Startup Life: Unscripted #37 with Matthew Menezes, Chief Operating Officer at Arkahna

From maintaining a healthy work-life balance to leading a tech team, Matthew offers insights into the art of managing life in the fast lane of startup culture.

Startup Life: Unscripted is a TNG Media newsletter, as part of The Nudge Group, where we feature candid conversations with startup operators about their career journeys and experiences. If you received this email as a forward, you can read all our past interviews and subscribe right here.

Welcome back to Startup Life: Unscripted! In this week’s edition, we’re delighted to be chatting with Matthew Menezes, the Chief Operating Officer at Arkahna, a cloud-native company at the forefront of tech innovation.

From his early days as a Senior Technical Consultant at Diversus to his pivotal role as COO at Arkahna, he has continually navigated the evolving landscapes of technology and business.

Key interview takeaways:

👔 Navigating Daily Life as a COO: Matthew gives us an insider's view of his typical day at Arkahna, sharing his personal routines and strategies for managing the demands of a dynamic startup environment.

💡 Fostering a Human-Centric Approach: In a tech-heavy setting, he shares how he cultivates a culture that prioritises human needs and values, ensuring technology is used as a tool for enhancing human experiences.

⚖️ Maintaining Work-Life Balance: He talks about strategies for keeping a healthy balance and avoiding burnout in the fast-paced, often intense environment of startups.

🚀 Guidance for Tech Newcomers: Finally, Matthew imparts his wisdom for those embarking on a career in tech, especially those drawn to the dynamic and challenging world of startups.

Hey Matt, thanks for joining us today! I’m sure it's no small task being a COO, especially in a dynamic startup environment like Arkahna. Can you give us a snapshot of what your typical day looks like? Any favourite routines or rituals to set you up in the right way? 

The beauty and challenge of being in a senior role of a start-up is the number of hats you wear along the way. There isn’t such a thing as a typical day – every day brings a new challenge and if you ever feel you’re getting on top of everything, there’s always something right around the corner to make a mockery of that.

My week is generally split between client commitments, internal initiatives and operational routines. I leverage Outlook’s calendar religiously to stay on top of everything I need to get done – from scheduled meetings, to blocking out time to tackle deliverables, to task reminders.

It could very easily become overwhelming seeing tasks overflowing the ‘core hours of the day’ but it actually has the opposite effect – at the start of the day before the meetings generally start, I can take stock of everything that needs to be achieved that day, prioritise the things that have to get done, make sure nothing ‘known’ comes as a surprise, and ultimately shuffle things around when plans inevitably change.

Staying across the majority of the in-flight projects we’ll have running at any one time (both internal and external which can number in the 30s at any given time), as well as directly or indirectly managing ¾ of the team provides enough avenues to throw a spanner in the works of any best-laid plans for any given day – so embracing the chaos/the unknown becomes a necessity.

Adding some level of structure around that helps though – I’ll always block out time for lunch to provide an opportunity to reset/recharge and tackle the second half of the day. I also maintain a strict work cut-off at 5 to ensure I get enough time with the kids – any work that was left to wrap up can generally wait until they’re down for the night.

The calendar allows all that to be visualised – reminders can shuffle into the next day if they can wait, into the night if they can’t – but it never feels like I’m out of control of everything that needs to be done thanks to those rituals.

Your career path has taken you across many roles, from being a Senior Technical Consultant at Diversus to now being the COO at Arkahna. What inspired these career moves? 

An insatiable appetite to ‘climb the ladder’ / progress my career. It’s never mattered as much to me what I was working on, as long as I was continually learning, improving and ultimately progressing. Historically it’s been around the 2-3 year mark where I start getting itchy feet and looking for the next challenge.

On occasions that’s been with another organisation, and on others it’s been new roles within the same organisation. I’ve detoured into areas I wouldn’t have ever imagined I’d pursue (such as specialising in records management) for the career progression opportunities it would ultimately unlock.

One of my past mentors had me complete an exercise to timeline significant moments in my career alongside significant moments in my personal life, and it somewhat surprisingly showed that the 2 aligned. Moments of change in one generally saw me looking for change in the other.

So it was either a huge coincidence or pre-ordained that the opportunity to start Arkahna came soon after the birth of my first child. Perhaps not the most ideal timing (with a little thing called Covid thrown in the mix) but totally in line with every other big career step I’d made, which helped make it feel like the right move at the right time.

The other thing you could put it down to is our CEO Josh. He hired me into Diversus, brought me across to Ignia and ultimately convinced me that Arkahna was worth a shot – so I have a lot to thank him for with regards to my career journey too!

For many, startups can feel like uncharted territory. Given your experience at Arkahna, what's one thing you wish you knew before you stepped into the startup world?

I was given a bit of a hint to this before I started from an old colleague – the old colloquialism that cash is king. That’s certainly proven true. One of the most attractive propositions to being involved in a start-up was the ability to plan for and invest in initiatives that would bring long-term benefits and success.

I’d always felt that the laser focus on short-term performance stifled the ability to develop offerings that could really pay off in the future. That’s no longer an issue, but ensuring enough cash is flowing through the doors to pay the bills and ultimately enable that investment is a pertinent part of the equation I hadn’t given enough thought to, coming from a Fortune-500 organisation where I had no visibility to or concern of cash.

I also had to break the mental model of focusing solely on the monthly P&L as a guide to financial stability. It obviously matters, and ultimately drives cash flow, but the timeliness of that is super important when you’re starting out.

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You’ve previously emphasised the importance of human-centric initiatives. Could you share some tips on how you foster a human-centric culture in a tech-heavy environment like Arkahna?

We’ve baked that human-centric nature into our culture from the very beginning. Our first company value listed is “Everything we do, we do it for you”. Tech people obviously love tech – playing with the latest and greatest and building solutions on it is clearly a big reason why people are in the industry and love what they do.

But I’ve yet to meet a consultant who’s enjoyed building cool tech that ultimately isn’t used. Client-centricity generally plays a part in any consultancy – but I’ve yet to experience or witness another consultancy that lives that value as much as what we’ve been able to foster at Arkahna.

It starts by understanding who will use our products – how they work, the pain-points of their current process/solution, their wish-list of how things could be – sharing those insights across the delivery team. It’s then reinforced through the decisions leadership makes across the engagement – flexibility with changing requirements without constantly resorting to change requests, ensuring architectural decisions are made in the best interests of the organisation and not ourselves.

We’ve worked hard to foster a culture aligning to our values and it’s constantly validated through engagement surveys, feedback from new starters and even comments from our clients we work with. That’s not something that’s evolved by accident - it’s been carefully considered and nurtured since we launched, but we understand it can very rapidly deteriorate if not maintained over time.

So we’re careful about who we bring into the company, ensuring their values align with ours, which means it’s not a hard sell to ensure our people mirror that philosophy across all our client engagements.

You've been in the tech space for over 16 years – that's a lot of change! What's your secret to keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape? Do you have any favourite resources to stay up-to-date? 

18 years actually! Time certainly flies. There’s 2 parts to this answer. The first, from my younger self, was never stop learning, and never think you know it all. Reading books, news and blogs.

Following the right people on Twitter. Attending user groups and conferences. And learning from your colleagues – regardless of how senior you are, you can always learn from those around you – because it’s really hard to keep up with everything yourself.

Truth be told – the bigger secret for me is giving up on keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape! I’m perhaps being a bit flippant there, but part of the reason for my career progression and taking on roles outside of what I’d always done before was aligned with a realisation that as I got older, with different life commitments, it was really hard to keep up with our industry.

Switching from client delivery to Practice Management is less of a natural progression and more of an entire change of jobs. But you can read a book about management from decades ago and it’ll still be relevant. The learning doesn’t stop – but the pace of that learning can slow down a tad when you’re not as technically-aligned.

We often hear about the fast-paced, dynamic nature of startups. What strategies do you use to maintain balance and prevent burnout in such an environment?

There’s probably a bunch of minor strategies I could list out here – but realistically for me it boils down to family and friends. Carving out and quarantining time for those is essential to preventing burnout. I learnt a while ago that you’ll never be ‘done’.

There will always be something you could do to fill the time you give work. You’ll likely never have an empty task-list, and a lot of things can generally wait just a little longer. So as long as you prioritise the things that must be done within a certain timeframe, and the things of highest value, you can be comfortable switching off and spending time with the people who mean the most to you – and that’ll help with the balance equation.

Truth be told, really switching off is still a work in progress for me – but I know and appreciate the value in it! 

Last question we wrap up, as a seasoned tech veteran, what advice would you give to someone just starting out in their tech career, especially those interested in startups? 

This is likely true of any career path in any industry someone might pursue – but to me the most important thing is ensuring you’re passionate about your field and you really believe in and align to the values and vision of the company you choose to work for.

You mentioned keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape of our industry – that’s only possible when you love what you do. Any other advice I could give falls apart if you’re not first motivated and excited to do those things. Passion will help you get your first job and it’ll help you succeed time and again along the journey.

From the Startup Life team

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