Advice on Scaling Engineering Orgs: "Don’t interview like Google, if you’re not building Google"

The process of recruiting, leading, and building a culture for a modern engineering organization is time-consuming and laborious to say the least. The “Great Resignation" and the dearth of qualified candidates has only exacerbated this difficulty. 

To gain some insight into some different styles of leadership, Merge hosted a Twitter Space discussion with Jean-Denis Greze, CTO of Plaid, and Tido Carriero, former CPO of Segment.

Jean-Denis and Tido were kind enough to share their thoughts on leadership, future industry trends, and being a “spiky org,” that focuses on a few key areas of strength. 

Whether you’re putting together the next unicorn engineering team, or just curious about an ever-evolving industry, these two SaaS veterans will walk you through their successes, failures, and lessons learned as they scaled their respective teams.

On How to Differentiate your Hiring Process

Interviewing is as much an art as it is a science. As companies are tightening their belts and cutting costs in a turbulent market, making the right hire is more important than ever. 

Both Carriero and Greze believe that differentiating the hiring process from other companies is crucial. “The best companies are designing interview processes backwards from what they actually need,” rather than copying a rank-and-file system from other companies. 

Greze advocates for more recognition and proper evaluation of soft skills. Testing other skills like writing is important for engineering teams at scale. “You’re also going to write specs, review other people’s plans, work on architecture and talk to customers.” 

That being said, every company needs different people and skills for specific business. “You'd be silly to interview like Google, if you’re not building Google.”

On Perfecting your Pitch

Focusing on perfecting your pitch to talent is just as important as sourcing them. Individual contributors have more power than ever, and Tido believes it's the right shift in power. “I feel like I’m talking to a VC when I’m trying to explain why this company is so exciting.” He argues the biggest bet someone can make on a company is investing multiple years of their full-time employment. It’s vital to convey why a candidate should be excited at the prospect of working for a company instead of just extending an offer. Rather than meeting a quota of hires for a quarter, it's important to outline the must-haves and hiring the right person that’s on a “rocketship trajectory.” 

On Building an Engineering Brand

Sometimes a pitch alone isn’t enough. Potential employees feel much more comfortable accepting a position if there is a level of trust and security that the company provides. That’s where an “engineering brand” comes into play. Segment’s initial close rate for candidates was around 40-50%. They offered high equity but lost out due to lower cash offers. After sending an internal survey to their Engineers, the Segment team learned that many of them had learned about the company through blog posts written by co-founder and CTO Calvin French-Owen. Freeing up his time to write a blog post a month increased Segment’s close rate to 80-90%. Tido claims doubling down on content helped jumpstart their brand, “We had awesome material where we can outbound candidates and engage them mid-funnel by asking for feedback on our blog posts.” Producing great content helped create trust in the Segment brand for candidates.

On Leadership Styles

As grueling recruiting can be, actually leading the team that’s been carefully assembled might be even more difficult. According to Jean-Denis, “I don’t think leadership is something you’re ever great at because it’s very situational.” He recalls how at the beginning of his management career, his self-confidence and pride in being correct impeded his own leadership ability. Having humility and respect for others’ abilities has been the biggest change in his personal leadership. Managers need to be curious about the opportunity to find answers and embrace being wrong. Tido adds that managers must be prepared to help employees plan the next several years of their careers and constantly challenge and stimulate them. 

On the Importance of Being a “Spiky Org” 

An absolute necessity of leadership is providing your team direction. That is exactly why Jean-Denis stresses the importance of being a “spiky org.” He emphasizes that much of Plaid’s success stems not from being good at everything, but by being exceptional at a few. These “spikes” or pillars, aren’t just goals, they are capabilities. “We realized what mattered the most to our customers was integration quality. We needed to be the best in the world at integrating with banks.” A key spike that Plaid focused on was also internal; establishing a culture of excellence. They decided to open an office and overcompensate people to come in and build world class integrations. Part of being a spiky org means accepting that certain things being average or “just okay” is a sacrifice needed to be excellent at your key goals. Being a jack of all trades also means being a master of none.

On Future Industry Trends

Even diligent companies find themselves at the mercy of industry and market trends. Tido and Jean-Denis share both optimism and concern about the future of work. The sophistication of employees, especially concerning equity is something that excites Tido. They understand that equity is not just a lottery ticket and that they need to understand this commitment is an investment. Tido says, “I would love that trend to continue, making the assessments more realistic, and then making pay and especially around equity more transparent and clear.”

A trend that Jean-Denis points to is the emphasis on performance management. Many start-ups are taking risks through hiring people that may not be a perfect fit. “If the person doesn't work out after three months, they’re ready to make the decision to let them go. You find good managers and founders who are mature about doing that early.” He suggests that this may be a viable strategy for companies moving forward, establishing a “trial-run” for employees.

Jean-Denis also recognizes the challenges with team connection in the future of remote work. “If you think about Silicon Valley, you imagine a two pizza team around a whiteboard. The affinity people have for each other and their product is a little lost in a world that's distributed and remote.” The challenge for leaders moving forward is recreating that connection in the future. The key trait for managers moving forward is becoming adaptable to drive success, whether remote or in-person.

For More Engineering Tips

Just as fellow API companies like Plaid and Segment have established “spikes” into their organizations, the team at Merge is equally dedicated to our own; providing high quality integrations to reduce pain for developers and empower them to focus on their core product. 

Read more about the “Rise of Cool APIs” or listen to the full recording of our Twitter space below!