As a former product manager, venture capitalist Katherine Barr demystifies the secrets to building a powerful team with all the right skills.
As a former product manager, I know firsthand how challenging hiring and managing teams can be.
Hire for passion, hunger and smarts
Some entrepreneurs think they need to find the absolute perfect engineer for a particular job. Gokul Rajaram, formerly of Google, Facebook and now Product Engineering Lead at Square, says, "Startups grow fast--you want employees who are hungry, smart and passionate about your mission. They shouldn't be too rigid about their role but be able to jump right in and figure it out."
Don't shortcut quality of talent
It's important to always keep a high bar when hiring, no matter how competitive the market for talent may be, or how time consuming and costly the process is. There is absolute truth to the saying that B players hire C players. If you lower your talent bar, it will be a race to the bottom for the company over time in terms of quality of product and engineering talent it is able to attract and retain.
Harley Finkelstein, Chief Platform Officer at Shopify, said his company "is constantly evaluating whether we have the right people in place. Not just the right people for today, but the right people for where we're going. We also believe that the overall quality of the team should increase with each new hire. One lesson I've learned personally is to always hire people better than you. I think that's something people say they know, but it's tough to understand and execute."
Test for cultural fit
Most entrepreneurs know by now that culture is important but are either too busy to enforce cultural fit or don't know how to filter for it. One bad apple in a company can kill. Key questions to ask when interviewing potential employees include: Are they passionate about the mission, and do they fit with the lifestyle required?
Test for cultural fit by asking everyone to have lunch with the candidates, when you can find out a lot about a candidate. When hiring engineers and product managers, you want to make sure that these candidates have thought about your product. As Gokul says, "Zero curiosity equals zero culture fit."
It is important to involve all relevant employees in the interview process. Create a list of questions with each interviewer passing along the answers to their questions to the next interviewer to avoid repeating questions. Or, create lists of questions in different categories, and assign each interviewer to a particular category of questions with each new interviewee to ensure that the interview process is as robust and well rounded as possible.
Create an onboarding process for new employees
Facebook has a four to six week boot camp as its onboarding process for new engineers, which helps them understand all of the systems at Facebook and enables them to add value quickly. When employees get familiarized with the entire company, it is easier for them to figure out which team they want to join. So, employees are hired initially as generalists and are assigned a mentor during onboarding. They work on fixing bugs and adding features within the first week. Not all startups have the luxury of a multi-week onboarding process, but put some thought into having an onboarding process that gets new employees engaged with the product and overall company immediately.
Build product teams efficiently
It is important to be efficient and streamlined from day one in early stage companies. Teams at Google in earlier days had a max of eight people (five to six engineers at the most, a product manager, and product designer); they were designed to be small, self-sufficient, and efficient. Each team had very clear metrics against which to be held accountable and were not allowed to hire more employees or bring on more resources until they reached the target metrics. Empowering employees to have a voice and stake in the creation and evaluation of metrics is important, otherwise key talent may not feel bought in and leave.
Mentor your employees
Codify the top five to seven things your company stands for and recruit, hire, train, manage, review and fire against those metrics. Put structures in place to mentor people. "You should spend every waking moment as a manager thinking about how to improve your team, " said Uber CTO Thuan Pham, who himself put in place two different tracks. There is a technical track for those who wanted to focus on improving their technical skills and a management track where employees have to show that they care about advancing other people and learn mentoring and managerial skills. A dose of humility and the recognition that everyone always has something to learn--even managers--is important for an organization to flourish.
Constantly reinforce company culture, even as the company gets bigger and hold employees accountable to it. Managers in particular need to be aligned on company culture as those below will follow their lead.
Evaluate your team on a regular basis
A very effective evaluation process is when there is a 360 degree view, where managers and employees hold each other accountable. Regular, constructive feedback aimed at constantly getting incrementally better can be hard to implement initially, but powerful once in place. Having a lightweight process where constructive performance dialogues take place every four months (or even every two months) is helpful for keeping the team aligned on culture, expectations, and overall mission.
Building strong product and engineering teams is a mix of art with a lot of science. Do it right from the start and you take a major risk off the table in terms of setting your company up for future success.