How to build and lead tech teams at scale

Published on
May 29, 2019
min read
Written by

When Hugh Williams first moved to the US in 2004, he was one of the early engineers to join the search effort at Microsoft. 15 years later he’s held several high-profile roles including VP Engineering and Product roles at Google Maps, eBay, Tinder and Pivotal. Hugh has now returned to Australia with a mission to help high school teachers develop their confidence and competence in teaching computer science — read more here.

We chatted with Hugh about everything from improving alignment between the Engineering team and PMs, to creating the right-sized teams for impact.

Here are a few key highlights.

Successful companies always have big, hairy, audacious goals

Company goals must have six things:

  • Ambitious (but not impossible) — if everything goes right, the company could pull them off
  • Simple — a relentless focus on one single goal can make a real difference
  • Mission-driven — something employees get excited about, and are proud of
  • Customer-facing — the only currency that matters
  • Measurable — displayed at the top of each team’s dashboard are the goals the whole company has bought into
  • Aligned right across the org — there should never be a situation where an Engineering lead is talking to the Product team and discovering they have different goals

This ensures that teams are not just working hard, but working on the things that are the highest priority to the company.

The 60:30:10 ratio

For Engineering leaders, getting the right balance for how you should spend your engineering resources is the hardest problem to solve.

A simple solution is to avoid the conversation about whose priority is more important (Product vs Engineering) and just agree on the split of energy you’ll spend working on the following:

  • Things that are product-related
  • Things that come from the engineering team
  • Innovation, the crazy wonderful things that Product or Engineering can do to delight customers and users

From experience, the ratio for the split of energy should be the following 60:30:10:

  • 60% — focused on doing things defined by the product team e.g. the roadmap in order of priority
  • 30% — focused on engineering priorities, including architecture, improving platforms, quality initiatives, and so on
  • 10% — spent on some “free chaos”. Allow your team to work on innovative projects which could contribute to the 60% (product) or the 30% (“the house”)

There are times when the balance should swing to other ratios. For example, if everything is going great in the Engineering team it may mean you can spend a bit more energy on product (i.e. make it 70:20:10).

The right-size for your teams

From experience, it’s 6–8 people. If it gets larger, the complexity of point-to-point communication slows it down. If it’s smaller, teams don’t have enough resources to change the world.

When you have a tech team of 400 it’s not about managing a team of 400, it’s about setting up small 6–8 person organisations that feel independent, have customer-centric goals (so the lines between the teams are right), and can run really really fast.

It’s about the people

At a high level, when interviewing engineers make sure you look out for four things:

  1. Intellectual horsepower — did you come out of the interview and think “wow, I learnt heaps”?
  2. Problem solver — can they write real code in real language to solve a real problem?
  3. Action-oriented — is this a person who stops talking and starts doing?
  4. Results-driven — is this person focused on getting things done that matter? (action-oriented without the drive for results can be really dangerous)

Above all, hire people with raw horsepower.

These people that can do anything if they’re given the opportunity and the coaching.

Creating a strong, sustainable culture

There’s no silver bullet, but some basic principles are:

  • Constantly monitor — there’s a lot of power in communication, and not just about what’s going wrong
  • Constantly celebrate — hold up examples of what great looks like
  • Constantly fix — quietly deal with things that aren’t great

When things go wrong, always ask yourself in hindsight “why didn’t somebody fix that?”, and “why didn’t somebody keep celebrating the things that were important?”.

The Richmond Tigers (Melbourne AFL team) have a pretty inspirational story about turning their culture around. Have a read of the book “Yellow and Black” — it’s not just a story of a sports team, but how to get your team culture working again.

AirTree Ventures entities listed below are corporate authorised representatives (CAR) of Boutique Capital Pty Ltd (BCPL) AFSL 508011.

CAR has taken all reasonable care in producing all the information contained in the website including but not limited to reports, tables, maps, diagrams and photographs.

However, CAR will not be responsible for loss or damage arising from the use of this information. The contents of this website should not be used as a substitute for detailed investigations or analysis on any issues or questions the reader wishes to have answered.

You may download the information for your own personal use or to inform others about our materials, but you may not reproduce or modify it without our express permission.

To the extent to which this website contains advice it is general advice only and has been prepared by the Company for individuals identified as wholesale investors for the purposes of providing a financial product or financial service, under Section 761G or Section 761GA of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth).

The information in this website is not intended to be relied upon as advice to investors or potential investors and has been prepared without taking into account personal investment objectives, financial circumstances or particular needs. Recipients of this information are advised to consult their own professional advisers about legal, tax, financial or other matters relevant to the suitability of this information.

Any investment(s) summarised in this website is subject to known and unknown risks, some of which are beyond the control of CAR and their directors, employees, advisers or agents. CAR does not guarantee any particular rate of return or the performance, nor does CAR and its directors personally guarantee the repayment of capital or any particular tax treatment. Past performance is not indicative of future performance.

All investments carry some level of risk, and there is typically a direct relationship between risk and return. We describe what steps we take to mitigate risk (where possible) in the investment documentation, which must be read prior to investing. It is important to note risk cannot be mitigated completely.

Whilst the contents of this website is based on information from sources which CAR considers reliable, its accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. Data is not necessarily audited or independently verified. Any opinions reflect CAR’s judgment at this date and are subject to change. CAR has no obligation to provide revised assessments in the event of changed circumstances. To the extent permitted by law, BCPL, CAR and their directors and employees do not accept any liability for the results of any actions taken or not taken on the basis of information in this website, or for any negligent misstatements, errors or omissions.

AirTree Ventures 2021 Trustco Pty Ltd ACN 652 901 409 CAR Number 1293641, AirTree Ventures Opportunity Fund 2019 Trustco Pty Ltd ACN 633 454 467 CAR Number 1293645, AirTree Ventures Opportunity Fund 2021 Trustco Pty Ltd ACN 652 901 043 CAR Number 1293642, AirTree Ventures Opportunity Fund Trustco Pty Limited ACN 609 594 881 CAR Number 1293643.