An Interview with On The Mend CTO, Ralph Stenzel
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
We sat down with On The Mend’s Chief Technology Officer Ralph Stenzel and asked him to share his experience of life as the CTO for On The Mend, what it’s been like to work with the team and how information security has become so central to his role.
OTM: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but what is the typical day like for a start-up CTO?
RS: It’s definitely much more diverse than it would be in a bigger organisation. It’s really a mix of looking after the developers, liaising with non-technical people to make sure that they get from the technologists what they’re expecting. It’s a bit of trouble-shooting, checking up on progress, planning and testing as well. Also checking all kinds of new things and thinking if we could benefit from using them.
OTM: You’ve worked at both large corporates and tiny start-ups, what the main differences in how you’ve approached working in these very different environments?
RS: The main difference, I think, is that, the bigger the organisation gets, the more management overhead you’re encountering. Whereas in a start-up everything you do somehow comes towards a goal, and you have a very direct influence on success or failure. In a bigger corporate, you’re fighting a lot against the structures going on; a lot of admin work that has no direct impact on your main responsibilities. In a start-up you can be more agile, feeling busy, but you never feel you’re wasting your time.
OTM: What have you learnt from working in start-ups that you wouldn’t have been able to gain from just staying in the corporate world?
RS: An awful lot, really. One interesting finding was the importance of the right team, as I’ve found that most start-up failures are not related to the idea or technology, but they are related to people, which was very surprising. It’s not the kind of thing you get in a corporate environment where you see the difference between success and failure. There are other corners I’ve seen around in business management and marketing, because in a bigger environment your responsibilities are more clearly defined, much narrower. In a start-up it’s much crazier, like handing out leaflets outside or talking to customers or investors, which is not something I really did much before.
OTM: How has it been to work with non-technical co-founders?
RS: It’s quite normal for me. It’s all about being well-organised and my impression is that the team has embraced learning about product development and the processes to follow, and now we have something at the end of it. You just need to know when to ask for help, but there’s really nothing stopping people working on things that are technical. I’m not saying people should start working in a technical role, as you might learn to draw a diagram, but it doesn’t mean you can code. This is a trap people can fall into, thinking they can reach a professional standard quickly enough to help to build an MVP [minimum viable product] or anything bigger than that. You just need to understand a lot of things; it doesn’t mean you need to know how to master these things. There’s a big difference between understanding these things and being a professional yourself. The greater risk is actually when you are working with lots of technical co-founders, which can result in a lot of skills missing from the team. A product that is only developed by technologists will never be sold to anyone because they won’t know about the industry they’re selling into, don’t know sales, marketing or design; it doesn’t matter how cool it is, as it will never see a customer.
OTM: What new skills as a CTO have you gained from working at On The Mend?
RS: Probably the craziest thing was going through the ISO 27001 certification process.
OTM: Tell me more what it was like to go through ISO27001 certification?
RS: It’s very unusual to go through something that’s really targeting a bigger organisation whereas in a start-up it’s very difficult to fulfil the requirements where you don’t have much of the processes and procedures already in place.
OTM: What kind of processes and procedures did you need to put in place?
RS: It involves quite a wide range of topics related to safety and security, not only from an IT perspective but also things like not leaving documents on desks, all kinds of contingency procedures, or backup plans, when staff disappear etc. It was much wider than the technical field; it’s supposed to be about IT security, so I learnt that IT means something much wider than just the technical aspects.
OTM: How much greater are the challenges of working as the CTO of a health tech than for the other start-ups you’ve worked at before?
RS: Well, it’s the regulatory environment that potential customers are working in which is the big difference. Obviously in finance you would also have a more difficult environment, but most start-ups are quite careless trying things out, which is something you can’t do in a health environment. So the whole idea of a start-up is on a collision course with something in a slow, very regulated environment.
OTM: How do you see your role at On The Mend as it relates to compliance with information security standards?
RS: I do have the official title of ISM [Information Security Manager] coming from the ISO standards, but I see that as a very theoretical role as long as we are operating in an early pilot stage without much patient data. These concerns will change a lot as soon as we come into contact with someone holding that data and using us as a collaboration partner; we will really need to up our game a lot at that point.
OTM: What steps are you taking to ensure that On The Mend stays compliant with these industry standards?
RS: We are very concerned about things like backups and user permissions. In such a small team, luckily, it's relatively easy not to have any gaping holes anywhere. The challenge will be in upscaling once we have employees and computers and real patient data. That is when it gets more interesting, and we have to be even more careful. Luckily we’ve been through ISO 27001 certification, learning about the policies and procedures we should have in place, so we are more well-prepared than others who may not have gone through that process.
OTM: Finally, what advice would you give to other IT professionals considering a career at a health tech start-up?
RS: Don’t!! I’m just kidding! :) It’s all about the team again, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into the health tech space without any health professionals in the team. I don’t see it as an IT issue, more about having people who know the environment; tech is just a part of it. You need to know what product to build and how to go to market. This is a start-up challenge in general, but health tech is one of the more difficult ones, so don’t do that without a team who bring some connection with that area.
OTM: I said that was the last one, but I can’t resist, how to wind you down after a busy week?
RS: I’m at that point where I can’t forget about work! However, I like global hip hop including Japanese hip hop, and South African house :)
OTM: Any recommendations?
RS: For South African house, check out Amapiano style :)
Thanks to Ralph for sharing these insights. If you would like to find out more about what we do at On The Mend, then please don't hesitate to get in touch with our team!
Have a great day!