A day in the life: Greg Ryzhov (CTO, Urban Sports Club)

Greg Ryzhov shares his tech journey to become CTO at Urban Sports Club (USC) where he has built up the tech, product, and business intelligence teams. USC sponsored the inaugural Lead Dev Berlin conference on December 6, 2019.

What has been your journey in tech so far?

I made my first website in 1999 and started actively developing in 2004. After years working as a fullstack developer, my technical journey really took off in 2012 when I joined Westwing, a Rocket Internet venture in Russia. Along with my team, I built the whole order management system from scratch, which they're still using years later.

After nearly 2 years there, I moved to Vietnam to join Lazada, the biggest e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia, as their VP of Engineering. A year and a half later I moved to Berlin to join Somuchmore as CTO. Somuchmore was Urban Sports Club's biggest competitor in Berlin until it was acquired in December 2016. After the acquisition, I became CTO at USC. In this role, I've built up USC's tech, Product, and BI teams and established a new platform. Now we're growing our team and taking our platform to a whole new level.

What has been the biggest challenge you've faced moving into your current role?

The biggest challenge was the number of responsibilities as well as the scope of the responsibility that came with being CTO. In my prior roles, I was responsible for some parts of development - Backend and QA - and just in a specific area: business operations. I wasn't very involved in budgeting, managing strategic topics for the entire organization, or strategic decisions for the product itself. Furthermore, I had limited exposure to members and customers. In my previous roles, my "users" were warehouse employees or customer care agents, so focusing on members, UX, and other marketing topics was new for me.

To overcome this challenge, I spoke with people across the organization to find out what they were doing and how I could help. I also did a lot of self-study, diving into Google Analytics and our various tracking software and tools and spending time reading about design methodologies.

Briefly describe your stack and workflow

  • Backend: PHP with a Phalcon framework
  • Frontend: JavaScript ES6 and React.js
  • Data storage: Postgresql, Redis, and ElasticSearch

We update as needed to improve the platform performance and stability. I would consider our technology stack modern and sufficient for current business requirements and needs, however there's always room for improvement. This year, we also started two very ambitious projects: rewriting our app into React Native and introducing Kubernetes as our main infrastructure solution.

The Engineering team is divided into 5 squads, and each squad is free to organize their own workflow according to their needs. For example, the squad working on the React Native app uses a simplified workflow compared to other teams because the app is not yet in production. Since different stages of the business and different teams require different methodologies, we're quite flexible between scrum and kanban.

Regarding delivery, we ship updates every day. Currently, each squad has their own release window which helps to create clarity and transparency while making it easier for PMs and QAs to organize themselves. We might change our approach in the future, but the current structure shows really good traction.

What does your typical day look like?

My typical day consists of a lot of different meetings: catching up with teams or team leads, interviewing potential members for the team, participating in leadership meetings about strategic topics, and various weekly updates. I also regularly catch-up with different departments where we might define the strategy between tech and other departments, and talk with third parties about different services and systems. In short, my typical day involves a lot of communication.

I keep track of my schedule using Google Calendar, my meeting notes in the Notes app, and any resulting action points via Asana.

What's the best and worst part of your job?

The best part would be the amount of communication and collaboration I get to have with others combined with what I am able to learn from these exchanges. Being CTO is a permanent learning experience. Every day I speak to developers, learn from them, and hope they learn something from me in return.

The worst part of the job and the aspect I find most challenging, is that throughout my day I have to switch between many different contexts as I go from meeting to meeting and situation to situation. I can be quite focused on one topic, but after switching contexts a few times, I find it harder to return to that topic with the same level of focus.

What is the best piece of advice you've received?

I recently received some great advice during my leadership development training at Urban Sports Club. We're a growing company, and as we continue to grow, there are things I need to learn how to let go. The trainer helped frame this in a way I found very powerful. Letting go is not about learning not to care, but instead about learning how to delegate. In short, letting go allows you to let other people learn and develop.

What is your most useful resource (book, blog, newsletter)?

One book I found useful is Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. It's about maximizing your own development and then helping others develop further. By giving others the chance to grow, you can multiply your impact.

What's one thing you'd like to learn, develop or work on in 2020?

As is the case with many expats in Germany, in 2020 I'd definitely like to make progress in learning German. Other than that, I want to come up with a good team setup that allows the company to scale and our cross-functional teams to work at their best. This involves a few different topics: breaking down silos, building relationships between Product, Developers, QAs, and having well-organized reporting lines. Next year, I want to find a solution that will work for our culture, our team, and our organizational setup. That is the biggest challenge I'd like to overcome.