How to build and lead tech teams at scale

Published on
May 29, 2019
4
min read
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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.

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