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Scaling Teams to Grow Your Startup

Once a startup becomes successful it needs to scale its teams and technology to grow. Scaling has to be done in way that the startup remains effective, and thus capable of quickly delivering products to satisfy the needs of the fast growing user base. Some of the challenges faced are hiring people and onboarding them, along with taking technology decisions that allow you to grow and find the right people.

Erik Duindam, CTO at Unboxd, spoke about scaling teams and technology at the Agile and Software Architecture Symposium 2016 (ASAS). Scaling technology has been covered in building a scalable minimum viable product where Duindam explained why an MVP needs to be technically scalable and that you need to have a plan on how to scale quickly when your MVP attracts many users and becomes successful. This write-up dives into scaling teams and explores hiring and onboarding people.

Finding people that fit within the culture of your organization and who know the technology that you are using can be very difficult, said Duindam. He mentioned that they couldn’t hire programmers who knew Ruby in Dubai. In the US many people know Erlang; there’s a technology scene in the US that supports it. In the end you have to hire people according to your culture- not to the technology that you are using, argued Duindam.

In the InfoQ write-up scaling teams to grow effective organizations, Alexander Grosse, vice president of engineering at issuu,shared his view on scaling teams:

Scaling is not about increasing the size; the goal should be to increase the output of the teams and deliver value. The focus from leaders should be shifted from product development to team development, looking for ways to prepare and develop their teams so that their output scales with growth.

Hiring the right people when your organization is growing fast can be challenging, as Grosse explained:

Hiring is the foundation for everything. The failure mode is hiring too many of the wrong people too quickly. What’s lacking often is a hiring process. There are lots of processes available that you can use to define your own hiring process. You have to invest in onboarding people, explain what the company is doing and arrange for new people to meet their colleagues.

InfoQ spoke with Erik Duindam after his talk about the main challenges that organizations face when they are scaling their teams and how to deal with them, how the approach to scale teams differs depending on the country, and finally, asked him for advice he would give startups who want to be prepared for growth.

InfoQ: What are the main challenges that organizations face when they are scaling their teams?

Erik Duindam: Obviously the hiring process is the main challenge given the supply and demand in the market. To be able to hire the best people, you’ll need to provide the best opportunity. When I still lived and worked in the Netherlands, I noticed that many developers wanted to stick to one programming language and one technology stack. Companies would only hire new people who would want to work with the same stack. This behavior makes it very hard to keep scaling your team and to hire the best people. Great developers would want to work on a greater plan, on a vision, not on one simple technology stack with one type of people. So you need to somehow present an ambitious plan, possibly by ambitious technology choices, to get the right people.

Another major challenge is dealing with a lot of new hires. If your team grows fast from several people to dozens of people, the most knowledgeable developers are going to be overwhelmed by helping out the new people. The major mistake that I’ve seen many managers make is to hire a lot of junior or mid-level developers, just to have more developers. This is a devastating tactic. This destroys your speed and agility. Scaling a team should be about hiring people who actually contribute a new angle, a new skill or a new vision to an already successful team. It should not become a workplace university for juniors. I would keep teams small and successful at all times.

InfoQ: How can organizations deal with those challenges?

Duindam: I would think about microservices whenever a team seems to outgrow half a dozen people. You can have several teams working on separate microservices, so separate projects, and even let them use different programming languages or databases if that would be better for that use case. Amazing things happen when different types of programmers are working on the same goals in the same company. Being ambitious as a tech department makes it very exciting for ambitious people to work for you.

InfoQ: How does the approach to scale teams differ depending on the country?

Duindam: As I said before, in the Netherlands, people tend to stick to a specific technology stack. The programming culture as is in the US is almost non-existent. Here in New York, the world is entirely different. In the US, computer science education is a lot more advanced and lets people participate in all kinds of hackathons and use all kinds of programming languages. It creates a culture of tech. The result is that people here have a broad interest in languages and tools, with a culture where everyone goes to meetups, watches videos, has drinks together and does all this programming related stuff continuously. It’s a way of life people are proud of. It’s not just a job. If I would set up a PHP and MySQL platform here, I don’t think I would be able to recruit any people who are willing to work for me, except for some terrible developers. The candidates here are very focused on their personal development and very aware of the market. That’s something we can still improve on by orders of magnitude in the Netherlands. I see this as an opportunity in the Netherlands. If you’re able create a great programming culture in your company, you are probably able to build a great team.

When I used to live and work in Dubai, there was a whole different set of problems. The pool of skilled developers is so incredibly low that you have no choice than tp stick to very simplistic tech stacks or hiring people abroad. None of the things I said about ambitious tech stacks would be relevant there. My main hiring concern in Dubai was to validate if these people were actually capable of writing decent code themselves. It’s just not the best place to build a technology team.

InfoQ: What advice would you give to startups in order to be prepared for growth?

Duindam: If you’re a developer, use common sense to think about your future hiring process and make sure you know how to scale your technology. Choose something that’s common. Read about scalability and use tools to see what your bottlenecks are.

If you’re not a developer, try to understand as much as possible about all the technical choices that are being made. Don’t just trust someone who you think is tech savvy. And definitely don’t just trust anyone with a financial interest in trying to make you believe them. Use the internet to try to understand the concepts of your MVP’s tech and perhaps talk to some developers online for advice. If you start a tech company, you better make sure to understand the tech side of it.

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