Today I want to share some foundational lessons I wish I could impart to my younger self. Over the last 16 years, I have worked in different roles in technology, starting with Regis24, a pioneering B2B (kind of) SaaS company specializing in refining customer master data for banks, insurances, and the like. It was here that I championed Agile and XP methodologies like TDD, Scrum, CI/CD, cross-functional teams, tech debt management, and QA Engineering using Sonar. Since then, I’ve been an Engineering Manager and Head of Technology at Scout24, and an Engineering Director at renowned companies like travel tech unicorn Omio, food and grocery delivery giant DeliveryHero, and Europe’s fashion ecommerce marvel, Zalando.
As of August 2023 I’m an Executive Tech and Product Advisor at Philipps & Byrne, leading a team of consultants and aiding investors, founders, CTOs, and CPOs in sculpting their organizations and envisioning the future world. In tandem with this, I head a non-profit organization, The Mentoring Club, a global platform for mentoring and career growth, boasting nearly 10,000 members and 40,000 monthly users. It’s a remarkable community of mentors generously donating their time for mentees.
After these enriching years in leadership, here are my nuggets of wisdom that I deem universal. Whether you’re an aspiring engineering manager, a seasoned middle manager, or the technical co-founder of a startup, these insights will resonate with you.
Let’s delve into these lessons, shall we?
#1 Being T-Shaped Is Not Just an Abstract Concept
Lesson number one: Being T-shaped is not just an abstract concept. If you’ve traversed the realms of professional development discussions, you’ve likely stumbled upon the term ‘T-shaped’ — it implies possessing deep expertise in one area, complemented by broad knowledge across multiple domains. But, let’s dissect what it genuinely entails for an engineering leader.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that you’re not orchestrating a symphony of robots. You’re heading a diverse team of individuals, each with a unique mix of experiences, goals, and values, operating within an intricate ecosystem of teams and functions. Understanding the dynamics of motivation, learning, communities, and the interplay between processes and people is key to successful leadership.
My initiation into management was marked by a project steeped in Human Resources (Thanks to my remarkable manager and mentor back then). It was a venture into uncharted territories, implementing a comprehensive performance management system, introducing salary bands, promotions, and performance measures, and understanding employee engagement. This was such a key experience for me, understanding that becoming a manager and leader is so much more about people and organizations than it is about technology.
Since then I have followed that same principle: underscoring the importance of a multifaceted knowledge base — from the nuances of Product and Marketing to the intricacies of Finance and Business Development. It’s this diverse knowledge spectrum that elevates a leader from good to exceptional. And, acquiring such broad knowledge, experience, and most importantly your own opinions and standpoints is not merely a ‘nice-to-have’ — it’s indispensable.
Being T-shaped is about transcending the boundaries of your core expertise, delving into the other facets of organizational functions, and understanding the human elements that are the heartbeat of your team.
#2 The Danger of Attachment to Tools and Approaches
Let’s look into lesson number two: In technology, it’s a common pitfall to develop a strong attachment to specific tools, methodologies, or even programming languages. We’ve all experienced it — you’ve dedicated years to mastering Java, and then, out of the blue, you step into a new organization, and it’s all about the Microsoft stack. It feels like a curveball, doesn’t it?
But here’s a reality check — this scenario reveals more about you than about the new team. Whether it’s Java, .NET, or any other tech stack, at its core, it’s just code. Each has its strengths, and their efficacy is contingent on a plethora of factors. Maintaining objectivity is crucial. This principle holds true across the board — whether it’s programming languages, the right tool, thought framework, leadership style, or methodologies like OKRs or any other organizational tool. What was a perfect fit in your previous role might not align with the ethos of your new organization. Perhaps, the CEO has an aversion to OKRs.
Does it render them ineffective? Absolutely not. So, what’s the optimal approach? Be neutral yet opinionated. Embrace adaptability and continuous learning and leverage collective intelligence and established frameworks to make enlightened decisions. And, most importantly, as a leader never shy away from charting a new course. Transcend the confines of your comfort zone, try shedding preconceived notions, and foster a culture of flexibility and innovation. Remember, the beauty of technology lies in its diversity and constant evolution.
#3 Everything Changes, Yet Everything Stays the Same
The next one sounds a bit paradoxical.
Let me illustrate with a story. In the yesteryears, our battles were against the compatibility issues between Internet Explorer 5 and Netscape. Fast forward to the present, and the battleground has shifted — it’s Desktop vs. Mobile Web or Android vs. iOS.
Consider the evolution from monolithic architectures to microservices. Once, our focus was ensuring applications could scale vertically on single servers. Today, the narrative is about horizontal scaling across expansive cloud infrastructures.
Reflect on the metamorphosis of user experience. We’ve transitioned from the rudimentary simplicity of initial web pages to today’s interactive, dynamic interfaces. Different eras, analogous challenges.
he essence of this lesson? It’s about discerning the patterns in problem-solving. It’s about realizing that while the technological landscape undergoes relentless transformations, the foundational principles often endure.
As an engineer and leader, you need to develop your skills on two levels: Learning to handle new tools, applying new technologies, using new coding languages, etc. This is important, but what is even more essential is to master the universal skills of problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Identify those analogies, assimilate them into your long-term muscle memory, and you’ll find yourself navigating new terrains with remarkable agility and adaptability.
#4 This Is a People Business
Lesson number four is a reality check, an important one. Here’s the unvarnished truth: From the vantage point of an investor or a CEO, the contentment of your team might be just a ‘nice-to-have’, a side effect, but not a tangible result. Quoting Andy Grove (former CEO at Intel), “You are responsible for the output and outcome of your team and the teams you influence.”
However, here lies the paradox. Every creation, every innovation, is the brainchild of people — individuals who are intelligent, dynamic, and diverse. The elements of engagement, motivation, and mutual trust are the bedrock of successful projects, with great results.
Consider it akin to making soup. Water might not be the most flavorful component, but it is indispensable. So, what are the key questions you should never stop asking? Are your team members enveloped in a sense of value and appreciation? Is there a foundation of trust amongst colleagues? Is there a harmonious alignment between individual aspirations and the overarching goals of the company and your organization? Can they envisage their growth intertwined with the company’s vision? Keep asking these questions. They might not be the direct yardstick of your success, but its impact is undeniable.
Before concluding this lesson, there’s a fundamental aspect I want to emphasize. In leadership, particularly in the tech domain, harboring a genuine affection for people is non-negotiable.
Yes, affection! Leadership in Tech is not just about codes and algorithms; it’s about people, their aspirations, their struggles, and their growth. It’s about creating an environment where team members feel valued, heard, and motivated to reach their full potential. It’s about intertwining the logical with the emotional, and the analytical with the empathetic, to build a leadership style that is profoundly human. In a lot of cases, this is not something to put on a board or executive management slide, so you need to do it for you, for your team, in silence and with an attitude of will and passion.
#5 Your Imposter Demon is Your Best Friend
Lesson number five might seem a bit unorthodox, but most of you will know what I am talking about. Welcome your constant companion in leadership: Your Imposter Demon. Yes, you read that right. Imposter Syndrome isn’t your foe; it’s a companion to embrace and learn from.
It’s perfectly acceptable to seek assistance. Keep probing, keep questioning, and remember, you’re not alone in this journey of uncertainties and self-doubt. My strategy? I maintain a database of concepts and terminologies that I encounter in meetings or stumble upon in articles, ones that are unfamiliar terrains to me. Every day, I allocate time to unravel to learn what they are about. The list seems endless, but the insights acquired are indispensable, particularly when you’re navigating the waters of leadership, new jobs, new technologies, and new industries.
For instance, when I transitioned to a new role a few years back, overnight, I found myself heading an organization that was responsible for heavy data streaming systems using technologies, many of which I heard about but never really worked with. That was painful, yet it helped me ask the right questions and work closely with Senior Engineers and Architects to understand the overall structure of our systems.
So, when your Imposter Demon knocks on your door next time, don’t turn it away. Engage in a dance with it. It’s through this intricate dance that you metamorphose, evolving into the leader you envision to be. Dancing with the Imposter Demon is not about conquering self-doubt but about leveraging it as a catalyst for growth and learning. It’s about acknowledging your limitations and transforming them into stepping stones for acquiring new knowledge and skills.
#6 It’s (Almost) Never About the Tech, It’s Always About the Product
In the initial phases of my journey, I remember fervent discussions within my teams about the supremacy of one technology over another, Linux vs. Microsoft vs. Apple, Java vs. PHP, etc. And indeed, it’s a crucial discourse within the team, but it is of almost no value, when it happens in a vacuum as an isolated conversation.
Why? Because you’re not merely selecting technology; you’re devising solutions for user or business predicaments. Surprisingly, and perhaps counterintuitively, the ‘best’ tech isn’t always the most sophisticated or avant-garde. It might be more rudimentary, or it could involve acquiring an existing solution and layering it with customizations.
The essence here is to deeply understand the product and the business landscape. Pose questions like: What’s the user base? How frequent is the utilization? What are the repercussions if it malfunctions? Is there a scope for exploration and innovation? Should it be open-source or proprietary? These questions change our traditional engineering domain; they intertwine with business and product considerations, and your technological choices should be in harmony with them!
So, the next time the allure of technology tempts you to focus exclusively on it, bear in mind, it’s not the destination but a conduit to crafting a phenomenal product. In the end, technology is just a tool to create products that solve real-world problems and add value to the users.
#7 Be aware of the Spotlight Effect
In the seventh and final lesson, I am going to explore a concept that is pivotal yet frequently neglected: the ‘Spotlight Effect.’ This is the psychological phenomenon where we believe we are constantly under scrutiny, that every eye is tuned to our successes or our stumbles.
Guess what! Most people don’t care: the majority of people are too immersed in their own worlds, their own challenges, and their own journeys to be incessantly observing yours. Feel like the world is conspiring against you? Chances are, it’s not a vendetta. It’s just the nature of our fast-paced world where your accomplishments might not always receive the spotlight you feel they deserve.
The journey of honing your skills, of acknowledging your own progress — these are fundamentally for your own fulfillment and growth. Your authentic self is revealed not in the spotlight, but in the quiet moments when no one is observing. Understanding the ‘Spotlight Effect’ is incredibly freeing. Realizing that you are not the center of everyone’s universe allows you to focus on what truly matters — your development, your team, and your shared goals.
Climate change is here, and with it comes a biodiversity crisis of unprecedented scale in human history. Tech will play a big part in working towards a more sustainable future. No doubt, we will see more impact venture investment flowing into startups that will or want to make a difference. As we have sparred with impact VC funds and Climate and BioTech startups and scaleups on several occasions before, analyzing UK-based female-founded and female-led nature intelligence company NatureMetrics fell right into one of our sweet spots.
Stepping Up The Game in Biodiversity Monitoring
Compared to single metrics like carbon, natural ecosystems and biodiversity is very difficult to measure. Just think about the high complexity marked by multiple interactions in natural ecosystems. Conventionally, biodiversity monitoring methods consist of people going out on their own and manually observing individual species. No surprise, these methods lack standardization and data comparability across space and time and provide only low-resolution data on very few taxonomic groups.
On top of that, these traditional methods can be rather dangerous in the field. Too often, local stakeholders are not empowered and encouraged to contribute knowledge, while businesses do not accurately account for their impact on biodiversity. This makes it difficult to set or report indicators and reach meaningful targets and goals in sustainability management.
Tech Due Diligence at the Nexus of Biotech and Big Data
With our track record in assessing Climate and BioTech, the product and technology due diligence for NatureMetrics came naturally. Based on industry expertise and current best practices, we aimed at providing a comprehensive overview of the product, the team, its processes, and architecture.
The report gave our client Ananda Impact Ventures a clear understanding of potential risks and opportunities. Our 360 degree assessment framework came into play – our signature approach. This means, we evaluate the big picture, including business and growth strategy, as well as looking into nitty-gritty details, such as coding, hosting, security and privacy.
NatureMetrics brings the power of genetics to frontline ecology. They use eDNA analysis to monitor biodiversity and measure natural capital in the environment by uncovering multiple species from complex environmental samples in low-cost and repeatable ways. NatureMetric’s focus is on the use of high-throughput sequencing technology for rapid characterization of whole communities, backed up with targeted assays for detecting individual species of interest. The methods used are applicable in any terrestrial or aquatic environment.
About Ananda Impact Ventures
Ananda Impact Ventures is the leading impact venture capital fund with a pan-European investment remit, managing ca. €200 million in four Core Impact Funds, with backing from notable institutional and private investors. Ananda backs technology businesses committed to having a positive impact that answers the most pressing social and ecological challenges of our time, in a way that is both scalable and sustainable. The active portfolio includes Klim (Carbon Farming), Open Bionics (bionic prostheses for children), IESO Digital Health (online psychotherapy) and Ororatech (which uses satellite technology to combat forest fires).
While there are many events for business leaders during the Oktoberfest, we dearly missed more opportunities for technical and product leaders to exchange and have some good beer.
That is why we decided to bring our Philipps & Byrne community together. Through our engagements we meet so many tech leaders and we are looking forward to extend and connect this community.
Curated by Philipps & Byrne, we want to foster exchange between technical & product leaders of all venture stages and industries. Party with us, exchange & network!
When? 26 September 2023, 12:00 – 16:30
Where? Exact location will follow after the registration.
Save your spot: Space is limited – Apply now
We can’t wait to see you and exchange perspectives!
Chris, Bastian, Simon & the Philipps & Byrne Team.
RealVNC is a software as a service (SaaS) business founded in Cambridge, UK, providing remote access and remote support solutions. They got in touch with us at Philipps & Byrne as the CEO was preparing for a Private Equity backed growth buy-out of the founders. They wanted to do a Vendor DD ahead of the actual acquisition process, in order to understand how their tech organization measured up to expectations within the buyer landscape, and therefore go into the process well-prepared. RealVNC was ultimately acquired by Private Equity firm Livingbridge in London, UK.
RealVNC: Secure Remote Access from Anywhere
RealVNC offers remote desktop software, and has been active in the market since 2002. As a first-mover, having coined the term virtual network computing in the late 1990s, they created the market and did a lot of the groundwork for the whole industry. RealVNC’s products and services are horizontally applicable across many industries and organization types worldwide, whether global corporations or young startups.
Their primary offering at the time of the acquisition was VNC Connect. It enables users to securely connect to any remote device globally, view its screen live, and gain control as if they were physically present in front of it. The product has been implemented in many use cases, ranging from simple remote access and IT support, to monitoring connected equipment such as medical ventilators, set-top boxes, and heavy-duty industrial machinery.
M&A: Entering the Next Stage of Growth
RealVNC was looking for a buyer to back them on a more ambitious growth journey and provide key expertise for acceleration. By doing this, they sought to strengthen their product innovation, global reach and their talented team.
After considering a number of options, they selected Private Equity firm Livingbridge as their partner, who are experienced in scaling software businesses internationally. By bringing both financial power and strategic support and experience to the table, they were the right partner to unlock growth opportunities for RealVNC and assist in the execution of their global expansion plans.
Best Prepared: Vendor DD Ahead of M&A Deal
Ahead of completing the deal, RealVNC had to go through the obligatory due diligence process of the investor. To prepare for this and get a proper overview of the company’s tech health, they reached out to Philipps & Byrne to do Vendor DD.
The objective of this audit was to get an overview of the solution itself and of the team, its processes, architecture and best practices across the product and engineering groups in order to identify potential risks. This included a review of the product and technical roadmap, applications and their architecture, backend code, infrastructure and related systems. The emphasis of this due diligence lay on VNC Connect – the core product of RealVNC at the time.
Overall, the report provided an initial indication and overview of the company’s current technical health and a basis for discussing further steps. Some of these were laid out in the recommendations we provided. Such as, what to do from a tech perspective to grow the business, what kind of roles to hire, and how to support the transition from a tech-led company to a product-led company.
As this was Vendor DD requested by the acquired party, we found ourselves in a scenario that we don’t experience every day. Buyers typically have a healthy distrust of Vendor DD. We were required to defend our report to the analysts from the investor side and lay down exactly how and why we came to our conclusions and recommendations. However, our approach paid off – to do even Vendor DD as if the report was requested by the buyer side.
RealVNC is a leading provider of remote access solutions, helping some of the biggest companies in the world connect people through devices. As the company that pioneered the RFB internet protocol, which all VNC applications use to communicate and is now the standard across the industry, RealVNC has software in over 1 billion
devices worldwide. Today, RealVNC is a multi-award winning SaaS business, having delivered technology to over 90,000 organizations across all industries. RealVNC’s secure remote access software, VNC Connect, is trusted by industry heavyweights including world-leading organizations such as Google, NASA and Intel.
Recognised in the industry for forging strong and lasting relationships, Livingbridge has been supporting ambitious businesses growth strategies through mergers and acquisitions, international expansion, customer acquisition and retention, technology enablement and talent recruitment. Headquartered in the UK, with offices in the US and Australia, Livingbridge’s international footprint, local knowledge and network has supported the successful growth of more than 165 companies over the last 25 years, turning many into household names.
Aleph Alpha is an AI research, development, and deployment startup. They raised €23 million in a Series A funding round, led by Earlybird Venture Capital, Lakestar, and UVC Partners, as well as existing investors LEA Partners, 468 Capital and Cavalry Ventures.
Ahead of this round, Philipps & Byrne did a tech due diligence on Aleph Alpha’s technology and product approach. The assessment aimed at getting an overview of the company itself and of the team, its processes, architecture, and best practices across product and engineering in order to identify potential risks and opportunities.
Aleph Alpha’s generalizable AI models aim at augmenting and improving human capabilities in dealing with any sort of data. The technology is set to understand and create complex texts based on minimal human input, supporting human-machine interaction with deep contextual understanding, previously only attributed to human experts. Their Large Language Model (LLM) Luminous rivals the likes of davinci by OpenAI, OPT by Meta AI, and BLOOM by BigScience. Building on our track record in Deep Tech analysis, a Tech DD for an AI company fell right in our area of expertise.
Aleph Alpha: On a Mission to Support AI Independence and Digital Sovereignty in Europe
With a lot of leading technology companies located in North America and other parts of the world, there is a need for a sovereign, EU-based computing infrastructure supporting the digital transformation of Europe’s private and public sectors. Digital sovereignty can help to ensure that tectonic shifts in the global AI landscape are aligned with European values and ethical standards. This is increasingly important in a time in which longtime assumed geopolitical and economic certainties are becoming obsolete. Aleph Alpha wants to build a transparent innovation ecosystem based on reproducible research and open exchange with a strong commitment to open-source communities and academic partnerships. The approach is to develop generalizable AI Foundation Models that augment and improve human capabilities in dealing with data. Their Large Language Models (LLM) are supposed to understand and create complex texts based on minimal human input, acting as a virtual assistant in human-machine interaction. Use cases include structuring knowledge, responding to complex tasks, and transforming, summarizing, and structuring highly specialized, bureaucratic or legal language into easily understood everyday speech.
Deep Tech Due Diligence: Assessing Aleph Alpha’s LLM Approach
Investments in Deep Tech can offer tremendous opportunity and the chance to be part of something that might shape the tech future or even usher in a new era in a certain field or industry. At the same time, these kinds of engagements usually come with greater risk than more established technologies, as use cases might not be as clear and hands-on at an early stage.
To estimate if their investment is solid and offers more opportunity than risk, venture capital firm Earlybird requested Philipps & Byrne to conduct a product and technology due diligence on Aleph Alpha. The scope included the company’s tech team, research, product and technical roadmap, processes and applications as well as their architecture, backend code, infrastructure and related systems.
Aleph Alpha’s works towards enabling the accessibility, usability and integration of large, European multilingual and multimodal AI models following the likes of GPT-3 and DALL-E. Therefore, we examined the organization’s machine learning engineering and research competence and to what extent the AI and training models could be considered state of the art or if they were even presenting some early work pushing the state of the art. Assessing Aleph Alpha, which is one of the very few true Foundation Model AI Companies in the world right now, once more strengthened our standing as a trusted partner to investors in Next Frontier Deep Tech business cases.
About Aleph Alpha
Aleph Alpha is the only European company researching, developing and operationalizing a new AI base technology for the public and private sector. Following the principles of sovereignty, excellence and fairness, Aleph Alpha conducts cutting-edge AI research, performs robust and scalable engineering and enables partners to leverage their technology into a wide range of creative use cases. Aleph Alpha’s AI base technology analyzes images, writes texts, answers open-ended questions, creates summaries, translates complex texts into simple ones and much more. It does so in multiple European languages, while simultaneously being linguistically sensitive to European cultures.
Founded in 1997, Earlybird invests in all development and growth phases of technology companies. Among the most experienced venture investors in Europe, Earlybird offers its portfolio companies not only financial resources but also strategic support plus access to an international network and capital markets. With EUR 2 billion under management, eight IPOs and 30 trade sales, Earlybird is one of the most established and active venture capital firms in Europe. Beyond delivering financial returns, they see their own entrepreneurial responsibility for the environment as well as society, and they strive to make a positive contribution towards solving the global climate crisis. Earlybird is committed to running their own operations in a more eco-sustainable way and offsetting the residual carbon-footprint, while expecting the same from our portfolio companies.
So, you founded a company and secured an early round of funding. But how do you grow as a leader to keep up with the demands of your organization? Which areas should you invest in early on? Especially in a challenging market, it’s critical to invest in your own skills to achieve the best results for your business.
I’ve been there. Having previously been a SaaS startup co-founder, CEO, and executive coach, I now help leaders work through these challenges. Based on the challenges I see startup leaders struggle with repeatedly, I’ve compiled ten essential tips for you to scale your tech organization.
#1 Don’t be a Bottleneck
When it comes to building tech organizations, the biggest challenge by far is, well… you: Transitioning from being a successful individual to building functioning systems and teams is difficult. Most tech leaders need help pinpointing what made them successful and how to implement that at scale.
You made it this far in your career because of certain traits and behaviors that you exhibited. But at some point, and typically much sooner than you’d like to think, it can’t just be about you anymore. That transition from “I know how to sit down at 3 am and fix broken code” to “I have a team that can take care of it” – is a giant leap.
Very quickly, you must let go of things to function without you. That’s easier said than done and can be difficult for founders, not just operationally but emotionally. It means moving away from significant direct impact, having everything running through you to giving direction and sharing clear expectations, and having people, processes, and, ultimately, a system you can trust will get you the results you want.
This means figuring out what you’re good at and what you will focus on. Give away everything else. Delegate as early as possible and bring in good leaders with experience. Typically, when startups grow from 10 to 20 people, it makes sense to bring in a VP of Engineering or a Head of Engineering, or a middle management level.
#2 Get Things Done Through Others
For startups and early-stage companies, it’s essential to have the ability to simply get things done and enable others to get things done. To do so, you have to convey your vision to your new hires, as well as to partners and stakeholders. If this kind of communication and collaboration breaks down early, your company will be at tremendous risk. Lay a strong foundation through clear values that everyone knows and understands (not just as “values on the wall”), and which are also enforced via the feedback you give and in how you operate (see also #10).
#3 Think About the Long-Term Effects of Business Decisions
While technical leaders understand how tech and software work, they must often be business-trained. The complexity and workload required to run a business can be (understandably) overwhelming. From implementing processes and coordinating hires to the legal side of things, it’s a lot to deal with. There’s often a lot of pressure to get things done quickly.
Here’s a practical example: In the early days of your startup, you fill skill gaps by bringing in contractors regardless of their location. As you scale, this initially flexible setup becomes complex very quickly from a legal and scaling perspective because those contractors may be treated like employees. Now, you face a tough choice: Do you go through the complex and challenging process of setting up legal entities in all these locations? Or do you let go of people who’ve been here for a long time and have valuable knowledge? Another example is hiring people from your network. The first 100 people you hire will determine the culture of your startup. You will create silos and limit innovation if these people are too similar.
These are just two examples of where making decisions that help you achieve your short-term goals can have huge ramifications as you scale.
This does not mean that every decision has to be the right one forever. However, always keep a long-term perspective in mind when you make decisions to avoid having to clean up a mess later on.
#4 Get your Foundations Right and Build with Scalability in Mind
Even if you’re not planning to scale rapidly (yet), get your foundations right. In areas like employment setup or tech, it’s easier to use best practices and make sustainable decisions early on, to avoid much pain when scaling. Project management tooling is a good example. You might not need it for a team of five, but at some point, you will need JIRA or a similar tool that gives you visibility in metrics, capacity, and distribution of work across different teams. Building with scalability in mind also entails areas like:
Keep processes light but solid. Early-stage founders often hate the p-word, but: Processes are ultimately a tool to solve a problem and can be helpful. Eventually, much pragmatism is needed early on: Build enough process and structure to help you solve the scaling problem, and be clear about your goals and expectations to grant your teams autonomy within those. Avoid extremes. Both “no process” and “everything requires a process” quickly get in the way of achieving your goals.
Choose the suitable programming languages early on and think about the ramifications of your choice. You will not have the time to rewrite your entire tech stack later. Don’t write everything in some obscure programming language because it’s the one your co-founder is passionate about; this may have to become a hobby instead of the foundation for your business. Your choices here will drastically limit your hiring pool and ability to grow.
Define the exemplary architecture for your business. Are you doing cloud? Are you going for self-hosted? Are you doing both? Whatever decisions you’re making regarding architecture will significantly impact what your business can do later on. Especially nowadays, moving from self-hosted to the cloud is possible, but it’s also a lot of effort once you reach a certain point. And so again, think about your architecture with scalability in mind.
#5 Get and Keep the Right People
You want to do hiring well, which means doing it in a way where you end up with people that help you excel as an organization and will become part of great teams that hit business goals. Managing people needs dedication, which means it needs expertise – from hiring talent and retaining employees to helping them grow and driving performance.
Your ability to grow your tech organization largely depends on your ability to build great teams. Get experienced people who work together effectively, and you will already preempt many typical growth pains.
Hiring the right people only takes you so far though, it’s at least as critical to help them have an impact quickly. To achieve this, hire new joiners into an existing team instead of setting up new units entirely made up of new joiners. Instead, onboard them into a current team and eventually split this team into two.
This way, new joiners learn how things are done and what is acceptable in your organization, form connections, and help you evolve your culture while they have a high impact early on.
#6 Build Your Organization from the Team Up
Ultimately, what you need to grow organizations successfully isn’t a dozen of individually great performers but a set of high-performing teams. You need people who can excel as part of teams because the teams are the unit that will get you the results you need.
Thinking about organizations from the team perspective means defining the following:
You may end up with a few different team types (e.g., product vs. platform teams) that form the foundation for your organization and the entity through which you deliver results.
#7 Be a Learning Organization
You need people who can grow with you: Every time your organization grows by just one person, it still grows – which means that you and everyone around you have to uplevel their role by just a tiny bit to adapt to the new organizational size. It’s hardly noticeable with just one new person, but if you’ve ever been through a period of hypergrowth, you know how drastically organizations can shift as they grow. This also changes things for you, from your context and operational purview, the topics you’re thinking about, to the problems you need to solve. The biggest challenge is being a learning individual and learning organization in which you and everyone around you can continuously grow.
You need to lead with a learning mentality and commit to ongoing learning. Most startup challenges aren’t unique: Whatever problems you encounter along the way, someone’s already dealt with, so instead of scrambling to figure it all by yourself, set a mentor, join a CTO meet-up, or get a coach that supports you, especially if you’re managing people for the first time. As a leader, your actions – no matter how well intended – will have ramifications for the people in your organization. The impact is probably much higher than you think and than you are used to. You don’t have to do this alone; I would even say you shouldn’t.
#8 Build Your Product Management Early On
If you’re building a product of any shape, the state of your product management discipline will be a huge factor in helping you succeed (or not). In my experience, (even good) product managers need around three months to onboard into a new domain. Therefore, I would always recommend to hire product managers early on, to make sure you get as much value, leverage, and impact as possible. Product organizations always mature with the tech organization but at a ratio—for example, one product manager per engineering team. Or, if you have an engineering team of eight people, you will have one product manager. Ensure to hold a high standard to your product function and instill good practices early on.
#9 Get Visibility
When you are ten people, everyone knows what everyone is doing. At some point, that’s not the case anymore (typically, when you exceed 20 engineers in an organization). This is when you likely ask: “We hired all these people. Now we suddenly don’t get the outputs or results that we’re looking for. What’s happening?” As you grow, you need regular visibility of what your team is delivering, not just from a code perspective but also in terms of providing metrics and the less quantifiable parts like risks and team challenges.
You need a sound system that gives you visibility into how your team’s time and capacities are going. It means consistently setting goals, holding people accountable, providing helpful feedback regularly, and helping people around you create the visibility that you need.
#10 Manage a High-Performance Culture
Do not delay addressing performance issues. Not upholding a high bar for performance early on will have a severe impact later on. I often see founders have one or two great engineers who have been around for a long time but aren’t doing well anymore or are struggling to adapt to the growth of the company and the transition from generalist to specialist roles. I often see nothing happening in these scenarios: No feedback, no accountability, and no one saying, “Hey, you’re not meeting your goals anymore. We should talk about this”. Very quickly, this becomes toxic for the rest of the organization, where the behaviors one person exhibits become the norm and set the standard – a standard that’s too low.
With time, these performance issues come with a considerable cost. As the company grows, you still have these few people who need to improve, and no one’s talking about it. And at this point, no one knows how to talk about it because it’s been happening for so long. I’m not advocating for a hire-and-fire culture but ensuring everyone on your team gets regular, structured feedback. And have an uncomfortable conversation. You may hate it, and that’s okay. But you’re a leader. That’s your job, and you’ve got this!
Get your foundations right, and get yourself out of the critical path, especially in difficult times. Invest in great teams and set a high bar for performance – to achieve the results that your business needs.
Lena Reinhard is an engineering leadership coach and organizational consultant with previous roles as VP of Engineering with CircleCI and Travis CI and a SaaS startup co-founder & CEO. She has dedicated her career to helping organizations excel in times of significant change and challenging markets. Lena is part of the Philipps & Byrne expert community. You can find her via: lenareinhard.com
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