Scaling tech teams: Key lessons learned
The very first TechUncovered event focused on the challenges of building and scaling engineering teams, career development, and maturing processes. Scaling tech teams is not a simple task, it's tough work.
As we witness the Prague startup scene constantly growing and getting more and more into the scaleup stage, we decided to bring together some of its leading tech companies that have already passed the initial startup phase, but are not yet considered corporate businesses, to share their knowledge. We invited three companies, each with a unique combination of experience and background, to join the panel: STRV (design and engineering studio), Productboard (product management system development company), and SCS Software (a video game development company with a more than 20 year history). And they agreed!
Learn from those who’ve been through scaling a tech team:
Honza Široký, CTO at Mews
Mews tech team (MewsDevs) grew from 20 to 70 people in 2019.
Marián Fůsek, Head of Design & Engineering at STRV
STRV reached 140 designers & developers.
Daniel Hejl, founder & CTO at Productboard
Productboard doubled their tech team in 2019 from 26 people to 52.
Pavel Šebor, founder at SCS Software
SCS Software maintains a tech team of 30 people out of the company's 180 employees.
What were the key lessons learned?
Communication is the number one key, it's what makes a team strong. In order to keep a team aligned with its company's mission, vision, values, and strategy, it's necessary to communicate, share as much information as possible, and to be honest and transparent no matter what size the company is.
Of course, it's easier to communicate in a smaller team, but managing employee expectations and communicating inevitable internal changes in bigger teams encourages employee engagement and loyalty.
The hiring process in tech departments usually reflects a company’s evolving culture and tech principles, changing over time. At Mews we believe in minimalism, pragmatism, improvement, and responsibility (more about our tech principles here) and you can feel that through our interviews. We tend to keep them as relaxed as possible and, of course, we want to see some code -- the code our candidate is most proud of. If, for some reason, the candidate doesn't have any code to share, a test project comes into play. Compared to other companies on the panel, we try to keep this coding challenge short: it should be completed within a day. After submitting, the test project is discussed, over and over again, with a lot of “How?” and “Why?” questions asked. Read more about how we’ve built a healthy tech team here.
Historically, the Czech Republic has always had great engineering talent, but it used to be much harder to find good product managers and designers. It’s gotten better over time with more companies on the market where people can learn and develop their skills. In the past, companies focused mainly on hiring, but as the number of tech companies grew many realized it wasn't enough and started to focus on better onboarding experiences, unique company culture, building communities, etc.
Starting a new job is a significant moment in someone's life. Investing time and resources to the best onboarding experience possible really pays off. It shows new starters they’ll be taken care of and they feel welcome and excited about their new role.
Connecting with people on a personal level is key because, as a new starter, they will definitely remember the first day at a new company.
At Mews, we don't want to spoil the experience. We know some people just love unboxing stuff, so we equip workspaces with packed devices, a welcome card, and a package full of merch. Apart from welcoming new starters, STRV aims to socialize them as soon as they can -- there are three welcome lunches paid for by the company for each new starter to get to know different people across the team. This is a great way for new starters to soak up and understand company culture from the very beginning. Also, inviting new hires for an informal event before they even start working might be a good idea as well, making their eventual first day more relaxed.
Technical skills are important, but what most leaders look for in a new hire is empathy.
Empathy is one of the most desired competencies because working in a startup or scaleup is not a one-man show, it's a team sport. It might feel like a rollercoaster ride. It's a fast-moving, ever-changing environment; there are ups and downs, but nobody wants to be surrounded by “party poopers” constantly putting the team in a bad mood. Which brings us to another thing: leaders look for passionate people with a positive attitude and growth mindset, people who have a drive to be and do better.
“We programmed because it was cool, not because we got paid for it.”
--Pavel Šebor, SCS Software
Most people leave startups due to a mismatch with company culture or because expectations were not met. If it's not a good fit, it's better to end it sooner than later. Keeping someone on when there are a ton of red flags just doesn’t make sense in the long run. On the other hand, don’t burn any bridges: stay in touch, if possible, as the tech pool is not infinite.
With massive hiring, it's natural that there will be some offboardings, too. Some losses are hard, but what you learn along the way is “hire fast, fire faster.”
There are tools to monitor how employees perform: regular, personal one-to-ones and reviews. It's good to know how people feel about themselves and the work they do; sometimes they expect too much of themselves. It's all about communication. And sometimes people really don't meet a company's expectations. To keep moving forward and scale a healthy tech team you should expect some churn -- zero churn is not an indicator of health.
As a company grows and gets more people onboard, the need for driving an employee’s career development increases rapidly. Usually startup or scaleup businesses allow quite a lot of freedom and flexibility. People can change their role within a company quite easily, moving on to some other position. This quick changing startup environment attracts mostly self-driven people who don't expect their careers to be laid out by their leaders.
At Mews we recently designed a career ladder, basically out of necessity, after raising more investment capital. We were about to give out share options to everyone in the company, but needed to figure out how to distribute them fairly. Basically we used Etsy's open source competency model which was adapted to our needs as an RPG game accompanied by one-to-one meetings. If you're thinking of setting a career development strategy for your company, progression.fyi, a collection of career ladders might come in handy.
“Growth is easy, it's the stability that's hard to keep.”
--Pavel Šebor, SCS Software
Performance management - determining salaries
Companies in the startup or scaleup stage often start to discuss getting funding which can give them an opportunity to be slightly more aggressive in the hiring market. At the same time, it's necessary to be fair and, even if salaries are not open, leadership should be able to explain and justify them.
Overpaying people doesn't always pay off -- if you hire someone who’s only attracted to a high salary, there’s a good chance they’ll leave the company as soon as they get a better offer somewhere else. Probably the easiest way to determine salaries is to use some published studies with minimum and maximum rates or an agency providing salary bands.
“We set the salaries in a way that, if they would leak out, I would still have a good night’s sleep, because I would be able to explain every single one.”
--Honza Široký (Mews)
How to keep people onboard, aligned with company strategy, and keep the company healthy
Leaving the startup stage and entering the scaleup stage brings new challenges. How to grow teams? How to get more people onboard?
At the early stages leaders use common sense, but when a company grows and scales, there need to be clear goals. A key part of successful goal-setting is to set measurable metrics. At Mews we started to use the OKR framework where each team comes up with their own OKRs.
Allowing people to set their own team goals, which are further discussed, helps align these goals to ensure mutual success. To measure alignment with the overall strategy and employee engagement, we adopted Officevibe, a tool for employees to share their satisfaction levels, feelings, and ideas, some time ago.
“Goals should be set by the people reaching them.”
--Dan Hejl, Productboard
Honza Široký (Mews):
What to read:
Elad Gil's High Growth Handbook
High Scalability Blog
Marián Fůsek (STRV):
“Find a life coach.”
What to read:
Jan Mühlfeit's Pozitivní leader
Mental hygiene books, e.g., books on buddhism as psychotherapy.
What to listen to:
Productboard's Engineering Leadership Podcast
Pavel Šebor (SCS Software):
“Remember to slow down, at least a bit, and get some rest.”
What to read:
Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep