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Building and Nurturing Great Teams

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Nick van Wiggeren of PlanetScale about what it takes to build and nurture great teams.

Key Takeaways

  • There is no simple formula for building a great team
  • Having empowered people requires creating a culture and environment in which they are able to feel supported
  • There is a lot of value in being explicit and transparent about your culture through some sort of culture deck
  • Leaders need to take care of themselves too
  • You can’t have non-technical managers in technical teams


Shane Hastie: Before we get into today's podcast, I wanted to share that InfoQ's International Software Development Conference, QCon, will be back in San Francisco from October 2 to 6. QCon will share real world technical talks from innovative senior software development practitioners on applying emerging patterns and practices to address current challenges. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie from the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Nick van Wiggeren. Nick is the vice president of Engineering at PlanetScale. And that's about all I know about Nick at this point, so I'm going to go straight across to Nick. Welcome, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Introductions [00:51]

Nick van Wiggeren: Thank you so much for having me. My name is Nick Van Wiggeren. I reside in Seattle, Washington, and I am indeed the vice president of Engineering at PlanetScale. So you're one for one so far. But a little bit about myself. I've been leading engineering teams now for the better part of a decade, focusing a lot on infrastructure and cloud infrastructure as a service. I've built clouds at companies like DigitalOcean. I've built storage products on top of those clouds, and now I'm hopefully completing a bit of an arc at building up the stack all the way up to some more customer facing stuff with databases. So my world has been infrastructure and my world has mostly been building teams to build infrastructure and make sure they're rock solid.

Shane Hastie: So that building teams that I really like to explore when we were put in touch, that was the thing that came through about your experience and background that I wanted to delve into. So what does it take to put together a great team?

What does it take to put together a great team? [01:45]

Nick van Wiggeren: That's a fantastic question. I think that anyone who has a book to sell you or a course to sell you or a guidebook that you can follow to assemble a team by checking a bunch of boxes, they don't know what they're talking about, because it's a million different small things that combine to a cohesive group of people that work well together, that understand each other, that feel comfortable with each other, and I think most importantly, know what they're here to do. People are, I think, a bit shy of making sports team analogies these days, but I think there's a lot of similarity between the two. What you need are a group of complimentary people, a clear mission and a clear leader to give them that mission and help them along that mission, and then that leader needs to be able to step back and let that team shine.

Shane Hastie: Step back and let the team shine. We're talking here about autonomy. In my experience, there's often two challenges here. One is the team members who are uncomfortable with having that autonomy and often the leader who's unable to let go. And the two go very often hand in hand. So if I'm trying to create this empowered autonomous environment, where do I start?

Empowerment needs an environment where people can be supported [02:54]

Nick van Wiggeren: That's a fantastic question. And you mentioned a key word in this, which is empowerment. I had a boss a few years ago who made a great analogy. He had just had a kid, so a newborn baby, maybe a month old, and he said he could empower that newborn baby to start walking and hold its head up and all of that, but what good would that do? Baby was still going to be sitting there unable to do all of those things. True empowerment actually means doing the work and building out the structure so that somebody can accomplish what they need to, and I think that's the job of the leader. I think a lot of people assume delegation, empowerment, autonomy is hoisting a problem onto someone else and then letting them solve it. And yes, sure, of course, you do have to give people problems and challenges, but true empowerment actually means running in front, building the situation where people can make decisions on their own, building the framework for people to understand how they're going to be viewed as successful and what their goals are.

And so I think a lot of people assume they just get to take a load off or it's just putting people on the right spot and letting them shine. But it's a lot more than that. It's preparing the culture in an organization to give people that time to shine. It's preparing the whole company to understand where decisions are made because some of the most confusing moments I've been in are when people think they're empowered and then they run up against the brick wall of their manager or their product manager or their CEO actually says, "Nope, this is my decision and not yours. Thanks for the input. I'm going to go make this." And so that clarity of expectation and that clarity of execution is what you need to feed into creating autonomous people and autonomous teams.

Shane Hastie: And what does that look like?

Nick van Wiggeren: As a leader, I think a lot of it looks like being explicit. When you have a decision, do you say, "Am I making this? Am I going to figure out who the right person to make this is? Am I clearing the space above me so that below me people can make decisions and move forward? Am I agreeing with my peers that somebody is an expert and is capable of making this decision? Or am I just going to make this decision and be explicit that it is mine and mine alone?" I think some people get really shy about just saying, "Hey, this is mine. This one's me."

I've spent a lot of wasted time doing roadmap planning, a lot of wasted time talking about decisions, when in the end there was one person who was going to make the whole decision anyway and they were just kind of trying to get everyone to go along with them. So I think being explicit and being straightforward and then looking for being explicit to say, "No, this is not my decision. This is your decision."

Shane Hastie: As a team member, when I'm uncomfortable with that decision, how do I put my hand up?

Nick van Wiggeren: This is where a lot of that safety and security comes from. So what we want to look for in a team and what I try to create is the group of people who are all cheering for each other's success. So one person isn't saying, "Oh, Joe always gets the fun projects" or, "Maria, she's always the one that gets to make this decision." You want that person to be able to be totally truthful and honest with you as a leader and with the rest of their team and saying, "Hey, I'm struggling with this. I'm not sure." Or even being very explicit and saying, "I can't make this decision alone. I'm missing data. I think it needs to be you." And in that case, that shouldn't be viewed as failure. That should be viewed as open, honest, and transparent communication, but the team has to be ready for that. They have to be ready to really work through what that means for them and not just say, "Not my problem."

Shane Hastie: So again, it's coming to this team culture. How do we build that team culture?

Building a great team culture starts with hiring and leadership [06:20]

Nick van Wiggeren: It starts at hiring and it starts at leadership. So you've got to hire people that fit in with the goals of the company. And I'm not talking about any kind of technology fit or they've got to have this many years of experience, or they've got to be residing in this country. I'm talking about building a team of people that are prepared to bring their selves to work and are prepared to kind of dig in and do what that means and a leadership group that are willing to give them that kind of strategic level to get to know each other and to get to make decisions.

And again, I think what we so often find is people talk the talk here. They talk about empowerment, autonomy, delegation, bringing your full self to work, and a lot of these kind of buzzwords that get passed around, but actually doing it requires leaders to be probably the most uncomfortable person in the room. They have to cede control. They have to make the room for other people to make decisions that they would to get the credit that they would, to lead from behind instead of leading from in front and to own the mistakes, but celebrate the successes of others as well.

Shane Hastie: If only it was easy.

The value of making your culture intent visible [07:20]

Nick van Wiggeren: Hey, I mean, I agree with you. And I think when you find that groove and when you find that you can build that culture, it gets easier and easier every day to grow. It gets easier and easier every day to add that in because that becomes the norm. And that's what I think. You see really good companies that have scaled their culture and kept their culture as they've doubled and doubled and doubled. What they've been able to do is they've been able to start with that nugget. And many people have talked about Netflix Culture Deck is a great example of this. Whether you like that culture or not, they were true, honest, and open about it, and they were able to scale it far past where most engineering organizations even have a pulse of one culture.

Shane Hastie: So making your cultural intent visible.

Nick van Wiggeren: Yep. We talk a lot here at PlanetScale about our values. We don't actually talk that much about our actual values. We don't brag about them. There's no kind of public page about them. But we talk about how our values should turn an equal amount of people or at least some people off of the company. They should disagree with them just as many people agree with them. They're not values if everyone says, "Yeah, those sound great." If your value is, "Be good. Be great. Do good work. Come to work prepared to be a good teammate," no one disagrees with those values. They have to be opinionated and they have to be something that people opt into so that they actually do define you. Otherwise, again, it's a buzzword that people are going to throw around and it doesn't have a lot of value.

Shane Hastie: There's a lot of change happening around us in engineering today, in the world today. How do we keep that core of stability in an environment of uncertainty at best?

Nick van Wiggeren: Yeah, I've been a remote worker now since 2017, so I've been leading remote teams even before that, I've always kind of worked at remote first companies. But when you combine the explosion of that with the kind of economic uncertainty that tech has faced, the ability to be a strong and present and calming leader is more important than ever. You've got to be able to reach into people's homes now. You've got to be able to reach into in a way that just didn't need to when you were in an office and you could swing by and check on someone.

And I think you have to be really cognizant, not just of your words, but how your words are perceived by others, making sure you're really checking in and building the structure that was maybe taken for granted beforehand. I know I spend a lot of my time really now trying to get into the psyche of people a little bit more, really trying to make sure they feel connected to the company because ultimately as things change quickly, as the days of easy money are slightly more gone, as AI comes in and starts to make people wonder what the future of software development looks like, what they need to feel is they need to feel trust in their leadership and they need to feel like, again, they feel safe and have someone to talk to.

Shane Hastie: What does the future of software development look like?

Nick van Wiggeren: I wish I knew. If I knew, I think my title would be founder and it would be at a domain that ended in Ai. I'm actually more on the side of, everything's going to change, but everything's going to stay the same. We've had people writing code now for decades and decades and decades. The internet got added in. We added IDEs, we added relational databases, we added JavaScript. You name it, right? And yet here we are still writing code in Vim. So I don't know if it's going to change that much, maybe people will be more productive, but I know it is going to change.

Shane Hastie: In that changing environment, how do leaders cope? How do leaders look after themselves?

Leaders need to take care of themselves too [10:39]

Nick van Wiggeren: It's lonely. And I'll stand up here and I'll say it's all about emotional regulation, emotional balance, and a little bit of self-discovery. I'll say this as someone who's not always very good at that, who sometimes gets a little bit too caught up and who sometimes gets a little bit too focused on work and doesn't take time for himself. But I think ultimately you've got to model the same things that a good leader tells other people. You've got to take time off and rest when you need it. You've got to understand why you show up to work every day, what you want your team to be like and how you want your team to behave. And then you have to model that exact same behavior. No leader wants to stand up in front of his or her team and say, "You know what, folks? I need a week off. I'm having a hard time." But that's what it takes, especially again, especially in remote world where you can be out at the beach, you can be out at dinner and slack on your phone is still telling you about something going on.

The ability to wall yourself off from work and the ability to separate your identity is more difficult than ever, especially for leaders who are feeling responsible, but more important than it's ever been.

Shane Hastie: And building on that, how do we help our teams thrive again in this environment?

Helping people thrive under uncertainty and pressure [11:43]

Nick van Wiggeren: I think it's a lot of little things like we've been talking about, but I think one of the big things that I've been focusing on is just really, really, really keeping an eye out for the kind of events that get people stressed out and the kind of events that really bug people. So as an infrastructure company, we don't have the privilege of not having a really, really, really focused on-call rotation. We host things that a minute of downtime may cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage for customers, a minute of downtime is something people notice. When they log off, their customers don't, and they’re trusting PlanetScale to keep that running. And so I spend a lot of my time looking at metrics and data to make sure people aren't getting paged in the middle of the night too much, to make sure people are taking the appropriate amount of vacation, to make sure that people aren't letting themselves get to a spot where they need more than a week of vacation.

And so I think it's a lot of things like that, really working backwards from what's a healthy team look like? What's a healthy work-life balance look like? And sometimes forcing or nearly forcing people and saying, "I'm taking you off the rotation. I'm taking the pager for a night. Go get some rest" all the way over to, you're taking a week off all the way over to, "I'm adding a second person to this project. I understand it's not because you're bad, but because we need that second person to bounce ideas off of or to kind of help get to the other side."

Shane Hastie: So Nick, when we were preparing the InfoQ Culture Trends report for this year, we identified a few trends that we are seeing around that people stuff. We spoke about humanistic workplaces, we spoke about systemic and leadership coaching as two things we saw as coming in the innovator space. How would you see those?

The value of leadership coaching [13:17]

Nick van Wiggeren: Awesome. I think leadership coaching is really just completely undervalued by tech from kind of beneath the CEO. You hear a lot about people with CEO coaches and things like that. I was extremely fortunate very early in my management career that the first company that kind of made me a people manager, which is really I think a huge journey both career-wise and personal wise to be responsible for other people at work. But they invested nearly immediately in leadership coaching in kind of some of that more formal methods of learning how to do that.

And it both propelled my career in a massive way, kind of giving me the tools I need to understand how my words impact other people, the tools I need to understand what people need from a leader. As well as for me personally, the kind of space to navigate a lot of the components of all of a sudden being thrust into running a team and being responsible for a culture and being responsible for all of what that entails. Everything from people misconstruing your words and having a hard time all the way over to, again, that ability to kind of admit when you've made a mistake and move forward.

So I think management as a discipline is something that a lot of tech companies don't invest in, right? You put the best engineer as a people manager. You put the person who steps up as the people manager. I joke one of my most important qualities when I first became a manager was that I had good handwriting so I would take notes. And so I was always the most organized. Is that really a qualifying piece of being a good people manager? No, but I do have very good handwriting and I can write really well on a whiteboard. But all of that training and all of that kind of formal, not forced, but really helpful growth is what turned me into the people manager that I am today and really helped me along the way build up that confidence, and I think helped all of the teams that I manage.

I made plenty of mistakes, but I think they were probably 10 times less bad because I was kind of able to work through them and have someone who I could bounce ideas off of and work with. I'm a big fan of that. It's a big time commitment. It's a dollar commitment. But if you care about fostering real leadership, those are the kinds of things that a workplace has to focus on.

Shane Hastie: We need to invest in people, not just in their technical skills.

You can’t have non-technical managers in technical teams [15:21]

Nick van Wiggeren: And I have a hot take there too, of course. You can't have non-technical managers. I think a lot of companies see management as its own discipline, something you can be really good at without any other skills. You have to be able to bring a hybrid of both, but you're always going to be stronger in one than the other and you always need to invest in both of them. And I do think that people systemically undervalue the leadership side of it and assume that the more technical you are, the rest will kind of shake out from there.

Shane Hastie: Another trend that we saw was responsible tech. We see all of the climate change impact and so forth. Where are we headed there?

Responsible technology and climate impact [15:56]

Nick van Wiggeren: I've actually been looking a lot more especially at climate tech lately. I'm a big believer in technology. I'm a big believer in technology solving problems, and I really do think that the tech industry as a whole maybe could focus a little bit more on bringing that tech to solving some of our largest problems. So especially around energy, especially around what generative AI can just bring to productivity as a whole. I think we might have a real moment here of companies focusing on making money of course and making profit. There's always money in almost any field, but really leveraging that to build the future of what the world needs. Because I think if tech just ignores that and if tech focuses on selling ads, if tech focuses on making just social media faster, that's fine. Again, there's money in advertising, there's money in social media, but I'd really love to see us harness some of that ability and really focus on solving these big society level problems that almost feel too big to tackle, but won't get solved without tech.

Shane Hastie: How do we get there?

Nick van Wiggeren: I ask myself this a lot, and I think it's one step at a time. I think that this is something I've learned throughout my career. I remember the first famous person I met, I don't even remember who it was, but I remember thinking to myself the biggest thing I walked away with was that they were just a person just like you and just like me. And I think that we need to do the same thing for solving climate change. We need to do the safe thing for solving world hunger, right? Find the most useful thing that you can do, find the most important thing that you can do to chip away at it and go 100% full speed at chipping away at it.

No one built a company trying to tackle an entire segment. No one built a company trying to tackle all of climate change. But if you can find a vertical, if you can find a niche, if you can find an area and a thousand people, a hundred thousand people can go do that, we can all run at the problem together. So I encourage people, don't try and solve the whole thing. Don't try and bring world peace. You might get a nice seed round, and a little bit further it's a great idea, but build a company around a sustainable piece of the whole puzzle and then just keep executing, keep growing, and keep compounding and we'll get there. We have to get there, but don't do it all.

Shane Hastie: Nick, some really interesting points and good advice in there. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Nick van Wiggeren: I'm on Twitter as @NickVanWig. Feel free to tweet at me. I will tweet you back. I'm also on LinkedIn as well. Feel free to add me on LinkedIn for the workplace social media. But I'm happy to talk about all of this. I think the technology industry has been a force of nature in the world the last couple decades. And again, I think if we want to keep going and kind of keep making the society level progress that we need to, we've got to let tech maybe not lead the way, but be part of the pack leading the way.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Nick van Wiggeren: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.


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