This weeks episode we talk to Hootan Nikbakht. Hootan is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Lucky Day Entertainment. In his role he is accountable for the company’s strategy, development and cross-functional delivery of Lucky Day’s platform and mobile gaming portfolio. We hear about his introduction to technology and growth in the field of development. Sharing his Top 5 Tips on giving your team the freedom to love their work and innovate in their career.
Hootan’s Top 5 Leadership Tips:
Below is a summary of the Top 5 Leadership tips shared during the interview this week. Take a listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips –
- Building Trust
- Building Relationships
- Workplace Culture
- Getting Everyone To Contribute
- Giving Your Team Freedom
We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:
Ryan: Hello everyone. Welcome to this week’s episode of the full-stack leader podcast. This week, I’m excited to have my longtime friend and old colleague Hootan Nikbakht with us. He is currently the CTO of lucky day, an application that is available on iOS and Android and Hootan. Welcome. Great to have here.
Hootan: Thanks for having me on the podcast. Yeah.
Ryan: So I know we had a chance to work together at a company called Bersley in the past, which was a great startup, in the ad tech and developer tool set environment. I know that you’ve worked with a number of startups over the course of time.
Maybe give us a little bit of a rundown about how you got to where you’re at.
Hootan: Absolutely. My journey with technology has started with pre iPhone days, when I was at UCLA. I remember the days where Apple just came out with an iPhone and we were discussing how great this technology could be. And we need this pre lab 2.0 building any sort of applications that tie to API APIs.
I remember the days of the mashups. A lot of products are being built, connecting to one another. And that’s where my real excitement and passion for building products and, just, dabbling with mobile applications, started. From there I finished my undergrad at UCLA. Did an internship at IBM for about.
Two years after I finished my masters while I was at IBM. And, from there worked full-time. This was during 2009. When the market crashed shopping, I was with IBM working with very strong colleagues and team members. When I dropped out of IBM, I worked at a team that was recently acquired by IBM and part of that team, I was able to grow within working with really stellar team members.
And, from there I, Wanted to learn more about startups. And I wanted to get involved with smaller companies. I wanted to learn how to build products from the ground up, not only the technology, but really the entire business departments, how technology and the different departments cross-functionally work together.
So I started working at a company called generation wireless gen Y. I was the third engineer and it was a very exciting opportunity to just be able to. Learn technology from the ground up and work with new technologies, without anybody helping me without having very senior peers around me to help me or, and that was a very successful journey.
I was with Gen Y for sometime, this is all in Northern California until I wanted to move back to Los Angeles. And that’s where I joined. And I got to work with you as the first person that adversity. And that was also a very exciting journey, extremely exciting company.
Lots of talented engineers. Gen Y was a very small, I would say 10 to 20% company. And I moved to bursty, which was at the point it was like 50 people. And, quickly grew to a hundred plus people, got experience with big corporations, small startups, and then burst the, a midsize company until we got acquired by apple.
From there, I worked for, moved on to work for another. I was the first engineer and I even took it a step back and wanted to work with even a smaller team, wanting to really take over the technology portion and just being wild on all aspects of development. And, I was with telephony for a while.
We built an exciting product that eventually launched, an event detection system. That was basically what the. Snapchat maps were two years before it launched. And, from there we built a trend detection system that is a B2B product that was very well received by a lot of businesses. And, but my journey moved on and I started working on putting my own product.
I started building a product called restock proxy, which. Really, Kelley blue book for luxury watches, how you’re able to get the highest comparison for luxury watches on there. And, from there, I arrived at my journey with a lucky day, which became a very big and exciting opportunity and grew in my role in all my roles.
I was a developer and in this role was the first time that I went from a developer to an engineering manager role. And I have to say. This transitioning role was probably the biggest step in my career.
Ryan: Where would you say that you were already kind of into understanding how game engines work even before you went to UCLA?
Or did it, was that something that you like became passionate about a little bit later in your career?
Hootan: I was generally very excited about technology, building products and services, not necessarily specific to game engines and games in general.
I was actually very interested in, hardwares and embedded systems. And that’s how I started my journey into technology. Just learning about how embedded systems and, Hardwares are actually set up and holidays and interacts with software. And that’s where I basically started my career. And, later I realized my passion is in software and from software.
I basically find myself in a place where I saw that I like technology, but I like a portion of the technology that I like. Is the overlap with creativity and that’s what I find even more passionate about gaming. And that’s where I kind of dabbled in game engines and building extra to around building mobile against,
Games are really great. Combination of that true creative storytelling, interaction experience with actually interesting technology that allows a lot of decision-making to happen throughout it. I can see why you might be in, might be into that process. What was the first game that you actually worked on?
Hootan: the first name actually that I worked on in terms of building their game was lucky day. And that was the very first game that I started working with. This is, again, that was a post-launch. I joined the team and, and I was able to help, get into to a point that it becomes a very sticky game that all users want it to use it in, in, in the opposite.
Ryan: That’s amazing. I know before you even got to lucky day, you and I worked at a company where you were doing SDK integrations for ad platforms and developer tool sets into a lot of bigger games, right?
Hootan: Absolutely. Because I think my journey with technology started with a few startups and one of the startups was where you adversity, where I started working on really the backend.
Of what is, powering a lot of these games in terms of building the ad engine and an ad network, to be able to monetize games out there in general. Products that are closer to games.
Ryan: Yeah. And I I know that was all the way back in, around 2012, 2013, and in that range and a lot’s actually changed, in the development of the mobile gaming environments.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen from back then to now in terms of evolution?
Hootan: I think which, mobile gaming there definitely been a lot of changes in the way that the type of games that are out there from more mid-core to hardcore and now to hyper casual and we need, quicker games from a lots of studios.
and Now I think we’re seeing a lot of them. Activities in real money gaming and, and that’s where we are. Basically that’s the area that we are working on. And I think hyper casual is where we’ve seen the most amount of activities. And in terms of monetization of these games, I would say , this industry has changed quite a bit from mediations.
To waterfall system to, header bidding, and is now also a popular way of monetization on the outside for a lot of games. and we can see that, basically, the other industries is, growing quite a bit on the growth side. I would say, we are seeing the changes that Apple has made, and that I think is in a big way, impacted the industry.
And, smaller. studios are not able to thrive as they used to. And, and that is really kind of a high level trend that I see in this space.
Ryan: Yeah. That makes sense. Do you think that, Over the course of time, the ad networks and ad industries have driven a lot of the evolution of the games themselves, like different toolkits that have to be in there and the ways that they have to work.
Or do you think that the publishers are driving it and the ad networks are constantly adjusting?
Hootan: I would say it’s, it’s a great question. I think it’s two-sided. Kind of, parts that are tied to each other. Publishers are successful when they can grow their ops successfully and where the users can download and be able to use the apps.
We’ve seen evolution in the ad space, where publishers are able to advertise a game, that is, somewhat of their own game, but they’re necessarily not the same. And, solely to get traction and response from the users. One of the ways that publishers are testing the market is true.
Put out ads and see what kind of response for the type of outdoor product. This kind of ad might not be related to the type of game they’ve published. It’s really just tied to how the market responds. And based on the response from the market, it kind of dictates what the publisher might want to release next or how they want to really treat their games.
And, so I think it’s overall, they’re tied to each other and, Again, as space I think is having a major impact on the wave of we’ve grown and we’ve decided in terms of our product roadmap.
Ryan: Yeah. That makes total sense. And it’s interesting to see how you’re moving from. Kind of the core proficiency of add integrations to drive monetization.
And you’re now exploring actual, real money gaming. You are lucky day is a casino app. So it’s been able to develop over the course of time, without actually integration of money. But now that you are making money, I imagine there’s a ton of challenges as a CTO. I’m working in a world where you have to follow the rules of the platform.
Is that correct?
Hootan: Yes. So I think this is also a great area to expand on. I think a lot of them, a lot of people will look at the industry as a whole as gambling. And, I think what’s important is that there are rules obviously around how real money gaming in general, and the type of games that are.
And, there’s some sort of payouts in the game, are set up, I think to really, break it down. There are the types of games that you would have in the market: pure gambling games of chance you would have, or you would have shoot state games, or you could have game of skills, game of chance, which are considered poker blackjack.
And in these types of games, purely illegal of, they are, in the market that are available in the store, and you can free to play the game and, you can still earn money, but you can’t really have any sort of, you can’t really deposit any money into the gangs, a sweepstakes style against similar.
You can feed a play, you can win money. And that’s where I actually was lucky. How lucky they were to grow. And, our category was considered sweepstakes. And I think the category that, uh, we’ve seen similar growth, and I think if I look at it as an emerging market is the game of skills.
And game of skills is really turning any game into a tournament or a competition based. And, allows for users to actually deposit money into the games indexing. And this is an avenue for, for a lot of companies like us to be able to, switch gears and know, learn about the market, be able to launch games that are, , really not chance based on really, uh, they’re skills based.
Ryan: Are there challenges that you face? Thinking about having to manage extensive transactions across the world, to be able to allow these to play. And are there rules even within different countries that you have to manage?
Hootan: We are guests, there are challenges in terms of, the types of challenges you’re dealing with, , security fraud, and, user privacy is probably the biggest challenges.
Any sort of company and opposition will have to be considered when they enter their space. In terms of geolocation, we’re only functioning in the United States and what, and. Anything else in the United States, basically you, you have to follow their local jurisdiction.
And so that’s where our main focus is really the United States. And yes, the United States, certain states based on geolocation, you’re allowed to, do we need to do transactions? And so that our op is basically artistically. Is built in a way that we can see where users are. And based on that, we can see if the user is allowed to enter a game, or not.
The type of security and fraud challenges are to make sure. If you’re allowing the user to play your game, that they are, you know, you do proper KYC. You need to make sure that you’re following correctly. Anti-money laundering law, and you need to make sure that you are, if you’re getting any sort of payment data from the user into your system, you’re following certain compliance, like PCI.
That is, to protect the user data. We’ve set up in public in a way that does not require any sort of sensitive data from the user. And everything is hosted on the, the third party payment service and pending gateway and payment processing services that we adopt. I think the biggest challenge, also is to integrate with the correct payment partners and, and then.
Also a challenge
Ryan: on its own. So as a leader, as a technical leader, how do you inspire people on your team to make the decisions that make the most sense for your applications? You have to make decisions on third party vendors to use. You have to make decisions on different types of platforms, to go with.
How do you work with team members, to get the right consensus on decisions?
Hootan: Absolutely. A great question. And in my experience the past few years, I’ve learned a lot in terms of how to approach problems and, the way I’ve been approaching it from the beginning, was to be very opinionated.
And, coming from a developer background, I always wanted to come up with the solutions myself and, and that’s something that’s something that I learned to grow out of and allow my team. Basically think and make a lot of the decisions and come up with a lot of the design decisions on their own, the way we were dividing the work today is that in terms of, system design, in terms of, architecture, design, all designs and decisions are done upfront and it’s done by.
And not by me at all. This gives power to the entire team to work together, come up with a design and approach, presented design and approach. We all signed off to discuss it. Everything looks from all sides. Then we start developing. This has been very successful for us in terms of building the right technology and building the right product in terms of third-party services.
This is something that, on our, executive side, we share with the team and the team can also do, suggestions when it comes to payment partners. We solely decide those decisions on the executive side, when it comes to third-party integrations that we have options to go with, we present options and we allow our team to also present their options and we come,
Ryan: That’s great.
So when your team members come to you with system design ideas and concepts and new approaches to product elements, do you have a specific way that you’ve worked with them to bring those ideas to you? Or are you pretty open? Do you find that flexibility and communication is important?
Hootan: We in terms of framework and how we surface good ideas and how we, basically discuss, design, ideas is we, when it comes to software delivery methodologies, we have ceremonies when it comes to software delivery.
And, we follow the strong methodology we have within those. Ceremonies, we basically have additional ceremonies where we discuss and surface additional ideas and additional technologies or anything that the team wants to adopt, to the table. We have weekly engineering hours with all my teams and within the engineering hours , we have
time to surface these ideas and anything that the team wants and wants to discuss. We give voice in those meetings. So everyone and, and even. Every quarter we ask the team members, within one-on-ones, if they want to adopt new technology. And if there’s something that they come across, that is exciting.
And, we’ve been able to adopt a lot of new technologies. While I was having a lucky day, we went from a monolith application to a company. microservices architecture, with, with no SQL data store from relational to most sequel data stores. And, we’ve been able to build products that I think scales to millions of users.
And also, and along the way, we’ve been able to learn about., I think at this point I would say my team are working on the technologies that they were wanting to work on and wanting to learn and grow and build their craft. I hope that answers your question.
Ryan: Amazing. Yeah. Thank you for that rundown. It was really enlightening and I appreciate you taking the time to share with us. Both your career and what you’re doing at lucky day, it sounds like you guys are really making some moves into some great things,
Ryan: During my connection with Hooten, I was reminded that tech leadership is a true blend of pushing the edges of innovation while actively motivating them. His experience and startup development offers a great look into some of the unique product and technical challenges that a CTO has to consider and how the tech organization splits that workup to get the most efficient delivery as part of the artistry of leadership.
Welcome back right now. We’re going to turn our attention to Hootans top five leadership tips that he wants to share with us. So Hootan let’s jump in right away. What’s your number one? Tip.
Tip One (Building Trust)
Hootan: My number one tip is building trust. Trust is foundational to every successful team.
Actually they in this entire world are actually built based on trust. And, that is the most important thing. If you’re looking to find your co-founder, if you’re looking to find a building team in general, just make sure that you are building trust with your team and that’s where you are going. We see the most success.
Ryan: Is there a specific way you like to try and build trust with, with the team that you’re guiding? Do you have like a, do you go out and do special events with them or do you, is there a way that you’re working with them that you think helps create that,
Hootan: , trust is built from my perspective, trust is built over time as you start working together and as you start.
Basically, building this bridge with your peers and with your teammates. I think the way you build trust of from my perspective is when you’re joining a team, the biggest thing that I think for you to build trust within that team is to work the hardest, as hard as you can work, to make sure that you are earning everyone’s trust, and you’re able to show that you belong to that team.
And go with the mindset of helping your team. And, I shouldn’t, that is one way to build a good trust when you’re entering a team. And, but I think overall trust is built over time and, through hard work, that can be proven.
Ryan: Amazing. Awesome. All right. What about tip number two? What do you get for us?
Tip Two (Building Relationships)
Hootan: Tip number two is. All my tips are tied to one. Another trust is when you’re starting small with a team. Number two is building relationships. I think you have to be able to enjoy the ride with your colleagues and with your peers. As you guys are working together, this is foundational for every team and has shown great success from my side.
Relationship with your team and colleagues, the way you do it is really just to know your care of all your teammates, know who they are, where they come from. Just discuss other things than just work and just get to know them at a personal level. Just understand what their values are. And what makes them tick and that’s, I think, where you really build a chemistry and you can not only do great work, but also enjoy the rides, which are, what are your peers, just like you and I are having a good relationship.
Ryan: Yep. Absolutely. All right. Awesome. What about tip number three?
Tip Three (Workplace Culture)
Hootan: Tip number three, I think is really as a team grows and you have to have a great culture. Culture is extreme. As a team scales, you have to have some theme within the company theme or a culture as you call it. I think it’s the same from my perspective.
It is very important for a company to scale and really have some belief and core value within that company. A lot of companies have their core values and mission. And that could be the culture, but I think it really, comes from the team and comes from the people of the company that are that theme and the culture is built and can on the company can scale.
Ryan: Yeah. I remember , when we were working at Bersley there, I felt like there was an amazing culture that had been cultivated there. And it had a lot of flavor and life to it. And I know just witnessing how that was constructed with them, influenced a lot of people, how I do things today and think about culture as well.
Absolutely. Great. Okay. Tip number four. What do you get?
Tip Four (Getting Everyone To Contribute)
Hootan: Tip number four is to get everyone to contribute. As a leader, your job is not to tell everyone what to do, but to be able to mobilize everyone in your team. You do have team members that are lead within your team, that basically coordinate things and our catcher, we can move the product development.
Whatever that your team’s working on forward, but what’s very important is that how are you as a leader can get yourself out of the equation and just have your team be involved on every corner, ways to do this is to, show to your entire team.
Where the company’s headed, where is value and how’s this product or feature that they’re working on creates value. And it could be something that can directly impact revenue. This could be something that can help streamline certain parts of your product. Whatever it is, it’s important to show why their work is important.
That’s one way another way is to basically give them voice, making sure that they are allowed to make decisions they are allowed to in a lot of teams, some team members that are in the junior or mid-level side, sometimes they’re shy or. Not yet confident to really discuss. So you want to give them a voice, you want to make sure that they are able to talk and everyone listens to them.
And, and usually want to make sure that , again, build some, make them comfortable in that setting that has been helpful for us. And obviously you have to motivate them to make sure that they are serious about practicing their craft. That will allow everyone to. What were they going to do and allow them to basically level up in their team?
Ryan: Yeah, I really like this, this one that you’re sharing about. Cause I think that it really talks about what a CTO does. Above, like maybe just an engineering manager and that’s really opened up the ability for engineers to actually engineer solutions. One of the things I really like about what you just said is like looking at what kind of more green engineer who’s, who doesn’t have the confidence yet, or like the experience, they need a little bit more support to like, start to believe in their ability to actually work towards the solutions that are gonna move the needle and just opening that up for them as he.
Hootan: Absolutely building confidence in your team is probably the number one thing I would say helped, our team members do better and really believe that they can actually do better and they can grow within their role. And that has been also foundational, I think, from all the different teams that I worked with.
And within this current team that I’m working with.
Ryan: Awesome. All right, thank you. Okay. Last one, tip number five.
Tip Five (Give Your Team Freedom)
Hootan: Tip number five is, giving your team a certain level of freedom in terms of, I think there are two ways to approach this in terms of, I looked at it as freedom or allow them to be creative.
I think you’ll have. Give yourself, give your team the confidence to, wanting to improvise in certain areas. And if they want to explore. Certain approaches, you give them the freedom to do what they like to do. When it comes to building a future, when it comes to choosing a technology, in certain areas that you know, that they are allowed to make certain decisions that you should give them that freedom.
An example of it is you might want to be building an internal tool or certain things that, or some tool that is impacting. building a service that could basically be open source? Your team member comes and asks, Hey, I’m working on this? I can just reconfigure this and I can make it an open source and it could be good for the company.
It shows that we are contributing to the community, and those are some of the things that we’ve done. And, it has been great for us in terms of basically contributing to the community and also allowing your team members to do what they wanted outside the scope of the work.
I think freedom and creativity, I think that’s something that I would say is extremely important to make sure that the team they feel that they actually are working on some of the things that they enjoy working on as well.
Ryan: All right. Amazing. Thank you for the top five tips and your look at being the CTO at a mobile gaming company.
It’s a really amazing view. We appreciate you joining us today. Hutong
Ryan: I really appreciate it. Thanks so much. All right. Thanks so much.
Ryan: Hootan does a great job of sharing the importance of balancing a tech team’s need to dive on specificity while still staying apprised of the bigger vision. By building trust with his group, he uses the ever strengthening team relationships to inspire contribution Hootan knows that, especially in a startup environment, buy-in experimentation and overall contribution are central to getting the most out of engineers that might be pushing the boundaries of what is.
No matter the industry.