? Do you import old code or build existing functionality from scratch? Moving to SaaS often requires an investment in improved UX design, which can be an area that is often overlooked. Especially if the target client base is changing as well.

And of course – You can have the best strategy in the world, but you also need a really strong team to execute it. Almost inevitably change like this needs new skills and experience in some way, both to design and potentially to execute the new operational reality.


What motivates you? When you look back on your career, what would you like to have achieved?

I was thinking about this the other day. The thing that makes me really happy is the number of people who even now find ways to tell me that I’ve helped them to progress and achieve more, and that in some way I’ve made a difference to their lives. Of course I’m proud of helping to grow the companies I’ve worked with – or founded!

But I think the most important thing to me is the mix – to look back and know I’ve earned the respect of the wide variety of people I work with; learned from, developed and supported others; and to know that I’ve made a positive impact on the companies to which I have dedicated my time.