December 23, 2022

‘As if we South Africans hadn’t had enough bad press already’

Startup CTO Meri Williams is not Elon Musk’s biggest fan

Amy Lewin

7 min read

Meri Williams, CTO at Pleo

Meri Williams, perhaps best known for her stint as digital bank Monzo’s chief technology officer, has just taken up a new role — and she’s back in fintech. 

“I just couldn’t resist it,” she said — on day 18 in the role, after a year off dealing with long Covid. 

She’s now CTO at Danish business expenses platform Pleo, where she’s managing a dev team of 250 and getting to enjoy working for a company that’s a bit less scrappy than a super early-stage startup. 


“I wanted to do a good-to-great journey, rather than that frantic scaling journey that I’ve done a few times in a row,” she told the Sifted podcast. “This role is much more about the capability and capacity of the existing team. So it's not trying to just add loads more people and stop the company from imploding under the weight of all those new newcomers.”

Williams, who has also held the CTO role at healthtech business Healx and business card scaleup MOO, is known as a master of building, growing and sustaining great technical teams. Her "extracurricular" activities are many and varied — she’s chair of the Lead Developer Conference, a technology adviser to VC firm Kindred and an adviser to coaching organisation Skiller Whale.

No surprise, then, that when she visited Sifted HQ in December our conversation touched on Twitter, Musk, generative AI, upskilling developers and nestling into a new C-suite. Here are just some of the highlights of our conversation — which you can listen to in full here on Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast. 

What do you do to assess where the team is [when you start a new role]? And what will you be looking at to figure out how to help them improve?

First month, I just listen a lot. So I've talked with the board, talked with the execs, and then today I've actually spent the entire day just meeting teams. So I go to the teams and ask them what they're proud of, what's frustrating them or slowing them down, and what I could do to help or what they would like me to be worried about. And I learn a huge amount from doing that — just going around the teams and asking what's going on.

Because I think the reality of most organisations is that people know what's wrong. They know what's bugging them, they know what's getting in their way; they're just not always able to get it prioritised to deal with it. 

The reality of most organisations is that people know what's wrong

Then month two is all about strategy, and what we're going to do differently, and month three is when execution starts. 

What's it like joining an established C-suite? What tips do you have on building trust and hitting the ground running?

It's definitely challenging, particularly when they're a very tight knit group. One of the things that I really loved about Pleo when I was interviewing with them is they spend a week every month together as an exec. And I thought that was both a really good sign that they were willing and able and intent on spending that time together. But also that they were putting so much effort into being a team.

Make your cross functional team of peers the first team that you care about

I think you can often have executive teams that are more just groups of individuals than they are a team in their own right. Patrick Lencioni [the American business author] talks about this — about making your cross-functional team of peers the first team that you care about. It's one of the key changes in mindset or approach that you need to have to become a really high-performing executive — to think of that cross-functional team as your primary team.

And actually, at engineering director level, I think that's true as well. You need to think of your product and design partners as your primary team, rather than the team that sits under you.

Do you think there's a risk we go backwards on diversity if companies start looking hard at what they're spending funding on? 

I do worry about it… We have a bit of a problem in tech generally — because we're an industry of hobbyists, there's a lot of folks for whom coding is their hobby as well as their job. And it's often expected that you spend a lot of your spare time teaching yourself. There's nothing wrong with learning on your own but we know from research and from people's experiences, that if you're from an underrepresented group, you're more likely to have caring responsibilities; bluntly, if you're a woman, you're much more likely to be doing a lot of the housework as well… it's not the way it should be, but it is the way it is. 

Role model that learning is part of the day job, and it's not something that you have to do as a hobby in your spare time

Getting companies to enable that skill development during work rather than as a separate thing that you're expected to spend your evenings and your weekends on is hugely important. And I think that's one of the ways that you can contribute to inclusion in the industry — to set the expectation and role model that learning is part of the day job, and it's not something that you have to do as a hobby in your spare time. 

What do you make of Elon Musk’s approach to leadership? 

As a South African I’m just very ashamed — as if we didn't have enough bad press already… and now we're responsible for him too. Come on, give us a break! I mean, sadly I think it shows a little that his daddy was an emerald miner; he very much has the approach to the workforce like they're captives living on company land.

I think it's terrible what he's done to Twitter. I knew and still know a lot of a lot of people who were there, they had a really fantastic technology team and a really healthy way of building and growing that team. And it's kind of devastating to see it decimated in the way that it has been.

I also think he's done irreparable damage to his own reputation, because every time he goes and brags about something on Twitter now, it's just making it obvious that he's just not as clever as everybody thought he was. When he's showing a basic architecture diagram being like, "So excited for this code review at 11pm." And it's like, it's a basic architecture diagram, Elon, I'm not sure that you should be excited about showing off your ignorance in the way that you're doing right now.

I say all of that, knowing I'll probably get a lot of hate and abuse. But I'm very sad for the Twitter team, because I think maybe they had grown a little beyond what was sensible in the current climate, but they certainly didn't deserve to have what has happened, happen in the way that it's happened. It's very inhumane. 

One of the buzziest parts of tech at the moment is generative AI. Are you worried about the future of coding jobs?

I'm from an AI background, and the history of AI and machine learning is basically just every new generation going well, that's not really AI. Is it really intelligent? And I think you can say the same about the latest things. They're fascinating, and how the depth of understanding of natural language in natural language processing has advanced the last few years is genuinely astounding.

But do I think it's going to replace the people doing the communicating with the machines? Not yet. The explainability and auditability and verifiability of AI, particularly in an area like fintech or drug discovery, or any of these sorts of areas where safety and security is really paramount — you wouldn't want code that nobody could really explain how it worked to be running, where there's money involved, where there are people's lives involved. Right? None of us would want that.

I also think there's an innate bias to this because we see the best examples. The things that people are sharing are when it goes right. They're not sharing when it goes wrong — unless it's hilariously wrong. I think ChatGPT is going to produce a lot of content for the web… but human judgment is still very valuable.

For the full interview subscribe to Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast. 

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn