When you’re building an Engineering team, the stakes are high. It’s essential to get Engineering culture right at the beginning. “There are levers and mechanisms to fine-tune technology,” says Kevin Scott, former VP of Engineering at LinkedIn. “But with engineering culture, it is much, much more difficult to discard the first version you build. When you have culture problems inside a fast growing company, they can metastasize the same way that bad technology decisions can ruin you and cause things to tip over.”
Here are three tips for building and structuring your Engineering team.
1. Establish how you’re going to work with the CEO/Founder(s)
If you’re reporting to or working alongside a CEO or Founder with technical chops, it’s a good idea to clarify roles and responsibilities as soon as possible. Ideally, you’ll do it before you start the job. Some more technical founders will want to delegate implementation and management while retaining responsibility for making technical decisions. When your opinions clash with theirs, who has the ultimate authority? Agreeing on where the buck stops for varying kinds of decisions upfront will save you time and energy later.
2. Stay connected to the business
Engineering leaders are tempted to focus exclusively on the technical parts of Software Engineering. “Building brilliant and engaging products, arguing with Product Managers about dates, or debating which text editor is best or whether Darth Vader could kill Superman if they got into a fight,” can easily take up all your bandwidth, says Kevin Scott, VP of Engineering at LinkedIn.
“Your purpose as a technology team is to help your company win,” Scott says. “If you lead a team of engineers, it’s better to take a CEO’s perspective.”
The key is to get, and stay, aligned with the CEO or Founder. VP of Engineering at Harvest Kevin Stewart offers some questions that can help: “Do you truly understand the founders’ vision? Could you pitch it to a new candidate the way that they pitched it to you?” The pitch will likely change as market research validates or invalidates product direction hypotheses. Part of your job is to keep up with these changes so your pitch is always in sync with their pitch.
Stewart writes that you aren’t succeeding at your job if you don’t deeply understand your business’:
- Competitive environment
Get to know and work closely with the various Product Owners, UX Designers, and Project Managers. You can also design processes to take that knowledge back to your Software Development team.
“Participating in customer calls or visits, leading part of the company all-hands, and having regular check-ins with the founders can help ensure that you stay aligned on communicating the vision,” Stewart writes.
3. Focus maniacally on culture
“Building a successful Engineering team starts with great hiring,” said Gary Lerhaupt, Head of Engineering at Clockwise.
Like most difficult things in life, great hiring doesn't happen by accident. It requires a plan. When hiring Engineers, “Winging it is all too common, but it’s destructive and shortsighted,” VP of Engineering at Harvest Kevin Stewart wrote. Stewart recommends taking the time to write down your recruiting strategy and interviewing process before you begin.
Start your plan with your company values. Hiring for “values fit” replaces the vague and potentially exclusionary “culture fit.” When Gary began hiring Engineers at Clockwise, one of our advisors, Fern Mandelbaum, offered him a key insight.
“We had done an exercise to come up with our company values early on and she said something that was very clarifying to me,” Gary said. “So many times you hear the term ‘culture fit’ when it comes to hiring. It's really a vague term. Her perspective was to use ‘value fit.’ That allows disparate backgrounds while scaling the team in a consistent way that is true to the values you hope your team embodies. From then on, we added the ‘value fit’ aspect to our hiring rubric.”
How do you as a Head or VP of Engineering create a great Engineering culture while developing engineering prowess? Scott recommends that Engineering leaders create a cultural manifesto.
Scott calls a cultural manifesto “the single most valuable management tool while you’re scaling your engineering team.”
The cultural manifesto helps align your development organization on three things:
- How you make things
- How you operate things
- How you function as a team
This is where your team agrees on concrete, documented opinions on things like growth forecasting, scale planning, automated fault tolerance versus manual recovery, and monitoring and alerting. The more you get on the same page ahead of time, the less time you have to spend bumping heads later.
As for the nitty gritty of hiring, the skills you’re looking for depend on which stage you’re at. Gary says that early-stage companies likely need more generalists. “You need people who can move all around the stack. Only after you reach some inflection point do you want to think about hiring people with more specialized skills or experience,” Gary said. “And then from there, we look for people with the right mix of drive, curiosity, and EQ such that they're just as excited to learn a new thing as they are to teach it to a colleague.”
Establishing how you’re going to work with your CEO or Founder at the start will save you headaches in the future. Getting aligned on company direction and staying abreast of the company’s customers and competitors will help you help the company succeed. Last, focusing on creating and maintaining the right culture will stave off major problems down the road.
Next up, read our guide to a great project kickoff meeting.